A new film explores the effect of mass incarceration on the American landscape

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Still from The Prison in Twelve Landscapes. (Courtesy The Prison in Twelve Landscapes)
Still from The Prison in Twelve Landscapes. (Courtesy The Prison in Twelve Landscapes)

Although jails and prisons are physical sites, the effects of imprisonment are not confined to the buildings themselves: From Orange is the New Black to Broken On All Sides, television and films have explored the effect of prisons on the minds, lives, and communities of the incarcerated and formally incarcerated. Now, a new film from Canadian director Brett Story explores how incarceration has transformed the American landscape.

The facts are out there: 2.2 million people are imprisoned in the U.S. today, and it’s estimated that we spend $80 billion on incarceration each year. Instead dropping fact bombs, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes traces the ways mass incarceration affects the country’s physical and social spaces through 12 vignettes, from a playground in L.A. designed to repel registered sex offenders, to Ferguson, Missouri, to Whitesburg, a Kentucky mining town whose economy is supported by a federal prison.


The triangular property sits near a halfway house that caters to sex offenders. (Google Maps)

The triangular property sits near a halfway house that caters to sex offenders. (Google Maps)

Janet Shour Playground at Harbor Gateway Pocket Park today. (Google Maps)

Janet Shour Playground at Harbor Gateway Pocket Park today. (Google Maps)

The 87-minute documentary premiered at Columbia, Missouri’s True/False Film Fest. The above mentioned L.A. pocket parks are not surrounded by barbed wire fences, or plastered with signs prohibiting pedophiles. The typology of the park itself is the deterrent: In the neighborhoods of Harbor Gateway and Wilmington, city officials encouraged the building of parks specifically to prevent sex offenders from being able live in the neighborhood. (By law, certain categories of sex offenders can’t live or work within 2,000 feet of places where children congregate.)

In the Bronx, a formerly incarcerated man sells care packages that comply with the restrictive rules on what’s allowed though the mail in prison, while a woman in Marin County, California, details her job fighting forest fires. The film delves deep into the effects of incarceration in majority black communities like Ferguson, where filmmakers profile a woman who was sentenced to 15 days in jail for failing to pay a fine for a missing garbage can lid.

If you love probing documentaries and hate prisons, check out the film’s upcoming screenings here.

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