‘The Strike’ Review: Doc Chronicles a Battle to Halt Endless Solitary Confinement

Solitary confinement, theoretically used only when a prisoner is at high risk of harm to or from others, has long been regarded as a severe punitive measure best applied in small doses. The United Nations’ “Mandela Rules” recommend inmates be placed in such conditions for no more than 15 days, to avoid significant damage to physical or psychological health. Yet “The Strike” spotlights one U.S. correctional facility where until recently convicts were held in solitary for decades on end. JoeBill Munoz and Lucas Guilkey’s documentary, premiering at Hot Docs, provides a polished, informative overview of protests — both in and outside the prison — that eventually succeeded in changing abusive policies.

When California opened the Pelican Bay State Prison in 1989, it was considered a model of its “supermax” type, designed as a maximum security institution for “the worst of the worst.” At the time, the “War on Drugs” (then “three-strikes” laws) had greatly increased prison populations, resulting in overcrowding which escalated tensions between inmate factions. Pelican Bay was conceived to alleviate those problems by isolating the most troublesome wards of the state.

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This debut feature doesn’t touch on some of the site’s early controversies — violence by guards led to a “60 Minutes” exposé in 1993 — focusing exclusively on the issue of longterm solitary. Officials saw gang affiliation as the major cause for conflict between prisoners, devising methods for identifying it that were sometimes awfully loose. Simple interest in something political (like the Black Panthers) or cultural (Chicano history) could brand an inmate as a likely gang member.

This approach then provided a blanket excuse to place those individuals in “the SHU” (Security Housing Unit) … and leave them there. A half-dozen or so Pelican Bay veterans interviewed here include ones who remained in solitary for 10, 20, even 30-plus years. They describe such complete isolation as “a very intense mental battle.” One shares, “I had resigned myself to death in a windowless concrete box.”

We seldom learn anything about their backgrounds, crimes, any actual gang affiliation or whether they had histories of altercations while in custody. At times those omissions makes “The Strike”’s advocacy tenor seem one-sided to the point of naiveté, particularly at its rather mawkish inspirational close. But there is little doubt that Pelican’s use of SHU was not only inhumane, but seemed to prevent some inmates ever being considered for transfer back to the general population, let alone parole. It was a classic “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” situation.

In July 2011, there was a widespread first hunger strike to demand better conditions. Some requests were shamefully basic, including the right to have a wall calendar, a warm winter cap, one family photo and one phone call per year. (The facility’s remote rural location, just below the Oregon border, makes in-person visits rare.)

When that effort seemed to generate little real change, there was a second strike in 2013 — smaller in number, but more effective in gaining attention from outside reformists, media, and politicians. In the end, however, it was a lawsuit rather than legislators that forced change, leading some 4,000 inmates to be released from solitary. For some, that ultimately led to parole and a new start in society.

Brief, impressionistic reenactments attempt to convey something of this extreme prison life. But limited access and the film’s brisk, even slick tenor perversely make the grueling nature of solitary confinement (which some have considered a form of torture) a reality “The Strike” doesn’t render especially vivid. A few prior documentaries on the subject, like Nina Rosenblum’s 1990 “Through the Wire,” or dramatic depictions like Steve McQueen’s “Hunger,” have managed that better.

But Munoz and Guilkey’s emphasis is more on bucking the system, a process driven by the combined efforts of inmates, activists (including prisoners’ relatives), investigative journalists, and select politicians. We also hear from a number of current or former prison officials, and see videotape of an attempted negotiation session during one hunger strike.

The U.S. prison industry continues to boom, and many citizens see incarceration as a deserved dead end for “bad people,” never mind abstraction notions of human rights and rehabilitation. “The Strike” reminds that even within criminal justice, some degree of mercy remains relevant. Particularly outside the realm of lifers and death row, the goal shouldn’t be to crush individuals’ spirit until they can’t possibly re-enter civilian life. This well-crafted documentary makes a strong case for human contact as essential to human existence, even (or especially) among the incarcerated. Closing on-screen text, however, notes that about 120,000 American convicts are still currently estimated as being held in solitary confinement.

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