In the United States there are 2.2 million people in prison, up from only 300,000 forty years ago. Yet prisons have never felt more far away or more out of sight. Not only are prisons built further than ever from where most prisoners come from and where most people live, but journalists, filmmakers and researchers are increasingly denied access to the world inside their walls. Prisons appear to most of us only in endless Hollywood depictions and reality television, making incarceration at once invisible and exceedingly familiar at the same time. Even Googling the address of a penitentiary results in a vast blank space on the map. It is as if prisons, and the people inside them, have been disappeared.
I have worked with prisoners and on criminal justice issues, in Canada and the USA, for over a decade as an activist, journalist, artist and academic. I have long thought about how such coercive structures have come to be so normalized within our social landscapes. No country in the world has a prison population as vast as the United States’, and yet for many people imagining a world with fewer prisons feels like an impossible task. As a filmmaker with a geographer’s eye, I spend a lot of time considering the relationship between where we are, what we see, and how we think. While films that bring us inside penitentiaries to convey the humanity of those incarcerated can have important stories to tell, I can’t help but feel the limitations of a cinema whose highest aspiration is simply that of evoking sympathy. I want the imagery to do more, and wonder if seeing prisons differently might be key to thinking about prisons differently.
The Prison in Twelve Landscapes harnesses the power of cinema in order to re-estrange us from a system that has become so common sense we don’t even see it any more, let alone question its purpose. My hope is to make the prison a subject of reinvigorated debate, by suggesting that it operates not just as a building over there, but as a structure of power braided deeply into the relationships, economies and landscapes all around us. By upsetting expectations about where prisons are to be found, the film attempts to destabilize our own assumed relationship to them; to pose new questions about the work that prisons do in our society and whether that work is necessary or desirable. For when we start to examine the prison system from the spaces all around us, we begin to see how much more it has to do with jobs, with resource extraction, with economic development, with race and with poverty than it does necessarily with crime.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the film is also an attempt to simply pay attention to the myriad ways in which prisons are implicated in the lives of the people we share space with, whether it is the chess player I myself encountered one day during an idle lunch hour, or the women huddled with their overnight bags on a busy Manhattan street corner on a Friday night. By challenging common assumptions where the penitentiary ends and the outside world begins, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes posits a new set of questions about what it is that the prison system does - precisely so as to open up the possibility that the landscape could be otherwise.