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America Behind Bars, video series from Deep Dish TV

AMERICA BEHIND BARS, video series from Deep Dish TV

Review By Janet Stanton

No society since Nazi Germany has built so many prisons in such a short time. Each of those prisons is a school or a hospital that will never be built.

--Mike Davis

This quote, from the cover of oneof four videos in the Deep Dish TV series on prisons, America Behind Bars, underscores the perspectives on the U.S. criminal "justice" system developed in the series. The series is evidence that the independent media is rising to the monumental task of presenting an accurate/alternative view of the prison industrial complex (PIC) in contrast to the corporate news media.

The series is comprised of four videos which sketch the state of the U.S. "justice system": Lockdown USA, an overview of the prison-industrial complex and its effects; The Last Graduation covers the rise (Attica) and fall (Marist College, Green Haven, NY) of government-funded education programs for prisoners; Millions for Mumia documents his case, through his words and those of his supporters; and Critical Resistance documents the 1998 conference in Berkeley, California, hosted by Angela Davis.

(1) Lockdown USA is the only video of the series which explores the mechanisms behind the incarceration boom of the last few decades in detail. The first segment, called Media: Climate of Fear, exposes the connections between the news media which sensationalizes crime in order to "sell", and politicians who exploit fear of crime to get elected. The result is a distorted picture of crime and criminals fed to the American viewing public. For example: in 1991, the top three networks showed 571 stories about crime, and in 1993 they showed 1,636 stories, even though crime rates dropped during that time; 87% of arrests are for non-violent offenses, although the media focuses on violent crime, which in turn supports politicians trying to win with a "tough on crime" position; white collar crime costs taxpayers 7 to 25 times more than "street" crime, but white collar criminals are often not prosecuted and their crimes are not publicized. In the video this sometimes surprising information is superimposed upon images of violence being perpetrated by the police against the "criminals"in the news and on Cops, and with images of sleazy politicians like Newt Gingrich acting "tough on crime". This juxtaposition highlights the disjuncture between truth and representation which exists in the corporate media - an effective use of the same media (video) to expose "misinformation".

The segment titled The Business of Criminal Justice points to the economic devastation of inner-city communities (80% of NY prisoners come from 4 or 5 neighborhoods) as one factor in the highly

disproportionate number of black men in prison. Former prisoner and current activist Eddie Ellis of the Community Justice Center in Harlem emphasizes that the have-nots are a threat to the haves, while another activist mentions under his breath to school board election monitors that "they're trying to wipe us out". Then, white politicians from depressed rural areas are shown expressing enthusiasm over building a new prison in their area (two hundred cells per day are being built). The current prison system is compared to a third world economy where big business profits from prison labor both directly and indirectly, through exploitation of an inexpensive, unorganized and growing labor pool-all within a political economy where people of color and poor whites may have to be incarcerated in order to obtain a job. Analysts and prisoners' rights activists present this information in their communities or as voice-drops for images of the PIC- e.g.: a many-tiered cell-block, thousands of prisoners standing in front of the tiny cells while the names of Fortune 500 corporations who benefit from prison labor scroll up the screen. The video is effective as a consciousness-raising tool because it also presents communities and activists confronting the devastation and dehumanization of the PIC at each twist of the story.

Voices From the Inside shows a music group called The Lifers putting out powerful rap about the nightmare they face. Youth: America's Least Wanted covers statistics on the juvenile incarceration boom and Real House, where youthful "offenders" are "abilitated" with the powerful and sensitive guidance of ex-prisoner Theodore "Tree" Arrington. Closing the Door to Education shows clips from another video, The Last Graduation, with images of a politician arguing in the Senate for cutting Pell Grants to prisoners, referring to them as "blind hogs". It also includes the moving valedictory speech at Marist College, the final one (in 1995) in the Green Haven Correction Facility, Green Haven, New York. prisoner Mario Andre pays tribute to his mother and her book on struggle, confronting racism and economic oppression each day and still putting food on the table for her children. The testimony of the many brilliant and compassionate people impacted by the PIC (prisoners, activists, and former prisoners aiding others) is a wrenching but inspiring antidote to the distorted picture delivered by the corporate media.

(2) The Last Graduation details the rise of education programs in prisons in the 1970's because of rebellions and prisoner protests, starting with Attica, and the subsequent dismantling of these programs in the '80's and '90's. Historical footage from news reports about Attica sets the stage for exploring the conditions, demands of prisoners, and after effects of the events of 1971, when 1,500 prisoners took over the prison to protest conditions. Forty-three hostages were held for four days. There is also footage of the massacre of 33 prisoners and 10 hostages, killed by the National Guard in a hail of bullets as they lay passively on the ground. This footage is interspersed with commentary from survivors.

The video then explores the contemporary experiences of former Attica prisoners, other prisoners, and educators both within and without the prison system. Teachers express joy at teaching prisoners because of their uncommon drive to learn everything, and frustration and disbelief that education programs are chosen for elimination. In other segments, prisoners are shown in classrooms and study groups, started through the guidance of ex-Attica prisoners or other prisoners with experience in prisoner self-education. They study and share scarce materials in the face of disembowelment of the education system. The end of Pell Grants for prisoners in 1994 and the last graduation at Marist College in Green Haven Correctional Facility, New York, is explored in detail. Eddie Ellis, "Doc" Dowdy, Reverend Moore, and Lateef Islam shape the narrative backdrop for this informative exploration of education programs in prison.

(3) Millions for Mumia covers Mumia's case in detail through his voice and the reports and opinions of his many supporters. His case is well-presented: from the set up at the scene of the shootings and evidentiary bungling, to strong-arming of witnesses by the police, and to the unquestionably unfair trial. This video is excellent for educat- ing the public about Mumia Abu Jamal's case and the strong national and international support he has. A short piece precedes the main video, documenting production of a play about Mumia written by John Edgar Wideman called One Move--Live From Death Row, featuring Bobby Watson's haunting and dreamy sax. Commentary before the show by artists, writers and activists in attendance is alternated with images of the protests of the Fraternal Order of Police, all outside the theater. This short piece includes historical footage of Mumia, the Panthers, and MOVE, as well as recent videotaped interviews with Mumia. The artists, activists, and professionals who support Mumia Abu Jamal are here joined in a reasonable, harmonious and unified voice of Millions demanding justice in his case.

(4) Critical Resistance documents the 1998 conference in Berkeley, California, attended by over 3000 activists, artists, ex-prisoners, professors and social workersAlthough it includes the voices of powerful and outspoken fighters against the PIC such as Angela Davis, Ramona Africa and Christian Parenti, and also shows young activists speaking out, the video lacks a cohesive vision, perhaps indicative of the prisoner support and prison abolition movement itself. Musicians, artists and poets are shown strutting their stuff, and some of the panel discussions highlight the source and the nature of the PIC. But the video primarily shows artists expressing themselves to themselves, and talking heads. The video therefore points indirectly to the urgent need for indepth analysis of the PIC as a by-product of a repressive and destructive economic system which needs to be discarded: what is to be done to create change. The topic of how this all started, whose interests it serves, the fundamental changes that need to happen and how, alluded to in all these videos, should be explored specifically and in detail.

In a time when activists and thinking people depend on the video cameras of independent persons, artists, and producers to reveal truth and spur us to action, the Deep Dish TV video series on prisons, particularly Lockdown USA, should be obtained by prison activist organizations and shown on cable stations and in classrooms.

For more information contact:

Deep Dish, 339 Lafayette New York, NY, 10012,(t) (212)473-8933, (f) (212)420-8223, email: deepdish,

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