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 ...

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