From 2011-2013, inmates in the Security Housing Units (a thinly veiled euphemism for solitary confinement) of Pelican Bay State Prison in California went on a series of hunger strikes. The largest of these strikes began on July 8, 2013, when more than 30,000 inmates throughout state-prisons in California refused state issued food.
Concurrent with the hunger strikes, in May 2012, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed Ashker v. Governor of California, a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of inmates who had spent more than a decade in solitary confinement. The landmark settlement agreement that was reached in Ashker dramatically reduced the solitary confinement population; ended the practice of placing inmates who had not violated any prison rules in isolation; and put a limit on the length of time a prisoner could spend in solitary confinement.
The Ashker case could not have existed without the brave men and women who put their own safety and health at risk by staging the largest hunger strike in the state of CA, possibly the largest in the world. We must not forget their sacrifices, or their stories. And one advocate, Charlie Hinton, is committed to making sure that the legacy of that historic hunger strike is not forgotten.
Charlie is no stranger to the world of social justice movements and advocacy work. Having spent three years in the Peace Corps in Bolivia, Charlie became involved in LGBT liberation and prison work upon returning home. A seminal event that drew Charlie irrevocably towards prison work was the trial of the San Quentin Six – six inmates at San Quentin State Prison who were accused of participating in an August 21, 1971 escape attempt that left six people dead. Charlie attended the trial and remembers seeing the defendants being led into the courtroom in chains, recalling vividly how “[the chains] seemed so unnecessary, like they were meant just to scare the jury and the public...it changed me forever.”
Throughout the years, Charlie continued his commitment to working with prisoners and during the July 2013 hunger strike, Charlie responded to an action alert to write letters of support to the strikers. Several of the inmates wrote him back and it was through these responses, as well as Charlie’s conversations with former prisoners and his own personal observations, that Solitary Man: My Visit to Pelican Bay State Prison was born.
Solitary Man is a solo performance that focuses on Charlie’s interactions with one particular inmate, Otis Washington, a 64 year old man who has been incarcerated for over 40 years. Otis had participated in all the hunger strikes at Pelican Bay since 2011 and had been a source of powerful inspiration for other inmates. In Solitary Man, Otis delves into what he has learned and experienced through his years in solitary confinement. Partnering with Fred Johnson, a jazz trumpeter, Charlie has married Otis’s vivid firsthand narratives with stirring musical accompaniments to create a powerful experience for the viewer. The very personal nature of Solitary Man will hopefully have a humanizing effect on the discussions around prison reform, which often focus more on policy than on the very real, personal impact incarceration has on prisoners and their family members. “The world is such a cold and cruel place these days,” Charlie says, “I want Solitary Man to add at least one drop of humanity.”
The responses to Solitary Man reflect this goal. Denise Jones, whose son has been in the prison system for 10 years, describes the powerful impact of the play: “To hear Charlie put a voice to my silent pain lifted me. It gave me hope and strength that I need to finish this journey with my son.” Other audience members have no experience with solitary confinement or the prison system but find Solitary Man to tell a riveting and important story about the criminal justice system in American and our responsibility to humanize it.
Solitary Man, Charlie’s second solo show, is broken up into two acts, which collectively run approximately one hour, with music. Charlie has recently performed Solitary Man throughout Northern California. Upcoming performances are scheduled for September 23rd and 25th at the Berkeley Arts Festival with pianist Bill Crossman. In late October, the show is coming to the East Coast; first on October 29th in Ithaca and then on October 30th in Woodstock, both with Fred Johnson on the trumpet. A benefit performance for the Campaign Against Isolated Confinement is in the works. Please check Solitary Man’s Facebook page for updated information. Other dates on the East Coast will be available. If you are interested in hosting the play, or know of non-profit organizations or faith communities that might be interested in sponsoring an event, please contact Charlie at firstname.lastname@example.org.