What was supposed to be a day hike in Iraq wound up forever changing the lives of Sarah Shourd, Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer.
"I think a lot of people were, 'Why would you go to Iraq to go on a hike?" Bauer said. "I think it's important for people to understand that where we were in Iraq, the Iraqi Kurdistan area, no Americans have been killed or kidnapped there in decades."
It turned out they unknowingly crossed the border into Iran. Accused of spying, they became prisoners in the infamous Evin Prison in Tehran.
In a new memoir, "A Sliver of Light", the three Berkeley grads tell their story about how they ended up in Iran accused of spying. In promoting their book, they sat down NBC Bay Area's Raj Mathai for an in-depth interview. They recount their ordeal and reveal how, nearly four years later, they're still feeling the effects of imprisonment and solitary confinement.
"When I got out of prison I was really angry at a lot of things, and one of the things I was really angry about was the Iranian government and they took more than two years of my life," Josh Fattal said.
"One of the only things maybe more difficult than maybe getting out of prison is getting prison out of yourself," Sarah Shourd added.
Early in their imprisonment, Bauer recalled sneaking out of his cell and having an intimate moment with Shourd, who is now his wife.
"Things were so desperate at that time. In the beginning, we had no idea what was going to happen," Bauer said. "We'd been in solitary confinement for a few months at that point, and I was so desperate for interaction and to be with Sarah. She was in a cell next to me and we were able to talk a little bit through a vent and, you know, it felt like the stars were aligned. The guards left a key in my door, they left a key in Sarah's door and I just couldn't resist," Bauer said.
"It was a very meaningful moment for Shane and I," Shourd added. "We didn't know when we'd ever be able to be close again and breaking prison rules was a way to maintain your dignity. It was a completely illegal thing being done to us so being able to outsmart them and get around and resist their conditions really kept me feeling strong, kept me feeling like I could make it through this. It was really emboldening."
One of the toughest parts of imprisonment for the three was the solitary confinement they endured.
"There were times I was losing my mind," Bauer said. "I just broke down like a puddle on the ground, and there were times that I was just watching this core of my essence, my core of being human was just slipping away."
Shourd got released more than a year before Bauer and Fattal and spent that time fighting for the freedom of her fiance and friend.
"I just hit the ground running. I had a mission and that is what helped me get through every day," Shourd said. "It was a lot like prison. What's the best that I can do with this day to get them out sooner and in the first week I met with President Ahmadinejad, President Obama, I was on Oprah."
Nearly five years since their imprisonment, Bauer and Shourd have made a life for themselves in Oakland and are actively working to change the U.S. prison system. "Solitary confinement is a microcosm of our whole prison system," Shourd said. "The whole institution is badly in need of an overhaul."
Fattal is a father, living in New York, and getting his PhD in International History. He also write a lot about the U.S. Iranian relations.
"We're at the moment now where the two sectors, both governments are opening up to each other and it feels like it's possible and that they can get together and make an agreement," Fattal said. "That was the backdrop of two years of being stolen of my life, of my imprisonment because these two countries have been fighting for so long diplomatically, so the hope that that can end is dear to me."