Kristi Jacobson discusses solitary confinement and our current prison system

Kristi Jacobson discusses solitary confinement and our current prison system

Kristi Jacobson sat down with GOOD DOCS to discuss her inspirations and what led to the making of SOLITARY, her important film that grants unprecedented access into a supermax prison.   


Before we get into the film, let’s start with a broader question: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
I studied sociology—specifically criminology—in college. I was exposed to the juvenile justice system through an internship, saw its brokenness, and was driven to expose that in the most powerful way possible. You know, it may sound cliché, but somehow I had this epiphany where I realized that film is a really powerful way to shine a light on the untold stories and the stories that are human at their center. So that was it.

Is there a common thread connecting the stories you’re attracted to telling?
Yes, the common thread is our shared humanity despite differences.

What did your experience inside a supermax prison—a place that very few outsiders ever see for themselves—teach you about our justice system and the prisoner's experience?
First of all, you mentioned that I spent time filming inside of a place that very few people have access to, and I took that responsibility to heart. I was aware that very few people get inside of places like this—let alone with a camera—to capture these experiences, so I felt an obligation to try and capture the experience of both being locked up inside that prison and to work, and be present, everyday, even with the opportunity to go home, inside of a place like that. So I think what I learned goes back to the common thread: that the things that we share far exceed the differences between us. And so I learned that about humanity, and our perceptions about who’s locked up and who works in prisons. I also learned, quite powerfully, how ineffective and broken our criminal justice and prison correction systems are, and that when the focus of these systems is on punishment, the end result is bad for everybody.

I imagine many people are never in the same room as serious criminals, let alone receive the sort of intensely personal access you did for Solitary. Can you describe your experience speaking one-on-one, feet away from murderers and other serious offenders? Were those crimes always in your mind, or was it eventually like speaking with any other subject?
The crimes that these men committed and/or violent acts that some of them participated in were not at the forefront of my mind during these interviews at all. In fact, in some cases I didn’t know what the crimes were that were committed, either inside the prison or outside, that got them sentenced until we were well into the interview. And that was really important to me. It was really important to me to meet people in this context and get to know them as people, partly because when you meet someone at a work thing or at a friend’s BBQ, you don’t go up and say, “Can you tell me what the worst thing is that you’ve ever done? Because I’m just going to judge you by that, starting now.” And that’s effectively saying: “Hey, why are you here?”—as in, why are you in this prison? I really didn’t want to do that.

In the context of the film, it was important for audiences to ultimately find out what these men had done. I’m not suggesting they shouldn’t be held accountable, but I also wanted to look at them as humans first. Going back to my original drive to make films, which is through sociology, I’m interested in systems—that also I think have some culpability. So, like, in the case of Randall, his story, for me, is a reflection of so much of what’s wrong about America, in terms of this kid who was just never given a chance. Many of their stories reveal both what’s wrong in America as well as decisions they made in their personal lives.

As a documentarian, it’s essential to develop authentic connections with your subjects. But consciously or not, I’d say most “good citizens” draw a mental line that divides them from criminals, to the point that it becomes a situation of “us” and “them”. With that in mind, how do you foster that connection with supermax prisoners?
I think by going inside and just interacting with the men in this prison like I would anyone else—and that truly was where I was coming from. Like, “Who are you? This is who I am, and I want to understand. You are experiencing something that is so impossible for most people to understand.”And for them, I’m coming from, and going back to, a world that’s so far removed from their experience, so the best way for us to connect is by just talking about a number of things and for me to be curious, and to listen. I wasn’t scared, because these guys felt such a hunger to connect with a human being, you know? With eye contact, in conversation, in the same room, to see my body language, to see my eyes react, for me to see their eyes. That was so meaningful, that was the prevalent thing in that room, was this connection, not me thinking about how maybe I should be afraid.

I have to admit, I was surprised by the eloquence and calm of the inmates you interviewed. Did you come into this project with any expectations or prejudices that you later found were completely off-base?
I think any prejudices I might have had, had more to do with the people who run the prison, or work in a prison like that. And I found those preconceived ideas were necessary to toss the minute I got there, because this is a place that is difficult for everyone involved, and I hadn’t thought about it from that perspective until I spent a day inside the prison with the ability to go home. And still, it impacted me. So that was unexpected, but I’m pretty well versed in the ways in which society has created that wall that you describe for us by creating a world in which we see those who are locked inside the prison as “other” and as monsters. That’s what media and society have decided. That’s not, in fact, the truth.

On the other hand, were there any moments that confirmed those preconceived notions, or that these guys were "animals" that needed to be locked away?
There are some horrific acts committed by humans both outside—in society—and inside prison, and we can’t live in a society without rules and accountability, but I think the way that we are handing those acts is, just, completely misguided.What do you think keeps guys like these prisoners looking forward when, in all likelihood, there's really nothing left for them? I mean, beyond divine intervention, most of these guys are probably going to be stuck in their cells for life. And even if they ever get out of solitary, they’re still probably going to die behind bars. I think that’s such a good question and one that’s, in some ways, impossible to answer. And I asked myself this a lot in the making of this film. I have no idea how one gets through, day-after-day, in that circumstance. And I still don’t. I think there’s one aspect to survival in a supermax or in prison that seems consistent—but I don’t know this first-hand—and that’s the presence of hope of any kind.

At one point, one of the COs shows appreciation for the difficulty of life in isolation. Do you think there’s more nuance to the inmate-guard relationship than an outsider might assume?
That’s a great question. I do. I think that it’s a complicated relationship that, again, I think the media often portrays one-dimensionally. “The prisoners are bad people and the guards are the good guys,” or “The prisoners are victims and the guards are the bad guys.” I mean, there are some really horrific things that happen inside prisons at the hands of guards in this country that are completely unacceptable. In our own backyard, here in New York, Rikers Island is rife with systemic, unchecked abuse, which is sadly not unique to this one jail. It’s happening in our jails, prisons and even detention centers and we must take these crimes seriously and hold those individuals, and the institutions we as taxpayers fund, accountable. There are also people who are just trying to make a living and support their families while working inside a system that’s completely broken. So, yes, I think it is complex - and deserving of our attention.

I’m sure there are some out there who would consider the crimes these prisoners committed unforgivable and probably have zero sympathy for whatever punishment they’re dealt. In your mind, what is the appropriate response to these transgressions if not solitary confinement?
I think that moving away from a prison system exclusively focused on punishment, and towards a system based on restoration—restoration of individuals; restoration between victims and perpetrators—is the way forward.

This could have been a much simpler, black-and-white, less authentic, less nuanced film without careful handling. How did you resist the urge to sensationalize this story, and what do you credit for creating that authenticity?
Wow, that’s a great question. So I’d say there are three things. When I set out to make the film, I set out to make it independently specifically so I would not be forced to deal with pressures to sensationalize the story. I felt this was a subject that was too important and too deserving of an authentic approach, and that to sensationalize it would diminish it. One reason behind that is I had an incredibly strong and influential mentor in my life, and that’s the filmmaker Barbara Kopple. She always encouraged me to follow my instincts, and that was what I did here—to be my authentic self, I am that today as I talk to you, I will be that tomorrow; I was that everyday inside the prison.I also think it was a function of how the film was edited, which is largely due to the collaboration with my editor, Ben Gold. He played a critical role in creating a work that captured the authenticity and the intention of that. We worked hard to push back against some of the clichés and the sensationalized tools—that we had at our fingertips but tried to not use. At times that meant making a film that may or may not be embraced by everyone, but sticking to our guns. The creative support of our producers made a big difference too. Finally, our composer, brought to the film such an outside-the-box approach to bringing the audience into that space, through music and sound design. In all, it was a tremendously collaborative effort.

If not for the cuffs and jumpsuits, it would be easy to forget a lot of these guys are convicted killers. Do you see that as a positive—as a sign of shared humanity despite our past? Or is it important that we always identify criminals with their crimes?
In the context of this film it was important to do both, because it was important to let these men live and breathe on their own as humans, but for an audience it was important that we can’t forget these men also committed crimes, and to do that, to leave those details out, would undermine the power of the film. 

After seeing the effects firsthand, do you feel there's any place for solitary confinement in our prisons? Perhaps even in extreme circumstances? 
I think the type of isolation and confinement I witnessed is not necessary. There are some situations in which individuals need to be separated from the general population, but not in the kinds of conditions whereby we are eliminating human contact and putting them in this kind of situation.

Was there anything that drew you to the particular inmates you chose to interview?
I was drawn to each of these men for different reasons, but there was a common denominator among all of them, which is that, together, we decided to go on a journey; that they were willing to share their experience both inside the prison and their life experience, and that required them to trust me, and that’s not something you can demand of someone. So there had to be this mutual trust between us. I’d say that was really the most important factor.

How do you hope educators and students will use the film?
I think the film gives educators and students a unique opportunity to see what’s going on inside one of the darkest, most hidden corners of our criminal justice and prison system. And for that, it’s special.I  hope that students and educators will then take what they have witnessed in viewing this film and turn that into a conversation about the nuance, complexities, contradictions, challenges, and questions that the film raises. I think it will bring them to a place where they can have a pretty lively discussion around what our prison system is doing now, what it could look like, what it could be doing, and moving toward a more restorative system. Or not: really discussing the merits of the system as it stands or what a new system would look like.

The team GOOD DOCS is a major proponent of female empowerment for both filmmakers and audiences. Are there any gender issues in regards to making Solitary, or as a filmmaker in general, that you'd like to discuss for our female audience?
I’d say that there has been a long line of journalists, both female and male, who had attempted to get access inside Supermax prisons since their inception in the late 80s and the boom in the 90s, and in the end, it was a woman who gained access, so lest that not be forgotten! But I think what I would share with women is that I was really lucky, in that I had this incredibly strong role model in Barbara Kopple and she instilled in me this, this—I don’t think the word “empowerment” was popular at the time; this was in the 90s—but she believed in me, and that belief gave me confidence, and I think that we, as women, often need someone else to believe in us in order to believe in ourselves. While I was lucky enough to not only have this, but that it was a woman, I encourage women near and far to believe in themselves, to know that it’s not necessary for some external source, be that a man or a woman, to give us the power. We have the power, and we should go forth.I feel that as woman—look, I’ve never been a man, I only know my life experience as a girl and a woman, and I feel the need to connect with people, and that need to connect with people is what drives my work. So I see that as strength, not a weakness. I see my vulnerabilities as strength and not weakness. I see my weakness as both strength and not weakness. I think that’s part of being human, and being the best human you can be is how to make powerful films.

Is there anything else you'd like to discuss before we finish here?
This film is the film I’ve always wanted to make since the earliest days of my interest and education in making film, having been driven by the witnessing of the brokenness of our juvenile justice system and how it impacts our kids. Of all people, kids should be given a first chance first, and a second chance for sure, and our system doesn’t provide either of those to many kids, particularly kids who don’t have means, who are not privileged in terms of class and race. So, anyway, I am passionate about the brokenness of the system—and the fixability of it.I’m currently embarking on a project with noted author and journalist Baz Dreisinger. She wrote a book—you can look it up—called Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World. In the making of her book, she traveled around the world looking at what we have exported on the world, in terms of our approach toward incarceration, i.e. mass incarceration and over-punishment. But she also found these really inspiring pockets of hopes in the darkest of places, so together we’re embarking on making a film based on that book and her experience. We take for granted that the prison system is what it is, and that it will always be some version of this. I think that we need to look beyond that and really re-think the paradigm. I believe that’s possible—I don’t believe that’s pie-in-the-sky.