The first thing you notice about Red Onion State Prison in Virginia is the noise: the low boom of fists banging on metal doors as prisoners scream and bellow like wounded animals. These prisoners are in solitary confinement, forced to spend 23 hours a day in an 8’ by 10’ cell. In prisons, solitary is known as “segregation” – and it’s notable that many of those in solitary are African-American – but “dehumanisation” would be a more appropriate word.

The scope of the access that director Kristi Jacobson has been given for Solitary is incredible. Her camera invites us to push our noses against plexiglass windows as inmates read, sleep and pace the floor. But it’s the inmates themselves, and their contradictions, who are most fascinating.

Take Randall, currently serving 1,200 years and permanently confined to solitary following an escape attempt. The way he talks about retreating into memories of nature is strikingly poetic, but it’s hard to forget that half an hour earlier he was describing, in graphic detail, slitting a fellow prisoner’s throat from ear to ear. Making us see these people as human without forgetting the gravity of their crimes is a delicate balancing act, and Jacobson handles it with aplomb.

Less nuanced is her presentation of the prison guards. The desire to at least try and present them simply as people doing a job rather than villains is admirable, but when they openly admit to enjoying the rush of fighting in cells it’s hard to feel sympathetic.

There’s considerable anger behind Solitary, and in an ideal world it would become the major catalyst for reforming a broken prison system, the way Blackfish sparked awareness of animal cruelty. Sadly, one suspects that many audiences will care more for the plight of killer whales than their fellow human beings.

RATING: 4/5


INFORMATION

DIRECTOR: Kristi Jacobson

SYNOPSIS: Prisoners in solitary confinement are relegated there for disruptive or violent behaviour while serving time within the normal prison population. Given unprecedented access to a supermax facility in Virginia, director Kristi Jacobson builds close, trusting relationships with a handful of inmates. The result is a sympathetic observation of their repetitive day-to-day lives and achingly eloquent accounts of isolation presented in their own words.