The Worst Prison System in America?

The Texas jails were notorious, but documentary film maker Eric Sherman decided to look at them from another angle.


Four years ago, a friend told film maker Eric Sherman about the controversial Texas Department of Corrections, which was being sued simultaneously by the US Department of Justice and by the American Civil Liberties Union. At the time the second-largest prison system in the country (it is now the largest), the TDC was charged with violating prisoners' constitutional rights by subjecting them to overcrowding, inadequate medical care, and control by other inmates.

Sherman was intrigued by the unlikely alliance of the Justice Department and the ACLU and decided to investigate the Texas system. While one of the longest-running civil rights trials in US court history (Ruiz et al. v. Estelle et al.) dragged on, Sherman researched the TDC and tried to round up funds for a documentary on the system. He finally obtained the money—close to $100,000—from a former film student of his who had come upon better times.

Although it took some convincing that Sherman was not out to "smear" the TDC, system director William J. Estelle finally agreed to let him film whatever he wanted, provided he "not show any prisoner or employee in a degrading light." The resulting documentary—10 days of shooting edited down to 53 minutes of film—goes under the title Inside Out.

What Sherman wanted to document was the running of the Texas prison system. So he filmed the prisoners' daily doings—working, eating, going to school, in recreation—and then intercut these scenes and interviews with prison officials and a (critical) criminologist.

The TDC, the largest state prison system in the country, currently handles some 36,000 inmates in 20 facilities in eastern Texas. Some years back, the TDC had decided that safety and self-sufficiency would be the paramount considerations in its system and that its prisoners would cooperate or else. Consequently, the prisoners work at more than 20 industries, growing their own food; making their own clothing, shoes, and belts and even prison cell materials such as iron bars; and supplying many goods and services to state agencies.

When Inside Out was filmed, the system boasted a cost per inmate one-fifth the national average ($2,300 per year compared to $17,000 nationally). Today, at $5,110 per inmate per year, the TDC still spends only one-third of the national average of $15,829. Texas officials also boast of a low, 30–40 percent recidivism rate (although statistics on recidivism are notoriously unreliable and not given much credence by most criminologists or penal authorities).

According to Texas prison warden James Williamson, these impressive statistics are a direct result of TDC's advocacy of education and productive work habits. Once convicted, all prisoners are expected to work. If they don't meet fifth-grade-level requirements, inmates are required to attend the prison school system, the Windham School District, or pursue vocational training.

"From what can be seen in the docu[mentary], conditions seem to be more than satisfactory," admitted a skeptical reviewer in Variety. But "one wonders what the prisoners themselves (none of whom are ever interviewed) would say."

Sherman, however, says the film wasn't meant to be about the prisoner's viewpoint. "I could easily have found a prisoner who would say anything at all," he says. Instead, his aim was to capture on film a different aspect from that of the 30 or so prison documentaries he'd viewed in his preliminary research, "nearly all from the prisoner's point of view."

Is there more to the story than the picture presented in Inside Out? When the Ruiz case was decided by a federal court in 1981, the TDC was ordered to make substantial improvements in prisoners' living conditions and security. When the TDC appealed, most of the significant court orders were upheld.

The virtue of Sherman's film is that it provokes discussion and questioning. As criminologist and author Bruce Jackson notes in the film, we have to decide "what we want these institutions to do." Are they simply to remove the wrongdoers from the rest of society and keep them out of reach for a specified period of time using the most efficient and inexpensive means? Do we want them to remove wrongdoers from our midst but also respect all the prisoners' civil rights save for the right of free association? Or do we envision penal institutions as reeducation centers, an analogue to the government school system? And in cases where crimes have victims, how do we get around the problem of the victim paying taxes to support the person who violated his or her rights?

Technically, the film is quite well produced and filmed. This should come as no surprise, since Sherman is a respected director-cinematographer whose company, Film Transform, produces documentaries for various clients. For example, Sherman did documentaries a few years ago on free-market economists F.A. Hayek and Henry Hazlitt for the American Enterprise Institute. Earlier, Sherman had filmed Paul Weiss—A Philosopher in Process. More recent projects include a film of the Fourth of July speedboat race from Miami Beach to the Statue of Liberty, a short on the Epson QX-10 computer, a film on the Neighborhood Watch concept, and, as cinematographer, a film on the positive aspects of American culture, called The Measure of America.

Sherman has taught and written books on film production and endured "a Hollywood childhood." Errol Flynn was his godfather, and Sherman's father, Vincent Sherman, began directing in the mid-30s and continues to direct today, at 77; he did The Last Hurrah and The Dream Merchants for television. Sherman himself does some 20 to 30 films a year "quickly and inexpensively," he says.

He is trying to get wider release for Inside Out, particularly through cable TV. He hopes someone will arrange a showing of the film with a debate. It has been shown internationally at several festivals—Melbourne, Toronto, Montreal, Spain, and Italy—and he has received queries from the governments of Australia, Israel, and California.

He is optimistic about widespread distribution, because people are so concerned about prisons. "People are willing to vote each year for more money to build prisons, yet the results of all this spending are sad." Eric Sherman hopes Inside Out will do something to change that.

Christine Dorffi is a free-lance writer.