Frontline’s new documentary “Solitary Nation,” which aired on April 22 and is available to watch for free online, sheds much needed light on a topic Portland Phoenix reporter Lance Tapley has been illuminating for eight years: isolated segregation within the Maine State Prison system. The filmmakers were afforded remarkable access and the result is a harsh, bleak portrait of the MSP’s solitary confinement unit, where inmates spend 23 hours locked in a cell (the 24th hour is spent in an outdoor cage).
In the course of the one-hour program, viewers meet several inmates — including one seeking to get his GED and another who threatens multiple times to kill the warden — and witness horrific acts of defiance and self-harm. Segregation is portrayed as a vicious cycle; violence begets violence, punishment begets punishment. A man is placed in solitary as a penalty for starting a riot in the general population. He acts out and cuts himself in the cell. His punishment is additional time in “seg.” And on it goes. “It’s like being buried alive,” one inmate says. “This place is like an insane asylum,” says another. As far as television journalism goes, this is a sobering and compelling piece.
Of course, anyone who’s read Tapley’s prison series (including the most recent installment, “Locking Up the Mentally Ill,” April 4, 2014), already knows of these horrors.
“I thought it was visually extremely powerful,” Tapley commented. “And that’s of course what counts in the television medium. The viewer has a visceral reaction to this counterproductive torture. I think many people will conclude that a society that allows this must be sicker than the mostly mentally ill human beings who are thrown into this hole.
“But the program distorted things by giving the impression that only violent prisoners are put into solitary. Just breaking rules will get you there. Also, the big reforms at the prison were not really covered — for example, the virtual ending of the guards’ violent cell extractions of disobedient prisoners to take them to the restraint chair. And there’s been a big reduction in the self-mutilation, the ‘cutting’ —though there’s still far too much. Most important, for most inmates the stays are much briefer [than they used to be].
“At the end, the program does note that the number of people in solitary in Maine has been reduced by 50 percent. It’s closer to 60 percent. But there’s still a long way to go. There’s no need whatsoever for long-term solitary.”
The film’s reception among prison-reform advocates was generally positive. The National Religious Campaign Against Torture sent out an email urging its supporters to view the film, but it too made note of a few perceived shortcomings: “A glaring omission is the dramatically disproportionate impact solitary confinement and incarceration has on people of color nationally,” the email read. In New York, for example, “while African Americans represent about 14 percent of the state’s population, they account for nearly 50 percent of the prison population, and 59 percent of the population in extreme isolation.” (The Frontline program focused on Maine, where demographics are different.)
NRCAT also pointed out that “there wasn’t much mention of the length of time, up to years and decades, that some spend in solitary;” nor was there time to delve into the particular issues faced by women and youth in solitary.