Kristi Jacobson was a Duke student interning at North Carolina’s juvenile court system when she had what she refers to as “an epiphany.” She was suppoed to write a paper about her experience, but “realized I was driven to bring this story to life in the most powerful way, and that’s what film does.”
Jacobson had absolutely no filmmaking experience. But after graduating from Duke with a degree in sociology she moved to New York and got an internship with a film production company. Then she nabbed an associate producer gig with two-time Oscar winner Barbara Kopple (“Harlan County U.S.A.”), who taught her that the key to being a successful documentary filmmaker meant learning to “listen, observe, and allow yourself to find the story. Connect with people – whether with the crew, or the people I’m filming or pitching.”
Since then, Jacobson has made films about hunger in America, the role of unions in contemporary times and the story of her grandfather, legendary New York saloonkeeper Toots Shor. Five years ago she read an article in the New Yorker about solitary confinement that piqued her interest because “it was incredibly descriptive, and there was something visual and cinematic about the piece. This appeared to be a human rights issue, and I felt I had to bring this to the attention of the American people.”
Following a year of research that involved talking to journalists, prison rights advocates and people once locked up in solitary, Jacobson learned there were a “handful of states that realized locking people up without human contact and then releasing them into society is a bad idea.” One of those states was Virginia, which, after she was vetted by the state’s head of corrections and Secretary of Public Safety, gave Jacobson permission to shoot at the Red Onion State Prison in Wise County.
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“What was approved was a three-day shoot, and while unprecedented, once we were on the ground, and the warden and the staff were as welcoming as they were, that became an ongoing relationship,” says Jacobson, who eventually shot for over 20 days at the facility.
The result is “Solitary” which airs Monday, Feb. 6, on HBO.
“Solitary,” which features interviews with prisoners, prison administrators and guards, shows what it’s like to be shut up for 23 hours a day in an eight by 10 foot cell, the only window facing the cell block, the lights on 24/7 – sometimes for years at a time. When you are allowed out for one hour a day to exercise in a barbed wire cage, you are first strip searched. You’re not allowed to talk to the guards or fellow prisoners. And all your meals are served through a slot in your cell door.
Many of the prisoners shown in the film have committed horrible crimes, but some are in solitary for extended periods simply for disobeying a guard’s order. Several describe their experience as being buried alive, and say they “feel this rage that builds and builds,” to the point where they express extreme anger and frustration for small things like not having any salt on their food tray.
Solitary confinement is expensive – single-cell prisons and enhanced security cost more than regular facilities – but more than anything, research has shown that extended stays in solitary can cause severe psychological damage. And many of these damaged people will eventually be released and dumped out on the streets.
“I don’t think solitary as it currently exists, the lack of any human contact of any sort, is necessary in any case,” says Jacobson. “This is the United States. We have a Constitution, we condemn the abuse of human rights elsewhere, and just because you’ve committed a crime you have not given up your rights as a human being.”
Jacobson isn’t always attracted to projects involving social justice. Her next film, currently in post-production, is about “two environmentalist renegades” who founded the Billion Oyster Project, which aims to reintroduce oyster reefs into New York Harbor, once one of the most biologically diverse environments on the planet. But talking to her it’s obvious that issues involving the downtrodden are closest to her heart.
“I’ve been committed to social justice and equality and a world in which people are treated fairly,” she says. “The experience of making this film and connecting with these guys, as well as the men and women who work in the prison, made me hungry for fairness, more driven to have an impact in the world so people can find the same connection I found in there. We do share humanity, and everyone wants to be touched, laugh and feel.”
WHAT: “Solitary,” director Kristi Jacobson’s documentary about solitary confinement in American prisons.
WHERE: HBO and HBO Go
WHEN: Debuts at 10 p.m., Monday, Feb. 6, and will be repeated throughout the month.
MORE INFO: www.candescentfilms.com/solitary/