The Prison Industrial Complex Extends Even Further into American Society Than You Think

A new documentary examines our culture of incarceration.

Photo Credit: Oh Ratface Films

With 2.2 million inmates, the United States' prison system is the world's largest, and yet its precise dimensions are a mystery to most of the country.

"Not only are prisons built further than ever from where most prisoners come from and where most people live, but journalists, filmmakers and researchers are increasingly denied access to the world inside their walls," notes Brett Story, director of "The Prison In Twelve Landscapes."

"It is as if prisons, and the people inside them, have been disappeared," she added. 

That is until now. After working with North American prisoners for over a decade, Story examines the lifeblood of a thriving industry, from Los Angeles to St. Louis and the South Bronx. But her documentary's focus isn't limited to major cities.

One of 'Twelve Landscapes'' most haunting moments takes place at the The Wheelwright Historical Society and Public Library in Wheelwright, West Virginia during an interview with Society director Sam Little.

Standing in the library he founded, Little reflects on the town's history on its hundredth anniversary.

"Wheelwright was actually founded in 1916 by the Elk Horn Coal Company and when coal companies ran the town, anything you wanted was here," Little says in the film. "And when coal left no one had a back-up plan, and it just kind of fell apart from there."

"I hear the stories from my grandma and my mom and dad about what Wheelwright used to be," laments the 34-year-old native. "You can talk to certain people, and there's still that little glimmer of hope."

But they're not hoping for a resurgent coal industry.

"For a while, the [medium-security] prison (Otter Creek Correctional Center) was sustaining the economy really well, and then the prison pulled out, so, now it's kind of back to the way it was," he relays.

According to Little, Otter Creek, which closed in 2012 will be reopening "so there will be jobs coming back," he tells Story. 

"I love it," he adds. "I would love to see that happen."  

"The Prison In Twelve Landscapes" airs on Independent Lens on Monday, May 8 on PBS. 

Watch: Exclusive Clip:

Alexandra Rosenmann is an AlterNet associate editor. Follow her @alexpreditor.

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