CONTROL: The Rise of Extreme Incarceration (trailer)

Control: The Rise of Extreme Incarceration is a feature-length documentary that traces the largest expansion of punitive power in the United States. The movie focuses on three conditions that push our penal system to the brink: the implementation of long-term solitary confinement, the criminalization of mental illness, and the incarceration of juveniles. Over the last 40 years, our system of incarceration has metastasized into virtually every aspect of our culture and has permeated our entire social structure. Political activists face a two-tiered system that openly punishes them for their political beliefs. The mentally ill are bounced back and forth between a “public” space that has little tolerance for aberrant behavior and a prison that offers little hope in the way of psychiatric treatment. Children are forced to attend school alongside armed police officers, as they watch their friends, family, and themselves, get caught in the sticky web of law enforcement. Today, our complex penal system has swallowed up 7 million American citizens and its long shadow is cast over millions more; American society relies more heavily on imprisonment and punishment than any other on record.

Penetrating the regime of silence of this entrenched system, Control acknowledges the trauma generated by incarceration through interwoven portraits of three key characters and their friends, families, and advocates. Ojore Lutalo, a former member of the Black Liberation Army and an identified anarchist, was released from Trenton Prison last year after spending nearly 30 years in solitary confinement. Luther is a 16-year-old living in the Bronx who was arrested this past spring for the first time. In November, he goes to trial on a case that could possibly put him behind bars for years. Leah, the godmother of a mentally ill man in solitary confinement, was driven to become an outspoken activist for the rights of those incarcerated with psychiatric disabilities.

Control traces these stories out in order to help incite a cultural shift in the way we think, see, and ultimately, tolerate the hardships bred by our system of mass incarceration.

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Fighting Prisons

Activists and organizations working in and around prisons gathered at the 2nd US Social Forum in Detroit to share knowledge and make connections across what proved to be a diverse and vibrant landscape of practices. Over 50 panels were convened, involving hundreds of individuals representing communities from all over the country. Addressing the crisis happening in the incarceration system, people agree, requires a broad-based approach that includes different strategies, tactics, and angles of approach. Below are 4 topics we feel represent that diversity and provide a rough schematic of the range of ideas and activities.

* Prison Abolition:

Depopulating prisons and even eliminating the system of locking people up as a response to social problems altogether is the goal for most prison activists. It forms the “no compromise” framework that drives most of the activism regarding incarceration. David Stein talks about Critical Resistance, a national organization of individual chapters, which firmly calls for prison abolition and actively fights any expansion of the prison system. In the video, he describes some of the strategies the organization has used to fight new prison construction, some of the alliances created through that fight, and the importance of combatting the creation of every new cell.


Critical Resistance

* Advocating for Incarcerated People:

Imprisoned people face myriad of life-threatening obstacles on a daily basis. Natalie Holbrook, who works with the American Friends Service Committee in Michigan, is part of a direct advocacy program that addresses the needs of imprisoned people on a case-by-case basis. At least 40% of the cases her group gets involved in have to do with physical and mental health issues that are not being addressed by the correctional system. Holding the system accountable for its actions and failures, she says, is critical. Her office also maintains important contact with people who are being held in long-term extreme segregation, offering kind words and the reassurance that someone, indeed, is monitoring the situation.


Prisoner Advocay-AFSC Criminal Justice Office

* Addressing Trauma within Communities:

In order to respond more effectively to harm and abuse within our communities, a growing number of activists are developing liberatory programs to address harm and trauma without resorting to oppressive and retaliatory systems. Micah Frazier works with Generation 5, a group committed to ending child sexual abuse in five generations. They use transformative justice to help train community members to better recognize and respond to harm.


Generation 5

* Immigration, Criminality and Confinement:

The efforts to criminalize millions of undocumented people currently living in the US will greatly increase the number of jailed people and represent an unacceptable expansion in the logic of the social “value” of prisons. Luis Fernandez works with the Arizona based Repeal Coalition, which fights to overturn anti-immigrant legislation. He talks about the challenges of working within a system that literally does not recognize the validity of entire communities, and that uses racism and economic enticements to factionalize the movement.


Repeal Coalition

Border Action Network

No More Deaths

Tale of a Walled Town

Ours is a grimy bit of blue;
And very small;
And sunbeams scarce adventure to
O’ertop the wall.
A bird that flutters swiftly by;
A wind that passes with a sigh;
A cloudlet sailing slow and high;
And that is all.

O matins, and O vesper bells,
Toll slowly!

A city of a thousand cells—
A thousand individual hells.

Incarcerated in the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadephia in 1916, Clarence Alexander Rae, a convicted book thief, penned the internal experience of a life interupted. The narrative he traces through his book of poems, A Tale of a Walled Town, follows the path of subjection, the result of inescapable regimes of surveillance and control. Dedicated to “Our Lady with the Lamp,” it is one of the earliest tales of captivity to emerge from the modern prison complex, an outcropping of reformist practices that ultimate strove to control the body so as to free the soul for enlightenment.

In his recent book, The Prison and the American Imagination, Caleb Smith calls the prison narrative “the first distinctly American literary genre.” He cites Mary White Rowlandson’s 1682 text, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, as one of the earliest captivity narratives, and perhaps one of the most fascinating. Abducted by what she labels the devilish native peoples and held in slavery while they massacred the settlers of New England, she describes the horrors of being held against one’s will. Her six-year-old daughter dies, and Rowlandson’s madness drives her to hug the corpse through the night until it is torn from her: “I cannot but take notice how at another time I could not bear to be in the room where any dead person was, but now the case is changed; I must and could ly down by my dead Babe, side by side all the night after.” Echoing the work of sociologist Loic Wacquant, Smith concludes that “the captivity narrative has served to reinforce, perhaps even to create, identities in conflict: white against red, or against black, or against shades of brown.” In a strange way, the prison narrative is the most American of all, and the one in which our systems of disenfranchisement and prejudice are erected and enacted.

When a prisoner first arrived at Eastern State after the usual surrender of possessions would, he would be stripped down, his hair shaved close, he’d be numbered, then led to his box of solitude with a hood over his face that obscured all light and sensation. In the early years before they instituted hoods with holes for the eyes, he’d never leave his cell without all of his senses being enshrouded in darkness. There would be no letters or news from his family on the outside, and only the occasional word from a guard could be heard—he was essentially, Smith argues, buried alive and transformed into bare life. The only book that was allowed in the cells was the Bible.

The building itself was the hailed as the perfect system of the time, and its architect, John Haviland, became the prison architect of the 19th century on the backs of this effort. Eastern State accepted its first inmates in 1829, but wasn’t completed until 1836. The radial plan allowed the 450 solitary cells (each with a small skylight) to be policed efficiently—long rows connected the wings to a central command center. Inmates found themselves in a very small, vaulted cell with a bed that was hung from chains, with a small space for their required work. A small peephole allowed the guards to look in whenever they felt the urge, and food and materials relating to their work was passed through a small slit in the door that remained closed when not in use. The real surprise was the water tap and flush toilet in every cell, at a time when many in the city just a few miles south of the walls did not have such luxuries.

There is something distinctly Poe about all of the tales from the inside of this early supermax; the narratives of these inmates is thoroughly gothic with its medieval iron gates, deep shadows, unnatural solitude, and persistent nagging of emerging psychoses. Perhaps Edgar Allan Poe, residing at the time not too far away from the prison walls, wrote in the shadow of Haviland’s much-praised architectural feat. The prison’s first board of directors wrote that the architecture would “turn the thoughts of the convict inwards upon himself, and to teach him how to think.” In effect, the total immersion in solitude would lead the convict to split his criminal mind from his “penitent” mind, and hence our word “penitentiary.” In the mind of the Quaker reformers who inspired this new prison philosophy, the inmate would eventually wrestle with this split until they reached a state of passivity and contentment—a mythology of resurrection if there ever was one.

While in the 18th century justice was carried out within communities that inspired their own form of punishment (mainly focusing on the Hammurabian eye-for-an-eye style), the turn of that century saw the rise of institutionalized punishment. The Walnut Street Jail was built in 1790 by a bunch of Quakers living in Philadelphia, and was effectively the first prison that was focusing on reforming its inmates. Buildings built for mental and physical torture, these early jails (like New York’s Newgate Prison of 1797 and Auburn Prison of 1816) had moved the hangmen outside but kept the interiors similar to those more medieval-styled sites. Inmates would mingle and live in giant pits of rooms, and the overcrowded spaces essentially gave rise to a population better trained in all acts of criminality. Eastern State, in some ways, was seen as a vast improvement on these earlier conditions, and even the eyes of civilized Europe turned toward the building for inspiration. Charles Dickens famously made a visit to Eastern State during a trip through the States, and the master of sympathy found something he didn’t expect. He wrote that the inmates were “dead to everything but torturing anxieties and horrible despair,” and wondered of one prisoner “why does he stare at his hands and pick the flesh open…and raise his eyes for an instant…to those bare walls?”

By the end of that century, the Supreme Court was investigating the mental anguish of enduring long-term solitary confinement, which Dickens surmised was “immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.” A century after total solitary confinement was abandoned at the prison, Eastern State shut its doors in 1971, and has since been allowed to degrade into a glorious ruin that perhaps, poetically, mirrors the degradation that occurred in each prisoner’s mental and emotional life. National Geographic’s recent special, Solitary Confinement, featured some inmates being held in solitary in the Colorado State Penitentiary, and many of them stated how they would act out just to get a hit from a guard’s club. That one touch—no matter how brutal or how much it reasserted the power differential—would remind them that they are at the bottom of it all a part of the human community. And when we read the tales from Eastern State, the lore of the old world, it is easy to see a sort of neuroses that we have toward those who are confined—the hoods, the vaulted ceilings, the rupturing of all ties to the outside, the obsession with reform and the inability to make that happen. There is more to be said about the Quaker ties, and certainly with the Biblical and resurrectionist undertones of much to do with the early solitary confinement set-ups, but it’s worth just drawing it back to today’s prisoners, Eastern State’s legacy.

Listen to a piece from June 2009 by the National Radio Project, which spoke to some inmates being held in solitary confinement, and some of the family members on the outside.

Supermax Solitude

Activist and filmmaker Laurie Jo Reynolds has made a film called Space Ghost that compares the disconnection felt by astronauts as they separate themselves from the earth, with the disconnection of prisoners who become isolated from culture and human connections:

Space Ghost compares the experiences of astronauts and prisoners, using popular depictions of space travel to illustrate the physical and existential aspects of incarceration: sensory deprivation, the perception of time as chaotic and indistinguishable, the displacement of losing face-to-face contact, and the sense of existing in a different but parallel universe with family and loved-ones.

Laurie Jo is also an organizer of the Tamms Year 10 coalition, a group that is advocating for the reformation of the Tamms super max prison located in Southern Illinois.

From their website:

In 1998, the first prisoners were transferred from prisons across the state to Tamms CMAX, in Southern Illinois. This new “supermax” prison, designed to keep men in permanent solitary confinement, was intended for short-term incarceration. The IDOC called it a one-year “shock treatment.” Now, ten years later, over one-third of the original prisoners have been there for more than a decade. They have lived in long-term isolation—no phone calls, no communal activity, no contact visits. They only leave the cell to exercise alone in a concrete box 2 to 5 times per week. They are fed through a slot in the door.

These activist contend that the disconnect these prisoners experience is tantamount to torture. Charles, who has been confined in Tamms since 1998 points out, “I will ask you, lock yourself in your bathroom for the next 10 years and tell me how it will affect your mind.”

These disruptions are a kind of gap, breaking relationships that aren’t merely superficial, but are critical connections at every level of our being.