Why a film about prison: A reflection on society’s failure

The criminal law system is like death. No matter how much you think you know about it, you know nothing until you’ve been through it.

Other documentaries we’ve made have looked into political and cultural institutions to unpick their politics. They were grand and important stories to tell, and it is true that so much we think to have in society is broken. But prisons are curious in so many respects. Their very existence speaks of a failed society. They exist because societies don’t work as they are supposed to.

Do we need prisons?

It is true that human civilisation has moved from torturing people in Roman sewers to mass incarceration. The Victorian reformers did well to fight against the death penalty and torture and replace retribution with reform. But the point has been missed.

Even reformers tend to fail to address a key issue – the dichotomy that separates law-abiding citizens from the criminals. In researching for the film, speaking and listening to prisoners and other convicts, and to prison workers, the consensus is that “convicts” are people like anyone else. The convict might have had a moment, might have faced hunger, homelessness, might suffer mental health problems or might be innocent. Whatever else they are, they are also sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers. They are human beings.

Yet to be convicted is to become a convict, to lose one’s humanity and to be left outside society. The approach simply doesn’t change things, and almost nobody thinks it does, yet we are left locked into a system. But because the victims of the criminal law system are dehumanised, their lives and the lives of those around them are simply not worth enough for those who benefit from the system to change it.

So, why a film about prison?

Prisoners are scapegoats, folk-devils, they are political pawns, bereft of rights and humanity they are processed through a deeply flawed legal system, dragged through prison, and dumped out at the other end with even fewer prospects than before.

To paraphrase Johnny Cash’s Man in Black:

We make the film for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
We make it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he’s a victim of the times.

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