Criminal Justice • Sociology • American Studies • Human Rights • Mental Health 
2016. Director Kristi Jacobson. Producers Katie Mitchell & Julie Goldman.
82 Minutes. Includes Captions.


On an Appalachian mountaintop nearly 300 miles from the nearest urban center, Red Onion State Prison — one of over 40 supermax prisons across the US — holds up to 500 prisoners in isolated, 8’x10’ cells for 23 hours a day, where they are forgotten by the world beyond its walls. These inmates are sentenced to solitary confinement, not by judges or juries, but by prison authorities.  Supermax prisons are considered “Black Sites” — mysterious and highly guarded locations that virtually never admit the press. The select few who manage to secure access are stripped of all recording devices before undertaking intensely scrutinized visits.


In the immersive, Emmy award wining documentary SOLITARY, filmmaker Kristi Jacobson gives viewers unprecedented and unrestricted access to Red Onion residents, along with the prison’s chilling sounds and haunting atmosphere. In startlingly intimate interviews, inmates reflect on violent childhoods, the dangers of prison life, and their struggles to stay sane against the unrelenting monotony of solitary confinement. Interwoven with their stories are the voices of the corrections officers, who are serving a different type of time right alongside the prisoners, all the while as they struggle to maintain their humanity. 


As the prison initiates a reform program aimed at reducing the number of inmates in solitary, the process provides an unexpected window into life on both sides of the bars. Filmed over the course of one year, SOLITARY tells the stories of people caught in the complex American penal system, while raising provocative questions about the nature of punishment in America today.



A daring exploration of one of America's most notorious supermax prisons 
Reviews & Quotes
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Reviewed by P. Hall

"Offering fascinating insights into some of the moral complexities within the prison system, this film raises difficult questions without serving up easy answers. Highly recommended."


"Solitary is a rare look at life inside a supermax prison. [...] It is a long film, with a heavy subject matter, but it is worth viewing. The film should be part of library collections supporting criminal justice, mental health, social work, and sociology programs."

International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology

Mark T. Palermo, The Law, Art and Behavior Foundation, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

"The documentary Solitary convincingly questions the very idea of segregation and solitary confinement as an effective penal tool. Primatologists are very familiar with the serious aftereffects of isolation and caging ... Solitary allows the public unprecedented access to one aspect of the penal system which is controversial and highly charged."

The Wright Institute

Terry A. Kupers, M.D., M.S.P., psychiatrist and author of "Solitary: The Inside Story of Supermax Isolation and How We Can Abolish It"

“It is time for our society to decide whether we want prisoners tortured in our name. That’s what is happening in solitary confinement units around the country, but the facilities are far away, encased by impenetrable walls, and the screams of prisoners forced to endure stark isolation and idleness are rarely heard. Solitary courageously opens the prison gates, gives the viewers an opportunity to meet the keepers as well as the kept in one notorious supermax prison, Virginia’s Red Onion, and thus educates the public and makes possible a serious discussion about what we want to do about the human rights abuse that is solitary confinement.”

University of California, Irvine

Keramet Reiter, Assistant Professor, Department of Criminology, Law & Society and School of Law and author of "23/7 Pelican Bay Prison and the Rise of Long-Term Solitary Confinement"

Solitary provides a glimpse inside a place few outsiders have ever seen: an American supermax prison. The film viscerally captures the haunting hollowness of solitary -- from the feel and sound of being on those poured concrete blocks, to the focused stares and alternating flattened and exaggerated affects of the isolated, to the prisonization of the guards, to the out-of-the-way buried, end-of-the-world-feel of the institutional geography and the Kafka-esque cycle of rule manipulation.”

University of Baltimore

Jeffrey Ian Ross, Ph.D. Criminologist

“Honest and balanced portrayal of life in an active state level supermax prison. The movie avoids a formulaic narrative and focuses on the austere conditions and lack of human contact that inmates experience. The movie includes copious and detailed interviews with inmates, correctional officers, a mental health supervisor, and the warden.”

Albert Einstein College of Medicine

"Director Kristi Jacobson's exquisitely nuanced depiction of life on both sides of the bars in a super-max solitary prison is all the more powerful because it avoids convenient polemics. In the best tradition of Frederick Weisman's documentary practise, SOLITARY's sights and sounds speak for themselves. The viewer comes to a dispiriting realization that the terrible impact of the inmate's deprivation of human contact is paralleled by the relentless grinding down of the captor's humanity in this most total of Orwellian total institutions. Jacobson subtly infers that the the pilot rehab program of Red Onion's sinister panopticon in fact comprises a frightening testament to America's utterly broken penal system."

Michel Martin, Host of All Things Considered

"Prisons are closed off from the outside world. That's just one reason the access granted to director Kristi Jacobson for her documentary was so extraordinary."

Michael Rechtshaffen

"Given unprecedented access to the supermax facility, director Kristi Jacobson shines a spotlight on a troublingly murky corner of the criminal justice system — one in which prison officials, not the courts, determine the necessity for and the duration of long-term segregation. Through conversations with a number of heavily-shackled prisoners as well as corrections officers, the film, like Ava DuVernay’s galvanizing '13th,' addresses the questionable effectiveness of the nation’s 'tough-on-crime' prison boom mentality of the late ‘90s.”

Susannah Breslin

"Taking viewers inside a 'supermax' state prison in Virginia and focusing on prisoners who spend 23 hours a day in small cells, the movie exposes the stark, merciless reality of prison life. Featuring interviews with prisoners and those who work in the prison, the filmmaker avoids picking sides and instead enables watchers to decide the humanity in sentencing men to solitary lives.”

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Congressional Screening

Department of Justice Screening

University of Alabama at Birmingham

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