The Carceral States of America: The Prison in Twelve Landscapes

prison in twelve landscapes

The Prison in Twelve Landscapes
Directed by Brett Story
November 4-10 at Anthology Film Archives

In movie dramas prison life tends to be flattened by didacticism or sensationalized, and in documentaries, to be a vehicle for moral outrage; in either case, there’s not often much sense of how the prison fits into the larger social fabric. A new doc by Canadian filmmaker Brett Story aims to fill that gap and bring the prison closer to home, charting unexpected ways in which the carceral state extends beyond penitentiary walls. As its title suggests, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes strings together a dozen instances of portraiture-of-place, with each episode refracting the dysfunctions of our criminal justice system and American society at large.

The most fruitful stops capture movingly human responses to the terrible power of faceless, inhuman systems: a Bronx warehouse store whose inventory is selected to conform to state prison regs; a Kentucky radio call-in show dedicated to messages for incarcerated loved ones; the anger of African-Americans in the St. Louis suburbs at the web of municipal courts that take any opportunity to bleed them dry. In others, like a tiny park constructed to push sex offenders out of a Los Angeles neighborhood, or a woman’s account of her time fighting forest fires in a prison work detail, the director mounts persuasive arguments, but relies on placeholder images. A peek at the Freddie Gray protests in Baltimore barely lasts long enough to register; the archival flashback to Detroit’s 1967 riots mostly serves as a remedial history lecture.

The film’s conceptual framework proves to be both a strength and and a limitation. By focusing on the roots the prison system grows into the surrounding communities, rather than the facilities themselves, Story gradually builds an implicit case that the real end of incarceration is not to redress social ills but only to push them out of sight. But in dividing her attention between so many locales, she misses the chance to enrich these vignettes with the context they deserve. And too often, Story records the scenery at length without evoking any kind of local particularity, or relies on an intrusive score to generate atmosphere. Admirable but uneven, the film is at its strongest when practicing shoe-leather journalism, its most generic as it approaches installation art.

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