Alone With Everyone Watching, Q&A With James Burns

It is estimated that every day, more than 80,000 people in the United States are held in solitary confinement. This number is difficult to pin down, as many states do not collect or publish this data. The controversial incarceration technique has been under scrutiny, claimed by some to be unethical at best, and a shade of torture at worst.  Individuals subjected to it endure incomprehensible, invisible suffering; 23 hours a day alone in a well-lit, sterile room, with little more than their thoughts to pass the time. Psychological repercussions of this prolonged, forced isolation are both lasting and real.

In an effort to raise awareness about this archaic practice, filmmaker James Burns voluntarily entered solitary confinement for 30 days at Arizona’s La Paz County Jail–and he arranged a live stream to document and broadcast the entirety of his experience.

This project wasn’t Burns’ first time alone in a small, grey room. His fascination harkens back to an early childhood memory, when–at just six-years-old–Burns was placed in a “quiet room” of a mental health facility. Years later, as an incarcerated teenager, he endured 11 consecutive months in solitary confinement, without so much as an inkling as to when he would re-enter regular socialization.

By subjecting himself to the very experience which had personally scarred him, Burns aimed to raise awareness and begin a conversation about how our prison system can focus on rehabilitation, rather than purely penalization–a distinction, he argues, that is key to fostering an incarcerated community that can successfully re-enter society. Burns joined BTRtoday to discuss.

BTRtoday (BTR): How long ago did you exit solitary confinement?

James Burns (JB): I recently exited solitary confinement, on Tuesday, Jan. 10. Not too long ago.

BTR: How does it feel to be back in everyday life?

JB: To be honest with you, it’s been a bit of a challenge acclimating to free society again. Sitting in a box for 30 days with very limited human contact does something to you. I noticed when I first got out that I was full of anxiety, and it was difficult for me to make eye contact with people, and my thoughts were really scattered. So, it was difficult for me to express and articulate myself. I’m feeling a lot better now; I’m seeing a mental health professional to make sure everything is all good. I’m feeling strong now.

BTR: You entered into this project completely voluntarily. Can you talk about what your motivation for doing so was?

JB: This is a subject that I’m really passionate about, and something that started a long time ago. When I was a teenager I was incarcerated: I was charged as an adult, sentenced to 12 years (of which I served four). During my incarceration I served 11 months consecutively in solitary confinement. That was one of the most painful experiences that, still to this day, I’ve had to endure. I’ve been fortunate enough to build a life for myself, and get through some of the deeply scarring trauma that comes along with it. I think it’s natural for me to come back and take on a project like this, so that we can raise awareness and start a discussion about solitary confinement, and bring attention to 80,000 people who aren’t seen or heard, and really don’t have a platform to advocate for themselves.

BTR: During your 11 months in solitary confinement, you spent 23 hours alone every day for nearly a year?

JB: Yes, one hour out. In the facility I was in, you didn’t get time outside. Very limited natural light, and your interactions are also limited. I would go about 98 percent of my day without saying a word at all.

BTR: Did you have a sense of how much time was passing, and how long you would be held in solitary confinement?

JB: I knew at a certain point I would be released, I wasn’t quite sure when, which was nerve-wracking. There are men and women who are in solitary confinement today who have no end in sight. That is incredibly difficult, even for me now to fathom the thought of. Being trapped in solitary confinement, not knowing if you’ll ever get out…

BTR: This recent stay for you was a choice, so you knew it was only for 30 days–did you find solace in that fact?

JB: This recent solitary confinement was a little different than how most experience it. First, I was aware that there were people on the outside paying attention and watching. I would check in with the camera once a day. Second, I knew that I was getting out in 30 days. Now, these two things did help, but it’s not a remedy for completely alleviating all of the psychological and emotional stress. A big part of that had to do with me being fully immersed and triggered by my past experiences. So, there were absolutely times where I forgot that the camera was there and that this was a project, and I had to remind myself that I was doing it as a filmmaker now, and that everything was going to be okay.

I was hoping that on a personal level that what I would extract from this experience would be to come to terms with some past trauma. When I went in the first time, I was a kid. A 16-year-old who didn’t have much hope. The time between 16 and now, so much has happened. I was able to deal with some of my past experiences with new perspectives that I gained over the years and I think it was very helpful.

BTR: You said that you would address the camera once a day–would you sit down and speak to your audience?

JB: I would basically just check in and let people know that what I was voluntarily subjecting myself to solitary confinement, reminding people that “I won’t be leaving today.” It was more so a safety precaution than anything.

BTR: Now that you’re out, have you had a dialogue with anyone that was watching you, about their thoughts regarding your experience?

JB: I haven’t really sat down and had a complete debrief yet with anybody, I’m still internalizing a lot of stuff. It’s a lot to think about. I’ve gotten a ton of emails and messages from people who were supporting, and some who weren’t so supportive of the project. But that’s okay too. I haven’t had a chance to fully connect with a lot of those people yet but I’m hopeful to continue the discussion and sit down and have that conversation.

BTR: Do you think there’s any way that this kind of system can be reasonable or effective, or is this just something we need to get rid of completely?

JB: I think that they way we use it is completely outmoded and outdated. In the United States we started using solitary confinement in the 1800s, and it’s now 2017. We need to think about how we’re using it, why we’re using it, and who it is being used on. I think that the questions brought up of whether somebody who is a danger to others, or themselves, should they be removed from the population–my first instinct would be yes. But removing somebody from other people is one thing, using punitive isolation to punish and dehumanize them, and damage them further is another. That’s a conversation I think that we need to be having.

If we’re going to be using solitary confinement, what do we to do to make it better, and humanize, and use compassion? I’ve thought about this a lot: What’s the difference between punishment and reform? Are we still going for the old eye for an eye mentality, or are we thinking about progressing and making people better than they were before they came in?

We incarcerate more people than anybody in the world, and about 80 percent of those people who are incarcerated here on American soil will be released again. And, guess what, that means that they’re gonna be our neighbors. We should think about that. Do we want to make them worse than they were before they came in?

We’re releasing people back out into the public, and there’s a very high possibility that they’re going to recidivate, and end up back in prison. I think that as a society, and as a society that’s progressive, we should start thinking about reform and support. People make mistakes, that doesn’t make them any less human than you or I.

BTR: Were you allowed a pen and paper, or books–is there any sort of outlet for your mental energy while you’re in solitary confinement?

JB: The only items that I had were hygiene items, some stationary items (a pencil and a pad of paper). I didn’t have any reading materials, which would be a privilege, and a lot of people aren’t allowed to have those items. Again, it was just me ruminating, wondering how long it would take me to wear out the concrete floor before it would wear on me.

I fought every minute of it. I didn’t want to become acclimated with that space. It was an arduous process, for sure.

BTR: What did you do during the one hour that you’re not in the room?

JB: Most of the time, I was released into another room that was slightly larger. I’d say for the first five minutes, it’s refreshing. Your depth perception and everything is changing. It feels new, it feels a little bit better, you have more room to walk. But, then again, you’re just let out from a smaller room into a little bigger room. You begin to slide back into the dark corners of your mind.

BTR: You’re still alone in that second room?

JB: You’re still alone in that slightly larger room. There was one instance where I was able to go into the courtyard; they have an open space in the roof where you can get some natural sunlight and some fresh air. That was major. Major for me to go out there. Even though I couldn’t see anything but the sky, it was a big deal for me.

BTR: One thing you’ve said to keep in mind is compassion. How can we integrate compassion into our justice system?

JB: I have hope that if we can continue this discussion, and continue to humanize people, and keep getting in touch with our own humanity that we can figure out a better way. I do believe that, as a society, that we are a lot better than that. I don’t want to be cynical about our criminal justice system, or the current state of our politics. We have to continue to move forward with compassion, and tolerance, and progression.