My name is James Burns, I'm a director and producer from Brooklyn, NY. Last month, I voluntarily entered into solitary confinement in Arizona's La Paz County Jail where I stayed for 30 days. While inside, VICE live streamed every moment on their YouTube channel. I got out last week and am now back home in New York. I wanted to do this project to start a conversation about the merits of the continued use of solitary confinement in the U.S., as well as to show the day-to-day and passage in solitary in a way that's never been seen before.

This project was a personal one for me and was based on my own experiences in solitary confinement. When I was a teenager, I went to prison for armed robbery and did multiple stints in solitary confinement — the longest one lasting eleven consecutive months. After leaving prison, I got my life on track and started pursuing a career as a filmmaker. My first short documentary, "We Live This," took the Special Jury Mention at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival. Currently, I'm finishing My directorial feature debut, Revolving Doors, profiling three men in Baltimore at various stages of the criminal justice system. I've also worked extensively with VICE in recent years, producing and directing documentaries on modern-day debtors prisons, the bail bonds industry, the ongoing Hepatitis C epidemic in West Virginia, and more.

You can read more about my solitary confinement project here and watch a video of me explaining why I voluntarily went back into solitary confinement here. Follow me on Instagram here.

I'm excited to be here and answer any questions about my project, prison reform, and more. Ask me anything!


Comments: 83 • Responses: 26  • Date: 

syrup128 karma

Did your experience in solitary confinement feel real? For instance did the presence of cameras or the idea that you were part of a live stream make it less intimidating/realistic?

JamesyBurns36 karma

The experience did feel real- i was completely immersed. I think because of my past experience I was triggered in many of the same ways as before and it was very painful. Oftentimes I forgot about the cameras- it's hard to exist 24/7 under surveillance and be conscious of it all the time.

thisiscoolyeah27 karma

How realistic was your experience? I assume most peoples trip to confinement comes after a highly emotional experience; at times against their will and for no sufficient reason. How did your experience differ from those of actual inmates? Couldn't you just have locked your self in a storage locker and received the same results?

JamesyBurns57 karma

My experience was very realistic- aside from me having to address the camera. The deprivation is very real. And the correctional staff made it a point to treat me the same as any other inmate. The only difference was that I could clock out at any time if I felt I was going to have a mental breakdown, whereas other people in solitary have no choice but to suffer through their experience.

Being in a real facility also does something to you- The weight of a real jail or prison has a significant impact on your psyche.

broosk31 karma

Do you feel like having the ability to tap out at any time contributed towards a totally different experience than true solitary confinement? Also, do you believe that knowing you'll only be there for thirty days made* a difference in how you approached each day?

*EDIT: typo

JamesyBurns26 karma

The thirty day time limit did affect how I did my time- I think knowing I only had 30 days helped me make it through.

Certainly, having the ability to tap out makes the experience a little different- there are people in solitary confinement who have no end in sight.

But neither one of those things change the reality of what extreme sensory deprivation does to the brain- the effects of solitary confinement happen whether you have an end date or not.

adamcoe24 karma

Hey there, neat project, if a little insane. What (if any) alternatives would you recommend to the prison industry as a way of a) punishing very dangerous criminals and b) keeping well known criminals or terrorists out of the main prison population for their own protection, like many of the inmates at ADX Florence in Colorado? I absolutely agree that solitary is a form of torture but as yet I can't think of any way around it in certain cases.

JamesyBurns41 karma

This is the big question, right? I'm glad you asked. I wish I had the magic bullet that could solve all these problems and end the practice of solitary confinement but I do recognize that it is necessary to separate people who are a danger to themselves and others for safety reasons. I think we need to do that with empathy and in a way that is more humane and geared towards reform rather than punishment. If we're going to use incarceration as a method of correction, then we should be striving to make people better than they were when they came in.

I had a similar conversation with one of the corrections officers during my time in solitary and he said, "I challenge you or anyone I find a better way." I would forward that challenge to the rest of the world- to researchers, to correctional institutions, to the public.

Finding an alternative would mean bringing together leaders in mental health research, corrections, policy, and advocacy groups- it would mean a shift in how we look at corrections but it's a shift I think we can and should achieve.

As a filmmaker I can primarily speak to the emotional experience of solitary and I hope that it would inspire those with the skill sets needed to come together and find alternatives. I'll also continue searching for answers in my own work.

Chtorrr11 karma

What contact did you have with other inmates? Do people talk between cells?

JamesyBurns22 karma

I had no contact with the other inmates, with the exception of the trustees bringing food to my cell. Some of the inmates knew about the project and when they'd pass by the unit they'd shout my name and hold their fists up- I couldn't talk to them but I could see them from my cell window.

In some facilities people talk between cells, in this case I had no one that I could talk to.

Zan_H11 karma

Thank your for doing this AMA, what are your thoughts on oatmeal cookies?

JamesyBurns20 karma

Love 'em. I realize that raisins aren't for everyone but I'm sticking to my guns.

D3DGAM3S10 karma

Why did you want to pursue film making? How were conditions in solitary confinement?

JamesyBurns16 karma

I started writing while I was in prison and I found the medium of filmmaking was a way for me to channel my past experiences into something I could share. Also I've just always been drawn towards film from a young age.

Conditions in solitary are stark: it's just you, locked in a cage the size of a parking space. You get just enough resources to exist, you have just a few micro-interactions with correctional officers when they feed you or have to take you out of your cell, beyond that you're left to your own devices.

saxophonemississippi7 karma

Are you allowed to sing?

JamesyBurns17 karma

I guess you could but I wouldn't want to put myself through that experience, much less the people watching at home. >_<

FattyLeopold8 karma

How did you end up working for vice? Did you approach them, did they ask you or did everything just fit into place?

JamesyBurns12 karma

I basically shot a proof of concept for an idea that I had and brought it to VICE- we've been collaborating ever since.

EchoZeroEleven5 karma

Firstly, you're brave for subjecting yourself to this.


  1. Are there any merits for this method for prisons?

  2. What negative effects did you suffer in your month?

JamesyBurns10 karma

  1. It's hard to say there is a merit for torturing people. There is no merit to torturing people.

  2. Let's just say it was very painful- I felt intense anxiety, insomnia, and my thoughts were scattered. There were times where I felt hopeless, especially when I started thinking about people who didn't have the option to leave solitary like I did.

EchoZeroEleven2 karma

I think we've got the same opinion, just had to ask pro/cons just in case I was missing a perspective.

Thanks for the prompt response, and good job on the work you've done.

JamesyBurns2 karma

Thanks for being a part of the discussion!

liamquane5 karma

Do you have any directorial advice? :~)

JamesyBurns9 karma

For sure- know what you want to say and how you want to say it. Finding your own voice is important- a great way to figure out what you like is to immerse yourself in things that inspire you. Keep working, keep creating!

phixional4 karma

I'm sure not too many people would voluntarily go into solitary confinement.

How nervous, if at all, where you after I'm assuming all paperwork and such was sorted?

And just out of curiosity did you stuff your face in the days before going in it the opposite?

Also, good work on turning your life around.

JamesyBurns12 karma

I was incredibly nervous going in. Like, take the worst day you've ever had where you feel really shitty about yourself and then say, "Cool, I'm gonna do thirty of those in a row."

Definitely was too anxious to eat very much the week before, I also had a sinus infection going in which didn't add anything pleasant to the experience. But you can bet I ordered a steak burrito first thing when I got out.

Notapseudoliberal4 karma

Do you think as a society we dont see criminals as human and so allow this depraved torture to continue?

JamesyBurns13 karma

I think that's a big part of it. I don't want to be cynical but I think as a society we can do better. Just because someone has made mistakes in the past does not mean that they are any less human than anyone else and therefore don't deserve to be tortured.

JamesyBurns3 karma

copy that!

bluesconte2 karma

What brought you to creating documentaries instead of making fictional pieces?

JamesyBurns3 karma

Actually I do narrative pieces as well- I love them both. I wrote a piece in solitary confinement that's a fictional narrative that I'll be directing sometime this year

drunkladyhitme2 karma

What do you think is the most negative outcome that putting inmates in solitary confinement has on their reentry to society?

What methods would you recommend to replace solitary confinement?

What was the most substantial change you noticed after you did your 11 months?

Thanks for doing this AMA, i had not heard of your stream but im going to check it out now. I watch viceland quite a bit, maybe ill see you there soon!

JamesyBurns8 karma

Hey thanks for your questions! I think they're all important points to bring up.

I feel like there should be a warning label on solitary confinement that reads like "SIDE EFFECTS MAY INCLUDE: anxiety, depression, paranoia, psychosis, explosive outbursts, cognitive disturbances, perceptual distortions, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, homicidal thoughts..." the list goes on and on and all of these damaging effects would negatively impact an inmate's re-entry into society. A lot of these effects can be permanent.

I think it's important to remember that incarcerated persons are human beings. Some of the steps that could be taken towards improving this system are making it mandatory that inmates have access to mental health care professionals, have access to books, have designated yard time and natural light. I also think that having contact with the outside world- family and loved ones- goes a long way. I think that the state of colorado is taking a step in the right direction with some of the new programs that they've started, you can read more about it here:

The most substantial change I noticed after 11 months was feeling like I had lost my sense of identity.

youuselesslesbian2 karma

Were there any times where you thought you just weren't going to make it? Was there a particular low part of your time in solitary confinement?

JamesyBurns5 karma

There were times that I had to remind myself that I wasn't an inmate and that this was a project- your thoughts can go to some very dark places in extreme conditions like that. Because of my past experience in solitary confinement I was triggered, and I was reacquainted with the feeling of not being able to make it.

chucktits332 karma

Other than the length of time, was there any difference between your mandatory and voluntary experiences of solitary confinement. Such as treatment by guards, food, lights on or off.

Also, 11 months seems like a pretty hefty punishment, would you mind sharing what caused such a punishment?

Glad to hear that you were stronger than the system and have accomplished success after prison. It doesn't happen for many. Congrats!!!

JamesyBurns6 karma

Of course knowing the fact that I could leave at any point was the major difference- but overall I was treated no differently than most inmates who are in solitary confinement across the nation. Facilities vary on things like access to reading materials, stationary items, and yard time but I asked that I only have access to stationary items and the mandatory hour out of the cell.

To be honest I can't really remember why I was put in solitary for eleven months in the first place, I'm pretty sure it was for a fight. Over the course of my incarceration I was in and out of solitary multiple times, eleven months just happened to be the longest stretch.

Cynistera2 karma

Are you OK?

JamesyBurns4 karma

I'm getting there, thanks for asking!

wmacj2 karma

What would you say is the absolute worst part, mentally, of the whole process? Also, does the lack of human interaction show once you're released back into the general population? Was it hard to re-adjust back to normality?

JamesyBurns4 karma

The whole process is dehumanizing- the lack of human interaction does make it hard to readjust when you come back to the real world. On my first day after release I was full of anxiety and could barely look people in the eye.

Trufa_1 karma

Did anything "good" came out of this solitary confimenement or the other one? Or are the effects all negative?

Thanks for bringing awareness of the issue!

JamesyBurns4 karma

Definitely nothing good came out of the other one. The best thing that came out of this experience was the fact that I could use it as a way to raise awareness.

Chtorrr1 karma

Are there any projects you really want to do but are not sure you will be able to?

JamesyBurns3 karma

Chasing dreams every day.

GooZap1 karma

Any relation to Ken Burns, the legendary documentary film maker?

JamesyBurns1 karma

No, but I respect his work!

Ashhcatt1 karma

I am interested in making documentaries. I am pretty new to the area of filmmaking though. Do you have any tips or advice for getting started and improving?

JamesyBurns2 karma

Keep doing it! Make what's interesting to you and what you're passionate about.

whyaretherebeesohgod-3 karma

What was the point if we already know the effects? You wasted a month

JamesyBurns12 karma

The point of the project was not for me to discover the effects of solitary - I had already experienced being held against my will in solitary during my previous incarceration as a teenager.

The project was more so to show people the day in and day out of what being in solitary confinement is like in real time and hopefully start a conversation around it. So far seems like it's working, no?