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Pulitzer Center Update July 25, 2022

Sarah Shourd: 'I Wanted To Understand What Had Been Done to Me' in Solitary Confinement

End of Isolation Tour logo with map of tour stops. Graphic by Kate Deciccio.

Join us and help bring The BOX—a play based on true stories of resistance to solitary confinement—to...

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In a new interview, Pulitzer Center grantee Sarah Shourd spoke with the St. Louis Jewish Light about her experience with solitary confinement, her goals when writing her play The BOX, and the End of Isolation Tour.

Shourd is a playwright, journalist, and survivor of 410 days of solitary confinement in an Iran prison from 2009 to 2010. The BOX, performed by a cast that includes formerly incarcerated actors, gives a glimpse into life “inside the box” of a solitary confinement cell. Through an immersive theater experience, it brings the loneliness, sensory deprivation, and torture to life for audiences to witness, raising awareness of the real experiences of mass incarceration happening now in the U.S. The play debuted in 2016 and has already helped shape solitary confinement policy in California. 

The tour has received positive media attention ahead of its stop in St. Louis. You can read interviews with Shourd about the play in St. Louis Magazine, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and the St. Louis Riverfront Times. Digital news magazine Metromode previewed The BOX before its shows in Detroit, calling the production "eye-opening."

The End of Isolation Tour hit the road in July in a converted school bus to bring the play and its impact across the country. The next tour stops are in Chicago and Detroit. Later this summer, the tour will stop in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Atlanta.

In addition to sponsoring the tour, the Pulitzer Center is pleased to invite middle and high school educators in select cities across the U.S. to receive a free ticket to The BOX. Educators will also participate in staff-led activities to explore how to support students in evaluating the play’s criminal justice themes. 

For the Jewish Light, Shourd discussed the tour with Pulitzer Center grantee Richard H. Weiss, a longtime Post-Dispatch editor. The award-winning journalist is the executive editor of Before Ferguson Beyond Ferguson, a nonprofit racial equity storytelling project.

Richard H. Weiss, for the Jewish Light: You have spent most of your adult life covering social justice issues. What matters drew your attention before solitary confinement? Was solitary confinement on your radar at all before your experience with Iran?

Sarah Shourd: In my 20s, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, I became involved in the antiwar movement while finishing my undergraduate work at University of California, Berkeley. During this time, I was also an International Human Rights Observer. In 2008, I moved to Damascus, Syria, to study Arabic, teach English to Iraqi refugees, and start out as a journalist.

A year later, my life took a dramatic turn when I was captured by Iranian border guards while hiking near a tourist site in Northern Iraqi Kurdistan and imprisoned as a political hostage. I was psychologically tortured and imprisoned in incommunicado, solitary confinement for 410 days at Iran’s Evin Prison.

When I was released in 2010, I immediately started reaching out to incarcerated people in solitary confinement U.S. I wanted to understand what had been done to me, and how to heal, by talking to people that understood.

RW: How was your solitary confinement experience different from the experiences of the prisoners you met and worked with in the U.S.? 

SS: The practice itself is very similar everywhere, 22 to 23 hours in a cell with a window that’s covered with a perforated plate.

We practice solitary in the United States on a far greater scale, astronomically greater than Iran, or any other country. Even a lot of Republicans, “tough-on-crime” people, are saying that this has not worked. It’s not serving the public’s desire for safety. It’s doing the opposite.

Among Western industrialized nations, the United States is the only country to make extensive use of long-term solitary confinement. In most European countries, the number of people held in segregation beyond a few days or weeks is in the hundreds, rather than the tens of thousands. Extended periods of isolation are seen by most as a human rights violation; even those few incarcerated individuals who are separated from others for safety reasons are provided with activities and contact to reduce their isolation.

RW: Many journalists write stories about social justice issues for newspapers, magazines, and book publishers. What made you think a play would be the best way to go?

SS: Journalism didn’t feel visceral enough. I don’t think people’s minds are changed by facts. I think that people will find the facts that support the way they feel. And the way they feel is based on the experiences they have had in life. I think you need a new feeling to open yourself up to new facts.

RW: Ginning up enthusiasm for prison reform can be a tough sell. Many people think that if someone is already in prison, it is obvious they have done something wrong. How do you think about bridging that empathy gap?

SS: The reason we’re doing this tour is to get people’s attention and inspire them to rethink that narrative. The BOX is a play about solitary confinement written by a survivor in collaboration with other survivors, and nearly half our cast are survivors of incarceration and torture. This is a moment to ask ourselves: What is it about our culture that we believe that separation is a necessary thing that makes us safer?

This tour is how we get these stories into the hands of policymakers. It is how we connect survivors with legislators across the country.

RW: Many people have come to believe that prison brutality/torture techniques fall heaviest on prisoners of color. Have you found that to be true?

SS: This is absolutely true. The brutal practice of solitary confinement disproportionately affects incarcerated people of color. Black people make up 13% of the U.S. population and yet 45% of people in solitary are black (see @abolishsolitarynow). This is not surprising because the carceral state has its roots in slavery, with slave patrols and chain gangs as the origins of our police force and prisons. This is a horrific legacy that we have not reckoned with in this country nor repaired.

RW: How have audiences responded to the tour so far? What reactions have surprised you, if any?

SS: The play has been produced three times now in California, including in the former penitentiary on Alcatraz Island, and has already had an impact on reducing solitary confinement. Former California state Sen. Mark Leno says that the 2016 world premiere of The BOX created momentum that contributed to the passage of his bill to end the use of solitary in juvenile facilities in California.

Now our goal is to bring in new audiences, influence stakeholders, and knit together our amazing community partners.

After each performance there will be an engagement circle where formerly incarcerated and system-impacted folks are invited to share first. We have been gratified by the reaction: “It was so real,” wrote one audience member. “This was the closest I’ve ever come to being able to understand what prison is like.”

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