Overview: Located on an Appalachian mountaintop in Wise County, Va., Red Onion State Prison is a “supermax” facility built to house individual inmates in 8’x10’ solitary-confinement cells, 23 hours a day, for months, years and sometimes decades. Directed by Kristi Jacobson, Solitary: Inside Red Onion State Prison explores life on both sides of the bars, raising provocative questions about punishment in America today.
Drawing on unprecedented, unrestricted access, Solitary: Inside Red Onion State Prison was filmed over the course of one year, chronicling a new reform program intended to reduce the number of solitary confinement inmates. This unflinching, immersive documentary features intimate interviews with several inmates who reflect on their violent childhoods, open up about the dangers of prison life and articulate their struggles to maintain sanity in the unrelenting monotony and isolation of confinement. Interwoven with these stories are observations of corrections officers, who describe the toll their stressful jobs can take.
Expectations: Yeah, we’ve seen prison life depicted many times. How about HBO’s series OZ and the more recent THE NIGHT OF as examples. But nothing beats going inside the system for real. I think many are intrigued with these kinds of in-depth looks because it allows us into the truths of a place we never really want to be in. It is the same as gawking at an accident scene or watching a scary movie; we are compelled to look out from the safety of our own secure spots. This documentary holds that same interest for me. Only upon watching it will I know how well it captivates me. The trailer sets the mood:
Gut Reaction: This documentary really plays differently from how you’d think it would. That is okay because it gives a fresh approach then to depicting prison life. Part of what helps set the mood is the soundtrack and tone of the piece which is set right from the opening frame. We are offered a serene, quiet wooded space, as this prison is set in the wooded backcountry. And when we get inside Red Onion it is almost as serene. The normal prison scene is inmates in mass in the common area playing, cards, watching TV and abuzz with talk. That is not the case at Red Onion most of the time; all you hear is muffled voices behind thick-walled cells and muted pounding on the cell doors. It is quiet and dare I say, serene. Who would have thought this was a supermax prison.
But that is just one side of the place. It can be like that but, at other times it is just as violent and crazed as a general population prison. We are quickly welcomed to the routine of life in solitary and introduced to inmates residing there. They were probably delighted to have a film crew to break up the ritual of their mundane existence. A clear picture is drawn about the struggle of life in Red Onion. Even for their interviews, they are heavily shackled.
The second half of the documentary changes the tone and the place becomes nosier and busier than what we’ve been shown up to that point. We see that the common area does indeed open up to activity assuming inmates have earned the privilege of sitting out there, (still shackled). They ern the right to do menial labor out there. This portion of the film also shows us the insanity and depression that can enter their minds with the constant irritations that magnify within the walls. Some inmates even state that the solitary confinement makes them worse; they sit and stew in their frustration and anger. Others talk about how they let their minds take them away from it all and with that we end back out into the surrounding woods before the film fades to black.
In Conclusion: This proves to be interesting enough. There is nothing startling about it. It just offers a fresh take on the subject. You can see it as a starting place to debate the issue of solitary confinement if you choose, of course, depending on your views on corporal punishment and the prison system. Certainly, the website link to SOLITARY: INSIDE RED ONION STATE PRISON entertains such thoughts. I just saw it as a look into the supermax prison system. Watch it for yourself and decide where you stand.
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