Tribeca Film Festival 2020: SOLITARY

There is a vast number of problems with our justice system here in the United States. The list is unceasing, and change never forthcoming. We flood our cells with the lives of those who made mistakes and many times were born into dire circumstances. While many focus on prosecution metrics and capital punishment, there is a larger inhumane issue that plagues our detention centers. It is where hope goes to die, and people are forgotten. In the harsh reality that exemplifies abuse of power, this is solitary confinement.

“Stepping into that cell I felt like I had lost all hope”

Crimes against humanity should not exist. In this time of history and evolution, I would have thought we would have progressed so much further. But humanity continues to shock. I knew solitary confinement existed, but was gravely unaware of the abuse of power it allows and the lack of control behind its execution. Thankfully there are films like Solitary to shed a light on the injustices that dehumanize our citizens.

Tribeca Film Festival 2020: SOLITARY
source: Tribeca Film Festival

Solitary, from writers and directors James Burns and Shal Ngo, follows the stories of three individuals, each with their own various experiences in solitary confinement, placed against reenactments that are hauntingly real. While these reenactments will hit you hard, it is in the short’s final moments, when you see Burns trace his fingers on the false prison walls, that you see in his eyes how real it is. As we hear the interviewee’s words, your heart will break at the abuse, the fear and the loss of identity they have each experienced. Coupled with psychological and biological data, there is clear negligence surrounding the practice and their placement within it.

“My story is not unique”

Viewers are first introduced to Five, who is schizophrenic and was incarcerated for 12 years. As he describes his disorder, coupled with the crippling despair of solitary confinement, you see the disregard we have for these individuals. Once you have committed a crime, no matter what that crime is, you are just a “criminal”. Anything that makes you you is no longer relevant. For Five, his disorder had the wind talking to him, insanity lurking in the corner.

He continues stating that when you are in the box, you begin to dehumanize yourself – you end up doing things you thought you never would. The desire for human interaction and contact becomes a blinding rage. He described cutting himself, reaching through the slot to get his food, making sure they saw the blood. After being treated by a medic, he received notice that he was being fined for damaging state property – the property being himself.

Tribeca Film Festival 2020: SOLITARY
source: Tribeca Film Festival

Five is followed by James, who is both an interviewee and one of the film’s directors. James was incarcerated at just 15 years old, sentenced to 12 months – 11 of those months were spent consecutively in solitary confinement. He was 16. He talks about how any infraction can get you in the box, any infraction could add to your time. You have to prepare for it psychologically as well, his method being to keep a schedule of behavior throughout the day. But as time ticks by, you begin to lose your self-identity. You even make infractions that cause the guards to come in, their beatings accepted as it is the only contact you will receive.

Where Five and James gave us insight into solitary confinement for men, women too are forced to suffer similar fates. Pam caused her incarceration by making poor business decisions as a surgical nurse. While she was in solitary, she discovered she was pregnant. To make matters worse, she was told there was really nothing the facility could do for her. It was designed for men and they had never expected to house a woman. One day, while being walked down the hall in her shackles, Pam tripped and fell. While she started experiencing pain that only escalated, she did not receive medical treatment for eleven weeks. While the women in solitary screamed for help, Pam lost her baby – a loss compounded by the fact that the facility threw the passed fetus away with the linens. After she was treated medically, she was thrown straight back into solitary.

Crimes Against Humanity

As mentioned, minor infractions can land you in solitary – too many pencils, too much extra toilet paper, advocating too much for your self, unauthorized exchanges. You do not know how long you will be there. The “box”, as they call it, is about the size of a parking space. You can make games for yourself, distract, but that eventually runs out. For 23 hours a day, you are alone in the box, only allowed out for one hour – but depending on the staff, you might not even get that.

Tribeca Film Festival 2020: SOLITARY
source: Tribeca Film Festival

There is no concept of time. After 14 days in solitary confinement, the brain begins to atrophy. Hearing that, after learning the lengths of time Five, James and Pam spent in solitary, the neglect becomes clear. Because of this, the inmate becomes more erratic, more disruptive, more violent. They lose control. And at the mercy of the guards, these behaviors may just add more time.

James discusses how, when he was released, the bathroom at home was his safe space. He would take his meals there. His prison became his comfort. Pam mentions she finds difficulty connecting with individuals. Where she was once extroverted, she now pulls away.


Prisons have become safe spaces for torture and pain to happen. As you listen to the stories above, your heart breaks at the ignorance of yourself and a nation, and the fact that this is allowed to happen. And while these are just three of the stories, James informs the audience that currently, there are enough bodies in solitary confinement to fill a pro NFL football stadium.

There is a vulnerability to their stories, to opening themselves up. But they know that they must, because if they don’t tell their stories, it’s as if it never happened.

Find out more about Solitary here.

Does content like this matter to you?

Become a Member and support film journalism. Unlock access to all of Film Inquiry`s great articles. Join a community of like-minded readers who are passionate about cinema – get access to our private members Network, give back to independent filmmakers, and more.

Join now!

Posted by Contributor