Few spaces remain impenetrable to the American public. The rise of smartphones and Internet culture have allowed us to capture culture in a different and more permanent way than previous generations. But one space remains almost entirely closed to the public — America’s prison industrial complex. From 1980 to 2000, the number of incarcerated people rose from 300,000 to 2 million. There are more people in prison now than ever, and the prison as a concept has never been less accessible to us.
In “The Prison in 12 Landscapes,” Canadian director Brett Story examines the ways in which the prison becomes larger than itself, influencing and reengaging spaces outside of the barbed wire intentionally located hours outside of society. Story visits 12 different places around America and illustrates how the prison touches its inhabitants without their consent, or sometimes even their knowledge.
We start in New York, in Washington Square Park. A man is hustling on the street, playing chess for money. He tells us he was incarcerated in 1992, and learned to play chess from someone on the inside. I say that he tells “us,” rather than Story tells us because very rarely does she speak in the film, maybe once or twice when she asks someone a question from behind the camera. We see the chessboard clearly reflected in the man’s sunglasses as he smiles at the player across from him. It’s hard to remember that these people aren’t speaking directly to us, as there’s practically no level of mediation between the audience and film.
Story goes on to visit a small town in eastern Kentucky that was hit hard by the economic downturn. The man she’s speaking to says a prison will be opening soon and that he’s happy about it, as prisons are recession-proof. There are panning views of the empty Appalachian mountains in which prisons are being built, completely removed from our view. These shots are almost dreamy, sweeping through the mountains and landing on a coal deposit with its top blown off — now the perfect place to keep thousands of people out of sight and out of mind.
We move to Detroit, getting a tour of the Quicken Loans corporate offices and the developments they’re making around the city. The tour guide, a grossly overeager man who gives this tour several times a day, is practically bragging about the gentrification and heavy police presence of the city. In this vignette especially, it’s clear that Story is guiding us through this experience without forcing any perspectives. Even in the impromptu Q&A after the screening, Story doesn’t criticize “Mr. Quicken Loans,” as the amused audience keeps calling him during questions. She’s here to present the cold facts of experiences we may not get to see anywhere else, and we are left to actively pursue our own conclusions.
From there, Story lets the Marin County female prison firefighters illustrate their experiences through a disembodied voice cast over b-roll of roaring California wildfires. We see a store in the Bronx specifically designed to get around the insane and random idiosyncrasies of the rules of what loved ones can send into prison — for instance, CDs are not allowed, but cans of tuna fish with sharp lids are.
As we wind down to the final vignettes, Story focuses on the intersection of race and the prison systems, guiding us through the prison systems past and present marginalization of Black people. The only archival footage is of a Detroit race riot from 1967 when the government sent in Black army forces who wouldn’t fight against people protesting for equality. We then go to St. Louis County and the street where Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri. Story very effectively illustrates the frustration of Black people being persecuted for just living their lives in a space that refuses to let them.
With “The Prison in 12 Landscapes,” Story makes the markedly invisible structure of the prison visible in our society, without ever setting foot in it. By constructing the a narrative with her beautiful footage of people around the country to reengage with spaces unrelated but affected by the system, she made a prison film that refuses to blame those the prison systematically marginalizes. Story succeeds by making sure we leave the theater understanding what we may not have known going in — the prison structure, which looms tall but hides in plain sight, should not and cannot be normal.