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Just violence?: California's short corridor hunger strikes and arguments over prison legitimacy.

The pain begins almost immediately. Within days, hunger strikers exhaust their glycogen reserves and begin to shed substantial weight; after a week, the body enters "starvation mode," cannibalizing its own muscle, organs, and bone marrow; strikers become weak, often feeling faint and dizzy and may experience a variety of sensations, including cold and pain (Kalk, Felix, Snoey, & Veriawa, 1996). Such physical deterioration is visible in the discoloration of the skin, in the withdrawing of the cheeks, and in the sharp protrusion of the clavicles (Keys, Brozek, & Henschel, 1950). As strikers approach death, they may experience double vision, vomit bile, and begin to bleed from their gums and into their stomach and intestines (Russell, 2005, p. 89). In addition to physiological deterioration, strikers may suffer from depression, emotional distress, and even hysteria (Kalk et al., 1996; Keys, et al., 1950).

The hunger striker's visceral suffering is considered central to his or her moral claim. A tactic used only when other modes of appeal and petition have failed, hunger strikes frequently occur inside prisons and detention centers. In 2013, named the year of the hunger strike by The Nation, prisoners fasted in Palestine, Russia, Colombia, Yemen, as well as in California and at Guantanamo Bay, to name a few (Mizner, 2013). For prisoners who have been denied justice, the slow decline to death is meant to accentuate the power differential between prison and prisoner, burdening the prison and state with moral culpability for the suffering and possible death of the prisoner (Ellman, 1993; Hauser, 2012; Shah, 2014). The hunger striker's power, as Annas (1995) contends, "comes from the striker's sworn intent to die a slow death in public view unless those in power address the injustice or condition being protested" (p. 1114). As such, the key political and linguistic challenge for the protest-faster is to frame his or her starvation as a sign of exploitation (Annas, 1982; Hauser, 2012).

Yet prisoners' non-violent protest too rarely provokes a compassionate response from the state or public and may in fact be met with increased state violence and discipline. Prisoners are largely illegible as victims. To be certain, prisoners are socially devalued and unsympathetic figures, often recognizable only as perpetrators. This reality confronted prisoners in California who undertook three hunger strikes between 2011 and 2013 resisting the state's reliance upon solitary confinement. Almost sixty days into the third and largest strike, a federal judge authorized the state to force-feed prisoners, accepting the state's argument that the strike was orchestrated by violent gang leaders who were coercing other prisoners into participation and posed a security threat. The court criminalized the non-violent protest, deeming it a form of violence. The strikers suspended their protest-fast two weeks later.

In this essay, I examine the Short Corridor strikers' arguments-both bodily and discursive-alongside the state's response, foregrounding the struggle to name and make sense of various forms of suffering and violence, those rationalized or abhorred, just or unjust. Persuading the public and courts that their self-starvation was a sign of exploitation proved difficult. This is in part because, as Cacho (2012) claims, those who occupy criminalized statuses are largely ineligible for personhood. For Cacho, ineligibility means being "subjected to laws but refused the legal means to contest those laws as well as denied both the political legitimacy and moral credibility necessary to question them" (p. 6). To be ineligible for personhood is to be punished but not protected by the law, to be the object but rarely the subject of justice (Cacho, 2012; Espiritu, 2003; Rosello, 2001; Williams, 1991). In the United States (and elsewhere), prisoners may be doubly excluded from the social contract: as racialized figures who don't fully count in "the people" (Mills, 1997) and as actors who have broken that contract, failing societal norms and obligations. Ineligible for personhood, prisoners are seen as deserving of punishment and retribution, as unfit to be free.

The Short Corridor strikers' arguments had to contend with both their illegitimacy as subjects and with the often unquestioned legitimacy of the law and prison. The strikers' and states' arguments were thus enmeshed with discourses of responsibility, placing in tension what Lavin (2008) calls liberal and post-liberal responsibility. In the United States, the criminal justice system depends on a liberal account, identifying responsibility as a possession of the subject, as something the subject has; liberal responsibility functions to lay blame on and then punish causal agents. In contrast to this reduction of responsibility to the will of an autonomous agent, Lavin oudines post-liberal responsibility as a matter of social relations. Similar to conceptions of relational agency in rhetorical studies (Davis, 2010; Gehrke, 2009; Hesford, 2011; Lundberg & Gunn, 2005; Marback, 2010), post-liberal individuals are constituted by their responses, and, as such, are interdependent beings who are never the sole authors of their words or actions (Lavin, 2008). It follows that responsibility and agency are distributed across, as well as enabled and constrained by, the social and material conditions within which we act. (1) In this scheme, punitive retribution or the exclusion of deviant individuals makes little sense.

The Short Corridor strikers and the state thus advanced arguments about the legitimacy of the prison specifically and of the retributive criminal justice system generally. I reveal these arguments to be dependent on the trope of madness. In relation to the strikers, as alleged gang members, madness is not so much the counterpart to rationality, but refers to agentic and willful, yet senseless and pathological, acts of violence. Madness, evoked in this way, does not mitigate the agent's responsibility but actually lends urgency to calls for punishment and retribution. In arguing the hunger strikes to be an instance of gang violence, the state aimed to reinscribe the strikers as mad, as the origin of violence and societal ills. To preserve order, the argument goes, agents of madness and disorder must be excluded. The strikers' bodily protest and discourse too risked articulating such frames and were always vulnerable to being subsumed by them. Given the overrepresentation of convicted criminals as violent and mad, there was little space for them to be recognized as deserving of protection and care under a liberal account of responsibility.

However, I also point to moments when the strikers disturbed notions of liberal responsibility through their narrative arguments making visible the experience of being held in solitary confinement. These narrative arguments made dominant conceptions of criminality and responsibility unfamiliar, identifying violence and madness as responses to and conditioned by social relations and the surrounding environment. In addition to countering the state's depiction of gang violence, the narrative arguments shifted the emphasis from the strikers to the ways prison conditions drastically contort prisoners' avenues for action and response. In revealing liberal responsibility to be a damaging fiction, the strikers' arguments do not call for a more restrained use of force or a more humane form of imprisonment, but question the legitimacy of the prison system, indicting it for producing the very things it claims to discipline: madness, violence, and death.


Prisoners in California waged three widespread hunger strikes resisting the state's use of long-term solitary confinement. The first two were in 2011 and each lasted for three weeks, with roughly 6,000 prisoners fasting in July and September protests. The third strike was much larger with over 30,000 initially refusing food and lasting sixty days from July 8 to September 5, 2013. Ten days into the last strike, 2,500 prisoners continued to fast. By the end of August, over forty prisoners persisted. One striker, thirty-two year old Billy Sell, would die just days after resuming eating, although the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) labeled Sell's death a suicide and as unrelated to the strike (Devereaux, 2013). After sixty days, the strike was suspended in the face of two developments: the CDCR was granted permission from a U.S District Court judge to force-feed strikers and the California Senate agreed to hold hearings on the morality and legality of solitary confinement.

The strikes were organized by the Short Corridor Collective, so named after the unit in Pelican Bay State Prison housing several of the strike leaders. Although prisoners throughout California participated in the strike, the main efforts were in Pelican Bay and Corcoran State Prisons, two supermaxes constructed in the late 1980's. Supermax refers to any prison or stand-alone unit that isolates prisoners from the general prison population and from external stimuli for long periods of time (and thus is different from segregation units in which prisoners may be held for short periods). Pelican Bay, at the time of construction, was referred to as a "prison of the future" designed to house "the worst of the worst," lauded for being "entirely automated and designed so that inmates have virtually no face-to-face contact with guards or other inmates" (Corwin, 1990, para. 26, 15, 11). Pelican Bay represents a bleak future, especially considering that in 1995 a federal judge condemned its conditions as pushing the limits of what human beings can tolerate (Madrid v. Gomez, 1995). The judge nonetheless stopped short of finding cruel and unusual the conditions of the Secure Housing Units (SHUs, pronounced as "shoe"), which hold prisoners in long-term solitary confinement.

On any given day, 3,000 prisoners are snared in solitary confinement in California, and as many as 25,000 prisoners throughout the U.S. (Amnesty International, 2012, p. 5). This is the highest rate of any country in the world and, troublingly, a disproportionate number of these prisoners are persons of color (Center for Constitutional Rights, 2012). Solitary confinement typically means that a prisoner is held in a small cell for 22 or 23 hours a day, with an hour of recreation time in a solitary outdoor cage, often referred to by prisoners as a dog-run. Visits, phone calls, and mail are restricted or limited-sometimes to as little as one phone call per month-and, in many cases, the only human contact those in solitary experience is when they are being shackled by guards for transportation. A recent study (Reiter, 2012) finds the average SHU stay in Pelican Bay to be two-and-one-half years, with 500 prisoners serving indefinite sentences, sometimes of twenty years or more (p. 547).

The practice of solitary confinement and the development of supermax prisons ramped up during the 1980's as correctional missions shifted from rehabilitating to controlling and warehousing prison populations. According to this logic, prisoners are "risks to be managed, resistances to be eliminated, and organisms to be fed, maintained, and even prevented from taking their own lives" (Guenther, 2012, p. xvi). Bauman (2000) identifies Pelican Bay as the embodiment of the ideal prison for such a post-correctional age. Rather than functioning to discipline prisoners, Pelican Bay is a "factory of exclusion" enforcing immobility (Bauman, 2000, p. 212). This is all done with little oversight. Prisoners are not sentenced to isolation units by judges or through external courts, but by correctional administrators who have almost full autonomy in determining who will be placed in solitary, for what, and for how long (Reiter, 2012, p. 533). In California, such judgments are made largely based on suspicion that one is a gang member or associate (Center for Constitutional Rights, 2012). In response to the 2011 strikes, the CDCR revised its gang validation process, with the stated goal of reducing the SHU population and the average term of a SHU sentence, and of increasing due process. The CDCR promised to transition to a "behavior-based" approach, punishing individuals based on gang or other violent behavior, and not for mere association (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation [CDCR], 2012).

It is against this backdrop that the Short Corridor Collective waged its hunger strikes. The initial 2011 strikes followed on the heels of the U.S. District court terminating the ruling from Madrid v Gomez (1995) which, while stopping short of finding the conditions and practices in Pelican Bay to be cruel and unusual, mandated strict oversight of the prison. The court now determined that the CDCR had satisfactorily complied with the Madrid mandates, bringing its practices-including those pertaining to SHUs-in accord with legal norms (CDCR, 2011a). Recognizing the failure of legal modes of appeal, the prisoners turned to extra-legal action in the form of hunger strikes (Crowford, 2011a, 2011b). On June 20, 2013 the collective vowed to revive its protest, "we are presently out of alternative options for achieving the long overdue reform to this system" and for resisting "state-sanctioned torture, and now we have to put our lives on the line via indefinite hunger strike to force CDCR to do what's right" ("June 20," 2013, para. 3).

The Short Corridor strikes were incredibly timely, benefiting from and helping to spur the public's nascent awareness of the psychological effects of extreme isolation. Coterminous with the strikes, prominent advocacy organizations including Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union issued reports characterizing solitary confinement as a human rights abuse (ACLU, 2012; Amnesty International, 2012; NYCLU, 2012). Reporter Shane Bauer, who was held in solitary confinement in Iran, raised awareness of the cruelty of solitary in the United States and specifically in Pelican Bay (Bauer, 2012a; Bauer, 2012b). Awareness of the psychological effects of solitary confinement was also publicized through the efforts of public intellectuals (Gawande, 2009; Guenther, 2012). Still, the strikers operated from a clear disadvantage-they were alleged violent gang members and not reporters or POWs held by an enemy nation. It was far from a given that their suffering would be regarded as such.

As I demonstrate, the radical potential of the strike, as well as its conservative undertones, lie in its engagement with discourses of responsibility and specifically its identification of violence and madness. Rhodes (2004) contends that at the core of the supermax controversy is a question of where to locate madness: in the "mad" and "bad" criminal who must be isolated, or in the system and institution that, by enacting violence and creating chaos, push prisoners to become mad (pp. 4-5). Because violence and other forms of madness are often perceived as the result of an incorrigible will or bad character, the prison engages in increasingly punitive forms of control, confinement, and discipline. Supermax prisons depend on notions of liberal responsibility. Punishment and confinement are seen as rational responses to discord.

However, Rhodes identifies a paradox haunting supermax facilities, "the tighter control becomes, the more problematic are the effects it precipitates" (p. 4). That is, exclusion and control generate and exacerbate the very madness the prison seeks to contain. From a post-liberal perspective, we might then understand violence to be less a reflection of the individual agent and more as a response to the social and material environment of the prison. To recognize the criminal or prisoner as the origin of deviance, violence, and, madness is precisely to misrecognize the social, political, and material conditions that structure our being in the world (Cacho, 2012). If we instead focus on the prisoner's position in and responses to the social world of the prison, might we come to see the institution and its technologies of punishment as mad and unjust? The efficacy of the Short Corridor hunger strikes depended upon how these questions would be raised and answered, holding significant implications for the recognition of the strikers' suffering.

The Violence of Self-Starvation

Amidst the strikes, the CDCR vowed to not be coerced into negotiations that might threaten prison operations. While one member of the correctional staff did enter into dialogue with the Short Corridor collective during the July 2011 strike-making very clear that it was not a negotiation-the CDCR refused to make even such basic efforts during the 2013 strike (Reiter, 2014, pp. 598-601). Further denying the legitimacy of the strikes, the CDCR considered the "disturbance" to violate state law and thereby subjected the strikers to disciplinary action (CDCR, 2013a). In criminalizing collective resistance, the CDCR sought to depict the strikers as wholly violent, coercive, and manipulative. Their suffering, in SHUs or as a result of their strike, was alternately rationalized and denied.

The CDCR consistently depicted the strikers as the "worst of the worst" and therefore as beyond recognition or concern. At the conclusion of the July 2011 strike, secretary of the CDCR, Matthew Cate, castigated the hunger strike as a "dangerous and ineffective" attempt at negotiation undertaken by "gang leaders who are responsible for terrible crimes against Californians" (CDCR, 2011b, para. 2). In fact, the scope of the hunger strikes is said to evidence the very need for SHUs; coordinated "gang activity" necessitates near-total isolation. In 2011, press secretary Terry Thornton argued that the hunger strikes revealed the extent of gang influence inside the prison, proving the very need for SHUs (Lovett, 2011). In an August 2013 letter written to the LA Times, Beard similarly called into question the legitimacy of the strike:

Some prisoners claim this strike is about living conditions in the Security Housing Units, commonly called SHUs, which house some of the most dangerous inmates in California. Don't be fooled. Many of those participating in the hunger strike are under extreme pressure to do so from violent prison gangs, which called the strike in an attempt to restore their ability to terrorize fellow prisoners, prison staff and communities throughout California, (para. 1)

Beard depicted SHUs as a necessary response to violence. SHUs are required in order to protect other prisoners, prison staff, and California more generally from the terror of "the most dangerous." The extreme isolation of alleged gang members and associates is justified in the name of preventing violence.

Beard proceeded to frame the strike as a "gang power play." Citing affidavits included in Ashker v. Brown, the prisoners' case against the state, Beard identified the strike as a "ploy"; the real motivation, according to Beard, was for violent and dangerous gang members to return to general population in order to continue gang-related and criminal activity. Beard explained, "It's no different this time," offering that the inmates "calling the shots are leaders in four of the most violent and influential prison gangs in California" (para. 11). This framing was repeated in numerous media accounts detailing the striker's criminal backgrounds, including crimes committed as minors (Newcomb, 2013; St.John, 2013a, 2013b). In justifying the development of and reliance upon SHUs as a rational and necessary response to incorrigible deviance and gang violence, the CDCR recalled an "explosion" of gang violence in California during the 1970s and 1980s. Such statements work to naturalize mass incarceration and total isolation, situating the prison as a necessary defense of mainstream society against the racialized trope of the gang member. The connecting of disparate spaces-the SHU, general population wings, and California communities on the outside-facilitates the public's understanding of prison violence. It is both akin to violence, real or perceived, that threatens Californians and, without prison intervention, is violence that will return to terrorize those communities.

In appealing to a gang "crisis," the CDCR taps into powerful and entrenched racialized modes of sense making. Because gang violence is seen as so irrational and barbaric, gang members are wholly unintelligible as victims (Cacho, 2012; Cintron, 1997; Zilberg, 2011). (2) In fact, gang violence is such a source of public anxiety that it necessitates a host of excessive and exceptional practices, including enhanced sentences. (3) Narrating the strike as a disruptive ploy of violent criminals and gang members, Beard both called into question the reality of the strikers' suffering and marked it as beyond public concern-or, rather, the extreme isolation and punishment of gang members was necessary for state security. Beard explained, "We're talking about convicted murderers who are putting lives at risk to advance their own agenda of violence" (para. 11). He concluded with an admonishment of those who sympathize with the strikers, "Brutal killers should not be glorified. This hunger strike is dangerous, disruptive and needs to end" (para. 13). Through this admonishment, the public was given the choice of identifying with and taking responsibility for the violence carried out by inmates or condoning the violence committed by the state. Readers were interpellated to recognize the criminalized and gang members in particular as "deserving of discipline and punishment but not worthy of protection" (Cacho, 2012, p. 5).

The CDCR's approach proved effective in legally condemning and silencing the protest. According to the CDCR, the strike not only aimed to restore the prisoner's abilities to carry out crime and violence, but was carried out violently: the CDCR consistently claimed that inmates were being coerced to participate in the strike (CDCR, 2011c). Beard also expressed concern because many strikers, he claimed, "say they want to resume eating but are afraid of the retaliation they will suffer at the hands of other inmates acting on orders from their gang leaders" (para. 2). The state made this argument in seeking court approval to force-feed striking prisoners. Most existing directives and declarations, including those of the World Medical Association (WMA), the American Medical Association (AMA), and the California Correctional Health Care Services (CCHCS) assert that force-feeding a competent prisoner against his or her stated-wishes is unacceptable and unethical. However, the directives offer physicians little guidance regarding how to determine competency and consent (Annas, 2010; Shah, 2014).

In its petition, the CDCR capitalized on this ambiguity, arguing that the directives offer too little guidance and are "insufficiently flexible" in the presence of "security" concerns (Marciano Plata v. Brown, 2013, p. 2). They specifically exploited California's relatively permissible stance on force-feeding, which may allow for the practice if the striker is deemed incapable of giving informed consent (CCHCS, 2006). The CDCR's claim that many strikers were being coerced by prison gangs into participating in the strike, and even into signing Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) orders, created the perception of an ethical quandary: physicians were tasked with respecting the prisoner-patient's wishes, but they could not be sure that the prisoner's decisions were made free of coercion and manipulation.

Judge Thelton Henderson shared this concern, ordering that force-feeding-euphemistically termed "refeeding"-could occur without court approval in certain cases, even if a DNR is in place. Specifically, Judge Henderson considered invalid any DNR that a physician, "reasonably and in good faith, determines was the result of coercion or otherwise not the product of the hunger striker's free will when executed" (Marciano Plata v. Brown, 2013, p. 4). Given the difficulty of making such a determination, Judge Henderson went even further, declaring that all advance directives signed "at or near the beginning of or during the strike will be deemed not valid" (Marciano Plata v. Brown, 2013, p. 4). The ruling thus rendered a majority of DNRs invalid and effectively silenced prisoners' speech. The prisoners' capacity to consent and their right to protest was expunged. The last political resource available to them-their bodies-were muted. Facing a very real threat of being force-fed, the strikers suspended their fast two weeks later.

It thus seems like a potential misstep that the strikers rarely made visible through their words their passive, vulnerable, and starving bodies. Given the state's emphasis on a violence extending from the SHU to communities on the outside, it follows that the strikers could have countered by laying bare their weakening bodies, giving voice to their vulnerability. Instead, it seems likely that the strikers conceived of their self-starvation principally as a flag to gain attention for their demands and, as I will discuss in the following section, their narratives of being held in solitary confinement. Moreover, the strikers aimed to counter the state's discourse by asserting that their strike was non-violent. In a statement released during the third week of the 2013 strike, the Short Corridor Collective responded directly to the gang narrative, blaming the CDCR for "wrongfully accusing us of forcing tens-of-thousands or prisoners across California, along with our supporters in the free world, to participate in our protest" ("Hunger Strike," 2013, para. 7). The release continued, "As HUMAN BEINGS prisoners are collectively resisting [the inhumane SHU conditions], and they are doing so peacefully" ("Hunger Strike," 2013, para. 7). A few weeks later Alfred Sandoval, a striker from Pelican Bay, responded in the San Francisco Bay View to Beard's LA Times op-ed. Sandoval countered the gang violence narrative by citing the 2011 "Agreement to End Hostilities," which called for an end to gang- and race-based violence in California prisons. The agreement was authored and signed by many of the strike's leaders.

It is also possible the strikers worried that displaying their vulnerable bodies would potentially confirm the state's argument. Having been depicted as violent, coercive political actors, they may not have wanted to risk being seen as holding the state hostage. Even though self-starvation is principally a non-act--violence directed inward through the refusal of food-the strikers may have worried that depicting this (non)act of (non)violence may have confirmed the state and media discourses depicting them as harboring madness. Unable to control the meaning of their strike and of their suffering bodies, their fast may have been just as likely to confirm their criminality as it would be to indict the state. Maybe most pressing, the strikers may have feared that narrating their passivity and making visible their status as bodily objects may actually embolden the state to "save lives" by acting upon Judge Henderson's force-feeding order--especially if the starving would be seen as a result of coercion. This risk is very real, as evidenced by the force-feeding of detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

Considering their bodies and their strike in a wider political, cultural, and discursive context helps make sense of the "stickiness" of the terms of criminality. As Ahmed (2004) details, signs become sticky through a history of repetition and, in doing so, form blockages inhibiting a sign, term, or body from acquiring new meanings and uses. The CDCR's discourse functioned by activating or latching onto this history and discursive web, while the strikers' discourse aimed to counter it with claims of non-violence and possibly by avoiding circulating signs of violence in the form of their starving bodies. To display their bodies may have worked to counter the CDCR's discourse and to reveal state violence. But it seems just as likely that such a display may have confirmed the strikers' madness. In this way, signs of violence and madness stuck to the prisoner's body, thereby impeding the violence of self-starvation from being read as a sign of exploitation. The courts and public may see violent criminals doing violence to themselves and others in order to manipulate and coerce the state.

Rights, Rules, and Regulations

While the CDCR depicted the strikers as violent in order to discredit the strike, they also sought to sanitize the torturous reality of solitary confinement. Throughout the strikes, the CDCR declared its SHU system to be fair and legitimate, its policies and practices as operating within legal norms. In responding to the strikers' demands, in August 2013 the CDCR went so far as to claim that the purpose of the SHU is inmate rehabilitation, in that it provides inmates with the opportunity to "disavow or disengage from the gang lifestyle. It is rehabilitation" (CDCR, 2013b, para. 6). Moreover, the CDCR denied that California practices solitary confinement at all (CDCR, 2013b). Beard (2013) contended that the SHUs are humane, claiming that all SHUs have either outdoor-facing windows or skylights, and that inmates have radios and TVs.

Regardless of the veracity of these claims-strikers and their legal team deny the existence of windows-to talk about legal categories and rules concerning whether a human being needs natural light and how much is to disembody the violence of solitary confinement. Both Rhodes (2004) and Brown (2005) contend that to focus on such arbitrary legal categories obfuscates the essence (and barbarity) of punishment and defines the human in limiting terms (i.e., a human being is a non-social being who needs "x" amount of sun light, and so on). A discourse of regulations, rules, and violations-whether circulated by the state to depict its prisons as humane or by the prisoners to reveal abuse--abstracts the lived, embodied experience of suffering. Witnesses don't come face-to-face with suffering of embodied actors, allowing prisons to remain a normal feature of the social landscape. The rationality of state power glosses over its violence.

The Short Corridor Collective's core demands too risked disembodying the experience of solitary and of conferring legitimacy onto the prison system. None of the Five Core Demands were particularly radical:

1. End Group Punishment and Administrative Abuse (this sought to restrict both the use of group punishment in addressing individual conduct as well as extreme forms of punishment in the name of "security").

2. Abolish the Debriefing Policy and Modify Active/Inactive Gang Criteria.

3. Comply with the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons 2006 Recommendations Regarding an End to Long-Term Solitary Confinement (the strikers argued that solitary should be a last resort and prisoners should never be held in long-term solitary).

4. Provide Adequate and Nutritional Food.

5. Expand and Provide Constructive Programming and Privileges for Indefinite SFIU Inmates (examples listed included receiving one photo per year and one phone call per week). (Pelican Bay Human Rights Movement, 2012)

It is tempting to paint the strike as reformist rather than radical. It is for this reason that Keramet (2014) characterizes the July 2011 strike as embodying a "legitimacy paradox": the prisoners sought change within legal norms for prison operation, without challenging the legitimacy of the prison system itself (pp. 581, 591). Take, for instance, Demands 1-3. The first two contested the particular process by which prisoners are sentenced to the SHU, and the third asks that the SHU be brought into line with accepted legal guidelines. In fact, much of the strikers' discourse concerned identifying the line between the legitimate and illegitimate, or the just and unjust practice of solitary confinement. The prisoners' legal case opposing long-term solitary confinement in California, Ashker v. Brown (2012), contended that the practice of long-term and indefinite solitary confinement constitutes cruel and unusual practice. In an interview with Democracy Now, lead attorney and president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, Jules Lobel (2013), explained that while the strikers "are against solitary confinement generally," their main demand is for due process and regulation, "if somebody's going to be put in solitary confinement they should be put in for some definite period of time--not indefinitely--and because they have committed some bad act" (para. 7). Lobel implied that solitary may be a reasonable response to certain behaviors such as violent infractions.

The strikers' discourse largely focused on critiquing the particular uses and misuses of solitary confinement. The collective and individual strikers contested the state's depiction of them as gang members (Pelican Bay Human Rights Movement, 2012; Rodriquez, 2013). But most common was a critique of the CDCR's proposed reforms to its gang-validation process and SHU policy. Both the strikers and Lobel pointed to the ambiguity present in the state's definition of behavior. The strikers' chief concern was that the new policy, whereby gang behavior rather than affiliation would be punished, would lead to more and not less punishable offenses (Pelican Bay Short Corridor Collective, 2013; Rodriguez, 2013). Striker Kijana Tashiri Askari lamented that "any and everything can and will be considered as gang activity" (Rodriguez, 2013, para. 3). Gang behavior, it seems, includes mundane things such as having certain kinds of art and books in one's cell and having certain kinds of tattoos (Lobel, 2013).

As crucial as these arguments may be, they risk, as Reiter worries, reinscribing the legitimacy of the prison system. Like that of the CDCR, this discourse focused on determining whether the CDCR's SHU policy diverges from or upholds accepted legal standards. Following the discourse of the CDCR and the strikers, citizens are tasked with demanding the restrained and transparent disciplining of prisoner deviance through institutional procedures. The public is not asked to reject solitary confinement on principle, but to curtail its abuses. The relationship between the prisoner and the law remains unchanged and unchallenged-the prisoner remains the law's object. The strikers' core demands and discourse on rules and regulations operate from the frame set by the state. In seeking reform of SHU policy and practice, the strikers failed to dissociate violence and madness from prisoners. They failed to counter the liberal account of responsibility that rationalizes incarceration and punishment as a necessary response to crime.

Embodying Solitary Confinement

The strikers' official discourse and demands appeal to and ascribe legitimacy to the very system that has reduced them to objects under the law, bodies to be immobilized and warehoused. But such a characterization of the strikers' discourse is incomplete; the strikers' discourse exceeds the scope outlined by their demands. It is true that the strikers' discourse and demands differ greatly from the more revolutionary rhetorics of George Jackson, Assata Shakur, and Bobby Sands, even though the legacy of the latter deeply influenced the strike (Wallace-Wells, 2014). But even as the strikers' wrangled with rules and procedures and operated within the law and dominant political frames, they also potentially unsettled those frames. They announced their suffering by making narratives about criminality unfamiliar, and, in doing so, they depicted the legal system as unlawful, mad, and madness-inducing.

The strikers' official demands may not question the legitimacy of the prison, but the narratives of the embodied experience of solitary confinement does so by displacing madness from the prisoner and onto the prison. The strikers did so by illustrating the prison to be mad and unlawful, and by revealing the prison and solitary confinement in particular to be madness-inducing. The first may be most clear in striker Bow Low's (also known as James Crowford) 2011 statement, "Why Prisoners are Protesting." The crux of Bow Low's argument was (not only) that the CDCR ignores legal norms, guidelines, and rulings in placing prisoners in solitary confinement, but that it is impossible for prisoners to ever be lawful under a mad, unlawful system. Lamenting that prisoners are placed in SHU only on suspicion of gang association or membership, Bow Low narrated the experience of being criminalized, and thus, of having torture be legally sanctioned, "It does not matter if they are into crime or gang activity or not, the objective is to insinuate that they are and to cut off any relationships that may exist with the prisoner" (para. 2) Likening prisoners to slaves within a prison colony, Bow Low continued,

The guards are free to do with us as they please. They have complete control of our medical care, mail, visits, property, supplies, law library access, laundry, yard, isolation, the lights in our cell, family, friends, lock downs, etc. This is an environment in which the prison guards can torture prisoners both physically and psychologically over extended periods of time. One such attack is the dehumanizing yet widely used "potty watch" which is used under false pretenses-not to find drugs, but to humiliate other human beings. (Crowford, 2011b, para. 6)

Bow Low pointed to the lack of rules governing the CDCR's practice, but what stands out is his naming the experience of being powerless, of being stripped of any will and control. Prisoners, especially those in supermax, exist in a world in which they cannot follow the rules: it doesn't matter what they do or don't do, and, as a result, they are submitted to legally sanctioned abuse and torture. (4)

Second, the strikers reveal that in terms of solitary confinement, it's the modifier--solitary--that does the most damage. Solitary confinement, by design, rips the subject from his or her relations, sentencing him or her to a kind of living death. As Guenther (2013) argues, solitary "works by turning prisoners' constitutive relationality against themselves, turning their own capacities to feel, perceive, and relate to others in a meaningful world into instruments for their own undoing" (p. xiii). In opposition to the CDCR's reduction of the human to a non-social being or, at best, a will to be curtailed, the strikers announced a radical position by asserting their very need and desire for sociality. This aspect of the strikers' discourse focused on their immediate situation, seeking the conditions that might allow for a meaningful life. SHU prisoner, J. Baridi Williamson (2013), framed the strike's demands in this light:

We strike for the freedom of being physically able to get out of the cramped SHU cell, walk around in a large space and to naturally move our bodies' arms, legs, heads, etcetera [. . .] Freedom from being unjustly kept buried alive inside these modern-day solitary confinement dungeons, (para. 1)

If supermax prisons and the SHU are meant to approximate total social exclusion, the strike achieved a seemingly impossible feat: it was a collective strike carried out by individuals isolated from almost all human interaction. They protested in order to be treated as ethical, social beings: to be free to move beyond a cell, to be able to connect and form meaningful relations with other prisoners as well as with family and friends on the outside; to be more than an object of the law.

The strikers also powerfully narrate an experience of becoming undone, of snapping to the point that they may injure themselves. In a sense, the SHU prisoner, entirely cut off from others and the world, is made to carry out the state's violence against himself. Striker Michael "Zaharibu" Dorrough who has been in the SHU since 1988 explained the effects of being held in isolation, "At some point you know that the isolation has affected you. Perhaps permanently. It involves so many different factors. Particularly the isolation itself' (Irving, 2013, para. 9). Dorrough continued,

Over the years you have seen other people snap. Human beings cutting themselves. Eating their own waste. Smearing themselves in it. And sometimes throwing it at you. Human beings not just talking out loud to themselves-but screaming at and cursing themselves out. (para. 9)

Rejecting the states' sanitized account of the SHU, Dorrough asked, "How could you not be affected by this kind of madness?!" (Irving, 2013, para. 10-11). Such experiences, for many readers, are simply unimaginable. In making visible the embodied experience of extreme isolation, Dorrough relocated madness from the prisoner to the prison. In revealing how the state turns the prisoner's body and mind against himself, the strike shifted attention away from the trope of the incorrigible individual or gang to the political, social, and material conditions that enable or disable individual and collective life.

This suggests that to make such suffering legible so that it might be redressed requires more than moving prisoners into a position of recognition or of recuperating social value. In making visible the embodied experience of solitary and of being suspended in a living death, the strikers materialized and embodied that which the CDCR attempted to abstract and disembody-the torture and desocialization of solitary confinement. Moreover strikers uncovered the very production of violence and madness. This discourse displaced madness from the incorrigible individual or collective will and onto a prison system that is revealed to be violent and madness inducing. No longer fetishized and contained in the figure of the incorrigible prisoner or gang member, violence and madness are revealed to be a response to injurious and unsupportive social, political, and material conditions. Violence and crime have histories, never reducible to the individual agent.


Examining anti-death penalty advocacy, McCann (2013) rightly worries that too often life without parole is argued to be a reasonable and ethical alternative. For McCann, this approach naturalizes incarceration and fails to consider the condemned-prisoner's location within the prison-industrial-complex. I share similar concerns about the nascent movement to curb the use of solitary confinement. In focusing narrowly on solitary confinement-which, let me be clear, is a form of torture-do activists inside and outside of prison stop short of a critical analysis of mass incarceration more broadly? Do we miss that the racial disparities present in solitary confinement mirror to great extent the racial disparities in the criminal justice system? Most importantly, how might advocacy surrounding solitary confinement be linked with other efforts to curtail mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex?

As Reiter (2014) demonstrates, the Short Corridor Collective's official discourse is largely reformist, demanding a restrained use of solitary confinement. However, as I have argued, the strikers' narratives of the embodied experience of solitary confinement condemned both the practice and the prison system that oversees it. Following these narratives, the pressing ethical and political task cannot be to work toward more humane forms of isolation and immobilization. But I want to conclude by suggesting that neither can the task be to build kindler, gentler prisons, moving those in solitary confinement to general population prisons and wings. The strikers' narrative arguments call for a critical interrogation of the criminal justice and prison systems writ large.

And they do so not only by pointing to the unjust policies and practices-the over- and mis-use of solitary and racially-biased sentencing-but also by evoking what might serve as the basis for a principled argument against incarceration. In this sense, activists working for reform oppose the state's abuses, but not its right to punish or seek retribution. In depicting violence and madness both as qualities of the prison and as responses to conditions of imprisonment, the strikers' narratives overturn the basic assumption upon which state punishment rests. We come to see policing and punishment, as we know them, not only to be terribly damaging, but also terribly misguided. The strikers' narratives point to the conditions in which they act and respond, and especially to the conditions that variously sustain or deny life. The strikers point to how state violence and punishment are primary conditions structuring prisoners' lives, choices, and actions. But there's no reason for this analysis to stop at the automated doors of the supermax wing or at the walls of the prison.

How as communities we understand and respond to crime is in no small way wrapped up with our conceptions of responsibility. If we abhor state violence in the form of solitary confinement and the death penalty but support imprisonment and punishment, it is, in part, because we hold to notions of individual agency and responsibility. If we, however, see agency as a response to particular social, political, and material situations, then calls for exclusion, retribution, and even rehabilitation must be reconsidered. Calls for prisons to return to a rehabilitative mission--a mission wholly abandoned in the move to the control prison-may reify dominant frames; the target of rehabilitation is the individual. What such a call misses, as welcome as a return to rehabilitation would be, is that it is the wider society that is most in need of rehabilitation. Rather than seeking to punish or rehabilitate individuals, we might work together to promote the conditions that allow for peace, safety, and a meaningful life.

Chris S. Earle, Department of English, University of Wisconsin-Madison. The author thanks Edward Hinck, Michael Bernard-Donals, Christa Olson, Elisabeth Miller, and Sharon Yam for their generative feedback and support. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Chris S. Earle, Department of English, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 600 N. Park St., Madison, Wisconsin, 53706. E-mail:


(1.) By identifying conditions, I draw from Judith Butler's (2004) distinction between conditions and causes. Conditions are not causal: "Conditions do not 'act' in the way that individual agents do, but no agent acts without them" (p. 11).

(2.) To depict gang members as the worst of the worst is to deny alternative modes of making sense of gangs. Work in critical criminology offers that gangs instead be seen as a mode of economic survival (Vektatesh, 2006 & 2008), as a form of political resistance (Davis, 1990; Vargas, 2006), or as a product structural and symbolic violence (Zilberg, 2011).

(3.) See for instance the state-by-state breakdown of gang-related sentence enhancements:

(4.) Both Rhodes (2004) and Guenther (2013) illustrate how solitary and supermax facilities demand accountability from prisoners, but belie any rehabilitative mission by making it impossible for prisoners to give an account (Rhodes, p. 84; Guenther, p. 237). That is, prisoners are punished for their actions but solitary also makes it impossible for them to act differently.


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Author:Earle, Chris S.
Publication:Argumentation and Advocacy
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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