By B. J. Smothers

The Prison in Twelve Landscapes. Brett Story, dir. Documentary film. 2016.

 Currently, there are more than 2.3 million people incarcerated in U.S. prisons, which is more than any other time in history. Forty years ago, the number imprisoned was 300,000. For comparative purposes, more people are imprisoned in the United States than in any other nation. This trend is infinitely interesting. In most Liberal Studies, and often in English 102, courses I’ve taught, at least one student selects the prison-industrial complex for research study, because the research is so extensive and a prime example of systemic oppression. Are the vast majority of incarcerated people poor? Is poverty a chief factor?

Thinkers in diverse fields have grappled with poverty and devised a number of theories. In the twentieth century, sociologist Herbert J. Gans gained notoriety with his theories on the uses of poverty in society. Specifically, he claimed that “ . . . poverty … makes possible the existence or expansion of respectable professions and occupations, for example, penology, criminology, social work, and public health.”* From that statement, one can deduce that not only might one find the poor dominating the prison cells but also the would-be poor providing services for this group. Society benefits from people in poverty in many ways, not only to guard its incarcerated citizens but also to spawn fields of study, e.g., social work and sociology. Of course, that’s one view. Another view is that poverty exists because of people trying to preserve their advantages over the system, or I     would say within the system. An interesting documentary that sheds light on this theorizing is The Prison in Twelve Landscapes.

 The PBS program Independent Lens broadcast The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, on May 8, 10, and 11, 2017. Beyond this television program, the documentary is available on other media outlets. It’s an unusual work because it concentrates on the effects of prison in society rather than on what happens inside of prisons. The film consists of twelve vignettes, illustrating the social impact of the prison industrial in such places as a Kentucky mining town (where people are anxious for prison jobs), Washington Square Park (a story of idle life after prison), and St. Louis County, Missouri (where urban violence threaten participants with a prison future).  


*Gans, Herbert J. “The Uses of Poverty: The Poor Pay All.” Social Policy, 2: 20-24, Jul-Aug. 1971.