The 2016 Tribeca Film Festival documentary, “Solitary,” brings us into the lives of prison inmates who are kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, sometimes for years on end. Produced and directed by women, the movie is an unnerving look at a dilemma: What do you do with prisoners who are either too violent to be in general population or are at risk of violence in general population?
While the film doesn’t come to any conclusions, it seems clear that solitary or “segregation” (“seg” for short) doesn’t work. It causes the inmates to go crazy and become even more violent. Even the correction officers who work in the prison say in the film that they don’t think they could handle seg.
Certainly, for those inmates who have a chance of being reintroduced into society, solitary is a bad idea for everyone. There’s no way these prisoners can remain in a box with so little interaction and then integrate back into the world.
The film was shot at Red Onion State Prison in rural Virginia, where a program to try to help inmates reenter society has begun. Red Onion is one of 40+ “supermax” prisons across the country. The prisoners are held in 8×10-foot cells with no windows and sliding drawers for their meals.
For good behavior, the prisoners can earn more time outside of seg, and some can even earn their way back to general population. In at least one instance, however, an inmate claims to have been attacked in general population, and his purported self-defense lands him back in seg.
Not all of the men in solitary in this prison are murderers. Some were sentenced to decades of imprisonment as a result of armed robbery. In one instance, the man snapped while in prison and attacked the warden. That action landed him in seg.
Director Kristi Jacobson was given unprecedented access within the prison to interview the warden, the inmates, and the correction officers. One inmate relates the story of the murder he committed and later says that there is no punishment extensive enough for what he did. But, he adds, segregation isn’t working.
After the screening I attended at the Festival, Jacobson and producer Katie Mitchell appeared for a short Q&A. While in the prison, the women and crew had to follow rules about what they could wear, and every single item of equipment had to be on a list.
“We interviewed a lot more people than you see in the film,” Jacobson said. Those interviews took place either through the doors of the cells or during the short times that the men were in group settings.
The filmmakers chose to feature certain inmates based on their willingness to be forthcoming about their experiences. She said the men were relieved to have someone to talk to and listen to their stories. They also appreciated being related to as people rather than criminals.
The inmates in the film have not yet seen it, and considering the limits of their incarceration, Jacobson and Mitchell are still trying to figure out how it can be screened for them.
More than anything, the film is a call to come up with a better solution than keeping prisoners locked in a cell that means we either keep them permanently incarcerated or let severely damaged people – much more damaged than when they entered the prison system – back into our communities.
The film is affiliated with HBO, so my hope is that it will be aired on the network at some point. Watch for it.