On Shooting Inside a Supermax Facility, the Documentary Power of Sound Design, and Our Fascination with Prison Culture

“Immersive” is the one word every reviewer seems to use to describe Kristi Jacobson’s documentary Solitary. Airing on HBO beginning tonight, her film was shot in Red Onion State Prison, a supermax facility in Wise County, Virginia, that contains many prisoners in solitary confinement. Using careful sound design and ice-cold cinematography, Jacobson manages to convey the uniquely oppressive feel of such places, especially for those who are trapped in  a cage for 23 hours. Solitary doesn’t gloss over the crimes of the men Jacobson profiles but, without preaching, it argues a powerful case against the practice of solitary confinement and other aspects of America’s prison system. 

StudioDaily: Did you feel much empathy with the prison staff?

Kristi Jacobson: I did. I think I went into the prison expecting to feel empathy with the prisoners and not really knowing how I might know about the staff. After spending a few hours with both the staff and prisoners, I began to connect and understand what each of those groups was experiencing. I still don’t think I have a full handle on their experiences. For myself, the prisoners could articulate in pretty visceral ways what they were going through. As someone who could leave and have dinner and go back to my hotel room of my own volition. it put me in a position that was different from the prisoners. But the way the place impacted me on subsequent visits made me understand what it might be like to work in or run a prison like that.

It seems like there’s a cultural fascination with prison. You can see it from Orange Is the New Black to a lot of cheesy reality shows to documentaries being made all over the world like Starless Dreams and The Prison In Twelve Landscapes. Why do you think this has suddenly occurred? 

Well, one thing behind the fascination with prisons is that it affects almost all of us in one way or another. In some communities, it’s hard to find someone who hasn’t been touched by the prison system. It’s just reached a tipping point. The way we lock people up and what happens to them after they get out is something we can no longer ignore.

There’s a line from a Funkadelic song that I quite like: “if you don’t like the effect, don’t produce the cause.” Why do you think there’s such reluctance to establish mental health treatment that could prevent people from ending up in prison in the first place?

I love the quote. It can be applied in so many different ways. You mentioned the fascination with prisons, but the media, from the ‘80s to the present, has played a real role in creating a fear of criminals and in dehumanizing them. One of the goals of my film was to move towards undoing that and establishing that they are human beings. We need to look at the mentally ill as humans who need help. We’ve had a big problem treating the more vulnerable among us. We need a big shift towards doing that effectively. If we don’t want our prisons filled with people who are posing a bigger risk once they leave and re-enter our communities, we need to follow that quote and look at the cause well before people enter the criminal justice system.


I’m really worried that the tentative steps the country has made towards ending the War on Drugs will get reversed under the current administration.

I’m not an expert on criminal reform. Hopefully, I’m an expert storyteller. I’ve spent a great amount of time imagining how the film could push towards what seemed to be a steady progress towards reform. What happens in the White House and federal government is important, obviously.  But state prisons are run by state governments, so there still is the potential for reform to keep moving despite what the nation’s leadership is declaring. But I share some fear with you as well.

How did you settle on Red Onion?

When I began researching to make this film, I started talking to people, including people who’d been in solitary confinement and supermax prisons, as well as people who’d been advocating on this idea and journalists who’d been covering it. All of them reminded me that getting inside a supermax would be impossible. At the same time, I started learning about a couple of states that had started to move towards reform and recognizing they were locking up too many people under these conditions. So Virginia, where Red Onion state prison exists, is one of those states. I began a series of conversations with their head of corrections about what they call “ segregation” and what they were doing to reduce their reliance on it. He was open. That’s how I was able to work there.

Was it hard to capture the level of noise in the prison?

Yes. One of the advantages of the cinematic form is that sound plays a big role in the audience’s experience. The sounds there were unlike any I’d ever heard, and I’ve been in a lot of prisons. I wanted the film to bring the audience as close to the experience of being inside that place as was possible. So I worked with a really talented sound recordist [John Mathie] on location and a very talented sound mixer and editor [Tom Paul] in post-production. I think it’s close. If you watch the film in a theater, you get some sense of the relentlessness of what the noise feels like.

What kind of camera did you use? Did you use the same one for the entire film?

A Canon C300. We used the same camera throughout, with a variety of lenses.


Did the prisoners trust you at first? 

I wouldn’t say it was easy to gain the trust of anyone at the prison. It didn’t come immediately. Once the prisoners saw my independence from the Department of Corrections and realized that a)this was an opportunity to have a conversation with someone face to face and in person and  b)to tell their story, the trust developed. 

How did HBO get involved in airing the film?

When I was about two-thirds completed with production, we shared a sample with some potential funders. Nancy Abraham at HBO saw that, and we began conversations. It was really important for me to partner with a distributor or broadcaster who understood that these characters were the most important ones to feature in the film. They weren’t going to come to me and say “We need characters who are sympathetic or innocent.” That’s the tendency of some broadcasters. Nancy and Sheila Nevins said “We get it, we want to help you do it better, and we want to broadcast it.”

Did you find yourself having to decompress after each day’s shoot?

Yes. After each day, the crew made sure to look out for one another, so that we could talk about anything we saw or heard that day which might have made us feel uncomfortable or just feel things we weren’t used to feeling. We would spend some time in the van talking and having a meal, getting ready for the next day. They call it “re-entry” when a prisoner is released back into society, and we almost had our own mini-re-entry every day of filming.

Did you feel protected by the fact that you were behind a camera?

I don’t think the camera created any security. It changed the power dynamic for everyone. There was now this third party who was listening and recoding and curious. But it didn’t make me feel any more or less safe or protected.

How did you start thinking about visual style, such as the emphasis on the whiteness of the prison walls? Was that a product of the environment?

Our visual style and cinematic approach was very much in response to our experience of the place. My D.P., Nelson Hume, is an extraordinary collaborator with a great visual sense. He shot every frame, unless it was done by my second unit cameraman. Those two men were always in the prison with me. The same crew was always there. As we understood the role that architecture and repetition played in people’s lives, we wanted to visually capture that.


As your film has planned in film festivals, have you gotten any particularly negative responses from law-and-order types?

We’ve screened the film in festivals and also in grass-roots settings to a range of audiences that have included people working in corrections. Primarily, people have responded positively and appreciated the choice of characters, particularly the fact that these guys have done some things that are worth talking about. People working in corrections have appreciated that it reveals some of the challenges of working in that environment. There was one screening where an audience member expressed anger at giving these men an opportunity to talk. He felt they should accept the consequences of their actions.

I’ve read about people, particularly white supremacist gang leaders, who’ve managed to order murders while in solitary confinement. What do you think should be done about them?

It’s interesting. I was at a panel discussion a few weeks ago with Robert Hood, who was once the warden of the ADX supermax, and another guy who had run several supermax prisons. At ADX, you have some of the most notorious, dangerous criminals, men like you’ve just described. It’s an environment that absolutely prohibits any contact for them to have with the outside world. This warden was their only contact. He talked about the importance of seeing them every single day and having a conversation every single day. He didn’t want to think about what they did, but the fact they’re a human being. I thought that was poignant, especially coming from a guy who has the reputation, as you said, of being a law-and-order guy. There are incredibly challenging situations. There are people who pose a threat. But I think that creating a physical space that eliminates human contact and leads to an “us vs. them” mentality just makes things worse for everyone. We need to see how we can prevent those individuals from inflicting any more pain or harm on anyone without inflicting any pain or harm on them, courtesy the government. I think there are ways to do this.