The new Bond movie Skyfall is out this weekend. It’s a great movie for Bond purists — a throwback to the original series as opposed to the Bourne-inspired Quantum of Solace. I went to see it last night with a dear friend (and self-proclaimed Bond expert) and she pointed out to me that a lot of the movie was actually an homage to Sean Connery’s From Russia with Love.

The movie features some moments with imprisonment and even isolation. Javier Bardiem plays the villain Raoul Silva (…great villain name, btw), a former MI6 agent who had been presumed dead after he was captured and imprisoned by the Chinese. The main impetus for his villainy was the years of torture and imprisonment he had to endure at the hands of the enemy. At the height of his despair, Silva attempted a botched suicide which (mild spoiler alert) basically left his face half melted off.

While being questioned by Bond, Silva is kept in MI6’s state of the art isolation chamber. It’s one of the more artistically bare scenes in the movie, and Bardiem really fills the space well as the very deranged, very blonde supervillain.

Hello, Clarice

Supervillains, supermaxes

While brief, the isolation scene reminded me of the cells that actual prisons use in supermax facilities and the concept of the “constitutional prison.” When modern-day supermaxes first opened in the eighties, they were lauded as “state-of-the-art,” the prisons of the future. Like the MI6 facility, they were high tech and austere — the opposite of the cash-strapped, falling-apart dungeons that had been around since the Reform era.

Civil rights advocates who recognized the cruel and unusual aspects of supermax soon found that it was almost impossible to bring law suits against them under the Eighth Amendment. A supermax facility is the “constitutional prison” — inmates may be being deprived of all their senses, but at the end of the day, they aren’t being physically abused by prison guards or other inmates. In fact, they aren’t getting any human contact at all.

The law often has trouble filling in the gaps when the harm isn’t apparent — see almost any argument about race discrimination — and the mental harm that isolation inflicts on prisoners is no different. However, as studies and stories have emerged about the gruesome effects of long term isolation, the concept of the “constitutional prison” has begun to erode and some successful claims have even been brought on behalf of mentally ill prisoners held in supermax.

Prisons are sometimes referred to as “monster factories.” Skyfall plays right into this concept—Bardiem portrays a once stellar agent who emerges from imprisonment as a ruthless villain. Regardless of whether or not you are interested in isolation, if you get the chance, go out and enjoy the very well done Skyfall.

About the Pop culture of Prisons (P.O.P.!) series: 
This blog series examines representations of prisons and jails in various forms of pop culture such as music, movies, and art. Prisons and prisoners suffer from an image problem. Pop culture feeds into the public’s perception of prisons and prisoners, and the results can be both positive and negative. These entries will delve into the complicated relationship prisons and prisoners have with mainstream pop culture and hopefully foster an intelligent debate on how we as the public perceive the people we incarcerate.


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