Prison Stories and How They’re Told


A telling representation of the oft-inevitable route to prison. Source: indybay.org

Into the Abyss was rushed to theatrical release on November 11 by director Werner Herzog because he wanted the film to ride a surge of coverage around the death penalty and gain a greater sense of relevancy (or controversy) with the public. The movie peers into the story of two men, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett of Conroe, Texas, who were convicted for the murder of Sandra Stotler, Adam Stotler and Jeremy Richardson. While Burkett received a life sentence for his role in the murders, Perry was executed  eight days after being interviewed by Herzog.

Two months before the film’s rushed release two events brought America’s fickle political attention to the death penalty (and Herzog hoped his film, as well). First was the execution of Troy Davis by the State of Georgia despite new, possibly exonerating evidence and nation-wide protest; second was the audience applause that erupted during the Republic national debate when Tom Brokaw made mere mention of the 234 executions that had occurred during Rick Perry’s governorship. So, while some were donning “I am Troy Davis” signs to condemn state sanctioned murder within a racist justice system, others were dancing on a government approved mass grave.

As I arm wrestled with writer’s block these past couple weeks, I became worried that my review of Into the Abyss would no longer be relevant. That concern has diminished inversely with my desire to sabotage Herzog’s plan* by extending the discussion, albeit in my very minor way,  two and half weeks past when most reviews came out. The issue of how our government punishes people needs to be a constant one, more than a “hot-button” issue or chance for free publicity. It also seems simply disingenuous to create pretenses of political engagement, as the early release of Into the Abyss did, without real intentions to follow through.

Eschewing the responsibilities of a political film, Herzog has said that his real concern is with “the abyss of the human soul.” The abyss, as you might expect, is a murky place full of sad sentiments and a debilitating sense of helplessness. Perhaps that is why it took me so long to write about it. In the meantime I read When the Prisoner’s Ran Walpole by Jamie Bissonette, a decidedly more grounded and optimistic story about the movement towards prison abolition in Massachusetts during the early 1970’s. Immediately, I was struck by the very different approaches to exploring case-studies within the American criminal justice system. While Herzog focuses on the personal stories, Bissonette relies on an acronym-dominated narrative of political maneuverings. Herzog seeks the melodrama; Bissonette seeks the argument.

Herzog pulls his melodrama from the intense interview sessions that comprise most of the film. In his role as interviewer, he plays the musing Bavarian mountain man antithesis to the Texan working class subject. These interactions can often feel exploitative or just simply snobby. Shortly into the interview with Michael Perry, a death row inmate convicted in a triple homicide, Herzog implies that he doesn’t like Perry but likes capital punishment even less. This could serve as an important ideological point: nobody, not even creepy looking murderers, deserve to be executed. But judging by the laughter in the audience after Herzog’s zinger and further lack of an ideological argument in the rest of the film, I think Herzog was really just establishing himself as the higher moral person at the expense of a man who very few people in the audience could relate to, let alone like.

While introducing the film at the documentary festival, DOC NYC, Herzog says one interviewee he did like quite a bit was Jared, an acquaintance of Jason Burkett. Jared impressed Herzog with the large callouses on his hands, the result of working at an auto body shop. Yet despite his professed esteem for Jared, Herzog spends a lot of the interview jibing the guy, to much audience delight. The crowd was well engaged when Jared tells a story about being stabbed with a screw-driver through his side and going to work despite the puss-filled injury. Herzog’s focus on the gory details make what could have been an illuminating look at the flippant attitude towards violence in Conroe into just another strange story. Though Herzog tries to draw out his own image of the uneducated Texan (hammering for instance on Jared’s until recent illiteracy), Jared is no man’s fool. When the director asks what he will do to the tatoo, “Bailey”, if Jared and the woman it refers to break up, without missing a beat, Jared replies, “I guess I’ll just have to get ‘Bailey Sucks’ right there.” This interview is definitely the most lighthearted of the film, and perhaps for that reason by the end, I had almost forgotten why it was there at all.

During that same DOC NYC introduction, an Into the Abyss producer joked about how the people interviewed in the film had never heard of Werner Herzog and had “no idea who they were dealing with most of the time.” That comment really got under my skin. Not only did it reveal a Hollywood arrogance, it also implied a manipulation of people whose lives have already been profoundly messed with by poverty, prison and violence.

Ironically, my problems with When the Prisoners Ran Walpole are almost the exact opposite of Into the Abyss. Bissonette, in her aim to be as politically and socially responsible as possible, doesn’t turn to the human story nearly enough. She seems more concerned with retelling documented details of the prisoner’s attempts to create a union than on capturing the personal histories of the multiple parties involved. Her supposed “co-authors” are Ralph Hamm, Robert Dellelo, two prison leaders during the Walpole reform period and Edward Rodman, a priest and prison abolition activist. The book begins with their recollections and personal statements but after that, they are brought in only as block quote elaborations of Bissonette’s own points. It is unfortunate, because I think allowing prisoners to speak on their own terms is one of the most powerful tools in prison abolition work. The public needs to hear those voices and their inherent moral argument for dignity and freedom.

Instead of relying on individual people as storytellers, Bissonette follows the inner working of government departments and grassroots organizations, namely the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, the Walpole Guards Union, the National Prisoners Reform Association, and B.A.N.T.U. a black consciousness study group at Walpole. She studies the power play between John Boone, the first black DOC commissioner, the guards under his command and the prisoners caught in the middle. However, Bissonette takes such a birds-eye approach that the story becomes vague and ungrounded. I found myself scratching my head after her descriptions of guards’ riots and non-violent prisoners resistance, wondering how it had all happened and what the people involved had thought at the time.

In spite of this there are the seeds of a fascinating story in the book, a story of racism, a story of what happens when people get a free reign over others with little accountability and a story of men who refused to be pawns. Bissonette lifts the corner of a complex reality, revealing both horror and the hope that breeds behind bars.

While he may have posed the major issue of Into the Abyss as the death penalty or rather the human capacity to kill, I think it is this larger injustice of prison that is the most pressing message to be had from Herzog’s film. Nearly every person interviewed has been to jail multiple times or has numerous family members in jail or six feet under. I think this was one of the most shocking realities of the movie for people who have never encountered prison, whether first or second-hand: for many people in America (the majority of whom actually aren’t white, as everyone in this film is) the choice is very starkly between a life in the prison system or no life at all.

The interview with Delbert Burkett, father to Jason, was for me one of the most painful of the whole movie. Delbert is currently doing a forty-year sentence for eight felony counts. Before serving this sentence he had been in jail for two, five and thirty year sentences. When Delbert Burkett sat down with both his sons, all three serving serious time, in the prison chow hall he knew something, somewhere had gone horribly wrong. He tells Herzog that he believes it is his own failure, his absence from the family, that has lead to his sons’ imprisonment. What he doesn’t recognize is the gigantic failure of a nation and its penal code.

These unfortunate patterns, (escalating sentences, family dispositions for incarceration) reveal quite starkly how once people enter prison, it is an uphill journey out, a journey not many people complete. Bissonette claims the high rate of recidivism, close to 66%, is not a failure of the system, rather the system relies on it. There is way too much invested in the prisons for the focus to be on anything else but their perpetuation and expansion, especially for the thousands of people who make their livelihood, big or small, off the imprisonment of others.

Bissonette likens the prison industrial system to the industrial revolution  with its methods to control portions of the surplus population “whose existence does not increase the wealth of the elite– no matter how productively they are engaged.” Keeping prisoners in prison not only creates a whole underclass of state laborers but also creates thriving local economies and huge building contracts.

Herzog describes the human toll of this booming economy by talking not only with prisoners, but prisoner’s families, victim’s families and prison employees as well. I appreciated the inclusion of the latter more after reading When the Prisoner’s Ran Walpole, which has nary a word from a prison guard. Into the Abyss, on the other hand, ends with the former captain of a “death house,” Fred Allen. After participating in as many as two executions a week, Allen was finally overcome by guilt and weariness. He gave up his pension and quit. Having spent so much of his adult life participating in “the protocols of death,” Allen now struggles to reclaim a new sense of life for himself.

Unfortunately, that is a choice not many guards make. As Bissonette describes, many guards have become attached to their positions of power. Even more unfortunately, this choice to reclaim one’s own existence is one that seems barely possible to the millions of people in prison. Bissonette rightly puts self-determination at the center of her argument and at the center of the prisoner’s struggle. Prisoners currently live in a world where everything is decided for them. Not only are they told where they can go, how they can move, who they can talk to, how long they can talk to them, they are perhaps most harmfully told they are something they are not. Whether it be through the demeaning actions of a prison guard who hates his job or the good guys/bad guys framework of shows like Law and Order, prisoners are constantly made out to be violent people undeserving of the most basic freedoms.

The prisoners in Walpole were keenly aware of the stigma they carried, perpetuated in large part by the racist newspaper The Boston Herald,  and thus relied heavily on public observers inside the prisoners to counter that stigma with accounts of widespread abuse and corruption on the part of the guards. When those observers were kept out of the cell blocks, guards could manipulate the media into believing the fault lay solely with an uncontrollable prison population. And that is how the story usually goes. People believe what they are told and shown about prisons because there is a serious lack of access for ordinary citizens and responsible journalists. Not only access to the prisons but the prisoners as well, their feelings, experiences, dreams and solutions. That is why movies such as Into the Abyss and books such as When the Prisoners Ran Walpole are so important. I only wish they lived up to their revolutionary potential.

*To be fair, I got this information from the Into the Abyss Wikipedia page so it is also possible that it wasn’t Herzog but some producer or other higher-up who made the decision to push up the general theater release.

Suggestion for Further Reading (for myself as well!):

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. The New Press, 2010.

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1 Comment

Filed under Book Review, Movie Review

One response to “Prison Stories and How They’re Told

  1. Two governors – Schwarzenegger in California and Kasich in Ohio – have recently tried to implement reforms. Both aimed to reduce prison populations in their states by coupling reduced sentences for nonviolent offenders with therapy – a combination which has been shown to reduce both cost and recidivism.

    In California, unions representing prison workers succeeding in killing the proposed reforms, and the same result is likely in Ohio. Prison reform may not be possible without first reducing the power of the unions, since their objective is to maximize the number of prison jobs.

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