That, in turn, causes the men to turn deeper into their own insanity. And then these broken men are released back into the world without adequate mental health treatment or "step down" services that will help reduce their chances of recidivism. It's a cycle everyone recognizes but cannot seem to change. It's madness upon madness.
Adam Brulotte, one of the inmates featured in the film, gets caught in this cycle. He’s a young man who says he wants to study for his GED so he can get a real job, instead of selling drugs, when he is released. Because he has broken the rules, he is placed in isolation. And because he is in isolation, he goes mad. And because he goes mad, he breaks more rules. The prison is safer but we see Brulotte broken before our eyes. If this young man is not treated now, how much will the rest of us pay when he is ultimately released?
You don't have to sympathize with the inmates featured in this documentary to appreciate just how broken the prison system is today. Solitary Nation is a valuable addition to the growing body of work that slowly is pushing America away from this form of confinement. It shows the blood and the feces and the numbing foulness of solitary for humanizing both prisoner and guard, and it chronicles the ambiguities that exist in these cases (is the inmate truly mentally ill or just faking it?).
There are, however, a few critical elements missing from the documentary. Because the stage is set in Maine, I guess, there is virtually no reference to the oppressive racial component to solitary confinement (or to American prisons more generally). Almost every single one of the faces that appears on film is white. Perhaps this means that white viewers will more fully empathize with what they are seeing. But I'd love for the journalists who created Solitary Nation to undertake the same sort of project in a southern prison.
Nor is there any insight in the film into the enormous political and financial pressures that coalesce around prisons. Even progressive wardens like Rodney Bouffard in Maine, who comes off in the documentary as a reasonable man trying to make the best of a bad situation, must negotiate with officials of the guards’ union in order to effect changes that might impact prison security. And even the harshest wardens must beg for funds from state lawmakers. These dynamics drive prison policies. They are an inescapable part of the story.
Nor did the film even attempt to offer broad answers to the many questions that surround the use of solitary confinement today. Why are lawmakers continuing to endorse policies and practices that make men mad and then toss them out onto a largely unsuspecting society? Why is there political reluctance to provide adequate mental health care to inmates, even when there is such strong evidence that it saves money (and perhaps lives)? The film raises many smart and poignant questions but sadly does not answer them.