I got a letter from my pen pal a couple of weeks ago. Bryan is an inmate at Pelican Bay, a supermax state prison in California. This blog about is how I have come to know Bryan as a person, how his friendship and stories of his experiences in prison have changed me and of my ongoing efforts to advocate for his improved quality of life. A wide scope, but there is so much to tell.
Bryan and I began corresponding in March of 2010 and after a couple of months I learned that in the 16 years he has been in solitary confinement (known as the Security Housing Unit or SHU) Bryan has had two visits with his mom and sister..... 16 years, two visits. Bryan has a loving and involved family, letters and love flow back and forth regularly, but the distance from their home in Texas and the difficulty and expense of traveling to this remote northern California prison make visits nearly impossible for his family. I, on the other hand, can hop in my car on Friday, drive the 500 miles from Seattle, pitch my tent at the campground in town for $18 per night and be home by Monday morning in time for work. So in September of 2010, that's what I decided to do.
SHU inmates are allowed no phone calls and cannot have pictures taken of themselves to send to their families, so I knew that if I was to connect with my new friend in a meaningful way I would just have to go there. It was amazing to meet Bryan in person . We had a great visit that cemented our friendship in ways only someone who has been in solitary confinement for 16 years can understand. Bryan was no longer a "pen pal", he was a friend, and my intention was to provide companionship and entertainment through letters and an annual visit each September.
Imagine my surprise when I got his letter in mid-May explaining that conditions in the SHU, being at the level of human rights violations, were no longer tolerable and that since all avenues of working for change had failed, he and the others in the Short Corridor (the even MORE isolated area of the SHU) were planning a hunger strike. And my even greater surprise when he asked if I would I be willing to serve as his "monitor". He described a monitor as someone who is "in my corner and who's willing to call and monitor my condition and make sure I am treated right once I am reduced to a weakened state".
Stating his reluctance to tell his family what he was about to embark upon, and knowing he really didn't have any where else to turn, he reached out to me. Of course I immediately sent a postcard saying yes, and began planning a trip to California to meet with him to ask the obvious questions: What's going on? What do they hope to accomplish?, Why a hunger strike?. And most importantly, Why won't he tell his family? By the time I got home last night, those questions had been answered and although he still felt I was best able to be his primary advocate, he agreed with me that he had a responsibility to tell his family about his participation in the upcoming hunger strike, scheduled to begin July 1, 2011.