'Solitary': Tribeca Review

Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival
An even-handed jail doc that leaves conclusion-drawing to viewers.

Kristi Jacobson takes us into a Virginia Supermax prison.

Less the polemic one expects than an act of wide-ranging compassion, Kristi Jacobson's Solitary leaves crime-and-punishment statistics aside and takes us into a single Supermax prison in Virginia. There she meets both corrections officers and those they guard: men condemned to spend years (in some cases, the rest of their lives) in solitary confinement. A draw-your-own-conclusions study in what this policy does to prisoners and guardians alike, the doc adds to national debates over how to handle America's felons; though not as showy as some HBO docs, it is a worthy addition to the cabler's roster.

We begin with Randall, a polite thirtysomething who in a feature would be played by Giovanni Ribisi. Offering a matter-of-fact account of a childhood dominated by poverty and violence, he is immediately sympathetic, and believable when he describes the extreme pain of being locked for 23 hours a day alone in a small cell. Jacobson takes long enough getting to the reasons for his incarceration that we come to identify with him, especially in a long narrative where we understand his actions right up until one horrific eruption.

"Am I being punished enough?," he asks, after acknowledging all his crime's tragic ramifications. "In my opinion, no, not even close. But segregation isn't working."

While an outsider might imagine that having one's own cell would be preferable to sharing with an inmate who has committed shockingly violent crimes, the prisoners here vehemently disagree. Such segregation changes the way you think, they say, and Jacobson shows how prisons like this one have started trying to counter this effect, putting those who've spent long periods in solitary through step-down programs to prepare them to be released back to a prison's general population. It doesn't always work, and some of these men are going to die here.

The doc has sympathy left over for the locals who once might have worked in coal mines or sawmills but now guard "the worst-behaving offenders in the state." We watch wardens make the rounds, standing at slender windows to hear the complaints of each prisoner, lest brewing trouble take them by surprise. Officers admit that their time here bleeds into their civilian lives, that they look at their neighbors differently or have difficulty being relaxed in a crowd.

At no point does Jacobson suggest these prisoners should be set free, that they're not responsible for their actions, that society made them what they are. But it's hard to watch Solitary and come away believing this system does anyone any good.

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Viewpoints)
Distributor: HBO Documentary Films
Production companies: Catalyst Films, Motto Pictures
Director: Kristi Jacobson
Producers: Julie Goldman, Kristi Jacobson, Katie Mitchell, Nancy Abraham
Executive producers: David Menschel, Sheila Nevins
Director of photography: Nelson Hume
Editor: Ben Gold
Composer: T. Griffin

Not rated, 81 minutes