“Unseeing the Prison System”
Chris Barnes (Syracuse University)
Eschewing the stereotypical imagery that often comes to mind when we think of prisons, Brett Story’s The Prison in Twelve Landscapes challenges viewers to look for them in places we may not expect and to see them in ways we may not be used to. As the film moves through a series of counties, towns, and cities across the country, Story’s training as both a filmmaker and geographer are apparent. She and her cinematographer, Maya Bankovich, carefully capture some of the ways the prison system manifests outside of discrete penal institutions, resulting in a series of meditative vignettes that reveal an expansive carceral state that is embedded within, and profoundly shapes, the economic and social landscapes of American life. Taken together, these vignettes illustrate that while we often think of prisons as invisible and existing at the margins of society, they are actually central to shaping lives and communities across the country.
Story’s film does not traffic in sensationalism, but instead shows the quiet and mundane ways in which the carceral state expresses itself in individuals’ lives. We see this in the nighttime bus ride with which the film begins, when it is initially unclear where it is traveling, who the passengers are, or how this relates to the prison system. The sequence moves between shots of the passing landscape and passengers while the soundtrack consists of a series of recorded messages from family members dedicated to their incarcerated loved ones. We later learn the significance of both the bus ride and these recordings: the passengers are on their way from New York City to visit those incarcerated at the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York, and the messages are recorded shout-outs from the “Calls From Home” radio show in Whitesburg, Kentucky, in which people on the outside can leave messages that are broadcast over the radio to prisons in Kentucky and Virginia. Though the significance of the sequence may not be clear until later in the film, its sound-image relationship captures some of the ways that prisons reshape relationships between individuals and communities across both time and space. That is, while the prison system literally facilitates the movement of bodies from homes and communities into concrete and metal cages, what gets less attention is how that movement affects the relationships and the intimacy between those in prison and their loved ones on the outside. Both the bus ride and the shout-outs are different ways of trying to cross these spatial boundaries and to maintain these connections.
As The Prison in Twelve Landscapes shows us, the effects of the prison system are felt in a variety of ways and it is difficult to shoehorn this complex vision into one overarching, linear explanation for the rise of mass incarceration or how to solve it. By avoiding the standard iconography of prisons – such as shots of prison buildings, of (predominantly black) men in cells, and of the guards who oversee them – the vignettes instead challenge us to think about incarceration outside the narrow scope of the criminal justice system, pointing to how the prison system is deeply intertwined within the capitalist state in ways that may not be immediately perceptible. In Detroit, for example, we receive a tour of the Quicken Loans headquarters by an enthusiastic tour guide who praises the corporation’s efforts to “revitalize” downtown Detroit through gentrification and aggressive over-policing that has more than doubled apartment prices in the area. And in Ferguson, Missouri, we watch in slow-motion a line of predominately black and brown residents paying dubious traffic fines levied by the city. There, over-policing is not about exclusion so much as it is about ensnaring low-income, marginalized communities for the purposes of revenue generation. Both sequences are about profit – either through gentrification or police ticketing – and both contradict prevailing assumptions that prisons and policing are about creating safety and security.
These vignettes make clear that dismantling the sprawling carceral state is not going to be achieved simply through bipartisan criminal justice reform. That is, reducing the amount of people we lock up does not fix the problems wrought by neoliberal capitalism, which prisons simultaneously exacerbate but are also meant to help solve. For residents of Eastern Kentucky, prisons provide employment for an area devastated by the loss of coal mining jobs, while the stigma of having served time in prison shuts others out from the job market, like the formerly incarcerated chess master in Washington Square Park who instead earns money playing chess. Story is never prescriptive about what must be done to solve these problems, and their very scale makes it obvious that there is no one quick fix. Importantly, however, her film’s denaturalization of the prison system provides space for us to begin developing alternatives that address systemic issues that have accelerated the carceral state’s growth in the first place.
“The Fluidity of Space”
Laurel Ahnert (Georgia State University)
Brett Story’s The Prison in Twelve Landscapes explores social inequality and the American justice system. It features twelve locations closely associated with prisons, either because they have a high population of former inmates or because the prison is the primary economic engine for the local community. It takes a slow, meditative approach to the topic while at the same time highlighting contentious political debates related to the U.S. prison system. The minimalist yet stylized soundtrack and the use of historical footage are both interesting topics for further discussion, but the idea of landscapes prompted by the film’s title is arguably a dominant organizing principle for the film. Though the film explores several locations throughout the U.S., it is far from being disjointed. Instead, space and place are rendered as fluid, foregrounding some of the social and affective commonalities that tie together the different parts of prison culture. The film moves lithely between the various landscapes, smoothly transporting the viewer backward and forward through space and time. In effect, the film is visually illustrating “the system” as an intangible, amorphous force that seamlessly intersects with other aspects of American society.
While there are unique characteristics distinguishing the different regions explored in the film, the landscapes begin to blend together through the use of visual and auditory repetition. For example, a train shown crossing a precarious bridge in Appalachia is echoed later by the distant sound of a train whistle as it weaves its way through the Bronx. This recurring motif metaphorically tethers together rural and urban spaces as well as the southern and northern parts of the country. Trains transverse and connect vast stretches of land, but they also represent capitalist expansion and the economic importance of resource-based industries. In this way, the film subtly highlights the interrelationship between the waning coal and steel industries and the rise of the prison industrial complex in places like Eastern Kentucky. Elsewhere, the film connects the financial sector, represented by the headquarters of Quicken Loans in Detroit, and the intensification of the city’s prison pipeline after the collapse of the housing market. Similarly, contemporary prison firefighters combating forest fires on the West Coast are shown on a continuum with historical footage of a black community assaulted by uncontrollable flames during a period of social unrest.
While exploring these various landscapes, the camera is often nestled low, below eye level. In Appalachia, the rolling mountains fill the frame so the small houses and abandoned gas stations appear lost among the oaks and pines. The effect is a claustrophobic feeling accented by the mournful, high-lonesome singing of a woman found by the side of the road in the rain. This constrained visual style recurs throughout the film with framing that is often tight, off-center, or out of focus. In one interview, a former inmate is pressed up against the left side of the screen as if the frame itself were restraining him. Another man is fragmented through the use of extreme close-ups. The camera first moves in close up on his glasses and then reframes, enclosing his mouth as he speaks. In these instances, proximity translates as confinement rather than intimacy, and landscapes are rendered as difficult and obstructing terrains for the people on screen. The film’s fluidity does not translate as free-flowing mobility, therefore, but a kind of thick ooze that envelopes its subjects. Indeed, the film’s recurring use of audio reverb evokes the sense of being deep under water, much as the prison system immerses and maintains hold over a segment of the U.S. population. For these reasons, the film’s audiovisual style speaks to a broader argument about the ways the prison industrial complex has permeated the U.S. culture and economy in ways that are insidious, long-lasting, and will be difficult to dismantle without approaching it from a similarly complex, holistic view.