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Alone Inside: Kristi Jacobson on Her Penetrating Documentary about Solitary Confinement, Solitary

Solitary (Photo courtesy of HBO)

Kristi Jacobson was nominated for the Truer than Fiction Spirit Award for her artful and incisive documentary on solitary confinement, Solitary. The film plays this month on HBO, and filmmaker Alix Lambert interviewed Jacobson for our Winter issue.

With Solitary, filmmaker Kristi Jacobson offers her audience an experience both visceral and intimate inside the notorious Red Onion supermax prison in Wise County, Virginia. Jacobson, who spent a year filming at the prison, examines the devastating effects of solitary confinement by introducing us to the men who are incarcerated as well as to the guards and others who work at the prison. With elegantly composed images and careful, eerie use of sound — and without statistics, archival footage and narration — Jacobson and her team build a haunting portrait of a criminal justice system that controls and punishes by enforcing a constant, unyielding, devastating isolation. At the same time, by specifically focusing on this one prison and its administration, she’s able to reveal how thinking around solitary confinement is ever so slowly evolving, one prison at a time.

The Brooklyn-based Jacobson began her feature directing career in 2002 with the Barbara Kopple-produced American Standoff, about the power dynamics around a Teamsters strike. More recently she directed, with Lori Silverbush, the high-profile, Participant-produced doc A Place at the Table, about hunger in America. With Solitary, due to air on HBO this spring, Jacobson — nominated for a 2017 Truer than Fiction Independent Spirit Award — has made a devastating and entirely cinematic work that is all the more valuable for the complicated nuances it finds within a subject other filmmakers might have treated in a purely black-and-white manner. 

I shot my own documentary, Mark of Cain, inside Russian prisons, so I was eager to speak with Jacobson, as it’s rare that I have a chance to sit down and talk with another woman who has spent time filming in such environments. 

I understand that you started this film with only a few days access granted to the prison. How did that access slowly grow, and how much faith did you have that that would even happen? When we began filming inside the prison we discussed a three-day shoot. It’s not like I said, “Could I please come in and film for a year?” I was interested specifically in how they were tackling reform around solitary, or segregation as it’s called in that prison. So, it was three days, and it was, at that time, going to be one story among others in a film that would explore how we in the United States use, or more specifically overuse, solitary confinement in our prisons. Then within a matter of a couple of hours of filming on the first day I recognized that the access was extraordinary, and it was a tremendous opportunity to really understand that place. I began on that day to realize that my goal would be to return again so that I could fully tell the story over [the span of] a year. Every shoot we had to treat potentially as our last shoot, because you never know what might happen. Something could happen in the prison [to make them] decide that they would no longer allow me and my crew access. The head of the Department of Corrections, or the warden, could change. Those people were essential to my access because we had a relationship that was based on trust. 

I’m interested in that relationship. My experience with the prisons in Russia was that everything was kind of immediately, “no.” But then if you were patient … Yes. 

It became “yes.” Whereas here in the United States, I have found the initial reaction to be, “Oh, we’re so glad you’re interested.” But then it goes up the bureaucratic ladder — and becomes no. Well, I agree. I mean, certainly if you call any communications department of any prison in the United States — and specifically of any supermax prison — and say, “Hi, I’m a documentary filmmaker, and I’d like to film inside your prison,” the answer will be no. In fact, when I started making this film there were a handful of journalists who had been, since 1983, doggedly covering this issue of supermax prisons and solitary confinement. That was basically when the first supermax was created. The highest level security prison in Marion, Illinois, was put on lockdown, and that lockdown became the model for the supermax prisons that were [then] built. These supermaxes have been off limits [to journalists and filmmakers]. They have been known as black sites. Red Onion in particular was the subject of a scathing Human Rights Watch report. 

How would you define a supermax prison? It’s essentially Guantanamo — a prison that’s built specifically to hold inmates in their cell for 23 hours a day with no human contact. You’re talking about the architecture of the prison being constructed to prevent a prisoner from having any human contact. Being inside the prison and being able to understand how it works, you can see that there was thought that went into [the construction of] these small windows, for instance. I think it comes through in the film, but that was the one thing that was the hardest to convey. If you’re looking [through] that window to have eye contact with [a prisoner] — you know, if you’re a guard on the outside — you can’t hear them. You can only hear them if you put your ear to the crack between the door and the wall. It’s very confusing. Should I try to hear them but then not see them? Or try and read their lips and barely hear them? 

So how did you gain continuing access, and why do you think they granted it to you? I wound up being introduced to the director of the Department of Corrections, Harold Clark. I began having conversations with him on the phone about what was going on inside that prison, which has this history. It’s notorious for having been built as a supermax and for the hostility between prisoners and guards and the high incidence of violence. There were a couple of Washington Post articles reporting on the conditions inside that prison. Clark had a history of attempting to reform the prisons that he was leading, and he came in to [Red Onion]. Virginia also had a Republican governor, which is important because it’s often hard to make progress on prison reform with a Democratic governor or legislatures because there’s the fear of appearing soft on crime. Whereas this Republican governor was looking at it purely from a public safety perspective. What would seem completely obvious to most people but has not been obvious to most people running American prisons is that if you lock someone in a tiny cage without giving them access to any human contact for months, years, sometimes decades, and release them literally from that cage to the street, they are a threat to the community into which you’re releasing them.

And they are a threat to themselves. Right, but the Republican governor is looking at it from that [public safety] point of view only. So, what ended up happening was a handful of states began to recognize this: Over 90 percent of people in our prisons get released, and it’s now been almost 20 years since we’ve been locking people up like this. They’re going back to the streets, they’re irreparably damaged and they are dangerous to their communities. A handful of states began implementing what are called “step- down programs.” They are different in every state. In Virginia, the primary goal is to reduce the number of people held in what’s called segregation, which is isolation — 22, 23, 24-hour lockdown — and to slowly re-acclimate and re-socialize these individuals so that they can ultimately return to general population — not to society, but just to general population. It’s important to know when you watch the film that this is a prison that is progressive on these issues. I think a lot of people see it and [think otherwise].

That’s what I was getting at — Clark welcomed you into the prison, but most prison officials would not. Yes. He wanted to show [the step-down program]. I think that one of the big factors in the filmmaking, and also in terms of what story was told, was that, at the beginning, nobody actually believed that I didn’t work for the administration. Not the prisoners, not the guards. Then, as I returned more and more times, the prisoners, in their own ways, began to realize that I was truly independent. Because they couldn’t check me out, right? They just had to take me at my word. But the way I kept returning, and the kinds of questions I was asking, I think enabled us to have more trust. Also, I became more interested in something I didn’t realize I would be interested in, which is the experience of working in that prison. Never have I ever delivered a film that was exactly as my first written proposal. 

As you were granted more access, how did your conception of the film you were making change? The more I kept returning to Red Onion, and the more footage I kept coming back with, the more it was evident that we needed to stay in that one place. But that was a decision made well into the editing process and one heavily influenced by conversations and collaborations with my extraordinarily talented editor, Ben Gold, and also, ultimately, with HBO — Sheila Nevins and Nancy Abraham. Our first rough cut had two archival sections, and I remember Sheila saying, “That’s not this film. That’s another film, you’re not trusting your material.” In a way it became a relief for us to literally delete those sections when we got back to the edit and to just go all in. It’s what I wanted to do as a filmmaker and an artist, and I was maybe a little bit afraid to do that.

Doesn’t it amaze you when filmmakers aren’t open to changing their original ideas? Why not make fiction films if you are not open to the story that is there rather than the one that you start off imagining will be there? Totally. My filmmaking approach comes from my formative years working with Barbara Kopple. She’s always said, “You have to be curious and open when making a film, otherwise you shouldn’t be the one making it.” As uncomfortable as this journey became, I felt it was necessary. And it’s important to note that of the hundreds of thousands of people that are in solitary confinement, or some form of isolated confinement, many of them have not committed violent acts inside prison. Many of them are there for completely arbitrary reasons. That’s an important [story], but I felt like if I made a film about [only those prisoners] then we’re talking about a particular injustice. I had a really supportive funder with courage and then, ultimately, a broadcaster with courage [so I could say], “I want to talk to people who have committed violent crimes [so] we’re asking the real question that needs to be asked, which is: Is [solitary confinement] okay in any circumstance in the United States?”

Because you’ve brought it up there are places where I find language becoming quite interesting.  One is when solitary confinement is called “administrative segregation,” which doesn’t make it sound the way that it is. I am interested in general in how the criminal justice system uses language to try and change our thinking about things. When asked, “I would like to speak with you about your use of solitary confinement,” the Virginia Department of Corrections will answer, “We do not have solitary confinement in our prisons.” Most notably, last week, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey vetoed one of the most exciting reform bills around solitary confinement. It would have limited the length of solitary confinement to something like 15 consecutive days and then, I think, 20 over a two-month period. It was going to absolutely forbid [solitary confinement used on] juveniles, pregnant women and LGBTQ people who are seeking protection. It was passed in the state legislature, and he vetoed it, specifically because he said, “The problem referenced in the bill doesn’t exist in our prisons.” But this film is not a comprehensive report on the issue of solitary confinement in the United States. It is a really specific telling of a story. 

That’s where I think its strength lies. Yes. I had made A Place at the Table — which is a film I’m extremely proud of — but it was a film that tackled a really big issue and had a lot of different voices. With this film, as an artist, I was excited to explore the form and not be limited by these overarching goals. This is happening all over the place, but the best way to share that with people was to just be inside this one space and try to immerse people in it the way that I was. 

How did you land on the visual language of the film? [Because] we had such access, we were really in a position to develop our own visual language, to pay attention to frame and the composition of shots. When you’re making documentaries things often happen once — you get it or you didn’t get it. You do your best — or, you’re trying to anticipate what’s going to happen so that you can capture it — but in a prison [like Red Onion] the same rounds happen every 15 minutes, and everyone is locked behind a door all the time. My DP, Nelson Hume, and I went to the prison with the same crew every time partly because of the visual and sound language that we all shared together and collaborated on. I don’t necessarily aspire to make fiction films, but at the same time being on what was essentially a set had its advantages. We were able to get some of those tracking shots, and we didn’t have to call “action” for the guy to walk through and do his rounds because we knew he was coming around. It wasn’t about putting your camera inside a cell and doing a time-lapse — it was about being in the pods, the cells. So, for example, filming the process of the meal delivery was much more revealing in a way — even though we were on the outside, all of our shots of the people on the inside were [of the prisoners] looking out. It was a real opportunity to explore the prison landscape and soundscape.

I also wanted to ask you about the soundscape. The sound recording and design is remarkable. We were capturing the visuals and the audio with equal priority. I brought the same sound recordist from Chicago. His name is John Mathey, he’s extremely talented, and he understands the importance of it. So, all the sounds you hear in the film, in the soundscape, were recorded there. And then working with Todd Griffin, who did our score, it’s a score in that there is music, but it’s also more of the soundscape. The kinds of instruments he used included saw blades and all kinds of interesting things creating dissonant sounds. Also, my editor, Ben Gold, he played an essential role in terms of trying to structure a film that was structureless — in essence, nothing happens. People are in that prison at the beginning of the film, they are in that prison at the end of the film, and you go on a journey. But it’s much more of a psychological, emotional journey than a competition, for example, and so that was challenging. I am just forever in awe of his skill and patience. I think most editors who are talented and experienced will say that so much of editing is about not cutting, and he really embraced that. 

Were there moments in the filming that became tough, or oppressive, for you personally? Or were you able to keep a kind of distance? One of many pretty profound moments that occurred for me and that probably changed me in ways that I will not know or understand was when we were filming inside the cells to get close-ups of the belongings of the men we were filming. Nelson and I were inside the cell, and we wanted to try shooting the door closing. We didn’t use it in the film, but we were both standing inside the cell of one of the guys we were filming when the door closed. I wasn’t trying to do some kind of experiment — like, to see what it feels like. I was being really practical — setting up the camera, getting the shot — but what was most shocking was realizing how limited the perspective [from inside] is. You realize how truly, completely helpless an individual is in that kind of confinement. You can scream and yell, as they do, all day, but you can’t bring someone to you. You can’t walk out and get help. You can’t see beyond — there’s no peripheral [vision]. 

Let’s talk about that because I’ve had that experience as well. I’m claustrophobic anyway, and the door closing — it’s this sense of being buried alive, which gets mentioned in your film. That’s what it feels like. Right. I mean, it’s no wonder that it basically decomposes a person’s brain. 

You also mentioned feeling like you were on a spaceship. I always refer to returning home after a month filming in prisons as re-entering the atmosphere, another outer space word. And “re-entry” is what they call releasing a prisoner. Totally. In prison reform the popular term right now is talking about re-entry. 

Shooting in a prison has an effect on you. I’m curious about the emotional balancing act involved because it’s something I struggle with, of wanting to follow through on what you’re doing and do a good job, but not allowing yourself to be so affected that you are no longer of service to the story. You know what the effect is, but it’s difficult to describe it to someone who hasn’t experienced it. Basically, when you’re inside a prison, you’re inside a place that exists sort of on its own, with rules and language unto itself. And in order to do my job as a filmmaker, I went in and was as vulnerable and open as possible because I thought that was the only way to understand the people there. To not judge either a corrections officer or an individual who might have committed some horrifically violent crimes, to see everyone there as a human being. Then you have to break yourself down as well to some degree. I’ve never found myself on any film before this in such a knot. My stomach was always in a knot. When I was filming it was in a knot, and when I was sleeping in a hotel room at night it was in a knot. When I got home it was in a knot. And I wanted to get it right by everybody and for everybody. That’s a huge task. I came to documentary filmmaking through my original academic studies of the juvenile justice system and its brokenness. 

So what made you think that the way to make people understand these issues is through film? It just was like a light bulb. I was finishing my senior year of undergraduate, and I had spent a year working in the juvenile courthouse in Raleigh, North Carolina, and its brokenness was more than evident. I thought maybe I wanted to become a lawyer and I would defend these kids against the system. But I kept thinking, “How can I make people understand what I now know?” There are certain truths that once you know them you feel compelled to get as many people to understand as possible.

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