'Solitary': How New Prison Doc Went Inside a Supermax

Unprecedented access to inmates and guards at high-security Virginia prison offers moving portrayal of life behind bars

"What I learned spending time inside that prison is, even the men that are deemed "the worst of the worst" are human beings like you like me," says Kristi Jacobson, who directed the new film 'Solitary: Inside Red Onion State Prison.' Credit: HBO

Prison life is stark and lonely, especially in federal supermax facilities, where inmates spend 23 hours a day locked in their stark  cells with no human contact. In her new documentary, Solitary: Inside Red Onion State Prison, which premiered Monday night on HBO, director and producer Kristi Jacobson translates that cold emptiness onto the screen. Jacobson received unprecedented access to the Virginia prison that houses inmates who have been deemed too dangerous to live in general population. The glaring fluorescent lights stay on 24/7, and the only time these men get to go outside is for the one hour per day that they pace around in glorified dog kennels no more than ten feet long. The film features in-depth, candid interviews with inmates that show a remarkably tender side, whether they're discussing the details of the dehumanizing conditions under which they have been placed, or the violent acts – like slashing prison guards' faces or slitting other inmates' throats – that got them sent to solitary confinement in the first place.

But Solitary is decidedly not advocacy journalism. Jacobson also interviews the prison guards, and highlights the physical and mental challenges that they face working in this environment every day, like an inability to turn off the hyper-vigilance needed to do the job even when they're at home with their families. One young guard describes finding an inmate covered in blood after he had chewed a large hole in his own arm. The look on the guard's his face as he recounts the scene makes it clear that there's plenty of trauma on both sides. 

We talked with Jacobson about how she managed to make such a revealing film, and where she thinks the prison system should go from here. 

What did you hope viewers would take away from the film?
The media has pushed – for many decades – that it's okay to just lock people up. The monsters inside our prisons have broken the law, and we don't care about what happens because they're not like us. And I think what I learned first and foremost, spending time inside that prison is, even the men that are deemed "the worst of the worst" in the state of Virginia are human beings like you like me. And the people who work there are human beings like you and me. And we should consider these things when we think about how we structure, create, build and run corrections. 

It was clear in watching the film that you carefully avoided pushing your opinion too hard, but it did leave me wondering what your opinion is.
My opinion about the practice of solitary confinement is that it's clearly irreparably harmful to the individual. So, for the government to do that goes beyond what is acceptable. But that said, I think the reason why my opinion doesn't come across clearly is because I decided that it was important to be open to the perspectives of those who work there and run the prison. Then you begin to understand what kind of challenges certain people present inside of a prison system and how it impacts us all, not just the men locked up. 

What made you zero in on Virginia and on Red Onion State Prison specifically?
They were in the process of implementing this step-down program that you see briefly in the film, to reduce their reliance on segregation and isolation and to return people back to general population, and also because this prison is one of the most notorious of the supermaxes. It was opened in 1998 during this boom of supermax openings. So that isolation and solitary confinement and a hostile atmosphere was part of the construction, and now they were trying to sort of reverse that, and that's what made it interesting to me.

One of the biggest questions I had while watching this was, "How the hell did you get that access"?
It really was a confluence of reaching out to the right person – which is [Harold Clarke], the director of the department of corrections in the state of Virginia – at the right time, meaning at a time when they had recently implemented and seen some success from this step-down program. But also with an ask that was not, "I must get into your prison to document what you're doing," it was, "What are you doing? I would like to know more. And can we continue talking about this?"

And once you had access to the prison, how'd you get the inmates and guards to open up to you so much?
I think for the prisoners their desire, the depths of their craving for social interaction made them very willing to talk, at least. Then once we started talking, the way I spoke to them, the way I interacted with them was so different than what they were used to. They recognized, I think, that this is a chance to get my story out, in addition to being a chance to talk to someone in the flesh.

With the officers, I think there was a bit more reluctance and guardedness around sharing with me, but I think over time it became clear to me that my interest was in telling a complex story and not a one-sided story. So we just got to know each other more and more, and eventually I think there was enough trust established to have some of those meaningful conversations that you see in the film.

I'm curious where you fall on the debate around shows like Orange is the New Black: do they raise awareness, or do they trivialize the issues and make prison look like summer camp?
I think that when there are complicated portrayals of life inside prison and an understanding of the peoples' lives before they got to prison, that's always a plus, in that it contributes to the humanizing of people inside prison. I'm grateful when people are having conversations around what's happening in our prisons and who's inside of them. And if they're doing it through entertainment and getting lots of people to pay attention, that's a positive.

Right, but once you get everybody's attention, then you've got to give us an answer for, "What do we do?"
Yeah, exactly. Now that films [like Solitary] have shown you what the hell has been going on in this country around incarceration and what's happening inside of our prisons, then, hey, let's look at these really great examples [of systems focused on restoration and not punishment] and move the conversation forward. So I'm excited about that.