“Solitary,” the eye-opening documentary from HBO hosted a panel to discuss the shortcomings of the US prison system, the suffering it’s caused millions and what can be done to stop it.
The Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution states that “cruel and unusual punishments [shall not be] inflicted.” And yet, that is exactly what we are seeing all across America. From the bayous of Louisiana to the forests of New England, prisoners and advocates for prison reform across this country have routinely expressed their concern for the conditions and practices of US penitentiaries. Whether it is a low-level county jail or a supermax prison like “Solitary”‘s Red Onion, prisoners have little to no rights left after they walk past those iron gates.
To create a more impactful impression among the public, Kristi Jacobson decided to take a closer look at one of America’s most brutal prisons in her insightful documentary ‘Solitary.’ Working tirelessly for years to bring us a closer look at the heart-wrenching environment that prisoners suffer, Jacobson has painted a vivid image of the madness that so many prisoners endure during their decades-long sentences in their 23 hour-a-day 8’x10′ enclosures.
In preparation for “Solitary’s” February 6 premiere, HBO hosted a panel moderated by actor/activist Malik Yoba with director Kristi Jacobson, Glenn E. Martin from Just Leadership USA and the Project Manager for Sentencing and Correction at the Bureau Institute of Justice Sarah Sullivan.
Virginia Department of Corrections’ Rebuttal
Kristi Jacobson’s film is anything but a nice view into the world of the Virginia Department of Corrections. In fact, it does almost everything but say it is a complete failure of a system. But the film’s narrative, pacing and emotional breadth lets you imagine just how bad it can be in those cramped cells.
“Have [the people who have given you the access] seen the film?” probed Yoba. “Yes, I think the Department of Corrections would have liked to have seen more emphasis on the Step-Down program in the finished film but I think there is an understanding that the film captures the experience” Replied Jacobson, who clearly didn’t want to rile any more feathers than she already did with the scathing documentary. “Didn’t they make their own film?” asked Martin. “The ‘we’re-not-that-bad film'” interjected Yoba. Someone from the audience sarcastically added, “The alternate-facts-film” to much laughter.
It’s Happening in Your Backyard
When watching a film like “Solitary,” one cannot help but pick up on the Appalachian accents, culture and quality of the film. It leads one to imagine that this cannot possibly be happening in progressive states like California, Massachusetts or New York. But the sad fact is that it is happening.
Glenn E. Martin–who served six years in federal prison and now advocates for prison reform–sombered the room up. “To be clear folks, this exists just twelve miles from here at Riker’s Island. We own it. We pay for it [with] our taxes. We allow it to exist. Our progressive mayor allows it to exist,” said the reformist.
But what perhaps troubled Martin the most was the country’s lack of empathy for these individuals. “How did we get here? How did we as a society, with all its values that we articulate as Americans and as New Yorkers come to this point?” posited the panelist. And it seemed the solemn audience was dumbfounded by that question just as much as is during his daily crusade.
Where To Begin the Reform
It appears that what is perhaps most troubling is the fact that few people can understand the plight of the convict. Once free, there is a blemish that is forever stained upon one’s record. Jobs are harder to find and keep. Housing is always difficult to come by. Relationships are hurt by the culture surrounding ex-convicts. Society has no clear goal of rehabilitating these individuals.
And as “Solitary” points out, some of these individuals have no contact with people and are kept in a cage for 23 hours a day, leading to extreme social issues and mental agitation. In that regard, it seems that prisons are in the system of stifling convalescence. They drag these people down to the abyss and then tie a cinder block to their leg, hoping that they will somehow escape to the surface. And to people like Sarah Sullivan this has to stop sooner rather than later.
“There is a need to reform this practice [of solitary confinement],” bluntly stated Sullivan. She went on to explain that “this has become a practice that has grown over the past couple of decades and now become the go-to response for all types of behavior in prisons and jails.”
Perhaps the most troubling is the kind of behavior that will lead to segregation. “The reality is is that there are a lot of people who go to segregation for non-violent, low-level violations like smoking, not following a direct order, having too much from the commissary,” revealed Sullivan. “And in a lot of systems we work with, more people go will go in for those reasons than for the types of behaviors that you saw in the film,” added Sullivan.
There is a long road ahead to changing the increasingly privatized federal prison system. But it’s uplifting to see individuals like Martin, Sullivan and Jacobson step up. They’re doing everything they can to change what seems to be in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Hopefully that change will before these poor souls are subjected to more cruel and unusual punishment.
Check the documentary out for yourself on HBO February 6.