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New CNN Film, “American Jail,” Shows How the Poor Get – and Stay – Incarcerated

by Steve Horn

On July 1, 2018, the film “American Jail” made its premiere screening before a cable television audience on CNN.

Given how seldom criminal justice-related issues – let alone the carceral system – are given serious discussion on the network, which bills itself as the “worldwide leader in news,” getting over an hour and a half devoted to that topic on CNN was quite the triumph for film director Roger Ross Williams. Yet despite airing on the corporate-owned airwaves, “American Jail” provides an unvarnished and uncompromising look at the U.S. penal system rivaling anything done by alternative media voices. Indeed, the promotional blurb published online unflinchingly details the fact that the United States has more people behind bars than any other country on the planet.

Featuring numerous interview segments with Paul Wright, executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center, which publishes Prison Legal News, at its core the show is an intensely personal one for Williams, in which he goes back to his hometown of Easton, Pennsylvania and asks, “What happened to my old friends from childhood?”

As it turns out, many of Williams’ friends have been arrested and imprisoned. One of them, his childhood best friend Tommy, committed suicide after being incarcerated several times at the Northampton County Jail. This is a topic which Williams discusses with Tommy’s family in a moving segment early on in the show – which he revisits in conversations throughout the film, some of them conducted by Tommy’s grave.

Paralleling another documentary released earlier this year that was reviewed by Prison Legal News, “Survivors Guide to Prison” [see: PLN, May 2018, p.24], Williams’ film walks viewers through the steps of how easy it is for people in America’s poorest communities to end up behind bars. On the flip side, it also covers just how difficult it is to reverse this cycle once someone has a criminal record.

As Wright puts it bluntly in the documentary, “The criminal justice system’s only real function in this country is controlling poor people.” It is that premise which propels the film throughout its various segments.

Still airing on-demand on venues such as YouTube TV and, “American Jail” also covers the issue of prison labor and the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which serves as justification for modern-day slavery. The bail bond industry, too, plays a pivotal role in the film, with Williams explaining some of its history and detailing how money bail keeps the poor locked up while wealthy defendants are able to buy their freedom.

Beyond the multiple interview segments featuring Wright, Williams also features Adam Foss, executive director of Prosecutor Impact, an organization that focuses on prosecutors as “the most important actor in the criminal justice system.”

Because it tackles the issue of mass incarceration from cradle to grave, the film delves into the issue of overzealous prosecutors with a “tough on crime” mentality looking to lock people up and throw away the keys. Foss, on the other hand, leads trainings throughout the U.S. in an attempt to show prosecutors the real-life human impacts of that punitive mindset, in an attempt to convince them to practice their profession with more mercy in mind.

As a means of comparison, Williams also extends his lens abroad to the Netherlands, a nation that has a rehabilitative-centric incarceration model. There, Williams chronicles, only one-third of penal facilities are full and the incarcerated population has shrunk 30 percent over the past decade. One Netherlands official told Williams it is their motto to start with the idea of “Reintegration [back into society] on day one” when people are locked up.

“The prison circumstances must be human,” the official added. “As human as possible.”

In a promotional interview on CNN, Williams was careful to say that while the film is a personal story, it is also a case study of a trend that impacts the whole of U.S. society.

“It’s actually a story that affects all Americans,” he noted. “And it’s important that all Americans realize that the cost is enormous to them in terms of taxpayer dollars [$265 billion per year spent on the criminal justice system, according to the film], in lost opportunity and income of prisoners when they’re let out of jail and don’t get jobs and can’t work. And that really costs everyone.” 



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