In SOLITARY, director Kristi Jacobson takes viewers deep into Virginia’s Red Onion State Prison for a yearlong submersion in one of the most controversial aspects of America’s modern prison-industrial-complex: solitary confinement. Red Onion is just one of 40-plus supermax prisons, which force prisoners to spend 23 hours of every day alone. The film focuses on the policy’s impact on both sides of the bars.
AFI spoke to the director ahead of the film’s AFI DOCS premiere.
What led you to documentary filmmaking?
I studied sociology in college, specifically criminology and juvenile justice. Working at a courthouse in Raleigh, NC, opened my eyes to the brokenness of the juvenile justice system. I had wanted to become a lawyer, but after that experience, I decided to tackle the system itself, rather than work within it.
I understood from an early age the power of film and thus began my life journey as documentary filmmaker. I continue to be drawn to stories that explore that brokenness I observed up close — how things got so broken and how they can be fixed. I am also interested in people and what drives them during the best of times, and what keeps them going during the worst of times. What are the societal forces at play that contribute, and in many cases determine, our experience? Ultimately, I am interested in how, in the end, we are all the same: humans striving for connection.
What inspired you to tell this story?
I’ve made films about many different subjects, but it feels like this was the film I was destined to make. After the wide release of A PLACE AT THE TABLE (2012, co-directed by Lori Silverbush), I took some time to think about the stories that have driven me for most of my life. I was reading about how kids are locked up in solitary confinement — in juvie, in jails and in prisons. I can recall in detail the night I read the New Yorker piece “Hellhole” and learned that there are around 100,000 inmates in solitary across the US, many locked in solitary for the most arbitrary reasons; and most people don’t seem to know, or care, about it. People locked in solitary are as forgotten as you can imagine. The existence of supermax prisons is generally unknown and they’re kept off-limits to press.
After we began filming, I became interested in not only telling the story of the men behind bars, but also the story of those who spend their days working at the prison. They are the sons and daughters of Virginia’s coalminers, escaping their parents’ fate by finding jobs at one of the country’s most notorious supermax prisons, where they face danger and madness daily by working in a place few know or understand.
How did you find the subjects for your film?
When we set out to make this film, many told us that filming inside of a supermax would be impossible; these prisons are known as “black sites” by the journalists covering this issue, who have worked tirelessly for decades to expose what goes on inside. During our research we discovered that Virginia had begun implementing a new “Step Down” reform program to reduce the number of inmates held in solitary at its notorious supermax, Red Onion State Prison, through behavioral modification and other evidence-based practices.
When I first spoke to the Director of the Department of Corrections, he was remarkably open; we began a series of phone conversations about the issue and the reforms he was implementing. That soon led to the importance of capturing what it’s like to be in “seg,” as well as the program, that ultimately led to approval to film for three days at the prison. Once inside the prison, the Warden provided our crew with an opportunity — access to the inmates, the place and the men and women who work there. I am grateful to the everyone at Red Onion who courageously shared their stories, as we returned to film many times over the course of one year.
What was a particular challenge you faced while making this film?
Once we overcame the obstacle of filming inside of a supermax prison, the biggest challenge in making this film is that we couldn’t tell everybody’s story; that fact kept me awake at night, and still does. The stories we tell in the film are deeply personal, powerful and important — and taken together, these stories reveal a lot about our country. But there are so many stories, at Virginia’s Red Onion State Prison and across our prison system, that should be told and heard. While that’s always true when making films, it was, and is especially, challenging on this film.
What do you hope audiences take away from SOLITARY?
I think we are conditioned to have certain feelings about those who are locked in our prisons. The media portrayals, politicians and the endless episodes of LOCKUP all work hard to keep us scared of the “monsters” locked up in our prisons that should be ignored and forgotten. We spent many days shooting inside the prison over the course of a year, and each time I felt not only a deep empathy, but a responsibility to tell the stories of the people I met. This includes the inmates and the officers who bravely shared their stories with me. It’s their stories that kept me going back, and now I hope that audiences will come with me into the world of Red Onion State Prison with an open mind and an open heart, and come away feeling moved by this journey — and thinking about what it means to be human, our shared responsibility to create a society that prioritizes rehabilitation and hope over extreme punishment.
Why is Washington, DC, a valuable location in which to screen your film?
I believe in the power of film and I believe that policymakers, change-makers and leaders are integral to create awareness and to get vital reforms made, at the state and federal levels. For change to happen it’s essential to involve ordinary people, activists and key influencers, and screening in our nation’s capitol provides a powerful platform to bring all of these groups together.
SOLITARY plays AFI DOCS on Thursday, June 23 at 6:30 p.m. and 8:45 p.m. Buy tickets here.