Last days OF Solitary
by Dan Edge
I’d been filming for four months in the punishment wing of the Maine State Prison when I asked an officer to lock me in a solitary confinement cell. I wanted to know what it was like to be shut in a concrete box, six feet wide and ten feet long. The officer grinned.
He liked the idea. A few moments later, the cell door slammed shut and I was alone. I sat on the bed, and waited for something to happen. Nothing did.
Of course, this little experiment was entirely flawed. If I banged on the door, the officers would let me out immediately – not the case for the other residents. But it gave me a small, vivid insight to help answer the motivating question of our film: what does solitary confinement do to a human being?
On our first day at the prison, I had been worried that there would be little to film. Inmates on the solitary unit spend at least 23 hours a day in their cells, sometimes 24. There was a risk we would be filming men sitting in tiny grey rooms with nothing to do. The defining quality of solitary confinement, you might think, is that nothing happens.
In fact, what we soon found was that there are a thousand dramas unfolding every day. The prisoners are locked in a never-ending battle for control with the officers, a ritual the prison’s chief psychologist calls ‘the dance’. The only way the inmates get any attention, any chance of being taken out of their cells, is by misbehaving. The inmates who behave, who quietly read a book, are ignored. The inmates who head-butt the walls, who scream and howl and smash their food trays and even cut themselves – those inmates get attention, those inmates get taken out of their cells. Either to hospital, or to a different isolation unit, wherever – it doesn’t matter – for a few precious minutes, those inmates get out of their cells.
So there was no lack of drama in the solitary unit of the Maine State Prison. On the contrary, a single building where forty-two men are locked in tiny boxes cut off from the world is a building bursting with stories - and people desperate to tell them.
When we first arrived, we introduced ourselves to every single one of the inmates on the block, through the small reinforced glass windows on their cell doors. A few ignored us, hiding under their blankets or staring into space. But most wanted to talk. Some had been there for months. Some more than a year. Two or three were clearly very dangerous, and had committed horrific crimes on the outside. But the majority were young offenders, in their late teens or early twenties, who had drug problems on the outside, and had misbehaved in prison and ended up shunted off to the solitary wing. Almost all of the 42 would one day be released back to society. Only two of them were on life sentences.
In one sense, making a film depicting the realities of life in solitary is almost impossible. Our very presence contaminated their lives. By being on the unit, by talking to the prisoners, by asking them about their lives and their experiences, we were breaking the isolation we were there to depict. The very act of journalism risked compromising the subject.
We devised ways around this. After meeting all the inmates on the unit, we picked a few we were going to follow and conducted long filmed interviews with them – about their lives before prison, about why they were in solitary, and about the experience of solitary itself. And then we stepped back, and tried to become invisible. We attached miniature cameras to the windows of the cells that would track the inmates over a period of days. We put cameras on the floors of the corridors, and left them rolling for hours on end. Each night we would review the footage, and find we had captured amazing unexpected slices of life in solitary – like the art of prison ‘fishing’. Inmates in solitary unravel their sheets and use the long threads to smuggle contraband from cell to cell – creating an underground economy in the isolation unit; a black market in drugs, razor blades, newspapers and knives.
The officers at first claimed to us that the prisoners were misbehaving because the cameras were there. But I sat down with the warden of the prison and looked through his incident reports, and I realized that the unit was actually quieter when we were filming than when we weren’t there. Our presence appeared to have a calming effect on the inmates. I’m not sure how to explain that, but it may be that we were in some way a pressure valve, a distraction. Quite simply, someone to talk to.
As our characters’ stories unfolded, more thorny dilemmas presented themselves. Most psychiatrists agree that long term isolation is psychologically damaging. And with a few of the men we were following, we realized quite quickly that we were witnessing, in real time, the unraveling of a human mind. The partial disintegration of a person. Inmates who had given their consent to appear in the film when we first met them deteriorated psychologically to such an extent that we judged they were no longer able to give informed consent – so we stopped filming with them.
In one sense, solitary confinement is a distillation of America’s approach to crime and punishment over the last few decades. It’s the prison within the prison. It’s the punishment meted out for not abiding by the terms of your punishment. But it seems there is now a growing awareness in the United States that excessive punishment may be counter-productive – as well as colossally expensive. If prisons make men more dangerous, then are they really performing the function we require of them?
The Maine State Prison has a new warden, who was brave enough to let us film in his facility for six months because he is under no illusion about what solitary confinement does to inmates, and he is trying to change the culture of his prison - to shift the emphasis from punishment to reform. He faces opposition – from his own staff, and from the prisoners themselves. One inmate released from the solitary unit back to an ordinary prison wing went on to murder another prisoner - stabbing him 72 times. This horrific tragedy can be spun both ways – some say the warden should never have let the inmate out of solitary. Others say years in solitary had driven the man mad. This is the ethical tight-rope the warden must walk.
I lasted a couple of hours in the solitary cell before I banged on the window and the officers let me out. I felt like I’d been there for a week. I can’t pretend my short stay gave me any great insight into the mysteries of isolation and its effect on the mind, but by the time we finally left the prison a month or so later, we had gathered hundreds of hours of footage of inmates in solitary confinement, witnessed some things that were simply too disturbing to broadcast, and followed a warden trying to change things for the better. Last Days of Solitary is the result.
Dan Edge - Director, Filmmaker.