Red Onion State Prison to be setting of HBO documentary

Super-maximum security prison Red Onion State Prison will be the setting of a new HBO documentary film about solitary confinement.

“Solitary,” is a new film by Emmy Award-winning director Kristi Jacobson, recently premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City and will air later this year on HBO.

Jacobson said the crew spent many days shooting inside the prison over the course of the year. The 80-minute documentary was filmed on location at the Wise County prison beginning in 2013.

“Once inside the prison, the warden provided our crew with an opportunity, access to the inmates, to the place, to the men and women who work there,” Jacobson said.

The film crew had the rare opportunity to see the inside of the prison, which is one of about 40 super-maximum security prisons in the country. It houses about 800 prisoners, including what the Washington Post described as the “worst of the worst.” Beltway sniper Lee Boyd Malvo and convicted murderer Jesse Matthew, who kidnapped and killed two Virginia college students, are incarcerated at Red Onion.

Jacobson and the Virginia Department of Corrections director first spoke about the possibility of documenting the step-down program, which kicked off at Red Onion. The program allows successful inmates to move out of maximum security.

“I don’t know the date, but it was right around the time of Ms. Jacobson’s successful, ‘A Place at the Table’ film,” DOC spokeswoman Lisa Kinney said. “The director and the secretary of public safety decided to allow Ms. Jacobson access to the facility.”

The inmates and staff spoke to Jacobson completely unscripted.

“The last thing someone in prison wants is someone asking immediately, ‘What did you do to get here,’” Jacobson said. “And so we made an effort to meet people and get to know them, as much as is possible inside a supermax. Some, like Randall, were dynamic storytellers. And each of the inmates so clearly craved the opportunity to have a face to face conversation. How we came to know them is the same as how you come to know them in the film as well. I only found later how they got there, or what their street crimes were.”

The documentary opens with Randall, an Earlysville, Virginia man convicted of murder, who is serving life in prison. During the film, viewers learn what it’s like to be in solitary confinement and how the prisoners, like Randall, made it there.

“All I’ve ever known was violence, you know,” Randall said. “It, it wasn’t the solution to the problem, it was just life.”

The prisoners, who are only identified by their first names, speak about wanting to see their families, communicating with other prisoners and the judicial and incarceration system.

“Segregation is tricky on the inmate,” said Lars, of Hagerstown, Maryland. “Because if the inmate is not careful, they adapt to it. And they start becoming antisocial, they become crazy, they can lose their mind. Ask yourself, can you live in a bathroom for 10 years?”

During filming, the prisoners were shackled and handcuffed to tables as they spoke to Jacobson about their experiences. Armed guards stood nearby. Several guards are also interviewed during the documentary.

Throughout the film, the sounds and sights of Red Onion come alive. All of the commotion, crying and shouting that are expected in prison can be heard.

“In prison, it’s like filming on a movie set,” Jacobson said. “The routine provided us an opportunity to really spend time and energy on framing and composition, on creating a visual language and shots that would bring the audience as close to being inside as possible. Our crew was so small, we worked together closely. We all came to know the place and how it breathes.”

The documentary is not meant to be a comprehensive report on solitary confinement, Jacobson said.

“I hope it is much more than that, a powerful and moving exploration of our punitive penal criminal justice society, and what it means to be human, and a part of humankind,” she added.

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