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. 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.
The film 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.