No prison break-outs
Directed by Jonathan Stack and Liz Garbus
Produced by Gabriel Films
Screened at the 45th Sydney Film Festival
Review by James Vassilopoulos
Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana, is one of the biggest maximum security prisons in the United States. Why is the town called Angola? Because the people who were kidnapped from Africa and forced to work on the plantation there came from Angola.
After the US Civil War, the plantation was turned into a prison and filled almost exclusively with black people.
Blacks newly freed from slavery were systematically "convicted" and forced to work in state-run prisons. The ownership of the slaves shifted from the rural aristocracy to the state. Today, 80% of prisoners in the Louisiana State Penitentiary are African-Americans. One in three African-American males between 16 and 35 years old is in jail.
Angola contains 5000 prisoners. Another 1800 workers live in a town in the centre of the prison. Little white kids, weighed down by big caps, play on a baseball field with the prison perimeter fence in view. It's a surreal sight.
The Farm presents the stories of six prisoners who tell it as it is. There are no sensationalised evil, heroes, sentimentality or Escape from Alcatraz-style break-outs; just people — nearly all black and all poor.
Parts of the documentary are chilling, like the practice execution of a prison guard. The guard is strapped down, yet still held by four men. Every aspect of the execution is practised, including looking for the vein in which to inject the lethal substance. Only later do you realise it is a mock execution.
Director Jonathan Stack, in an interview by David Walsh, said, "It's much less scary, I'd say, than urban short-term prisons". He describes the film as "compassionate" and about seeing the best in people.
In jail there's George, 22 years old and serving the first year of a life sentence. In Angola, life means life. Eighty-five per cent of people who enter die there. After the first three years, most inmates get no visitors — "You lose your homies, your wives and everyone".
George's mum is trying to raise $3000 to buy transcripts of the court case in order to appeal the decision. Poor people, it is shown, are not equal before the law.
There's Ashanti, who got 75 years for armed robbery. His strategy is to be a model prisoner. He's highly articulate, gives orientation lectures to the new inmates and goes into the community to warn people about prison. After 20 years in Angola, his parole is knocked back constantly.
Bishop has found his salvation in God and passionate preaching. He has been in for 38 years, has been given a pardon and is waiting for the governor to sign. He can almost taste freedom, but may have to wait a long time: the law and order issue is politically persuasive.
Bones is dying in the hospital prison from lung cancer. He says, philosophically, that you can make a life for yourself in Angola. The scenes of his friends in prison wishing him happy Christmas and joking around are touching.
Finally, there is Vincent, found guilty of two counts of rape. He was sentenced to 100 years. Vincent says he is innocent and seems to have substantial proof of that.
After 20 years, he has obtained from the district attorney's office documents the jury never saw. He had represented himself.
He has the doctor's report, which states that one of the women who claimed Vincent raped her was not raped, and a statement in which one of the women who identified him as the rapist said that "all niggers look alike".
He also has a police photo of the line-up in which he was identified by the two women independently. All of the suspects are black, but one thing distinguishes Vincent: his ankles and wrists are handcuffed.
One of the best scenes in the film is of the parole board meeting to decide if Vincent will be given parole. The board, including a racist ex-cop, takes about two minutes to think about Vincent's future, then judges that he should stay in Angola.
Stack and fellow director Liz Garbus don't have to state that the courts and prisons are racist institutions — they show it. They also expose the exploitation of prison labour. In Angola, which makes licence plates for Puerto Rico, 5000 inmates earn a minimum of US$0.04 per hour or, if they work really hard, a maximum of US$0.20 per hour. Prison workers have also been used to scab on other workers on strike.
No doubt there are prisoners there who committed heinous crimes. But there are many more who are in for petty crimes. In California, you can now get 30 years for stealing a shish kebab if it is your third offence. Stack points out that if, by the year 2000, there was an amnesty for non-violent crimes, half of the prison population would walk free.
There are also innocent people and political prisoners. Leonard Peltier, a native American, has spent 21 years inside following a frame-up that resulted in his conviction for the murder of two FBI agents.
Gary Tyler, still in Angola, was aboard a school bus in October 1974 when a racist mob attacked the passengers. In the chaos a white boy was shot dead. Tyler was convicted for the murder, even though the only witness admitted she had accused Tyler under police pressure. Tyler is still in Angola.
On May 29 last year, left and African-American activists succeeded in having Black Panther Party leader Geronimo ji Jaga Pratt released after 27 years in prison.
From 1975, the truth about Cointelpro — the FBI's counterintelligence program that targeted radical groups — was known. The FBI had recorded Pratt receiving a telephone call in Oakland on the night of the murder, which occurred in Santa Monica, 400 miles away. Other murder suspects were never pursued. Pratt's conviction was finally overturned by a Superior Court which decided that the prosecution did not give him a fair trial.
Stack plans to use The Farm to campaign for a more humane prison policy. If it turns up on television, make sure you see it.