On February 6th, HBO will premiere “SOLITARY: INSIDE RED ONION STATE PRISON.” A compelling and haunting documentary from award-winning filmmaker Kristi Jacobson, SOLITARY takes the viewer inside one of America’s notorious supermax prisons to expose the horrors and dehumanizing effects of solitary confinement. You can view a trailer of the film here.
Jacobson first became interested in exploring solitary confinement during the summer of 2012. Filming began the following year and over the course of eighteen months the director and her crew made half a dozen visits to the prison. They were given extraordinary access to prisoners, corrections officers and administrators. Jacobson had no specific agenda when she started the project. She wanted to “be curious, open; to explore and connect with people.”
Over time, certain grim realities about solitary confinement revealed themselves and became central themes of the film. One such reality is the ever-present noise that characterizes segregation units. Jacobson recalls how even after leaving the prison, “the sound stayed with me; it continues to stay with me.” The constant noise throughout the film is jarring and relentless. It is as if the men in solitary confinement are trying to make as much noise as possible to reaffirm to the world – possibly also to themselves – that they’re still there; that they’re still human. To quote Quincy, one of the prisoners interviewed for the film: “I feel like I’ve been buried alive in the ground, and everybody is just walking over top of you. You can hear them, but they can’t hear you. That’s the way I feel. Forgotten.” Heartbreakingly, Quincy is not wrong. Several times throughout the film, Jacobson expertly contrasts the inescapable noise with serene silence, such as when we go inside the warden’s office and watch as he observes the cellblocks on video screens – without audio. Or when the director takes us outside the prison walls and we hear nothing except for a few birds chirping. It seems that the world, even those who are tasked with caring for the men inside those 8x10 cells, choose not to hear them.
But Jacobson gives a voice to these men, an opportunity for them to tell the world their stories. The ones she has selected to interview are unquestioningly intelligent yet also sad, broken; some, admittedly, are only tenuously holding onto their sanity. And there is another theme that ties them together. The men Jacobson interviews do not proclaim their innocence. Nor are they in solitary confinement for minor violations or their own protection. They are violent offenders, some of whom recount brutal crimes with chilling detachment. This is one of the documentaries most daring risks and greatest strengths – to show that despite their crimes, these men are still human beings.
Jacobson’s decision to spotlight guilty men for the film was made early on. She did not want to tell the story of innocent men unjustly incarcerated. She wanted to get down to the core of the issue of placing men and women in solitary confinement and ask the question – “regardless of what someone’s done, as Americans, as human beings, are we OK with this?”
The idea of what it means to be human is central to the film. For Jacobson, it became clear over the course of filming that the prison itself was designed to dehumanize its inhabitants. The architecture was intended to eliminate human contact. She recalls that in order to speak to a prisoner in his cell she was forced to lean in and speak through the crack at the door, which prevented her from maintaining eye contact. Realizing that the prison was designed to deprive the residents of any real, meaningful connections had a profound effect on the director and it is something she hopes is conveyed in the film.
SOLITARY gives the tortured residents of Red Onion a much-needed voice. We ask that you help amplify their voice by spreading word of the premiere on February 6th at 10:00 p.m. and advertising the film at the coordinated actions on the 23rd. Please note that after the premiere, the film will be available to stream on HBO. If any organization has an interest in hosting a screening, you can reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please use the hashtag #solitarydoc to continue the conversation online.
Beyond spreading the word about the film, we encourage everyone to contact a prison or jail in his or her community and request a visit. It is Jacobson’s hope that SOLITARY will not only open people’s eyes to the impact of solitary confinement – on inmates, officers and society – but will also inspire individuals to learn more about the current state of incarceration in their backyards.
As one of the prisoners poignantly states – “life is not worth it without hope.” Let us join together to not only rally behind this film but also get involved and get educated so that we might be the hope that the men and women in solitary confinement so desperately need.