James Burns is opting to go back to prison to make an important point
Over the past few years, prison reform has become one of the most hotly debated social justice topics in our culture. When you’ve never experienced the criminal justice system or life on the inside, the reality of prison life seems like a distant concern. It’s something that you know about in the general sense. You’re aware that there is a problem with the way the U.S. treats prisoners, but the extent of the mistreatment within the prison system feels like an exaggeration or, perhaps, just someone else’s problem.
For James Burns, that’s not the case. His very personal journey as a young man growing up in America’s prison system has led him to a new project, the goal of which is to raise awareness about a well-known, yet undeniably inhumane aspect of prison life—solitary confinement.
A Notorious Practice
We all know that solitary confinement is a common punishment for prisoners, no matter their crimes or the center in which they are being held—and you don’t have to have experienced time in solitary to understand that it’s something none of us would ever want to go through.
Perhaps because of the punishment’s particular place in pop-culture (whenever someone goes to “solitary” in a movie, you know it’s the worst possible news) or maybe because the prospect of being alone for days, weeks, months, or more hits on something innately human within us, we all intuit that solitary confinement would be a hell-on-earth type experience. Now, former-inmate-turned-filmmaker, James Burns is working to illuminate the reality of one of the Department of Correction’s most notorious punishments.
A Long History
According to Burns, his first experience with the criminal justice system came very young. When he was just six-years-old, his mother left him in the care of child services after his behavior in school had become too much to handle. He explains in an article for VICE that was placed in a mental health facility and almost immediately confined to a “quiet room,” which he says is “not the same thing as solitary… But nonetheless, [it’s] a traumatic experience for a child.”
The rest of Burns’s childhood was punctuated by numerous experiences behind bars which almost always led to more and more time in solitary. Despite the fact that countless studies have been done over the years, all of which show the ineffectiveness of the practice (and the negative effects on prisoners), trips to solitary remain a facet of the prison system.
Burns’s new piece, The Solitary Confinement Project, is designed to show the rest of us the damage that solitary confinement can do to a person without editing and in real-time.