Animalistic howls resonate down a hallway littered with food particles, streams of blood and toilet water. At first glance, you might believe this is the setting from a horror film. But this isn't a movie, and the horrors that occur here are far too real. This is the solitary confinement wing at Maine State Prison, and it's where the filmmakers behind Last Days of Solitary stationed their cameras for a period of three years.
Up to 90,000 inmates in America are living in isolation at any given time. The practice has garnered criticism from voices in the prison reform movement for good reason. If the ultimate goal of imprisonment is rehabilitation, then solitary confinement is woefully counterproductive. Instead of acting as a deterrent, it often enhances a prisoner's anti-social and violent tendencies.
In solitary, inmates are denied interaction with others, their movements are restricted to an area not much wider than an average floor rug, and their only exposure to the world outside their steel cell door is the shower they're allowed twice a week.
Of course, these inmates have been sentenced to solitary for a reason. They are the offenders who fail to integrate with the general prison population. Within months in solitary, many of them suffer a mental break, and chose to occupy the endless hours by beating their heads against the wall or spending time in the company of a razor blade.
Like several other states, Maine is exploring options on how to phase out the practice of solitary confinement. As the film begins, a new warden has been brought in to implement a variety of reforms in that direction. Therapy sessions allow the inmates a chance at group interaction and honest dialogue. We learn about the events that led them to pursue lives of crime, the challenges they face while serving their sentences, and their insecurities on how they'll manage a return to normal life on the outside.
Alongside the inmates, psychiatrists and prison administrators also discuss the need for fresh thinking when it comes to the notion of prison rehabilitation.
Last Days of Solitary is harrowing, but essential in its depiction of a broken prison system and the hope that true reform can inspire more productive members of society.