Solitary Nation

By Natalie Mesnard, EJP Writer and Editor

June 17, 2014

One of the prisoners from "Solitary Nation."
One of the prisoners from “Solitary Nation.”

On Sunday, June 8, I joined several members of EJP, including director and host Rebecca Ginsburg, for a screening of the Frontline documentary “Solitary Nation.” The piece, which runs close to an hour, is a dramatic look at the isolation unit in the Maine State Prison in Warren, a men’s maximum security prison. Most of the men in the unit seem to be experiencing a deep and terrifying mental deterioration; their efforts to attract attention provide some of the rawest elements of the film. The men bang on windows, flood the corridor of the unit by backing up their toilets, bloody themselves, and push feces under the door. A narrative voiceover tells viewers there are an estimated 80,000 inmates in solitary confinement across the U.S., making the country unique in its “widespread use of solitary confinement in prison.”

The problem of solitary confinement, or “seg,” hits home for educators, like members of EJP, who are in ongoing intellectual and social relationships with those who have experienced a stint in solitary, or may face it in the future. One of the core issues surrounding solitary confinement is that it is often used as punishment for bad behavior, meaning that prisoners with mental illnesses often end up there. In the film, we learn one character has “assaulted a prison guard,” while another “started a riot.” However, some people in seg have not been sent there for being dangerous—and “Solitary Nation makes it clear that those who are violent seem to become more so while there. Here in Illinois, many members of EJP keenly remember the recent lockdown at Danville Correctional Center. When the lockdown was lifted, news arrived that some inmates had been found with cell phones. Owning and carrying a cell phone is a crime in prison, and a number of men—including some EJP students—were sent to solitary confinement as a result.

The story of “Solitary Nation,” at least in part, follows the efforts of the Maine State Prison warden, Rodney Bouffard, who wants to reform solitary confinement practices. In later scenes, Bouffard works to pull several individuals from the isolation unit, and faces political fallout among the remaining prisoners (though they are locked in their cells for 23 hours each day, the men in this isolation unit are not alone—they speak to each other through slots in their cell doors, and send secret messages, or “kites,” across the floor). Following the film, our discussion of wardens, and their troubled relationship to those locked in the “prison within the prison,” led one attendee to mentioned a warden who spent twenty four hours (or tried to) in solitary confinement. Later, I found this was Rick Raemisch—successor to Tom Clements, the Colorado warden who was murdered in 2013 by an inmate who had “recently been released from solitary.” Ironically, Clements, like Bouffard, had also been struggling to enact solitary confinement reform. Anyway, Raemisch has an account of his solitary confinement experience available to read at the New York Times. The opinion piece reads as a rational call for change; what it doesn’t do is depict the visceral reality we witnessed in “Solitary Nation.”

A "Solitary Nation" prisoner looks out.
A “Solitary Nation” prisoner looks out.

Frontline’s documentary certainly opened up an interesting discussion for us. I felt sympathy, horror, and a desire to push for change, and I believe others at the event experienced similar reactions. Some participants, drawing on personal experience as prison educators, wondered if the staff was always as calm and rational as they appeared on-camera; the dramatization of personalities and situations for documentary purposes was acknowledged as being inevitable. We also wondered if the inmates sometimes made the decision to cut themselves or cause trouble because they knew filming was taking place. Whether or not this latter was the case, however, the film confirmed these incidents were a regular part of days in the solitary ward. Another New York Times article, a brief one on “Solitary Nation,” quotes one of the isolation unit cleaners, who says, after a bloody incident, “We probably average about 20 of these a month.”

We also noted the film’s decision to avoid issues of race. I wasn’t surprised to find others had pointed this out as well: in an Atlantic piece on “Solitary Nation,” Andrew Cohen writes, “Because the stage is set in Maine, I guess, there is virtually no reference to the oppressive racial component to solitary confinement (or to American prisons more generally). Almost every single one of the faces that appears on film is white. Perhaps this means that white viewers will more fully empathize with what they are seeing. But I’d love for the journalists who created Solitary Nation to undertake the same sort of project in a southern prison.” I agree with Cohen—this issue could use much more visibility and discussion than it has experienced up to now. Frontline’s “Locked Up in America” report, which includes links to a number of articles on prisons and criminal justice, and a second documentary titled “Prison State,” is certainly a good place for interested parties to start.

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