Director Kristi Jacobson takes us beyond the barbed wires of Red Onion State Prison, a supermax prison with small bathroom-sized cells, built for prisoners bound to solitary confinement.
The prisoners of Red Onion are confined in their cells 23 hours a day; with one hour outside for necessary exposure to sunlight, but where they still remain caged. Those subjected to this type of segregation are sent from “general population,” or regular prison as we might understand it, for violent behavior or attempted escape. The convict’s transfer is determined by prison officials, not a jury or a judge, and is based on obscure criteria. Jacobson’s access to Red Onion and the lives inside is bafflingly unrestrained and unprecedented: we are offered each detail from the monotonous routine of meal distribution to how individuals cope in an eight-by-ten-foot world.
Solitary is as raw as it is heartbreaking. The 82 minutes feature documentary mainly consists of intimate portraits of the isolated lives in Red Onion. The movie opens with Randall, one of the prisoners, who describes his childhood as having been “born on the wrong side of the tracks.” He was born of violence; to a father who had taught him to fight and win, or threatened him otherwise. Another prisoner, Michael from California, was sentenced over thirty years for two armed robberies. Like Randall, Michael was set up for violence from birth, growing up under a father who was a notorious gangbanger in California. His whole life, all he’s ever wanted was to be like his father. Violence is a plague that passes down from generation to generation. “That’s my America,” Michael says.
The inescapable sense of loneliness in solitary confinement is haunting, even for the viewer. To Randall, it’s akin to physical pain, “it hurts like hell,” he says. Jacobson’s ability to make the audience understand our most fundamental, common denominator is astonishing: the denominator is the simple fact that we are all human. She portrays both prisoners and correction officers as like any of us, social beings who reflect and store up emotions. The documentary is a human take on a rather inhumane system—hate the sin, love the sinner, the documentary seems to tell us.
The doc premiered on HBO.