In Brett Story’s documentary The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, the camera journeys across the country, pausing in ordinary places where prisons affect our lives in ways so subtle that they almost seem invisible. In the film’s opening, we hear voices brimming with love, strained from loss, fragile with regret—sending messages to loved ones.
“God loves you, and you know your Grandma does.”
“All is well with the girls.”
“Went fishing yesterday morning. Caught a couple of catfish …”
As I watch, I am transported back to the summer of 1971, when I spent time in jail, charged with possession of heroin with intent to distribute and possession of a needle and syringe. At age 21, I was a drug user, not a supplier. Yet I still wound up a felon.
I am transported back in time because while in that jail cell in Charlotte, North Carolina, I missed the kind of ordinariness these people speak of. Braiding my daughter’s hair. Opening the refrigerator and choosing what to eat. The phone calls with my mother.
The tender messages that open the film also remind us that a multitude of people are affected when one human being is incarcerated.
Instead of sledgehammering its message, this film makes your heart bleed drip by drip as the story slowly unfolds.
On the screen, orange flames soar, accompanied by the voice of a woman, the member of an all-female firefighting crew, who eventually says, “The only way you know I’m a prison firefighter is if I tell you.” She says some people, amazed to find they all are women, try to talk to them. But the women are not allowed to respond. And I am reminded of all the ways people who are incarcerated are rendered voiceless, of how long it took me to overcome the shame that choked my own voice.
Another landscape comes into focus, and everything appears ordinary. But one of the pillars of incarceration is the disruption of ordinariness. And to maintain this separation, there are countless rules, always changing.
In the film, we visit a Bronx warehouse where a man operates a business serving people who want to send packages to loved ones in prison. He once searched for hours to find things to send his brother, who is incarcerated. He later found out that about 15 percent of the items were tossed in the trash because they didn’t adhere to institutional rules. So today, he sells nail clippers no longer than 2 inches, white boxer shorts without elastic, and audio tapes specially made with clear cases and no screws.
Today, as a volunteer with the women at a jail in Charlotte—located where the one I was incarcerated in once stood—I know the frustration of abiding by ever-changing rules. After two years, I showed up one day to find I could no longer use a locker. “The lockers are for the lawyers now,” I was told. Another Monday, I was told my regular supply bag is inappropriate. “It has to be a clear bag,” the officer said. The next month: The bag has to be a certain size, and mine is too big.
Which brings me to what strikes me most about Story’s film. In a discreet way, he exposes the insanity of mass incarceration and how it changes all of us.
We see what mass incarceration has done to us when we hear an Eastern Kentucky man pin the economic survival of his town on the promise that a prison will be built, something he calls a “recession-proof” business. This landscape is a metaphor for the dulling of our senses—and of creativity and reasoning when we would depend on locking up people to save ourselves.
The film also shows us how racism sustains the ravenous penal system. In St. Louis County, Missouri, a Black man explains how traffic tickets are doled out to Black people in municipalities along a freeway near the city of Ferguson. The camera pans slowly over a long line of mostly Black people waiting to pay traffic tickets at a courthouse. A Black woman has been given a $175 ticket for not securing a lid on her garbage can. I cry when her voice cracks as she recounts how she asked a jail official, “How long do you hold someone for a trash can lid?” and they say, “Fifteen days.”
And this is when The Prison in Twelve Landscapes is most frightening: when it shows us that we have lived with mass incarceration for so long that we do not see that it is making even those who are supposed to be free less human—and less humane.
Patrice Gaines wrote this article for The Sanctuary Issue, the Summer 2017 issue of YES! Magazine. Patrice is a past Soros Justice Media Fellow and an abolitionist who believes we must create a society that does not depend on prisons to reduce crime. She is also author of the memoir Laughing in the Dark: From Colored Girl to Woman of Color, a Journey From Prison to Power.
Historian: Trump’s response to the coronavirus crisis resembles Hitler more than FDR
In times of crisis, effective leadership is more crucial than ever. As President Trump struggles with the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, including the filing of more than ten million new unemployment claims in late March and crucial shortages of equipment like effective masks and ventilators, the ways other leaders responded to the Great Depression offer lessons both inspirational and cautionary for the present. Although Franklin Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler operated in two very different political cultures, their first 100 days in power offer a sobering reminder of the consequences of decisions pursued by leaders in crisis.
Franklin Graham is anti-Jesus
You may have noticed a contradiction among members of the president’s most loyal voting bloc, white evangelical Christians. On the one hand, their leaders are not taking the coronavirus pandemic seriously. Pastors continue to hold Sunday services, many in the thousands, thus exposing their congregations, which include the sick and elderly, to a contagion that has killed 13,000 people in this country, 2,000 yesterday alone.
On the other hand, their leaders are taking the disease outbreak very seriously, seeing it as an outcome of mankind’s sinful ways, and thus encouragement to seek salvation through Jesus Christ. Rev. Franklin Graham spelled this out Saturday on Fox News:
Americans slam Trump for bragging about ratings of his ‘2 hour variety show’ while ignoring 13,000 COVID-19 deaths
The U.S. has suffered 12,988 COVID-19 deaths but President Donald Trump is focused on a different problem: why the left is demanding news networks stop airing his daily coronavirus press briefings live. Why? He likes the ratings.
Trump says his daily press briefings draw an audience comparable to those that watch "Monday Night Football" or "The Bachelor" finale, so the news networks should continue to air them live.
...the Fake News Media into not covering them, but that effort failed because the ratings are through the roof according to, of all sources, the Failing New York Times, “Monday Night Football, Bachelor Finale” type numbers (& sadly, they get it $FREE). Trump Derangement Syndrome!