Tens of thousands of inmates in American prisons live in total isolation. They don't see anyone. They don't talk to anyone. They are completely alone, sometimes for years, in a cell the size of a small bathroom.
Producer Claire Schoen shares the voices of nine survivors of solitary confinement, who paint a vivid picture of what solitary looks, sounds, and feels like.
Survivors was commissioned in part by the American Friends Service Committee for the StopMax campaign.
Claire Schoen has been creating media programming for documentary, educational, and advocacy projects for more than 25 years. As a producer/director, she has made over 20 long-format radio documentaries as well as several documentary films and audio tours. As a sound designer, she has recorded, edited, and mixed sound for film, video, radio, Web story, museum tour and theater productions. She has also taught documentary radio production at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. You can hear more of her work at claireschoenmedia.com.
To find out more about the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, check out the American Friends Service Committee's Stopmax web site.
BEHIND THE SCENES with Claire Schoen
How did you become interested in solitary confinement? Did you have previous knowledge or experience with the subject matter that informed how you approached the piece?
Many of the long-form audio documentaries that I produce come to me, rather than being initiated by me. Because of this, I have had the good fortune to learn about -- and become immersed in -- a very wide range of issues over the years. "Survivors" was one of these pieces.
This project began as a five-minute multi-media piece commissioned by the American Friends Service Committee. AFSC is engaged in a campaign, StopMax, to educate Americans about the extensive use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons today. Their idea was to create a “Web story” that would reside on the StopMax Web site, but that could also be virally marketed throughout the Internet to bring people to this site. The material gathered for the Web story was so strong that I decided to expand it into a radio documentary.
Was there anything about the former prisoners' experiences that especially surprised you?
When I first began learning about solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, a small part of me responded, “Well, these guys are violent criminals. Maybe they deserve whatever we throw at them.” So I was very surprised to learn that being put into solitary actually has nothing at all to do with a prisoner’s crime. And prisoners are not sentenced to solitary by a judge or jury.
Rather, it is the warden or a prison board that puts a prisoner into solitary -- after they enter the system. It is not the most violent prisoners who get locked in isolation, but rather the “trouble-makers” who protest, organize, or simply cannot obey the rules. Gang members are locked down just for their affiliation. The mentally ill get locked down for acting out. Individuals convicted of minor crimes can find themselves in solitary for extended periods. And as there is no “sentence,” it can be very, very hard to get back into the general population again.
Can you talk a little about the sound design in the piece and what you hoped to accomplish with it?
The spoken word in an audio documentary can relay a great deal of information which the listener understands on an intellectual level. This is very important. But "Survivors" is a piece about experience. While there are a lot of “facts” relayed in this documentary, its primary goal is to help average Americans understand what solitary confinement “feels” like. Sound beds and music are effective tools to convey ideas on a visceral level.
When the voices in "Survivors" tell you that isolation and sensory deprivation literally drove them crazy, the listener can understand this intellectually. But beneath these words is a sound track comprised of layers and layers of sound effects, ambiences and abstract music. As this sound design builds to a crescendo of “madness,” the listener comprehends the spoken words on a gut level.
"Survivors" has a very rich and complex sound design. There are places where I used all 32 tracks available on my editing system to create a feeling of chaos or madness. The prison-door slam, which repeats throughout the piece, is built from four different sound effects. There are multiple tracks of ambience, running simultaneously at times, simply to create the “sound” of emptiness.
The sound design for "Survivors" also includes the amazing music of Quique Cruz. Quique is a composer and performer who has a personal connection to prison torture. As a native Chilean, Quique was arrested and detained in the Pinochet coup. He has spent the ensuing 35 years coming to terms with this experience through his music.
Why did you decide to use a collage of voices rather than following one or two stories narratively?
It was important to me that the listener does not come away from this piece with the impression that solitary is perhaps a rare incident that happens to a few people in prison. In fact tens of thousands of Americans are locked in long-term isolation right now. There are “supermax” prisons in which every cell in the entire institution is a solitary confinement cell. I felt that using a montage of voices in which ideas are repeated and even the same words are repeated by a variety of voices would help bring home the universality of experience for those in locked in isolation.
You do a range of work -- from documentaries to educational projects to advocacy projects. What do you consider the distinction and relationship between documentation and advocacy in your work? Do you try to separate the two?
Perhaps a better distinction is between journalism, advocacy and propaganda. Documentary can be any of these three things.
Journalism presents the facts of an issue from all sides and points of view, without attempting to support any particular side.
An advocacy piece does have a point of view and attempts to make the audience understand and perhaps even accept this perspective. It does this by using information that it can document and support. Sometimes the most powerful way to convince an audience of a point of view is to look at the opposing arguments as well as those that the producer supports.
Propaganda also strives to convince the audience of a particular point of view. But in doing so, it plays fast and lose with the truth, presenting unsubstantiated evidence and outright lies.
While journalism plays a vital role in society, it is also possible to push the boundaries of “balanced and objective” too far. For instance, the vast majority of credible scientists have supported the veracity of climate change for years now. However, until recently, mainstream journalists gave “experts” on both sides of the climate change debate equal time in an effort to be “fair and balanced.” I think this set back our response to this crisis by a decade at least.
What do you hope this story will accomplish? How do you hope it will affect listeners?
When I began this project, I knew very little about conditions is U.S. prisons. But as I researched the issue, I began to see its relevance to today’s conversation about torture. As we condemn Abu Ghraib and proceed to shut down Guantanamo, most Americans do not understand that many of the same conditions are occurring in our own back yard. I think that it is crucial to get this information out -- not only for incarcerated prisoners themselves, but to ensure a humane and just society for us all. I hope that “Survivors” will help spark a broader conversation in our country about justice in America’s criminal justice system.
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