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Sarah Shourd recalls the anguish and the anxiety of the 410 days she spent in isolation in a tiny prison cell in Iran, losing all hope.

"I was convinced that what was being done to me was torture," Shourd, now 37, said of her imprisonment, which began in 2009. She was jailed by Iranian authorities who alleged she had crossed the border into that country, and the case received international attention as human rights groups pleaded for her release.

Shourd had not known, though, that the conditions she was subjected to are widely used in modern prison systems, including in the United States, and she has since embarked on a campaign to end the practice of solitary confinement.


She is scheduled to speak tonight at the annual event of Prisoners' Legal Services, an inmate rights advocacy group that has pushed for reforms to the state Department of Correction's use of solitary confinement in Massachusetts.

"The breadth of the problem floored me," Shourd said in an interview. "We put people in isolation for longer periods, for more arbitrary reasons, than any other country. I didn't realize the extent to which this psychological torture was employed to maintain this very broken system."

Massachusetts remains one of only four states in the country that allows the long-term isolation of prisoners. Inmates can be sentenced to the department's disciplinary unit for as long as 10 years for disciplinary reasons, though they can also be held for lengthy periods of time for administrative reasons – such as whether the prison believes isolation would protect them from other inmates.

State corrections officials defend the use of solitary confinement, saying it is used for security reasons. Several bills pending before the state Legislature would limit the amount of time prisoners can be sentenced to solitary confinement to 90 days, and the bills would also give inmates more opportunities to appeal their confinement.


Leslie Walker, executive director of Prisoners' Legal Services, said in a statement that her organization "is delighted to continue its campaign to educate the public about the devastating effects of long-term solitary confinement," what she called a "barbaric practice."

Shourd says she has seen a shift in public policy in the four years since she began campaigning against prisoner isolation. She cited studies by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit online journalism organization that focuses on the criminal justice system, that show that states passed more reforms to solitary confinement laws in the last year than in the last 16 years.

Still, she said, a recent Harvard University study also showed that as many as 100,000 inmates are being held in solitary confinement at any given time – far more than previously estimated.

The conditions are no different than what she was subjected to in Iran, she says: Placement in a cement cell, roughly 10 feet by 10 feet wide, no one to talk to, with only a small window for light, if there is one at all.

"There was a sliver of light that would come into the cells each day, and come across the walls, and that's how I would orient myself to have some sense of time," said Shourd, who had been living in the Middle East, and was trekking with two friends to a scenic waterfall in Northern Iraq – an area that friends told her was safe for travel – when they were apprehended by Iranian authorities.


Shourd was eventually released on bail after pleas from the international community, though her two friends were held for another year.

Upon her release, though, Shourd learned "this doesn't just happen in Iran. These conditions are the norm for our country."

Shourd says she has met with others who share similar stories of their times in solitary confinement, and they have collaborated on an anthology, "Hell is a Very Small Place: Voices From Solitary Confinement." She also wrote a play, "The Box," which is set to premier in San Francisco.

"The reason I joined this," she said, "Is to understand what happened to me, to understand what happened in my mind, and to heal."

Milton J. Valencia can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.