A blending of visual manipulation with a literary representation of solitary confinement
Students of the Stanford Graphic Novel Project produced a compelling and well-researched portrayal of the living conditions at Pelican Bay State Prison in an effort to show what it’s like to live in isolation.
At first glance, Flying Kites: a Story of the 2013 California Prison Hunger Strike (2019) is about Security Housing Units (SHU) at Pelican Bay. But it is also about so much more. Layered into the plot is a father, Rodrigo, doing everything he can to reconnect with his daughter, Luz. It is through their story that we understand how painful confinement is, both solitary and otherwise.
“Writing letters is the only way I can break up the monotony and loneliness of the day,” Rodrigo writes to Luz. Without telling Luz that he plagiarized Jack Henry Abbott’s memoir, The Belly of the Beast, he adds, “Solitary confinement in prison can alter the ontological makeup of a stone.”
Through letters, Luz’s feelings for her father deepen. She is disturbed when he writes descriptions of his living conditions. It is difficult for her but she works at integrating her daily life with the nine-hour drive between Oakland and Pelican Bay to visit her father.
The tragedy of Rodrigo’s relationship with his daughter derives from his eagerness to communicate—he couldn’t find the right words to express the psychological impact that long-term isolation had on him. When Luz discovers the truth, their relationship becomes strained.
In the graphic novel, the students used eight frames on a single page to show Rodrigo living in a cell. The subsequent frames get repetitively and increasingly smaller and crowded until, three pages later, more than 200 frames show Rodrigo living in his cell appear on a single page. Readers/viewers get a stark feel of Rodrigo’s lonely life.
“I spent 12 to 15 hours a day pacing. The rhythm of my feet on the concrete floor was the only thing that calmed me,” says Rodrigo as he comes to terms with the fact that he’ll be in Pelican Bay indefinitely. He adds, “Ten years later…I appear to have settled down. Yet the scream inside me has never stopped.”
Flying Kites has twists and turns—nothing is smooth and not all the problems of incarceration are solved. The Stanford students went to great lengths to make the story as authentic as possible. They used virtual reality technology to get their own taste of life in solitary confinement. They also read letters from prisoners who were currently or had previously been in solitary confinement.
There are lessons in Flying Kites universal to any reader, such as the power of family connections, accountability, the importance of believing in yourself and finding an authentic voice.
Eleven students, two teaching assistants and three instructors, collaborated on this storytelling project. It’s the brainchild of award winning author Adam Johnson. Johnson visited San Quentin’s creative writing program last August.
Although the hunger strikes did lead to the end of indefinite SHU terms and greater access to rehabilitative programs for prisoners, isolation in other ways still exists in prisons. Flying Kites offers readers vivid pictures as well as a poignant understanding of the overall living conditions for incarcerated people.
Appendix C: Interview with Charles Carbone offers extended commentary about what happened to many prisoners after the hunger strike ended.
Carbone concludes that systemic problems still exists, such as ending negative consequences from perceived associations with other incarcerated people that come from dubious or confirmed sources.
The United Nations has determined that keeping a person in solitary confinement more than 14 days amounts to torture.