They are in isolation for up to 23 hours a day in 8×10-foot cells. When they go outdoors, they are encaged. They receive meals through a locked box. Sometimes they talk to each other through the vents in their walls. Sometimes the sound of men banging on their doors doesn’t stop for weeks.
These are basic facts of life for prisoners at the supermax prison called Red Onion in West Virginia, and filmmaker Kristi Jacobson documents as much in her haunting film, Solitary. After getting unusual and unrestricted access to the supermax (places journalists refer to as “Black Zones” as they are notoriously off limits to press), Jacobson spent a year conducting intimate interviews with some of Red Onion’s inmates, men deemed too much of a physical risk to be around other prisoners. The inmates, most of whom have life sentences, discuss their often violent pasts with Jacobson, as well as the instances that brought them to confinement and the damaging effects of isolation on their minds and spirits. Jacobson interweaves the perspectives of the wardens and prison staff as they attempt to initiate a reform program. Of course, the prison itself becomes its own looming character—split level rows of endless cell doors devoid of color, an ever-present cacophony of pained moans and jangling keys.
“We have a responsibility to know what’s happening inside our prisons,” Jacobson says. “If you allow yourself to believe, as the media would have you believe, that the system works, and the people [inside] are all monsters, then you’re falling for something that is not in any way true. There are human beings inside of our prisons, who are Americans, who are part of our culture. This film was about creating a cinematic experience that comes as close to bringing people inside as possible.”
A student of criminology in college, Jacobson cites working in a juvenile courthouse as a driving force behind starting her work as a documentarian. “I witnessed the sentencing of young kids and the brokenness of that system—especially for poor people and people of color,” she remembers. But it wasn’t until the success of her first feature, A Place at the Table, that Jacobson felt ready to tackle the issue, and, in particular, solitary confinement—something she could not stop thinking about.
“There are certain truths that once you know them you can’t un-know them,” Jacobson says. “There are 40 supermax prisons like this in the U.S., and as someone more knowledgeable than most on this subject, I didn’t know that.”
As for the unprecedented access to Red Onion, a prison with a notorious reputation for being “tough,” Jacobson says she asked “the right person, in the right way, at the right time.” After learning West Virginia was in the process of implementing a program to reduce the number of prisoners in confinement, she called the Director of the Department of Corrections. “They were ready to share what they had been doing inside the prison to improve it.”
The improvement effort is called Step Down Program, an incentive-based process that rewards non-threatening behavior, with the eventual goal being a return to a populated prison. The wardens also receive training that focuses on more empathetic behavior towards the inmates. Jacobson says, “I’m an independent filmmaker. I presented myself as such. I made it clear I couldn’t make a propaganda piece about the program.”
Still, Jacobson was shocked how open the warden and staff were in allowing her to film around the prison. “They saw I didn’t have an agenda. I came in there and asked, ‘What should I see?’ ‘How does this place work?’” Her neutral approach is something she credits to her roots working with filmmaker Barbara Kopple. “On my first visit, which was a scout, I met many of the men in the film. It was a combination of people they introduced me to, and individuals that I sought on my own.”
“It was striking in my conversations with inmates how quickly we went from meeting to deeply connecting,” she reflects. “They haven’t had such a conversation, or a conversation of any kind, in so long. They craved it. And they spoke with such a clarity. Almost poetic.” There were times she left the prison hardly believing the moving exchanges she had just had were real.
“The officers who worked there,” she says, “were a lot more reluctant to open up. They ‘leave it at the gate’—that’s their line.” Jacobson understands why, as to spend any time inside, she admits, is undeniably taxing. “There was an omnipresence of pain and suffering that was pretty dramatic,” she recalls. “It’s like the life has been sucked out.”
Even in a place attempting change like Red Onion, Jacobson believes the foundational issues remain. “You can only get so far within in a system built to punish, not a system built with the idea of building people up to be the best they can be,” Jacobson says. Solitary confinement is known to cause negative physical and psychological symptoms after even a short period of time, and greatly exacerbates pre-existing conditions. It makes returning to a populated prison all the more difficult.
Glenn E. Martin, a criminal justice reform advocate and founder of JustLeadershipUSA, spent six years in prison and spoke on a panel after the New York Solitary screening. Martin remarked that he was locked up “with some of the best and the brightest,” and that prison is a place that “lends itself to violent behavior in order to survive.” Inmates are reacting to that culture. In regard to internal reform at prisons like Red Onion, Martin says, “I don’t know how we could attribute the words correction or rehabilitation or transformation or redemption to the system that we saw in this picture.”
As for her thoughts on future reform, Jacobson believes we need to build prisons that have reintegration as their goal. This means having tools to deal with things like trauma, PTSD, anger and substance abuse. “There is the practical progress, and there is the more ideological,” she says. “But from being with men who are deemed legitimate threats, in spending time with them, their humanity is what came through. When I treated them with respect, they treated me with respect. That is so basic. And so not present in our prison system.”
Annakeara Stinson is a writer who lives in Brooklyn. You can follow her on Twitter.