Non-reformist Reforms and the Prison Documentary

Beth Capper

One impact of the widespread contemporary engagement with abolitionist ideas, such as “defunding the police,” in popular media and discourse is a renewed critique of media about crime, policing, and prisons. From the cancellation of the reality TV series COPS to a reckoning with the regressive politics of true crime media and police procedurals, audiences seem highly attuned to the ways that media uphold police and carceral power. And while the more overtly reactionary examples of media “copaganda” have borne the brunt of this reckoning, some critics have pointed out that socially-engaged media are equally to blame. In particular, scholars such as Brett Story and Michelle Brown argue that the formal conventions of many social documentaries about prisons often reinforce narratives of prison reform, and in so doing, ideologically sustain and reproduce the carceral state. These conventions include visual images of prison buildings, prison interiors, and incarcerated people in cages, stories focused on humanizing incarcerated people that ignore the political underpinnings of the carceral state, and an emphasis on crime as the cause of incarceration rather than the political economic crises that, scholars have argued, lie at the root of prison expansion.

To intervene in the reformist politics of the prison documentary, these critics argue, requires a radical break with the genre’s aesthetic conventions, especially the preoccupation with getting inside of the prison to expose its violence to an ostensibly unknowing public. For this reason, Story’s own film The Prison in Twelve Landscapes (2016) intentionally turns away from what she calls a “reified” idea of the prison as a specific kind of institution or building. Instead, the film shows how carceral power structures multiple spaces and sites, from the jobs it provides for disenfranchised workers in America’s hinterlands to the traffic violations imposed on Black communities to keep them in perpetual debt. This is a strategy that at once detracts from the iconographic power of prison imagery and reveals the prison as the political-economic lifeblood of U.S capitalism.

While I find such interventions compelling, documentaries shot inside of prisons have been – and still might yet be – a vital terrain for contesting popular representations of imprisonment. I am also uneasy at the prospect of ceding the visual representation of prison conditions, as well as the struggles of those currently incarcerated, to documentarians with reformist or pro-carceral agendas. I thus want to propose that the abolitionist framework of “non-reformist reforms” might help parse the difference between documentary media shot inside of prisons that reinforce reformist solutions to the prison and those that advance the aims of penal abolitionists.

The term “non-reformist reform” was coined in the 1960s by socialist thinker André Gorz as a means to move beyond an impasse between “reform” vs. “revolution” in leftist debates over political strategy. Since then, the term has been taken up by advocates for police and prison abolition to name measures that advance the struggles of incarcerated and criminalized people but without expanding the carceral state. As the activist Mariame Kaba succinctly puts it in a recent talk, non-reformist reforms are measures that diminish the harm of the carceral state and that refuse to legitimize the idea that prisons and policing can be reformed. By bringing this framework to bear on the prison documentary, I am interested in how media practitioners have worked within but against the prison in ways that both deploy and interrupt this genre’s formal conventions. How have media practitioners formed alliances with incarcerated people to advance abolitionist aims? How, in other words, might we understand the representational and creative practices of documentary makers as non-reformist reforms?

The majority of my examples center “women’s prisons,” which is not incidental. Incarcerated women’s struggles have been, and often still are, sidelined by anti-prison movements, and documentary media on prisoner resistance has overwhelmingly focused on men’s prison rebellions. Going inside of prisons to talk to incarcerated women has been an important strategy for feminist anti-carceral media makers seeking to counter the invisibility of incarcerated women. Still, the impulse to make incarcerated women’s struggles more visible has engendered a range of feminist documentaries, including Sarah Zammit’s Life Inside Out (2005), Jenifer McShane’s Mothers of Bedford (2011), and Noga Ashkenazi’s The Grey Area: Feminism Behind Bars (2012), that largely reinforce ideas of prison reform and prisoner rehabilitation. Mothers of Bedford, for example, focuses on the struggles of five incarcerated mothers to restore bonds with their children, aided in part by the creation of a children’s center inside of Bedford Hills. The film thus proposes the prison itself as the resolution to the crises of familial and communal life that it creates. Such reformist representations make it even more important to trace a lineage of non-reformist prison media.

Inside Women Inside

Inside Women Inside (1978), a 20-minute film about women’s prisons made by the anti-colonial media collective Third World Newsreel, interrupts documentary investments in individual testimonies and sympathetic protagonists in order to illuminate the prison as a form of anti-Black domestic warfare. The film unfolds across three carceral institutions: the women’s jail at Riker’s Island, the North Carolina Correctional Center for Women (NCCCW), and the prison wing of Elmhurst Hospital. Throughout, scenes of (mostly) Black women in shadowy cages are juxtaposed with interior shots of the prison’s unsanitary living conditions. On the soundtrack and in talking head interviews, incarcerated women tell of physical and psychological abuse, freezing cells, and food contaminated with sewage.

Inside Women Inside

Inside Women Inside undercuts pluralist depictions of the women’s prison prevalent in many documentaries, which, in their focus on the unique experiences of women from diverse backgrounds, obscure how the prison functions to maintain racial and class power. Interviews with incarcerated women often function in prison documentaries to acquaint viewers with the backstories and struggles of specific women. However, in Inside Women Inside interviews are often drowned out by diegetic and non-diegetic sound: the whir of the camera, the steady hum of a sewing machine one woman operates, the discordant and ominous score from avant-garde composer Iannis Xenakis. Voices of women both on- and off-screen are edited together in a rhythmic fashion, with each woman riffing on and extending the words of the one who came before her. This woman’s anger, the violence another woman has endured, all these snippets comprise a chorus of overlapping voices, where the individual fades into collective dissent. And unlike many prison documentaries, there are no protagonists in Inside Women Inside, with the exception of one Black woman who articulates the prison as part of the afterlife of racial slavery, particularly in terms of its decimation and expropriation of Black social reproduction. As the cultural historian Rox Samer elucidates, this woman’s testimony “makes the political stakes of the other imprisoned women’s testimony particularly clear.” Inside Women Inside does not diminish the power of personal storytelling as a vital political practice. But it does make it difficult for viewers to evacuate the structural roots of the carceral state from personal stories and testimonies.

Inside Women Inside

Indeed, Inside Women Inside suggests that sympathy from non-incarcerated people is not only an inadequate response to state violence, it is also a tool of state violence. This is most evident in the film’s interviews with staff and administrators, which are juxtaposed with testimonies from incarcerated women. In one sequence, a social worker laments the isolation of women with “psychological issues” who do not have “any family” and the superintendent of NCCCW frets over the incarceration of mothers who are “heads of households” (“What happens to their children?” he asks). This is bookended by an interview with a Black incarcerated woman surrounded by her large multigenerational family, who explains that the prison refuses to let her children visit. The point is not so much that prison staff and administrators are lying, but that their sympathy displaces the violence of the prison onto Black women and their families, recasting the prison’s structural racism as individual “psychological issues” or as a problem with (Black) single-parent families. It is through liberal gestures of sympathy, not in spite of them, that violence is inflicted, legitimized, and sustained.

We’re Alive!

While Inside Women Inside weaves women’s personal stories into a political analysis that discloses how carceral power works, the collectively produced documentary We’re Alive! (1974) disrupts the idea that prison struggles can be understood in isolation from racially gendered struggles for healthcare, welfare, education, and a fair wage. We’re Alive! was co-produced by the UCLA Women’s Film Workshop and the Video Workshop of the California Institution for Women (CIW), and was often screened at fundraising events for the Santa Cruz Women’s Prison Project, an abolitionist group who ran prison education workshops in CIW during the same period. While the majority of the film’s 45-minute runtime takes place inside of CIW, the powerful montages that open and close the film take the viewer outside of the prison and forge connections between incarcerated women’s struggles and other sites of anti-racist, anti-capitalist, feminist struggle. In the closing montage, a protest against the forced sterilization of women of color is scored by a folk song composed and sung by a woman incarcerated at CIW; the interplay of sound and image in this montage attests to the imbrication of medical and carceral violence. The stories that incarcerated women recount in the sequences inside of the prison also distill the connections between the prison and other social sites, highlighting how the gendered and racialized logics of carceral capitalism structure their lives at the welfare office, in the neighborhood, and the healthcare system. Although aesthetically distinct from The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, We’re Alive! similarly denaturalizes the prison in its most graspable form, the prison building, so as to illuminate the prison as a social relation that impacts people, institutions, and places beyond the prison walls.

We’re Alive!

An obvious limit of my analysis so far is its focus on the representational strategies of prison documentaries, rather than their conditions of production. Cultural activity within prisons requires some form of collaboration with prisons and prison officials, making it highly amenable to being co-opted by the carceral state. At the same time, participation in cultural programming, such as media workshops, also arguably enables imprisoned people to survive and reproduce themselves against the prison system. These complicated dynamics were central to Contact TV, a Canadian public access news show that aired on Cablenet 13 in Kingston, Ontario between 1991 and 1996. The show, which was hosted and produced by incarcerated people, was broadcast to 40,000 households and nine regional prisons, and featured live call-in segments that created a platform for dialogue and exchange between incarcerated people at different prisons, as well as between incarcerated people and non-incarcerated audiences.

Contact TV

Filmmaker Andrea Conte, who is working on a documentary about the show, suggests that Contact TV represents a momentary glimpse in time when incarcerated people were able to intervene in mainstream media’s framing of carceral power. For example, in April 1994 national media circulated leaked footage of a male riot squad forcibly strip-searching incarcerated women as part of a crackdown on prison insurgency at the Prison for Women (P4W) in Kingston. These images circulated in mainstream media as spectacles of dehumanization in ways that reproduced the violation of the women (while the faces of the riot police were blurred, the naked bodies of the incarcerated women were not), but that also aimed to galvanize a reformist response to the prison’s inhumane excesses. By contrast, Contact TV’s coverage of P4W included an episode that invited women at the prison who were targeted by the riot squad to call in and reframe the leaked footage from their own perspectives. The aim was not simply to give “a voice to the voiceless,” but to highlight incarcerated women as experts on carceral violence, breaking with popular media’s construction of criminalized people as unauthorized to speak about crime, policing, and “criminal justice.”

These examples are crucial, potentially non-reformist, interventions into the aesthetic and political strategies of the prison documentary. Nevertheless, no prison documentary can entirely evade the ideological reproduction of the prison while prisons, and the relations of freedom and unfreedom that they are founded upon, continue to exist. This does not mean that work about prisons or work created in collaboration with incarcerated people should not exist. But it does mean understanding the contradictions inherent in efforts to represent prisons and remaining vigilant that such efforts do not legitimize the prison.

The author would like to thank Andrea Conte, Kendra Cowley, Dia Da Costa, Michael Litwack, Jennifer Wang, and the Quorum editorial collective for their assistance and feedback on this piece.

Beth Capper is Assistant Professor of Media Studies at the University of Alberta. She has written on media, Marxism, and the politics of social reproduction for Third TextTDRGLQ, and Jump Cut, among others. She is also currently at work on a monograph about the filmmaker Lizzie Borden.

Header image: Title card from Inside Women Inside.

This entry was posted in: Quorum