WESCONNECT: You’re currently working on a documentary film on prisoner-led movements against the “living tomb” of indefinite solitary confinement. Where did you get this idea?
LUCAS GUILKEY: Having grown up as a white kid in a privileged, upper-class community, I was always on track to go to college, never to prison as so many working class youth and youth of color are. In high school and Wesleyan, I became politicalized around the issues of systemic racism and white privilege, as my eyes became opened to these parallel universes.
I’ve learned since then that the most effective and powerful movements for social change are led by those most directly impacted. So when 30,000 prisoners in California–one quarter of all state prisoners–went on a coordinated hunger strike last summer against the use of indefinite solitary confinement and in defense of their own humanity, I couldn’t sit idly by.
California incarcerates around 12,000 people in solitary confinement on any given day, and around 3,000 of those are locked in indefinite solitary confinement. In Pelican Bay State Prison, men are isolated in concrete, windowless cells called Security Housing Units (or SHUs) for 22.5 hours a day for up to decades at time. Shane Bauer’s Mother Jones article (Solitary in Iran Nearly Broke Me. Then I Went Inside America’s Prisons) extensively documents that it is flimsy evidence–tattoos, christmas cards, political literature, cultural symbols, and confidential informants–not crimes, that land someone in the SHU indefinitely.
Thousands of prisoners had resorted to killing themselves for basic human rights. I witnessed the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition working tirelessly to amplify their message, but the hunger strikes received relatively little media coverage, especially after the early days of the hunger strike.
I am drawn to this story not only to expose the deep injustices operating in California prisons, but because I am inspired by the humanity that has arisen out of these conditions of torture: a massive, non-violent civil disobedience for basic human rights. As Arturo Castellanos wrote from the SHU, “We prisoners of all races have united to force these changes for future generations.”
I’ve also met countless family members of these SHU prisoners who’ve shared their stories of overcoming their own conditions of isolation and shame. After years of pain, depression, and confusion about having a loved one locked in solitary, they began meeting each other at meetings, rallies, and visits to the prisons. Today they’ve become a powerful political force and the heart and soul of the movement to end indefinite isolation. “My son is a part of me,” told me recently. “Whatever happens to him happens to me.”
These stories of hope in seemingly hopeless situations are of incredible importance to me as we attempt to chart a path out of the major social, political, economic, and environmental crises of our time. As we confront the surveillance state, global warming, and massive economic inequality, I believe we must first be grounded in the ability to recognize the humanity in ourselves and in each other.
WC: Various depictions of prison life in the media (The Farm (1998), and at the moment in popular television – Orange is the New Black) have cultivated the public’s interest in life in prison. How do you see media – and your documentary, in particular – affecting prison reform?
LUCAS: We incarcerate more of our own people than any other country on earth, and this system is largely maintained through the dehumanizing and silencing of people who are incarcerated. In California, for example, reporters have been banned since 1996 from entering prisons without prison officials controlling their visit. Not until 2011, after the first hunger strike, were SHU prisoners even allowed to take a photo of themselves. Therefore, humanizing prisoners in the public sphere is the first step. We’ve seen the the documentary film The House I Live In change the game on the drug war. We’ve seen Solitary Nation from Frontline shine light on the horrors of solitary in Maine. And we’ve seen Orange is the New Black, while fiction, demonstrate to a mainstream audience that prisoners on the inside are just as complicated, flawed human beings as those of us on the outside. These examples show how media and film can shift culture about things we think are inevitable.
For us, we want to show that prisoners voices are at the center of a movement to decarcerate our society–that is, reduce the logic that has us putting more and more people in more and more repressive conditions of confinement. We want to highlight the experiential knowledge of those who’ve endured solitary confinement, and those who’ve endured having their family members locked in solitary confinement. By interweaving their stories with at the analyses of psychologists, historians, and others who’ve studied this system from a big picture perspective we hope to create a well-rounded film that will go to the heart of the question, “What if it was yourself or your family member that was locked in solitary?” and “How did we get to where we are today?”
There is a strong movement to end solitary, and we hope this film will contribute to ending long-term isolation. Furthermore, we see ourselves as part of a larger social movement advocating for a system based on public health, public education, and rehabilitation, not human warehousing. As a sister of someone in the SHU recently said, “You can’t teach someone to do good by torturing them.”
WC: Were there any classes or activities at Wes in particular that furthered your interest in prisoner rights, and human rights globally?
LUCAS: Wesleyan is where I became politicized and gained my tools to analyze and engage with the world. As an anthropology major, I learned to interweave structural analysis of our political and economic systems with engaging individual (including self-reflexive) narratives, and this has informed all of my documentary film work. Anu Sharma’s class “Anthropology and Political Economy” gave me the foundation for the neoliberal period, which undergirded the rise of mass incarceration in the U.S. Jonathan Cutler’s “Paternalism and Social Power” allowed me to think deeply about the role of privilege and power in social movements. And Demetrius Eudell’s strong emphasis on reimagining the human being in the context of neoliberal capitalism, chattel slavery, and the foundation of the the United States influences everything I do today. And those are just a few of my formative moments! I also wouldn’t want to forget the long history of anti-racism and anti-war activism at Wesleyan that is near and dear to my heart.
WC: Any memories of Wes that stand out?
LUCAS: Trying to get the Board of Trustees to divest from weapons companies profiting off of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We didn’t win, but we raised awareness, got a socially responsible investment committee formed, and learned a lot about the nature of power and how to build effective social movements. That and all the beautiful, intelligent people I got to hang with everyday!