"The Box" and "Flying Kites" shed light on incarceration in America

Two new resources expose the violence of solitary confinement, and the dignity and will of people struggling to survive incarceration

Flying Kites: A Story of the 2013 California Prison Hunger Strike

"Every day, in prisons and jails across the United States, some eighty thousand people are held in solitary confinement, isolated and deprived of human contact. A growing body of scientific evidence shows that such conditions cause the brain to wither and can lead to permanent neurological damage. Per the United Nations' "Nelson Mandela Rules," which, in 2015, were adopted as minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners around the world, prolonged use of the practice amounts to torture and should be abolished." Thus begins the New Yorker Magazine's article about the debut of a documentary short by James Burns and Shal Ngo, The Box: Minds Lost in Solitary Confinement.

Burns experiences 11 months of solitary confinement when he was sixteen years old. To tell this complicated and simple story, "the film blends first-person narration, live-action reënactment sequences, and stop-motion animation to explore the psychological trauma that solitary confinement inflicts on survivors." Click here to view the short.

In 2021, Haymarket books published the newest book from the Stanford Graphic Novel Project, Flying Kites: A Story of the 2013 California Prison Hunger Strike. Shifting back and forth between a father-daughter relationship lived through letters and visits; the state-wide political organizing for prisoner's rights; and the political movement that emerged inside and outside the walls. "Based on the events of the historic 2013 California prison hunger strike, Flying Kites is a story about resilience, forgiveness, hope, and what it means to find your own voice."

"After guards find a book in his cell containing the penciled name of a suspected gang member, Rodrigo Santiago is 'validated' for gang affiliation and sent to indefinite solitary confinement in the Pelican Bay State Prison Secure Housing Unit, or SHU. Life in the SHU is monotonous, isolating, and enraging. It literally drives prisoners insane.

Rodrigo resolves to survive. He struggles to maintain a connection to his daughter, Luz, through letters that are his only happiness. As Luz grows up, though, she presses Rodrigo for more insight into his daily life. She wants the real him. Willing to give her anything she asks, but finding himself at a loss for words, Rodrigo makes a mistake that threatens to destroy the trust between them."

Kites—letters—become the medium through which Rodrigo expresses himself, his reflections about being in prison and his decisions, the narration of events concerning the strike, and through letters he reconnects with Luz. All this is taking place in the context of state-wide hunger strikes across California, and particularly in the Pelican Bay SHU, that involved family members, community organizations, students, journalists, and lawyers.

The artists and writers, designers, and journalists that created this politically potent and powerful work of art include Candice Kim, Katherine Liu, Lily Nilipour, Sarah Shourd, Lucy Zhu, Peter DiCampo, Danial Shadmany, Nik Wesson, Elena Kamas, Serena Zhang, Sharon Tran, Luke Soon-Shiong, and (Michelle) Bae.

In addition to the main text, there are appendixes for further learning about solitary confinement, a timeline of events, and information about Unlock the Box: the Campaign to End Solitary Confinement. The participants in the Flying Kites Project also found their own voice through the collective research and learning that went into preparing to write, produce, and illustrate these stories. To represent their own process of creating the comic book, the participants pJenned and illustrated the "The Inside Story: How We Created Flying Kites." A comic within the comic, and a way of making transparent the collective process of creativity and knowledge production, the story shares the process of learning together, of being shocked, angry, and disciplined about representing stories accurately, and about being brilliant thinkers and artists. "The more we read, the more angry we became. Putting violent and mentally ill people in conditions that made them more sick and violent? That didn't make sense."

The Stanford Graphic Novel Project is a twenty-two-week course at Stanford University. The course combines "nonfiction research, visual storytelling, and long-form narrative structure."

"Since its inception the Stanford Graphic Novel Project has hewn to a few central tenets: 1) that the telling of a human story is a deeply necessary enterprise, one worthy of study and creative devotion; 2) that sourcing stories from the real world increases their capacity to do good, seek justice, and bring about change; and finally, 3) that through collaboration, a story can become richer, more inspired, and more layered with human experience."

Time-in-Cell (2021), a report produced in collaboration with the Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law at Yale Law School, together with the Correctional Leaders Association, found that almost 50 thousand people are held in solitary confinement in the US. The research "is the only comprehensive, current national data on the number of prisoners in solitary confinement—or what prison directors call restrictive housing—and the length of time prisoners are housed under these conditions. As of the summer of 2021, an estimated 41,000 to 48,000 prisoners in the United States were held in isolation for an average of 22 hours a day for 15 days or more." 

Purchase this book to support this and other graphic novel projects. Click here for a list of all eight of the comics created so far. It is also available in a Dropbox file here.