‘Solitary’ is a Thoughtful Examination of Solitary Confinement

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There’s an ongoing debate in America about the state of our prison system. Either side of the debate can find themselves prone to hyperbole in voicing their opinions on how criminal justice should be handled, as in the ongoing question of whether it should be punishment or rehabilitation. Despite whatever statements made on either side, nobody is sincerely arguing that the worst criminals in our society should just be allowed to roam free without ever having facing consequences for their horrific actions. That’s why Kristi Jacobson’s documentary Solitary is a refreshing change of pace in this ongoing dialogue. In examining the effects of solitary confinement on prisoners in Red Onion State Prison, Jacobson allows her interview subjects, corrections officers and criminals alike, share their own views on the matter without ever interjecting any editorial commentary. It’s a refreshing change of pace from the typical activist documentary. It’s possible to infer where Jacobson stands on the issue, but the filmmaker is wise enough to allow the actions within the film speak for themselves as opposed to lecturing the viewer with her personal views.

Jacobson and her crew interview some of the worst of the worst criminals within the maximum security prison. These are murderers and violent criminals with long histories of violence. These criminals have been in solitary confinement for much of their sentences, sometimes in excess of a decade. What becomes apparent in these interviews is the mental strain solitary confinement has on the inmates. On rare occasions are the inmates allowed to socialize, but that’s usually for extremely brief periods of time as they’re shackled to tables as they do the work that they’re obligated to do as a part of their sentence. If they’ve been good, they’re allowed to have a television in their cell, which serves as their only glimpse into the outside world. It’s actually funny when you see these convicts conversing about Breaking Bad in the brief moments that they’re outside of solitary confinement.

It’s the mental strain of solitary confinement that takes center stage in Solitary. The screams of inmates from their cells echoes through the prison like an unsettling orchestral score of a madhouse choir. We witness inmate unresponsive to the pleas of guards and psychiatrists as they’re unwilling to even touch their meals. There are also programs designed to help guide these inmates back into the prison’s general population, a form of anger management classes. One such inmate, Michael, is followed as he progresses through the process of reintegration into general population until a title card informs that he only lasted a week before getting into a fight and being sent back to solitary confinement. Therein lies the interesting aspect of Solitary, the fact that the issues of these inmates is often exacerbated by the solitude and renders them practically incapable of being in a social environment.

Solitary isn’t simply examining the effects of solitary confinement on the prisoners, as Kristi Jacobson also takes the time to interview the guards that work at Red Onion. The regular assortment of bad people with maladjusted social skills takes its toll on them as well, and the horrors they encounter on a daily basis aren’t just left behind at work when their day is over. That’s another big takeaway from Solitary, the struggle of the guards to keep reminding themselves that it’s just a job and not to bring the weight of that emotional baggage home with them.

There’s no great attempt within Solitary to preach the viewers into changing any preconceived notions about the criminal justice system. Kristi Jacobson has crafted a powerful, haunting piece of documentary filmmaking because she avoids lecturing and allows the images her and her crew have captured speak for themselves.  Solitary is not an activist documentary, it’s a legitimate exploration of a social topic that implores viewers to reach their own conclusions based upon what’s presented. This is a movie that is presented with empathy in mind and really makes you wonder whether the punishment dehumanizes those on both sides of the bars.

Solitary premieres on HBO February 6th at 10PM.

  • Overall Score


Avoiding all the traps of an activist documentary, Kristi Jacobson’s Solitary examines the effects that solitary confinement has on both the prison guards and inmates at the Red Onion State Prison.

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