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INTERVIEW WITH DEEDEE HALLECK
Series curator Kathy High conducted this telephone interview with DeeDee Halleck in May, 1997.
I know that Lockdown USA is a pilot -- a sampler actually --
for a larger series. Maybe you can tell us how the series got started and
where it's going.
About four years ago, we had decided to develop a series on youth and crime. We still have this idea on the books as an unfunded proposal. But we got involved very much with Mumia Abu-Jamal because he was scheduled to be killed two years ago in August, and a group of people including radio producers, newspaper producers, people who were doing a lot of Web work and CD-ROM work, agreed to try to do a kind of national campaign to save his life. And in doing that, it became very apparent that the whole issue of prison in general and the death penalty and the growing prison-industrial complex was something that really needed addressing. So what we did was put the youth show as one of the four programs about justice in America. And this piece, LOCKDOWN USA, is a selection from those four programs.
I really liked the structure of this sampler because it gives a good feeling of these different elements and these different sections that are being addressed. Can you talk about how that structure came about?
Well, one of the things we did was look at a lot of programs about prisons. Actually, it's a growing forum -- there are many projects about prison because prison has become such a big part of American life, and that becomes major on the agenda. For example, in architecture school, I've been told that one of the main projects that students are required to do is to design a prison because it's one of the few areas where you can actually get work as a young architect. So, it's basically subsidized housing.
So, you see, it's the senior thesis and lots of architects go into prison design -- which to me is really symptomatic of how very much this thing has become part of our lives. Well, we felt that that whole notion about just how big a part prisons were in America was one area we wanted to address, and the other area was the misconceptions in the media; one of the statistics that Cathy Scott turned up was that although crime has pretty much remained kind of level over the last 12, 13 years, or even gone down, the actual perceptions of crime on television have increased something like 1500-fold in the last 15 years or so.
Whereas before you'd have a very small percentage of programs about crime -- certainly not taking over the whole schedule and on local news programs and on national news -- crime has become one of the most covered issues that are out there. And a lot of that is misconceptions. Because the perception in many of these programs that is purveyed is that crime is violent crime. And actually, if you look at the statistics of those in prison, 87 percent of the people in prison are not there for violent crime. In any of these programs, these sensationalized programs about crime, there's no real sense of what the problems are with sentencing and the discrepancy. So you see crooks getting caught on "Cops" and people doing chases but there's never any follow-up to the real injustices that often occur after people are arrested.
And I liked the analysis -- which I've been dying to see somebody do -- of identifying with the cops when you're in the cab with that cop car. That's where the camera sits.
It's the view from repression. It's really frightening because many of the sort of statutes or civil liberties that we take for granted are getting eaten away within this rush to control crime. It was particularly big during the last election and I think there's actually a shot of Dole, who decided that his best picture opportunity was at San Quentin. And so he went to the San Quentin gas chamber and had his picture taken there. And he also was traveling around with some kind of crime-fighting dog. Somebody dressed up as the snooping dog that's going to catch the criminals. So he used it in his campaign, as do many politicians. In fact, that becomes a kind of easy way to engender support across the board from people who may be Democrats, who may be Republicans, who may be Liberal, may be Conservatives; in general, people are very frightened about crime. So if you toss up on your campaign ad something about how you're going to take care of the criminals, pretty soon you'll get a few more votes. And it becomes the quickest, easiest path to get those votes.
Well, have you shown LOCKDOWN USA around? And when you show it around, what kinds of reactions do you get from people?
Actually, one of the most interesting audiences was a group of convicts inside of a jail on Staten Island; at the end, three of them in the audience were crying, which really was very touching. And they were very appreciative of the tape and wanted us to get copies to their relatives, so they could really tell the truth about what the situation is. We're working with the Prison Activist Resource Center, which is an organization in Berkeley. And that has done wonderful work in terms of helping people around the country organize for various causes around these issues -- all the way from human rights to the ways that prisoners can get visited. One of the problems is that prisons are often way far away from people's homes, and it's very expensive and very hard for people to visit their loved ones. But the Prison Activist Resource Center is in touch with many organizations around the country who are doing very good work in terms of trying to address some of the injustices.
There's also a lot of programs that are trying to bring books into prison. But one of the scariest aspects of what's going on now is many prisons are limiting the amount of books that prisoners have available to them; and as you would see in LOCKDOWN USA, many of the education programs in prison have been shut down because most of those were paid for by Pell Grants, which meant that if a prisoner was there, they could actually get funding just as any other student would, which would then go to pay the college administration, etc. There was a special bill in Congress which outlawed that for prisons, so that you're cutting out a program which has been very successful. One of the things that people have discovered is that there's a kind of culture in prison that is very hard to get out of and that there's such a tremendous amount of recidivism. It's above 80 percent recidivism. So if anyone is in jail, their chances of getting back are almost nine out of ten. But if a prisoner goes through a college education program in the prison, that recidivism rate drops down to less than 30 percent. So, here's a very effective reconstruction program that can really benefit society in the long run in terms of having people dependent on the state, and it creates people who can be productive in society. And that program is just being completely cut out.
So there's such a mood of punishment and there's no sense anymore of the fact that maybe people could be rehabilitated. People basically have given up on that even though there are statistics that show that certain kinds of rehabilitation programs can actually be very effective. But it's almost like people don't want to rehabilitate. And one of the more ominous aspects is the way that now prisoners are being put to work. In the past, a lot of them did state work, like making license plates, etc. And now, prisoners are being contracted, but they're sort of being bought and sold. So Microsoft will go to a prison in Oregon and say we want x-number of prisoners to work on our packaging. Eddie Ellis, who's a really great prison activist, who runs the Community Justice Center in Harlem, calls the program "from the plantation to the projects to the penitentiary." And he talks about the fact that rather than helping get people jobs, basically it's a return to a kind of slavery. People are forced to do all kind of work and are actually paid very, very little. Almost like slavery in that they don't really have anything to do with choosing what kind of work they do. So it's become very similar to slavery.
So you have a situation where the state is negotiating with the corporation over the fate of hundreds of thousands of prisoners. And able to direct them in certain paths. Now, a lot of prisoners like working, and I think it is a constructive thing to do, but it's very dangerous, this whole project, because it really exploits them. They don't have any ability to make those kinds of choices and also they become the funder of their own incarceration. So even though they might get on paper minimum wage, they get less than 25 percent of that, or usually 25 cents an hour. And the rest of the money is siphoned off to pay for their incarceration, etc. So there is a kind of virtual slavery going on.
But it's so deceptive the way that it's painted for everybody on the outside because it's made to look as if people are finally getting to work. Which is better than sitting around. There are just all these ways that it's justified and there are many arguments in favor of this kind of work versus what in fact is the reality of it.
Well, you know, a lot of times the elements of mass culture reflect, even though they may distort and have a kind of different view of things. But there is a kind of reflection in popular culture of what's really going on, and to me the popularity of SCHINDLER'S LIST harks back into the whole notion of prisoners doing work, because here you have the boss, the owner of the factory being made out into this real hero. When actually what he's doing is exploiting the work of these people who are basically given to him to exploit, and you have a very similar situation here. So, to me, it's kind of curious why that became popular at this particular time, when that same kind of thing is going in the U.S.
And it's kind of ironic you know, there's a lot of discussion about how we don't want to have material made in prisons in China. But here we have TWA, who is doing a lot of their reservations from prison. And we have Microsoft doing the packaging from prisons. We have many, many other corporations. I've heard that Guess and The Gap are now involved in clothing operations in prisons. So it's a very big, growing business. Actually, there's a tape that we want to use in one of the programs which is put out by the California State Authority, like a kind of Chamber of Commerce tape. But it's extolling how wonderful it is to put your business in California and use prison labor, and one of the statements in the film says, "Why go offshore when you can have a disciplined work force at home?"
Chilling. I wanted to also ask you, just to switch gears a little bit, about Cathy Scott's involvement in the project; we aren't able to get a hold of Cathy because she is in Australia at present.
Well, Cathy was really key. I tried to do a lot of the research and identified people, and Cathy actually took her camcorder out to various prison demonstrations -- to Trenton and to West Virginia and she went down and not only shot the material, but brought it back and logged it herself and edited it. And we had already started on this project when we ran across Barbara Zahm, and that was a wonderful combination because Barbara not only had two very functional Avids for us, which she graciously put at our disposal, but she also had this incredible footage from this sequence that she had started making about the destruction of education systems in prisons. So it was kind of like a happy meeting between Cathy, Barbara, myself, and a terrific intern we had named Neil Landau, and of course, we got a lot of help from the Deep Dish staff. Carla Sarnar and Gloria Walker, who at that time was working there, and Randy Katchini. No one was paid for this project. It was a complete volunteer effort because we really didn't get enough funding to pay anyone. We got some really terrific volunteer help and hope to continue doing the other shows.
I think it's great that this is showing on TV because I'm really happy people are going to get to see this. I wish it could be sort of right after or preceding "Cops," but . . .
Well, you know, it's not just "Cops" that's the problem. One of the things we were shocked to see . . . we had heard that HBO did this series on prisons, and they have done a lot of programs on prisons, and we looked at a whole bunch of them. And there was never any discussion of the larger structures. It was a kind of voyeuristic thing where often the most common shot was a closeup of somebody's tattoo. And we kind of vowed that whatever we did, we would not show closeups of prisoners' tattoos. Because the kids over at Visual Arts probably have more tattoos than that anyway.
And what kind of trigger is that supposed to set off in middle class America . . . I can only guess that. But [on the HBO series] there was a kind of fascination with how evil the prisoners are and allowing them to say in detail, almost glorifying some of the . . . and I don't like to use the word perversions, but I know one of them had this long description of a sexual encounter in prison. It was just really gratuitous and exploitative, and to me it really did nothing except continue that notion that these are monsters. That kind of programming we don't need to help them saying that these are people who are beyond the pale, who are so weird and dangerous that it's really good that they're kept there. And by and large the bulk of prisoners are not like that at all. There's so much injustice in terms of the sentencing.
In the Attica section I noticed that Barbara chose to title people without listing what their sentence was, what their crime was. She just put in their title that they had been incarcerated for a certain amount of time, usually years. This had a really interesting effect because instead of just writing off this person saying, "Ooh, they were a murderer" or "They robbed someone" or something like this, you actually were forced to look at them and listen to what they were saying without immediately disassociating them from the rest of society and categorizing them as an "other." And then, the fact that they had been in prison for so long, the number of years that were listed, made an effect.
One of the interviews we have isn't in the film yet, but it's an interview with a guy named Russell Schoads, who was a former Black Panther. He's been in jail now for 27 years, and what's amazing to me is his cheerfulness. How can he be cheerful? He's not only in jail, but out of that, 17 years were spent in solitary confinement. And the kind of dignity and almost spirituality that many of these prisoners have, because in order to survive in prison, very often one of the ways of doing it is to go into yourself more, and also to take up reading and really try to educate yourself. So many prisoners have done that. One of the reasons we wanted to address Attica was that if you looked back at the situation that happened in Attica, the prisoners obviously knew they weren't going to get out. And what was interesting was that they made their own administration and they had various programs that people were involved in, and they had various discussion groups. And a lot of them came out of that experience with the sense that they could have some control over their lives, that they could rehabilitate themselves. That there was a possibility to bond with their brothers and to try to make conditions better.
What you saw in the years right after Attica -- of course it was a very different time then, Attica happened in 1971 -- but in the whole period of the early seventies, you saw enormous movements around the country. To reform prisons and actually to bring education programs in, etc. And a lot of that was done by the people who had the experience of being at Attica and who became spokespersons for prisoners in general. So it became one place where you actually heard the prisoner's voice. And there was a great deal of discussion about it.
Cathy Scott got so involved in this issue that she is working now in Australia, where they're in the midst of a big battle about whether or not prisons should be privatized, because that's a whole other area where you actually contract out the whole prison business. And she's been doing some interviewing there and covering some of the demonstrations, and hopes to have an Australian version -- it will be "Lockdown Australia." One of the things eventually we'd like to do is look at around internationally at what conditions are in prisons in other countries.
Wow. That would be a great project. Thanks a lot, DeeDee.
Great. Thank you.
DeeDee Halleck recommends the Deep Dish TV Network's Web site, as well as the The JusticeNet Prison Issues Desk.
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