Occupying Prisons: Canada and the Future of Incarceration

Films reviewed in this essay:

Herman’s House  (Canada, 2012, 81 min.), directed by Angad Singh Bhalla

Hunting Bobby Oatway (Canada, 2004, 45 min.), directed by John Kastner

As the Canadian government prepares to close Kingston Penitentiary, the oldest pen in the country, Whiggish history-telling has already begun to frame its wake.  Virtually all the major news media have offered their own declarations of the nineteenth-century prison’s archaic irrelevance. The coverage tells a story about the perceived barbarism and inefficiency of an architecture that postmodern thinking on incarceration no longer deems appropriate. “By 1849,” writes Jim Coyle of The Toronto Star, “the penitentiary was the subject of a report that found it to be a place of particular brutality. Meals of bread and water. Long stints in “The Box,” a coffin-shaped wooden container into which the prisoner was jammed. Flogging, even for juvenile offenders.”  Coyle’s core conclusion is clear: “Given the antediluvian design, the degradation of physical plant and human inmate, and the long, long record of brutality and corruption, it is a piece of Canadian history long overdue for consignment to the past.”

At first glance, Coyle’s perspective and the many like it make sense: the history of Kingston Pen is brutal, and might as well be closed. In light of imminent plans to dramatically expand Canada’s existing prison system, however, the story begins to look rather strange. The Harper government’s Bill C-10 legislates the most accelerated and expensive bundle of prison building bills in Canadian history. Even some US Republican legislators are looking north with raised eyebrows, and suggesting we take heed. The Omnibus Crime Bill models the new prisons on the American system, which has lost virtually all rehabilitative functions and ideals. In fact, the early nineteenth-century experiments in prison architecture, including the Kingston Penitentiary, were actually developed as an enlightened, humanist corrective to existing punishment practices. At least that was the story their champions told themselves.

Central to the eighteenth-century reformist project and its earliest architecture that brought the prison into being, was the solitary cell. Solitary confinement was originally conceived by Quakers and Anglicans in the late 1790s in Pennsylvania to offer a humane alternative to pre-existing punishments, such as public floggings, labour chain gangs, stockades and other corporeal brutalities. In the one-man cells and total silence where felons spent their days and nights, it was believed they would find the peace and quiet necessary to examine themselves, and to find inside of themselves the requisite remorse and self-realization to become better and more divinely oriented citizens. We call jails “penitentiaries” because solitude was thought to occasion penitence.

The first major institution in the United States to experiment with isolation was the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. It was built just six years before the Kingston Penitentiary, in 1829, and was inspired by the reformers of the Quaker Church. Its purpose was not just to punish criminals, but also to rehabilitate them. The notion was revolutionary. That criminals could be rehabilitated and reformed was an untested idea in the history of penology, and spoke to a particular notion of humanism popularized during this period. But something strange quickly became evident: solitary confinement, rather than offering criminals the requisite conditions of self-reflection to rehabilitate them into law-abiding citizens, instead drove prisoners mad. Evidence abounded, even at the time.  Charles Dickens, indulging Europe’s interest in this radical experiment in criminal justice by visiting captives held at Eastern State Penitentiary, wrote of his shock at meeting sense-deprived and wild-eyed inmates. They were “dead to everything but torturing anxieties and horrible despair,” he wrote, concluding, “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.”

By the late 1800s the perceived benefits of total isolation had been thoroughly discredited. In an 1890 US Supreme Court opinion concerning the effects of solitary confinement on inmates in Philadelphia, Justice Samuel Freeman declared that “a considerable number of prisoners fell […] into a semi-fatuous condition […] and others became violently insane.” German doctors documented a spike in psychosis among inmates in their isolationist replicas of the Pennsylvania model, and clinical research reports across Europe were unequivocal in identifying the dire psychological effects of solitary confinement. The effect of isolation was not only cruel, but it made inmates more, rather than less, dangerous to society. The experiment had clearly been a disaster, and for almost a century isolation and sensory deprivation retreated from common use as penal practices.

Considering this history, the vigorous comeback of solitary confinement over the last generation is deeply puzzling. Indeed, the rebirth of solitary confinement in American prisons recently reached a landmark of sorts: one of its longest held captives marked his 40th year in isolation, an African-American member of the Black Panther party from Louisiana named Herman Wallace.

His story is garnering increased public attention thanks to Herman’s House (2012), a documentary that premiered at this year’s Hot Docs festival in Toronto. Directed by US-based Canadian Angad Bhalla, Herman’s House offers an indirect window into the un-viewable world of Herman Wallace, who, along with fellow Black Panther Albert Woodfox, has spent the majority of the past four decades  (longer than any other US prisoner) in an isolation unit at the notorious Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana. Alongside fellow inmate Robert King, who was finally exonerated and released in 2001, this triad of political prisoners, known collectively as the “Angola 3,” share a fate with tens of thousands of others living out their lives in these solitary “management control units,” solitary “departmental disciplinary units,” and solitary “closed custody units.” Solitary confinement is typically characterized as holding prisoners alone at least 23 hours per day in cells about the size of a household bathroom, usually without windows or sound or any opportunity for human contact.

This level of isolation is almost impossible for most people to imagine. And when we do, it evokes, almost intuitively, our worst fears about being alone and feeling the mind grinding down.

Herman Wallace has so far eluded the particular mental psychosis associated with long-term solitary confinement. Yet it is indeed the life of Herman’s mind that the other main subject of this film, the artist Jackie Sumell, seeks to affect, and even liberate. Jackie’s political interventions on behalf of her friend Herman don’t begin as an artist’s project, but it is indeed her artistic intervention that the film follows most intently. That project is the scaled down construction of Herman’s “dream house,” as imagined and described to her by Herman over many conversations, and that ultimately tours as an installation called “The House that Herman Built.”  “I knew that the only way I could get him out of prison was to get him to dream,” she says at one point. Through her actualization of this idea the relationship between the freedom of the mind and the freedom of the body are brought into complex question.

To that end, one frustration of the film is the sense that Jackie upstages Herman somehow, not only because she occupies more “screen time,” but because it’s not always clear to what degree their collaboration of imagination has anything to with, in an immediate and utilitarian sense, the politics of getting him out. But that frustration could perhaps be registered with any film that tries to say something about a prison, without being able to enter one. We want to meet Herman but we can’t because he’s in a cage; that he’s in a cage is the point of making these works of art.

In this case, the frustration of not having cinematic access to Herman’s body or the cell it occupies serves up its own opportunities. For one, we get to think much more about his life, not as arrested by the architecture of his confinement, but as existing through a slew of relationships. Herman’s relationship with Jackie, unlikely and unequal as it might at times appear, contains more mutual support than one might assume it could. Herman has a relationship with the State, which seems so invested in keeping him from other prisoners, while he credits the politics of the Black Panther Party with keeping him sane. And of course he also has a relationship with us, the audience, a cast of strangers for whom his life and the prison space it occupies provoke endless questions. Because Herman’s voice has no body in this film, these questions become as much about us and our worlds, as they do about his.

How does the solitary cell relate to life outside? How does it travel? These questions find their counterpart in a very different prison film that also screened at Hot Docs this year. Canadian director John Kastner’s 2004 made-for-television documentary Hunting Bobby Oatway, tells the story of sex-offender Bobby Oatway and the community outrage surrounding his release on parole to a halfway house in Toronto in the late 1990s. Like Herman’s House, this film also invites reflection about the function and character of prisons, without actually filming in one.

Oatway’s victims campaign to drive him back to prison

The film begins with Oatway’s release to an urban halfway house after he spent a decade in prison for sexually abusing children. His release ignites an emotional public campaign by former victims, municipal politicians, and neighborhood residents, to first disclose his identity to the community and then harass him out of it. While sympathy for such a person might seem uncomfortable, there is at least some cause for such feeling when Oatway decides that the public attention and torment is too much, and elects to return to prison to serve out the rest of his full term. As it turns out, it’s not easy to put someone back in jail. Indeed, the most striking characters of the film are Oatway’s parole agents, who not only advocated for him to remain on the “outside,” but did so out of a seemingly counterintuitive concern for public safety. The greatest threat to community safety, they argued, was not Oatway full stop, but Oatway in isolation—released at the end of his term to resettle all alone, without the support of the men in the halfway house, without the daily check-in and accompaniment of a parole officer. Social ostracism creates further isolation within an already individualized society: the solitary cell, therefore, is a cell that travels.

There might be important similarities between the solitary cell and the organization of broader social structures: the dangers ascribed to solitary confinement might warn us against its imitation in everyday life. Prisons tell us stories about ourselves, and our societies. Both Herman’s House and Hunting Bobby Oatway suggest a way of thinking about the prison not as exceptional, existing outside of politics, but rather as integral to modern North American social life.

Using optics only available to cinema, these two films reframe the prison system here and now. They help erode the hard and fast distinction between what we call the inside and what we call the outside, a distinction that might apply just as well to the “inside” of a self, and the outside world. The idea that closing the Kingston penitentiary tells us that our nation is becoming more humane is contradicted by clear evidence that the American style of mass incarceration towards which we are advancing destroys lives and creates further violence. On the eve of a likely massive growth of our prison population, as the Canadian justice system is remade in the image of the largest carceral state in human history, we might think about where actually to cast our gaze in order to better understand what the prison discloses, or doesn’t, about the political present.