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. A revealing examination of the uses and effects of solitary confinement, and the people caught in the complex American penal system, the film debuts MONDAY FEB. 6 (10:00-11:30 p.m. ET/PT), exclusively on HBO.
The documentary will also be available on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and affiliate portals.
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. The recently initiated “Step-Down Program” has allowed more than 350 inmates a chance to return to the general population. But all too often, after months of solitary isolation, prisoners are ill-equipped to deal with the stresses of being a part of the regular prison population – let alone life on the outside.
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 in a community with few employment opportunities.
“Solitary: Inside Red Onion State Prison” captures the chilling sounds and haunting atmosphere of daily life at Red Onion, focusing on the effect of loneliness and isolation on the prisoners’ mental health. Inmate Michael says, “If you don’t feel like you’re relevant to nobody in that cell, then it will make you just want to lose your damn mind. You know, just go crazy.”
Some inmates use exercise to help them cope, or obsessively clean their cells. Banal routines such as getting mail or being fed become extremely important to their sanity, particularly as the rules seem to change constantly. With good behavior, the prisoners featured can earn the opportunity to work outside their cells twice a week, which gives them a rare chance to socialize. Otherwise, they rely on air vents in their cells to communicate with other prisoners.
When Red Onion opened, it offered job opportunities at a time when many coal mines, once the primary source of employment in the area, were shutting down. Corrections officers and other staff talk about how the stresses of the job can be hard to shake at home. Notes one, Jordan, “Some days your stress level can be out the roof. And it feels like you’re doing time, because you have to come back and do it the next morning.” Daniel, another officer, says that working here “will definitely make you tougher. Some days it feels like the day’s just not going to end.”
The film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2016 and was nominated for a Truer Than Fiction Award at the 2017 Independent Spirit Awards.
“Solitary: Inside Red Onion State Prison” was directed and produced by Kristi Jacobson; executive producer, David Menschel; producers, Katie Mitchell, Julie Goldman; editor, Ben Gold; director of photography, Nelson Hume; original music, T. Griffin. For HBO: senior producer, Nancy Abraham; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.