What the Insanity of Mass Incarceration Has Done To Us

We have lived with mass incarceration for so long that we do not see that it’s making even those who are supposed to be free less human—and less humane.
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The Prison in Twelve Landscapes
Directed by Brett Story, 2016, 94 mins.

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.

The film also shows us how racism sustains the ravenous penal system.

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.