Can Storytelling Ease the Pain of Incarceration?

A documentary examines the benefits and limits of enriching inmates' lives through prison arts programs. 

Marty Williams in At Night I Fly trailer (Vimeo)

Marty Williams is serving life-without-parole at California's maximum security New Folsom prison. "It's not the place that you see in the movies," Marty says in the documentary At Night I Fly, available this week on video on demand. His experience, he says, is not defined by gang wars and rape, as most media depictions suggest. Instead, "this place is about isolation. It's about the closure of the mind and the heart." Prison is not excitement and violence and television drama. Instead, it's the stifling of all those things. It's not a story, but the refusal of stories, of meaning, and therefore of hope.

At Night I Fly is in part about trying to give inmates stories. Much of the film focuses on an arts in corrections program, where 20 or so inmates participate in writing workshops by sharing poems and stories and songs. Mostly they write about their time in prison, though they also talk about other issues. One prisoner reads a short, doggerel, but nonetheless seethingly bitter poem about his abusive mother. Another performs a lascivious, a cappella reggae-inspired ode to black women.

There's little doubt that the arts program has a powerful effect on many of the men. One prisoner, Rick, talks about how when he came to prison he was given a knife, and about how he hopes that now, as an old timer himself, he can welcome newcomers with a pen instead. Marty too talks eloquently about how the program gives a new feeling of worth to people like him, who never saw themselves as valuable beyond their strength and capacity for violence,

The simple fact that the meetings are interracial is hugely important in a population where racial lines are starkly drawn and brutally enforced. One of the most remarkable scenes in the film involves the men in the program arguing, passionately but respectfully, about how, or whether it's possible, to have interracial friendships in the prison yard.  The arts program, then, gives the men not only a story of personal redemption, but a possible narrative of community change. Individual change can perhaps change the prison as a whole.

The documentary is invested in this possibility of change, and certainly it believes in the value of the arts program to give the prisoners a voice. But the film is also very aware of the violence, cruelty, and deliberate inhumanity of the prison. It therefore in many ways mistrusts its own feel-good narrative of redemption, and works to undermine it.

Uncomfortable moments sprinkled throughout the film remind the viewer of what can’t be changed by hour-long arts sessions. The first scenes of At Night I Fly are bleak and protracted; a bird circles far above; a train rumbles on and on as we look up at its underside. In a voice over, a prisoner recites a poem while an automated voice blankly tells him he has only two minutes left in the conversation. Then one minute. Then the cut off. The meaning is suspended, the story shut down.

A prison guard explains that she never sits down when watching the prisoners; she just goes round and round and round her stationary panopticon, barking orders, circling, going nowhere with a gun always ready to fire. We also see archival footage of prison riots, with no voice over or explanation; violence without context. Perhaps more chilling is the depiction of the everyday: a fixed camera showing men walking out towards the yard. Then there's a jump and there's more men walking—and a jump and more men walking. It's not clear whether it's the same day, or how much time has passed — and of course it doesn't matter. Nothing happens here; there's no time, or nothing but time.  Someone screams that he doesn't want his picture taken, and he's ignored, as if being ignored is as much of a story as these men can hope for.

The depictions of stillness and monotony and of violence without narrative seem to call into question the story of reform, or hope, and the viewer's investment in that hope. What exactly do we get out of a story in which prison is not so bad because the prisoners get to write poetry? The opening images — the bird, the train — seem to drag on forever; it was almost a physical relief when the film moved away from them and to a more familiar documentary approach. As Marty suggests, people like some sort of drama and action.  It's no fun to follow no story. The viewer has what Marty doesn’t have: a film editor.

A troubling fact hangs over this film, though it’s never mentioned explicitly: The U.S. has the world's highest incarceration rate. California's system is particularly over-crowded; there have been hunger strikes at a number of state prisons to protest inhumane conditions. There's nothing new here; America's incarceration binge has been going on for decades. But the very persistence of the problem suggests the limits of narratives of transformation.

In his book Lockdown America, Christian Parenti argued that rehabilitation efforts are not opposed to the logic of incarceration. More prisons and more prison art programs can exist side by side. In that sense, the art program here, with its rhetoric of rehabilitation and empowerment, can be seen as an imposition of another congenial narrative, not for (or not only for) the men inside, but also for those watching the film. Prison, as a place without a story, the film suggests, would be unbearable. So the documentary gives us a story of art and reform. Does that mean that doors are opened? Or does it mean we're comforted enough to countenance further closings, of doors, minds, and hearts?