by David M. Reutter
"We finna show y’all some real shit, man, on how we live here that y’all ain’t seen.”
With that introduction, a Florida prisoner begins a video that is being proclaimed the first documentary on prison conditions produced by a prisoner. Shot on a series of contraband cell phones by Scott Whitney, the four-year project is titled “Behind Tha Barb Wire.” The thirty-four-year-old, serving time at the Martin Correctional Institution for a drug trafficking conviction, is vice president of the project. He began filming in 2015, though only footage from 2017 and later was successfully smuggled out of the facility.
Whitney, who had prisoners sign release waivers, conducted the video filming right under the noses of guards and sometimes right in their faces, hiding camera lenses in specially rigged oversize glasses. He also used a hollowed-out Bible with a lens peeking through the “O” in the word “HOLY” to capture what happened inside “Murder Martin,” as he called the prison.
There have been 31 deaths at the Martin Correction Institution in the past six years, including five homicides. In the video, Whitney shows off a stab-proof vest he created out of a mattress that has pockets to hold a hardcover book over his chest. In other video clips, prisoners show off their scarred-over stab wounds.
Whitney filmed prisoners fighting or getting ready to swing at each other with weapons made from a padlock and belt. Some are shown trading canteen food items for homemade knives and other weapons. Another scene shows mold covering the walls of the kitchen and mice dropping feces through crumbling walls. Whitney also captured overcrowded conditions – prisoners sleeping on the floor or on tables – that resulted after Hurricane Irma forced evacuations from other facilities in 2017.
In addition, the video shows the impact of prisoner drug use and the easy access to illegal drugs, mostly K2, also known as “spice” – or more commonly referred to by prisoners as Twak. Prisoners are seen “twacking out” and being loaded onto stretchers. Others appear with vomit on their faces, eyes barely open as they are helped to their cells to ride out the high. One clip shows a prisoner facedown in a pool of his own blood as he coughs up more.
“They just let you twak out all day long,” Whitney says in the video, adding, “you know you might not wake up any day you smoke that [K2].”
Drug use is rampant behind bars, he stated, adding an aside to those outside the prison’s walls: “You got the war on drugs on the street, but once we get here, you don’t care about the drugs.”
Whitney spent 60 days in solitary confinement after one of his cell phones was confiscated, but he obtained another and resumed filming after he was released and returned to general population. Just prior to September 19, 2019, when the Miami Herald posted highlights from the video documentary on its website, prison reform advocate Jordyn Gilley-Nixon posted clips of Whitney’s documentary on YouTube.
Prison officials have mostly declined to allow video to be taken inside prisons, citing security reasons. A political ruckus erupted in 2012 after the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) allowed an episode of the MSNBC reality series Lockup to be filmed at the Santa Rosa Correctional Institution. While the mainstream media has been allowed to do documentaries behind bars, a prisoner managing to do so is unprecedented according to David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project.
“This would be, to my knowledge, the first prison documentary filmed by a prisoner with a cell phone,” he said.
Though not a documentary, a video released in July 2019 by a prisoner at the FDOC’s Lake Correctional Institution was also recorded on a cell phone. That video depicted guards beating a prisoner. A captain and two guards were arrested and fired after the clip went viral.
When his video was posted online by Gilley-Nixon, Whitney again landed in solitary confinement, which is often the punishment that results when the FDOC discovers a prisoner with a contraband cell phone. Whitney’s phone was one of 9,000 confiscated in Florida prisons over a one-year period from 2018 to 2019.
Ron McAndrew, a prison consultant and former warden, said most of the cell phones are brought in by staff who supplement their meager salaries by making a profit from selling the phones to prisoners – who then make a profit by selling phone time to other prisoners. All involve risk of being caught and charged with a new felony or being placed in solitary. The FDOC has an ongoing investigation into Whitney’s video project.
In October 2019, Whitney had another cell phone confiscated as he was being transferred between prisons. But he promised that once released from solitary confinement he will resume filming, both because of the money his documentary stands to earn as well as the seemingly endless sources of material in the prison system that are ripe for exposure.
“Money makes the world go round,” explained Whitney. “And there’s corruption everywhere in the system.”
PLN is always interested in receiving photos and videos from prisoners, which are posted on our website. They can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sources: Miami Herald, Washington Post, hyperallergic.com
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