‘Frontline: Last Days of Solitary’ Is a Prison Nightmare

Photo: PBS
Photo: PBS

The new Frontline documentary Last Days of Solitary, airing on PBS Tuesday night, isn’t just a film about the use of solitary confinement in our prison system. It’s also a thoughtful meditation on the psychological effects of this particular form of punishment, as well as a look at the scientific research that both underpins and undermines it.

Filmmakers Dan Edge and Lauren Mucciolo spent three years in Maine State Prison, where they were granted rare access to its solitary unit. Over the course of that time, we are able to witness prisoners who, for one offense or another, are placed in solitary confinement. One of them boasts to the camera that “doing solitary” is a breeze — you just have to keep your mind active, he says. Fewer than 90 days later, he’s become withdrawn and sullen, prone to sudden fits of violence against guards and himself.

In the prison bureaucracy, the common term for solitary confinement seems to be “segregation” — as if that were a more humane label for the practice. Keeping a man (most of the inmates we see are male) locked away in a very small space, with limited access to sunshine and showers, is a very bad idea, it turns out. I’d always assumed that this particular punishment was meted out to keep certain violent prisoners from harming the rest of the prison populace, and while there’s some truth to that, Last Days of Solitary does some fascinating research into its origin. One way it found its way into our culture is that it was long ago thought that by keeping a person in isolation, his mind would become cleansed and focused on his own redemption — in other words, it had a spiritual, even religious, component.

Last Days of Solitary shows us the reality of such semi-idealistic thinking. The camera pans across a series of cells in Maine State Prison, and we see an inmate open his mouth to reveal a tiny razor he’s secreted beneath his tongue; other prisoners have smeared blood and feces on the small windows that allow them minimal communication with the guards and other inmates. The film takes its title from the fact that the Maine State Prison is trying to phase out “segregation” as a failed practice — the institution has gone from 100 inmates in solitary in 2011 to eight in early 2017. Officials tell Frontline that “self-harm” incidents are down by over 80 percent.

There’s no happy ending here, and if I told you watching two hours of this was a lark, I’d be lying. But it’s certainly fascinating material, and a valuable addition to the body of work that continues to amass as proof that our prison system is in constant, dire need of reform.

Frontline: Last Days of Solitary airs Tuesday night on PBS. Check your local listings.

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