Solitary: Inside Red Onion State Prison

Studio: HBO
Directed by Kristi Jacobson

Feb 06, 2017 Web Exclusive
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Nestled in Wise County, in the heart of Virginia’s coal country, the Red Onion State Prison super max facility is home to scores of the commonwealth’s most dangerous offenders. Every day, life there exists under a strict set of rules, on an airtight schedule, and behind thick walls and impenetrable doors. For those sentenced to serve time, it is the only part of the world they will know for months, years, or the rest of their lives. For the men and women who work there, it is a lifeline, the only other option besides coal mining in a town with dwindling economic prospects.

Kristi Jacobson’s hard-hitting documentary, Solitary, goes deep into the loneliest wing of the prison—the segregation block. There, confined to their 80-square-foot cells for 23-hours a day, the facility’s most dangerous and unpredictable inmates consider their lives, their futures, and their actions that have rendered them all but devoid of human contact. With direct access to a number of inmates, men whose time in “seg” is determined by the prison officials, Jacobson delves into the question of what life in such confinement can do to a person.

In the investigative film, men like Randall, Lars, Michael, and Dennis open up about the hardships of life in an eight by ten foot box. None of them are innocent—each one readily admits to the acts that landed him in jail—but is life secluded in such a small space befitting of their crimes? Dennis questions this on a daily basis; openly acknowledging a robbery in which he inadvertently shot a man, Dennis wonders whether his dwindling sanity, painful solitude, and increasing anger are justification for a years-old act that garnered him a longer sentence than some murderers receive. Randall, who admits to having known nothing but violence growing up, an upbringing that contributed to him committing a brutal and intentional slaying, doesn’t think he can ever fully atone for his horrendous misstep. Yet, life in the cell is miserable, an existence that has pushed him to develop his imagination so that he can wander the sanctuary of his childhood woods from his prison cot.

Should society be content to let men and women whittle their lives away in rooms the size of bathrooms? Do certain crimes justify such punishments? Jacobson wisely refrains from pushing an agenda; instead she lets Randall and the others—and the officers tasked with overseeing them—question the practice. It’s a complicated matter to be sure, but one absolutely worth entering the national discussion.

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