There’s little hope, but considerable insight, found in “Solitary,” Kristi Jacobson’s documentary about Wise County, Virginia’s Red Onion State Prison, a supermax facility where convicts are holed up for 23 hours a day in separate 8′-by-10′ cells. Shot over the course of a year, the film presents an unfiltered insider’s view of their colorless day-to-days, which are largely spent trying to stave off madness. Although its perspective is a tad too unbalanced, this unflinching look at inmate isolation will — after its premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival — prove yet another sturdy addition to HBO’s nonfiction slate.
Jacobson utilizes a sparse score for glimpses of her setting’s surrounding rural landscape: a gray, misty locale where the closing of local coal mines motivated many to embrace employment at the penitentiary. The majority of “Solitary,” however, is awash in the unholy din of Red Onion, where inmates scream, wail, howl and bang about in endless expressions of fury and frustration. That cacophony does much to situate viewers in this particular, inhospitable space and is complemented by visual compositions that highlight the fences, bars, frosted windows, and blue steel doors that keep its occupants confined.
Intermittent text cards state that over 100,000 American inmates exist in solitary, and in Virginia, they get there by violating general-population prison rules (generally, for fighting or trying to escape). The length of their Red Onion residences are determined by their ability to behave and complete a re-acclimating Step-Down program.
Yet as Jacobson’s interviewees claim, their stays are in fact indefinite, and regulated by dictates that seem blind to their efforts to toe the line (for example, attempted escapees have no chance for leaving solitary). Solace, if attainable, comes in the form of television programs and outside-the-cell jobs, or via retreats into their own minds, where they can imagine a reality far freer than their own.
“Solitary” concentrates on a handful of Red Onion’s inhabitants, all of them locked away for serious crimes and resigned to spending the rest of their lives behind bars. They are, by and large, well-spoken and introspective, the latter born from the fact that their time is mostly spent by themselves, with only minimal contact with guards — and chats with other inmates through cells’ air vents — to mitigate their crushing seclusion.
When Randall, who’s serving two life sentences for murdering a gas-station attendant during a robbery, states that solitary “gets to you, and it hurts like hell,” he speaks for everyone in Red Onion, whose system primarily breeds rage, loneliness, and psychological issues verging on outright insanity.
Like Randall, abandoned by his parents to the foster system and his own criminal inclinations, head-tattooed Michael recounts his own upbringing enthralled by California gang culture. Their tales of childhood woe suggest that nurture had a lot to do with their present situations. However, the matter-of-fact way in which Randall describes slitting a fellow inmate’s throat “from ear to ear” in order to avoid being potentially raped — as well as the attempts by Michael and burly Dennis to downplay their armed-robbery crimes (and subsequent in-prison face-slashings and fights) — underlines the fact that, no matter their corrupting upbringings, they’re now terrifyingly volatile, violence-prone individuals.
Jacobson makes no overt gestures of sympathy toward her subjects, though in their monotonous routines, and in their articulations of exasperation over their limited chances for reprieve, her film implicitly argues that solitary confinement begets only suicidal thoughts and/or uncontrollable anger. When Michael admits that he sometimes welcomes a physical altercation with guards — and when young corrections officer Jordan confesses likewise, saying the feelings those skirmishes inspire are akin to scoring a touchdown or hitting a home run — “Solitary” pinpoints how institutions such as Red Onion cultivate physical and emotional brutality in everyone who steps through its gates.
By not plumbing the rest of her interviewees’ backstories, or the warden and correctional officers’ lives, “Solitary” fails to present a more comprehensive cross-section of the dynamics at play at Red Onion. Still, refusing to shy away from harsh truths about both these inmates’ crimes, as well as their “caged animal” conditions, the film offers a complicated portrait of 21st-century crime and punishment — one in which the question of whether solitary confinement is unnecessarily and unproductively punitive, or a just penalty for extreme offenders, is left for the viewer to decide.