Documentary on Prison Boom Fails to Provide Facts or Context

No, it's not just some corporate conspiracy.


'Prison in Twelve Landscapes'
'The Prison in Twelve Landscapes'

Independent Lens: The Prison in Twelve Landscapes. PBS. Monday, May 8, 10 p.m.

Watching The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, I was reminded of an old movie joke. Q. How many surrealist directors does it take to screw in a light bulb? A. November.

Airing as part of the PBS Independent Lens documentary film series, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes is not really surrealist, just torpid and self-consciously arty. It's the sort of stuporous film in which you get languid shots of trains rolling endlessly along a track, images to which aesthetes can assign virtually any metaphoric value—the inexorable human will to free movement, the industrial world's uncaring despoliation of the environment, the quiet desperation of Americans awaiting delivery of their breakfast Cheerios—without fear of contradiction by actual reported facts, which are few and far between in Twelve Landscapes.

Twelve Landscapes is rooted in a clever (conceptually, anyway) attempt to make virtue out of necessity. Making a documentary about America's burgeoning prisons (population 2.2 million and growing all the time) is an exercise in frustration because it's nearly impossible to get cameras inside them. So Canadian filmmaker Brett Story approached from the opposite direction, with a series of vignettes about how incarceration affects the world outside.

But lots of thing can go wrong between conception and birth. Story's affection for the tedium of cinema verite, her rejection of journalism for aesthetics, and, most fundamentally, her neo-Marxist certainty that the driving force behind American penology is corporate conspiracy all combine to make large chunks of Twelve Landscapes nearly unwatchable.

The fact that a lot of New York City chess hustlers learned their trade in prison (if it is a fact; if Story has any evidence beyond the assertion of a single player, it's not to be found in in Twelve Landscapes) is an interesting tidbit. But the key word is "tidbit"; watching guys stare at chessboards for four minutes is even more excruciating than it sounds. I thought it was interesting to listen to the musings of a California inmate who's part of an all-female forest-fire-fighting crew ("I think of myself as a hero, and [even though the prison rules prohibit me from talking to them] sometimes I can tell that the public does, too") until I learned—and not from the film itself—that she's actually an actress playing a composite character whose lines were collected from many different interviews.

Story's refusal to use narration or otherwise provide facts to establish context for her vignettes actually damages her own arguments at times. The fact that people in Wheelwright, Kentucky, think their local prison is an economic boon to their community would have a lot more impact if Twelve Landscapes had mentioned that the surrounding counties host more than a dozen prisons, regional jails, and detention centers, including two supermax facilities; pockets of depressed rural America are becoming unlikely headquarters of the prison-industrial complex, welcoming correctional facilities that the suburbs don't want.

Yet even with that detail added, the prison boom in Kentucky is more interesting than significant. Does Story really believe that America's enormous prison population was produced by the tawdry manipulations of powerful Appalachian political forces? A bit of actual reporting might have disclosed that—depending on whose numbers you believe—somewhere between 20 and 50 percent of U.S. prison inmates are incarcerated on drug charges. Even at the low end of that spectrum, ending the drug war would result in enormous savings in both dollars and broken lives.

For all its flaws, though, the small-ball approach of Twelve Landscapes sometimes hits the target. There's a fascinating interview with the owner of a warehouse that assembles gift packages for prison inmates, helping their families negotiate the eternally mutating jungle of security rules about what can be sent in and what can't. (CDs, which can allegedly be broken up and used as shivs, are prohibited; but tin cans of tuna and their sharp-edged lids, perplexingly, are okay.)

And if you've ever doubted that America is over-policed, at least partially to fund mushrooming local government, watch the interview with a woman from a ramshackle town outside St. Louis who was dragged into municipal court because the lid of her trash can wasn't properly secured. Learning the fine was $170, she hotheadedly told the judge she'd rather go to jail: "I work too hard for money to give it to you over a frickin' trash can lid." Three days into her stay in a miserable, overcrowded and filthy jail, she began wondering what she'd gotten herself into. "How long do you hold somebody on a trash can lid?" she asked. Fifteen days, came the reply. Ahhh, the majesty of the law.

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  1. Sounds like you could make a much better documentary on the subject, Garvin. Get to it.

    1. The Walled According to Garv?

      1. I’m making over $7k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life.

        This is what I do…

      2. I’m making over $7k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life.

        This is what I do..,.,.,.,.

  2. Incarcerating anyone for failing to secure her garbage can lid seems to violate the 4th Amendment, and common sense. Prisons do not spontaneously incarcerate people; governments do. Private corporations do not convict people of petty crimes and sentence them to prison; governments do. Let’s point the finger* of blame for unreasonable incarceration where it is due: federal, state and municipal government.

    * not usually the index finger

    1. Maybe not. We have no backstory, was this the 20th time she’s been cited? Does she intentionally leave the lid off so the rats can eat and refuse to leave it closed? How would you propose she be punished for repeatedly refusing to close the lid on her garbage when everyone else in town has agreed that for sanitary and health considerations that should be the rule? And she was given a choice, she chose the time rather than the money. More, you apparently think she was sent to prison, but she would have been sent to the local jail, you don’t send someone to prison for 15 days. And prisons are generally not full of petty criminals, unless you consider having your home broken into, ransacked and robbed petty, or armed robbery petty, or rape petty. I suspect that the majority of people in prison probably should be there longer than they’ll end up being there. While I agree that drug laws create a whole lot of criminals for no good reason the majority of people in prison are not there for simple possession or even distribution, they’re there because they committed actual crimes and should be there.

      1. I stand by my comment. Fine her. If she doesn’t pay, garnish her wages. Don’t incarcerate. Incarceration is a waste of money and resources for minor civil infractions.

    2. Private Corporations convict people of petty crimes all of the time. You think these private prisons have public defenders protecting the prisoners from their sentences being lengthened by corporate regulations (Private Prison Rules and Justice)?

  3. I’m amazed that so many lefties think mass incarceration is a capitalist conspiracy. Why would capitalists want a chunk of the work force locked away beyond use, and then the capitalists made to pay for their room and board? Are they aware that the maligned Koch brothers, the epitome of evil capitalism, are huge supporters of criminal justice reform? Admirable as they may be, their position on the matter is actually entirely consistent with their “class’s” self interest. Capitalists (if they are self-interested) want less incarceration, not more.

    1. Prison labor.

      Construction crews

      Someone else is paying for it if your tax rate is zero, like the Kock brothers.

  4. Wait, what?
    PBS not providing facts or context?
    How can that be?
    They receive federal funds and are held to the highest standards of journalistic integrity. The grant giver said so.

  5. highest standards of journalistic integrity

    I believe that is about a hair above the lowest standards of journalistic integrity now.

  6. “her neo-Marxist certainty” is a pretty big non-evidentiary statement to make in an opinion piece bitchin’ about no evidence.

  7. An excerpt from a Vice interview concerning her Firefighters scene,

    Barring some casual notes of Miss Story’s personal eccentricities. She isn’t neo-Marxist as much as she is a standard young white liberal with a greater inclination to action than her peers. I personally have my own criticisms of the private prison system but more oriented around replacement than removal.

    Concerning the trash-lid case I don’t really find much issue other than this woman chose to go to jail then failed to advocate for a change in the law.

    1. The excerpt:
      “I wanted to have the scene just contain fire footage. There’s something so mesmerizing and sublime about massive fires, and I wanted to bring the audience into that zone while the woman’s voice slowly brought us into her story.”

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