Review: ‘Solitary’ chillingly looks at life at a supermax prison in the Appalachian mountains


The penetrating “Solitary” is a sobering account of life (without parole) inside the Red Onion, a super-maximum security prison ensconced in Virginia’s Appalachians. Home to the worst-behaving offenders in the state, most sent from other institutions for violating prison rules, the facility sequesters as many as 500 inmates, each in 8x10 cells hidden behind sky blue-painted steel doors.

That faux-blue is the only “connection” with nature they’ll have save for one hour each day, when they’re permitted to get some fresh air in similarly-configured “rec cages.”

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.

“I feel like I’ve been buried alive in the ground and everybody’s just basically walking over the top of me,” relates one of Red Onion State Prison’s longtime inmates who might not ever be released back into the general prisoner population.

In Jacobson’s immersive documentary, with an enveloping sound design that unnervingly captures every echoing clang of metal on metal, the sensation is all too palpable.



MPAA rating: Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes

Playing: Laemmle’s Monica Film Center, Santa Monica.