MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We have one more conversation about the prison system with a look at a new film about solitary confinement. As we just talked about, prisons are closed off from the outside world. That’s just one reason the access granted to director Kristi Jacobson for her documentary was so extraordinary. Jacobson and her team made multiple visits over the course of a year to the Red Onion State Prison in West County, Va. That’s a maximum-security prison that is said to house the most violent prisoners in Virginia, where inmates spend 23 hours a day locked in a small cell alone. Now, tens of thousands of Americans are being held in solitary confinement, sometimes for years.
But lately, advocates, medical professionals and even prison officials are beginning to reconsider the effects of this extreme isolation on human beings. And Kristi Jacobson joins us now from our NPR studios in New York City. Kristi, welcome.
KRISTI JACOBSON: Thank you so much for having me.
MARTIN: Well, first of all, why were you particularly interested in Red Onion State Prison?
JACOBSON: There are a handful of notorious Supermax prisons of which Red Onion State Prison is one. It was built in the late 1990s along with a handful of other Supermax prisons. And it was built and designed specifically to hold prisoners in 23, 24-hour isolation. And at that time, when I was doing this research, the Virginia Department of Corrections had recently begun implementing a reform program in an effort to start to reduce the numbers of inmates that were held in isolation. So I essentially – I think I reached out to the right person with the right ask, which was genuinely – what’s going on? What are you doing? Why are you doing it? I’d like to know more.
MARTIN: So let’s talk about the effect of solitary confinement on prisoners and particularly their mental state. But first let’s listen to what they had to say. This is from your film “Solitary.”
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “SOLITARY”)
MICHAEL: If you just sit and just listen to all the different cells, you will hear a thousand arguments all day, every day just about nothing. It’s an anger and a frustration everybody feels inside themselves. You have this rage that just builds and builds and builds and builds and builds. And little things would just make you go crazy.
MARTIN: That was Michael, who was one of the inmates at Red Onion State Prison that you interviewed. Can you just help us understand how being in solitary could have that effect on a person?
JACOBSON: I think the main thing to understand is in addition to the isolation, the being alone inside of a cell, is the voicelessness and the helplessness that you feel behind that door. During filming, I was inside of a cell at one point. We asked for the door to be closed. And I realized then that when you’re in there looking out, you know, you have such limited sight. I mean, nobody can hear you, and you can only see so much. And so in that world, in that cell, by yourself, you can essentially lose grasp on what’s real, what’s not. Are you hearing voices? Are you not? And every little promise, every little aspect of your routine becomes really important.
MARTIN: Why are these people in this place to begin with?
JACOBSON: Many of the men in my film have committed violent acts inside the prison system and therefore presented a threat to either other prisoners or the staff. And – so Dennis, for example, 17 years ago tried to slit the warden’s throat. Lars tried to escape. Michael got in a fight. Randall had some, you know, violent attacks on other inmates. But I want to point out that across the country, people who are in solitary confinement or segregation units are often people who are simply just not able to follow the rules. So these men that are in the film had particularly interesting stories that I felt were important to tell, especially because if we’re looking at these men and asking the question of is this OK, I think we’re asking the tougher question.
MARTIN: Well, also, the thing about this film that I think is important for people to understand is that you talked to everybody in the facility. And not just the prisoners, but also – who you have to assume craved the human contact. I mean, they craved the opportunity to talk with somebody.
MARTIN: But you also talked to the officers who work there. Now, let me just play a short clip from one of those conversations.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “SOLITARY”)
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #1: The hard part for some staff is because they’re on such great alert 12 hours a day and there’s the potential for violence, when you go home and it’s time to relax, sometimes it’s hard to let your mind…
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #2: Yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #1: …Relax because you’re still…
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #2: Definitely.
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #1: …On guard.
MARTIN: Do you think all corrections officers feel that way?
JACOBSON: I think that corrections officers – they are spending time in a violent environment at which they do have to be on guard. But in a Supermax, the experience is so different in that there’s just so much yelling and so much pain that I can’t imagine how you would be able to allow yourself to connect with those individuals and yet return each day, you know, on the outside while they’re locked up on the inside in that cell. And it seemed to me as important for them to have a voice and to convey what the impact of working in that environment can have on an individual, which is severe.
MARTIN: What is it exactly that advocates object to about this environment? Because I think a lot of people listening to this conversation might say, look, I certainly wouldn’t want to be in an 8-by-10 cell. I mean, really the size of…
JACOBSON: A parking spot.
MARTIN: Yeah, a parking spot for 23 hours a day. But these people have demonstrated that they’re violent. So what should people do about that? I mean, what would you say to them?
JACOBSON: A small percentage of people inside the U.S. prison system, you know, pose a significant violent threat. And no one is suggesting that they shouldn’t be, perhaps, separated from a general population environment. But the lack of humanity that’s built into this place and built into the procedures is something that has an effect that literally forces people to descend into madness. The media will push, you know, these are monsters, these are the worst of the worst, and, you know, the people in our prisons deserve to be in our prisons and what happens to them doesn’t matter.
But it does matter because Randall, who you meet in the film, who tells us the story of his life beginning with his childhood being abused by his father, being thrown into foster care being, thrown into juvie, learning nothing but violence was set on this path. And while he takes responsibility and accountability for his violent actions and the crimes that he committed, I think that we also need to take some responsibility about what’s happening inside of our prisons and also what’s happening to fill our prisons.
MARTIN: That was Kristi Jacobson joining us from our studios in New York City. Her documentary “Solitary” premieres on HBO tomorrow. Kristi Jacobson, thanks so much for speaking with us.
JACOBSON: Thank you so much. It was a real pleasure. Thanks.
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