A fight to end endless solitary confinement

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Solitary confinement, which in theory is only used when a prisoner is at high risk of harm to or from others, has long been considered a severe punitive measure best used in small doses. The United Nations Mandela Rules recommend that prisoners be placed in such conditions for no more than fifteen days, to avoid significant damage to physical or psychological health. Yet “The Strike” highlights an American penitentiary where convicts were, until recently, held in solitary confinement for decades. Premiering on Hot Docs, JoeBill Munoz and Lucas Guilkey’s documentary offers a polished, informative overview of protests — both inside and outside prison — that ultimately succeeded in changing abuse policies.

When California opened Pelican Bay State Prison in 1989, it was considered a “supermax” type model, designed as a maximum security institution for “the worst of the worst.” At the time, the ‘War on Drugs’ (then ‘three strikes’ laws) had greatly increased the prison population, resulting in overcrowding, escalating tensions between the prisoner factions. Pelican Bay was created to alleviate these problems by isolating the most troublesome parts of the state.

This debut feature doesn’t delve into some of the site’s early controversies — violence by security guards led to a “60 Minutes” exposé in 1993 — focusing solely on the issue of long-term loneliness. Officials saw gang membership as the main cause of conflict among inmates, and devised methods to identify it that were sometimes very loose. Simple interest in something political (like the Black Panthers) or cultural (Chicano history) could label an inmate as a likely gang member.

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This approach then provided a blanket excuse to place these individuals in “the SHU” (Security Housing Unit)… and leave them there. Among the half-dozen or so Pelican Bay veterans interviewed here are those who spent more than 10, 20 and even more than 30 years in solitude. They describe such complete isolation as ‘a very intense mental struggle’. One shares: “I had resigned myself to death in a windowless concrete box.”

We rarely learn anything about their backgrounds, crimes, any gang affiliations, or whether they had a history of altercations while in custody. At times, these omissions make the tenor of “The Strike” seem one-sided, to the point of naivety, especially with its rather crazy, inspiring ending. But there is little doubt that Pelican’s use of SHU was not only inhumane, but also appeared to prevent some prisoners from ever being eligible for transfer to the general population, let alone parole. It was a classic ‘lock it up and throw away the key’ situation.

In July 2011, there was a widespread first hunger strike to demand better conditions. Some requests were embarrassingly simple, including the right to a wall calendar, a warm winter hat, one family photo and one phone call per year. (The facility’s remote rural location, just below the Oregon border, makes in-person visits rare.)

When that effort seemed to produce little real change, a second strike took place in 2013 – smaller in number, but more effective at attracting attention from outside reformers, media and politicians. Ultimately, however, it was a lawsuit rather than a legislature that forced change, resulting in approximately 4,000 prisoners being released from solitary confinement. For some, this ultimately led to early release and a new start in society.

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Short, impressionistic reenactments try to convey something of this extreme prison life. But the film’s limited access and lively, even slick tenor perversely make the grueling nature of solitary confinement (which some have considered a form of torture) a reality that “The Strike” doesn’t portray particularly vividly. A few earlier documentaries on the subject, such as Nina Rosenblum’s 1990 ‘Through the Wire’ or dramatic performances such as Steve McQueen’s ‘Hunger’, have done a better job.

But Munoz and Guilkey’s emphasis is more on fighting the system, a process driven by the collective efforts of prisoners, activists (including family members of prisoners), investigative journalists, and select politicians. We also hear from several current or former prison officials and see a videotape of an attempted negotiation during a hunger strike.

The American prison industry continues to thrive, and many citizens see incarceration as a deserved dead end for “bad people,” let alone abstract concepts like human rights and rehabilitation. “The Strike” is a reminder that even within criminal law, a certain degree of mercy remains relevant. Particularly outside the realm of lifers and death row, the goal should not be to crush the spirit of individuals until they cannot possibly reenter civilian life. This well-made documentary makes a strong case for human contact as essential to human existence, even (or especially) among prisoners. However, concluding the on-screen text, it is noted that it is estimated that approximately 120,000 American convicts are still being held in solitary confinement today.

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