Getting to sit both sides of the high fence is a real viewers’ privilege when it comes down to documentaries depicting the parts of the world we certainly know of, but have never stepped foot in. Not the case for all, sure, but as an Englishman with little personal interest in criminology, or indeed experience inside prison walls, this still appears to offer mandatory interest. Here in the UK (and elsewhere no doubt) we have our own temperamental criminal justice system, rife with public opinion, inappropriate sentencing, the endless debates and practices of what’s right and wrong – in all a puzzle too complex to solve. Director Regan Hines is mercifully not too interested in throwing those mud-balls at us with Incarcerating US, this documentary does not excuse what these prisoners did, or indeed delve into the whys so much, instead shines spotlights (not of celebration) on the humanity of those involved, a light we can clearly see but still not quite equipped to deal with.
That is to say, Incarcerating US is not a cry for freedom or violin-inducing melodrama. It sets its stall out early, feeding us statistics that are still staggering whether we grasped the concept of over-crowding in prisons or not. America, land of the free, a statement that drops some of its stature when you look at the literal facts. The movie touches on the affects, not just on the incarcerated, but those left behind – families, communities, children. One chapter of the documentary has inmates communicating with their families and children through video – reading books, wearing Christmas ears – a candid, poignant sequence. When a father is speaking to his children, he tears up a little, and overwhelming moments such as these take you out of the crime and punishment realm for the meantime, and you appreciate them as members of a family unit. Gives you plenty to ponder over.
Away from that drug enforcement portion of the film, Amy Ralston Pofahl has an altogether different story. Conspiracy law meant that she was sentenced in a far harsher way than her directly involved husband. As she talks about growing up, modelling, meeting her husband, you almost forget you’re watching an account about prisoners – the segregation is natural, just like our perceptions of those incarcerated. As we journey briefly through the steady balance of justice through various eras from the last century, including the social turbulence of the 1960s, the criminal justice system had to adapt as the 1970s – touching on the notions of change through the contrasting presidential administrations.
Music hums in the background, not wanting to impose further emotions on you, I mean, the personal stories speak for themselves. These are not sob-stories of those done wrong, the film-makers open a door and let you look inside. A familiar scope on the legal system, where the punishment formula has to embed some form of human element we still haven’t manage to figure out. Someone says “human nature doesn’t work that way”, true, the communication with crime, punishment, influence on society, is a universal language. The math of punishment mapping, in its varied forms and procedures over the decades, continue to evolve or fail to hit the mark. We realize we still can’t measure human nature and have to fit the consequences of crime into the right shaped hole. A huge part of Incarcerating US’ appeal is that it throws us a ball, inviting us to think further about this continuously rolling subject.