CORRECTIONS: ASHLEY HUNT INTERVIEW
The United States has the largest percentage of imprisoned human beings of any country in the world, and through all of human history on this planet. It's a concealed tradition tied to the profit system that dates back to slave culture and later the post-Civil War South, when desperate farmers cut financial deals to replace slaves with prisoners, and wrongful arrests emerged as a lucrative enterprise.
Today that very profitable, more contemporary form of slavery known as the privatized prison industrial complex persists as perpetuated prison villages, correctional meat markets and theme park style gulag enterprises. These are characterized by the excessively extended, mass incarceration of over two million, including one in every four African American males.
That inhumane system enriches itself through the very unholy alliance of contracting corporations, economically depressed rural communities eager for jobs and federal funding, profiteering advocate politicians, and the opportunistic spreading of mass hysteria through the misleading 'get tough on crime' movement. And it reaps $50 billion tax dollars for them yearly, for everything from instruments of torture to potato chip concessions and movies leased through Hollywood studios.
I spoke with young artist and documentary filmmaker Ashley Hunt, who examines in Corrections how all this came about. Hunt has assembled jaw dropping footage, including the Corrections Corporation of America and the gleeful hawking of hideous restraint wares at the American Correctional Institution's annual trade show. His scathing "Roger And Me" style expose documentary, which lends horrific perspective to the recent death of a child at an Arizona prison camp, bears the ironic tag line that Corrections 'takes audiences behind the walls of a prison where they might not want you to leave.'
What were your own personal observations, feelings and experiences that moved you to film this expose?
ASHLEY HUNT: Well, one of the things that my artwork has been concerned with for a long time, has been the politics that determine and define us. And define where we can go and can't go, and who we think we can be and cannot be. And obviously the relationship of that to economics is very important within a capitalist society.
So Corrections was a piece that was inspired when I found out about the story of a juvenile prison in Louisiana, Tallulah Correctional Facility, which had inflicted gross human rights violations. And the story then revealed that this was a private prison. It was for profit, it was run for the profit of business people.
And the human rights violations could generally be traced back to profit saving motives. That was bad enough for one movie project alone. But another discovery that was shocking, is that they would oftentimes keep juveniles past their release dates. And the reason they would do this, was to get more money.
So the profit incentive not only drove them to not feed, not clothe and not have an adequate enough environment in which children were not being brutalized. But the profit motive is also criminalizing these children. And so this had really profound implications for me, in terms of a lot of the issues we have within the criminal justice system today, but also outside of it.
Like who we are told to fear, and feel threatened by. And how that kind of fear and threat is used in terms of racism especially, but also class fear, and just fear of strangers in general. How that is used to keep us divided from one another, keep us alienated, and keep us quiet about all this.
Your film mentions how some of these children as young as nine years old are being dragged away in handcuffs from schools, directly to these facilities.
AH: Well, that's a result of the zero tolerance laws. One of the things we see right now, is not only criminal justice policies in general getting 'tougher,' but we also see these policies moving into schools at a really disturbing and alarming rate.
And in fact in Mississippi, the legislature there recently passed a three strikes law. Three felonies and you get a mandatory minimum sentence of like 25 years to life. And this is now a law that has been moved inside schools. Where in Mississippi's public school system, children can strike out in the same way.
And the situation in Louisiana described in the movie, deals with that zero tolerance mentality. It's that sort of police mentality moving inside schools. And where we're no longer tolerant of our children.
So oftentimes what you see in public schools across the country now, is a police officer on the campus, who will arrest a student and take him away, without even passing by the principal's office to say hey, I'm taking this kid. They've just been given carte blanche to do that.
And none of this has anything to do with fixing the real problems that exist within the public school system, but is really a distraction, and a way for public officials to make themselves look like it's not something they have anything to do with. So now it's a militaristic mentality, as opposed to a more bureaucratic one.
How do you feel that we as a nation ended up with these houses of horror with mass incarcerations that are blanketing the country, and becoming an accepted way of life?
AH: Well, I think the context of it has been the rise of a globalized economy. The context is really rolling back all of the social programs that were in place institutionally and otherwise. And that were there to of compensate really, in a lot of ways, for the brutality of capitalism.
It's the way in which capitalism requires, not only unemployment and discipline of labor in order to keep it cheap. But also we see so much unemployment and surplus labor produced by jobs leaving the country altogether.
This is all about the inequities that have been institutionalized in this country, and that produce these social problems. And since the early '70s, those inequities which seemed to have been ironed over or cosmeticized, have really become exacerbated.
So while all the welfare and social programs have been rolled back, prison is the institution that compensates for all of that. But the way it also happens is the ideological campaigning of the law and order movement that emerged nationally in the 1960's, and the escalating 'tough on crime' campaign.
All of this distracts from the real issues we need to deal with. And at the same time, it has to produce fear within the voting public. It has to produce fear, hatred and racism old and new, that is necessary to have two million people in prison, and to have people believe that's a good thing, or that it's reasonable somehow.
What are those vile prison trade shows all about, that you managed to infiltrate with this movie?
AH: Well, if you're familiar with the idea of the banality of evil, these trade shows are really that. They are big trade shows like any other, from a Trekkie convention to a like furniture show. You know, where there's a bunch of people out there, to just make a living and push their businesses.
And all the items that they're selling just happen to be items of violence, physical or otherwise, that supply the prison industry. You see everything from the obviously violent wares like guns, riot gear, physical restraints, and shackles and stuff, to the much more banal and uninteresting - and at times therefore all the more interesting - commodities, like just Frito Lays.
So it's a really bizarre and fascinating introduction to a prison, to go into this type of a show. Because prisons have really become small cities. And the trade show is the place where all these goods are bartered.
And these trade conventions are the places where all of these things get sold, and deals get made. And it gives you a more concrete idea of the whole prison industrial complex, and the way it functions economically.
Which I tend to define as a complex of intersecting interests that desire prison expansion for its own sake. And for reasons that are alienated from ideas of justice or safety, as we typically think of those concepts.
Here is a huge group of people, buyers and sellers, where the growth of the prison industry means more wealth and economic opportunity for them. It's kind of like this institutionalized process in which the interests of some people are pitted against the interest of other, in this sort of really irreconcilable way.
What do you want audiences to come away with after seeing Corrections?
AH: I want them to hopefully think that prison privatization is something that shouldn't be happening here in this country, or in any other country. And I want them to come away asking a lot of questions.
I want them to leave with lots of pieces of new information that don't necessarily come to a whole conclusion, but make you continue asking questions, and drive you to have more conversations. And question your beliefs about what we tend to think about crime and related issues.
Private prisons, because of the corrupt motivation of profit within them, are as a topic a good way to initiate a conversation with people who tend to buy wholesale the tough on crime movements and all that. And who buy the necessity of more and more police and prisons.
It's a good way of initiating a discussion with those people, and that criminal justice per se isn't just about safety and justice, as we're led to think of it. But that it has many more corrupt and complicated origins, and other issues pushing it along now.
Because it's not just about the corruption of people who are out for direct profit, as with private prisons. It's also about what the violence of the prison system and the social control that imposes, what that allows to happen in a broader social way. And holding government and the corporations, and the people who make the real decisions, accountable.
** Check out the Corrections website [http://www.independentfilms.com/corrections/filmmakers.htm] for information about the film, related prison protests,and scheduled screenings around the country and online. There is also information available about how you can arrange for Corrections to be obtained or shown in your community.**
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