One Big Jail

I wish I could say it was ironic that my friend Shane Bauer walked free from Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison, on the same day that the state of Georgia executed Troy Davis. But that would imply that a person being executed in the US was something of a rare occurrence. Unfortunately, it is not.

For those who don’t know about these two cases, Shane Bauer was arrested somewhere near the Iraq/Iran border in July of 2009, while hiking with his friends Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal. They were all accused of illegally crossing into Iran, and charged with espionage, which carries the death penalty in Iran. Sarah was released in September of 2010. Shane and Josh finally walked free just a few weeks ago, after over two years behind bars.

Troy Davis was convicted in 1991 for the killing of an off-duty police officer in Savannah, Georgia, and was sentenced to death. However as the date for his execution approached, so many doubts arose about the veracity of his conviction that a world-wide movement arose asking the state of Georgia to pardon him. Davis was executed by lethal injection on September 21st, 2011, the same day that Shane and Josh were released from Evin Prison.

Some people might say that the two cases are as different as apples and oranges. I don’t think they are. Or maybe it’s just that in the US, people often tell themselves that their country is nowhere near as bad as countries like Iran. Therefore, even a miscarriage of justice as grave as executing an innocent man cannot possibly be as serious an injustice as people being held in jail in Tehran. However, the two facts do not cancel each other out. While the American legal system may in fact be more fair, most of the time, that does not exempt it from criticism when it commits an injustice. Though I feel tremendous anger at the Iranian government for what Shane, Sarah and Josh were put through, at the end of the day, they were treated more humanely than Troy Davis. Consider the irony. Shane Bauer and his friends remain alive, while Troy Davis does not.

Maybe my reaction is fueled in part because I live in California. Racist broadcasters dominate the airwaves in the southern part of our deeply divided state, where the most hateful language, especially concerning undocumented immigrants, is not the voice of the lunatic fringe, but the norm. Border-crossing is considered a huge crime here. There are at least eight immigrant detention facilities peppered across the western American state. Now, with the Alien Transfer Exit Program, migrants are regularly flown across the country in chartered airplanes to be deposited in strange cities where they have no contacts. For example, people caught in Texas will be dropped in Mexicali, on the California-Mexico border, and vice versa: migrants apprehended in California are hauled to south Texas and released across the Mexico-Texas border.

At the risk of repeating myself, maybe it’s because I live in California, where a hunger strike is currently taking place at one of the state’s most infamous prisons, Pelican Bay State Prison. Pelican Bay is what is called a Supermax prison, in which prisoners are kept in solitary confinement for an average of 23 hours a day, often for decades. As of this article’s writing, inmates at the prison are engaged in their second hunger strike for better conditions, starving themselves in order to let the world know about their plight. The latest reports are that over 12,000 inmates across California’s Gulag Archipelago-equivalent have joined them in solidarity.

While I was of course tremendously relieved to hear of Shane’s being freed, it was also a bitter reminder to me of everyone  being held unjustly behind bars the world over, especially in my own country. The US has the world’s largest prison population in terms of numbers, and in terms of the percentage of the population. Thus, whenever I hear that a person is freed from a prison, anywhere, I can’t help but reflect on America’s incarcerated, the majority of whom are serving sentences for non-violent crimes.

I never forgot Shane while he was imprisoned in Iran. A picture of him and Sarah and Josh adorns my wall, alongside a quote from the last work produced by the great Oscar Wilde, written while he did hard time in a Victorian prison for the crime of being gay. He signed “The Ballad Of Reading Gaol” not with his name but with his prisoner number, c.3.3., and that poem remains one of the best documents ever written about incarceration. It reads as follows:

“This too I know- and wise it were
If each could know the same-
That every prison that men build
Is built with bricks of shame,
And bound with bars lest Christ should see
How men their brothers maim.

With bars they blur the gracious moon,
And blind the goodly sun:
And the do well to hide their Hell,
For in it things are done
That Son of things nor son of Man
Ever should look upon!”

Unfortunately, Wilde’s words still ring true today. From Pelican Bay State Prison in California, to Evin Prison in Tehran, to every jail cell and prisoner the world over.

Photograph courtesy of jadijadi. Published under a Creative Commons license.

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