VICE filmmaker James Burns left the La Paz County Jail on Tuesday morning after 30 days in lockup, being whisked away by producers at the end of his period of self-imposed exile.
The project was an experiment in the experience of solitary confinement, being documented by VICE as a way to shine a light on a practice that is used more in America than all other first-world countries. It is James’s hope that it’s a conversation-starter, and for him, it’s personal.
When he was 6 years old, James was left in solitary confinement at a mental health facility by his mother, who was addicted to drugs at the time. The trauma of that experience stayed with him, and it marked the beginning of a 15-year relationship with America’s criminal justice system, which included falling in with a ‘bad crowd’ and being in and out of jail.
A movie based on his life, Jamesy Boy, was released in 2014 and starred Spencer Lofranco, Ving Rhames, Mary-Louise Parker and James Woods.
James’s time at the La Paz County Jail began in December, when the Sheriff’s Office agreed to allow him to spend 30 days there for the project. A live stream ran 24/7 from his cell, where people could check in and watch and listen to what was going on at any time, footage from which was captured for VICE.
Almost every day James would turn to one of the cameras on the wall facing him and talk to the people watching, usually beginning by reminding them that he was there of his own free will and that an estimated 85,000 Americans aren’t so lucky. Viewers got to see the daily routine at the detention facility in Parker, which is unusual. Trays of food for breakfast passed through a hole in the steel door to his cell, laundry, K-9 units doing route searches for contraband, the orange Crocs that are the rubber companion to the orange uniform; all of it part of a world that most people never get to see.
At around 10am on Tuesday, producers coordinated his release and whisked him away after a few interviews with Sheriff’s staff. Lieutenant Curt Bagby told Parker Live the Sheriff’s Office was glad to be involved in the project and hoped it may help trigger good conversations around the use of solitary confinement.