There’s nothing explicitly Christian about Kristi Jacobson‘s important new documentary Solitary: Inside Red Onion State Prison—yet God still manages to make a few cameo appearances. For those who know how to spot them, they offer the only hope to be found in this otherwise bleak and unsettling film, which premiered for broadcast on HBO in February.
In this latest outing, Jacobson, best known for her provocative work on the 2012 domestic hunger exposé A Place at the Table, takes viewers on an unprecedented journey into one of America’s most notorious “supermax” prisons for an artfully realistic and surprisingly intimate glimpse at what it’s like to endure solitary confinement in a modern segregation complex. It’s a disquieting experience that may help Christians better appreciate those familiar words God first spoke over Adam in the in the primeval garden of life: “It is not good that man should be alone.”
Some readers may be surprised to learn that the practice of solitary confinement actually owes its origins to a distinctly Christian penology—a philosophy of punishment in which the aim wasn’t merely to harm in kind, but to save and rehabilitate the offender. In the early 1800s, when Quakers and Anglicans first explored the idea of building a penitentiary, they imagined that separation and enforced silence would stimulate contemplative self-reflection, leading to sincere remorse and genuine repentance.
What they learned, however, is that prolonged seclusion more frequently drove offenders mad. Laudable as their intentions were, these innovators failed to account for the soul-withering consequences of long-term isolation on creatures fashioned of a triune, fundamentally communal God. It seems that offenders may occasionally benefit from brief seasons of contemplative solitude, but punishing them with long-term segregation is wholly counterproductive—unless, of course, the goal is to destroy rather than to reform.
After watching Solitary, it’s hard to imagine that much of the latter takes place at institutions like Red Onion. At this remote Virginia institution, most inmates spend 23 hours a day confined to cells about the size of a standard parking space—for months, years, even decades at a time. They eat, sleep, and relieve themselves in this tiny space, which they’re only permitted to leave a few times each week for showers and for very limited recreation. Whenever they move about the facility, they’re handcuffed and shackled, firmly escorted by a pair of officers in protective vests and closely supervised by an armed guard in an overhead control booth. Everything—literally everything—is rigidly controlled, with minimal opportunity for human contact and virtually no exposure to the outside world. As one inmate describes it, “In that cell by yourself, it’s like you’re not in prison. … You’re just away from life.”
Jacobson spent some time in one of these cells during filming. She commented about the experience in an interview with NPR:
When you’re in there looking out…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.
In various ways, the inmates Jacobson profiles throughout the film evince this mind-warping response to radical solitude. The healthiest walk around in circles listening to their headphones, exercise for hours on end to wear themselves out, sing songs at the top of their lungs to keep the suicidal thoughts at bay, or engage in compulsive cleaning rituals in a feeble attempt to “fill and subdue” their tiny worlds. Some have been placed on psychiatric medications in the years since their admission to segregation, while others have already succumbed to serious psychiatric disorders.