Architectural Suffering

Alex Witkowicz
Jun 26 · 7 min read

A cameraman’s view inside United States Correctional Facilities

“Be careful about getting too close, they may bite you.” Ironically, this was the same advice I received before filming alligators a few years ago, where the threat of life ending lacerations and dismemberment was far too real, and (perhaps non-ironically?) disturbingly prescient. This time, the advice came from guards at a maximum security prison in Colorado, in regards to inmates I’d come to film along with a reporter from the ACLU.

Comments like this dotted my experience filming inside Colorado and Oklahoma prisons over the past year — five facilities altogether, for three different documentary-oriented assignments (CNN Heroes, the ACLU, and The Council on State Governments), but enough to make a lasting impression on me and my own view of the criminal justice system. I wanted to digest some of my thoughts about what I saw, and what I experienced inside.

Even just a few days in these facilities is an eye-opener toward the American way of rehabilitation, and what the implications of our collective punitive measures mean for our communities at large. This isn’t a political digest, nor one lamenting the trials and tribulations of convicted felons, but I would readily admit that my opinions about the system changed dramatically based on these experiences. And although my view was limited, and, as a member of the media — controlled — I still felt a strong sense of confusion, fascination, and ultimately a desire to reconsider my values and views toward the criminal justice system. To put it bluntly, I haven’t stopped thinking about what I saw, heard and felt during these assignments.

Ellen Stackable’s nonprofit, Poetic Justice, helps incarcerated women in Oklahoma find their voice and heal from trauma through writing.

Each visit to a prison is a shock to the senses. First, in the readily observable ways: the facilities are often in remote and undesirable locations, surrounded by barbed wire, watch towers, and guards patrolling the perimeter carrying high powered weapons of classified specificity. Cameras become ubiquitous. A vehicle inspection begins the visit at the main gate, ID’s are held at the front desk, and iPhone’s sent back to glove boxes. Walking through a metal detector, everything carried is meticulously logged and recorded.

As a cameraman, this part of the process is an exercise in tedium. Each battery, cable, lens and tool must be verbally called out, written down, displayed to the guard, and put back in its case before proceeding. When exiting the prison, the same lengthy process must be done in reverse to ensure no piece of equipment remains behind bars, regenerating as an improvised weapon. Anything, the guards insist, can be turned into a weapon.

“I’m latino, but you’d never know it by looking at my skin. I haven’t really been exposed to sunlight for two years.” — a Colorado State Penitentiary inmate explains to the reporter from the ACLU, about the realities of long term prison sentences.

Once past the check in area, the second shock to the senses are the immediate feelings of disorientation and isolation. Windows are uncommon; the few that do exist are no wider than a fist. All spaces are accessed via gates and heavy locking doors. At some maximum security facilities, I later learned, the design of the prison is such that inmates never know where they are within a given building, or even where on the prison grounds their cell resides. Cell windows, which amount to cracks in concrete, obstruct the ground and look only into empty blue sky. The hallways give no indication as to what direction is being faced. Total disorientation sets in, not dissimilar from being in a submarine or space ship floating through the void.

Rick Raemisch, Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, tells us in a purpose-built solitary confinement unit in Southern Colorado. The multi-million dollar building sits unused since its construction, not for lack of demand, but largely due to Raemisch’s efforts towards prison reform. In 2017, Colorado ended long term solitary confinement sentences for longer than 15-day periods; a novel initiative, and the purpose of the project we were there to film.

While interviewing Raemisch, he tells us about the fascinating road that led to this ban. It began with his own personal decision to spend a night in solitary confinement, or Administrative Segregation, to better understand its psychological effects, which he wrote about it in a widely read piece for the New York Times: My Night in Solitary

Ad Seg, we learn, involves 23-hours per day locked in a cell the size of a parking space, entirely isolated from other inmates, guards, and the rest of the world. Meals are eaten on a metal table bolted next to a toilet. For exactly one hour each day, the inmate is allowed to exercise in a separate room, also alone. Their only contact with humanity exists alongside guards during transfer periods between their cell and the exercise area. On weekends, due to staffing limitations, the inmates tell us that they often spend a full 24 hours per day in their cell.

Raemisch’s experience echoes that of many of the inmates we interview; the strong notion that solitary confinement does a tremendous amount of psychological damage, and does little to rehabilitate offenders. Few would argue against this, yet it is a common practice to sentence offenders to lengthy, multi-year stints in solitary confinement across the country. Some spend a decade or more enduring this punishment. One of the inmates we interview tells us how he once encountered an old friend after they had been released from solitary confinement. The friend, he tells us, “looked right through me, not recognizing me. He wasn’t the same person that went into that cell.

Filming inside these spaces instigates feelings of claustrophobia, and it’s no surprise that the direct effect of this style of incarceration can lead to more problems than it solves. Although some of those facing solitary have committed violent crimes, invoking anything but pity, it is also hard to see who such punishments serve over the long term. Citing the fact that 95% of offenders eventually re-enter the general public, Raemisch tells us that his motivations for reform aren’t based out of pity: Indeed, it is hard to imagine how a person locked in a small room for a decade would grow into a productive member of society.

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, on Aug. 16, discussed mental health treatment and “second chances” during a tour of a women’s correctional facility in Denver, where he had the opportunity to meet face to face with corrections officers and the people incarcerated there. Filmed on assignment for the Council on State Governments.

One such program that aims to help inmates rehabilitate is Poetic Justice, a nonprofit run by Ellen Stackable, an English teacher whom I filmed in Oklahoma for a CNN Heroes story. Ellen later went on to become one of the Top-10 CNN Heroes of the year. Stackable’s program aims to give female inmates an outlet via creative writing, helping them find an identity outside of their criminal past. Her program helps inmates improve their social skills, provides a means for maintaining their dignity, and offers a space for processing trauma. Oklahoma is known to have the highest rate of female incarceration in the country, and listening to many of the inmates stories, I was reminded of our common humanity. Many of the women we talked to were non-violent offenders, and without making excuses for their choices, it was often easy to see how some had also become victims of circumstance.

Many of the attitudes I noticed among inmates consisted of love, hope and optimism, all of which caught me off guard. I personally couldn’t imagine a more hopeless scenario than that of facing down a twenty or thirty year sentence without the possibility of parole, but this was a surprising constant, especially among inmates who had already served lengthy terms. Many of them spoke of an internal decision they made, at some point on their journey, to accept their circumstances and to find peace within. For some, that came from atoning for their crimes, from watching a child graduate high school, or from finding a way to help others.

Ellen Stackable’s nonprofit, Poetic Justice, helps incarcerated women in Oklahoma find their voice and heal from trauma through writing. Filmed on assignment for CNN Heroes.

One inmate was enrolled in a continuing education program inside prison. She told us “I’m the first person in my family to go to prison, but also the first to go to college” which struck me as a gut-punching and honest perspective. Most surprisingly was an inmate that now uses their spare time to help raise money for children’s foundations, each year supplying hundreds of holiday stockings for kids in the region. They spoke proudly of this accomplishment, and for a moment I forgot that they were serving a life sentence on a first degree murder charge.

This jolting contrast was something I experienced across all the facilities I filmed inside. It caused me to question my own feelings toward offenders, the debate surrounding punishment and rehabilitation, and what that balance should look like. Each of us has a story, and for some, there are circumstances that have led down an extremely dark path. However, despite their crimes, hearing each inmates stories caused me to reflect on how fortunate I have been in life, and that very few stories are ever truly black and white.

It was a strong reminder that my job as a documentary cameraman isn’t to cast judgement, but to let people speak for themselves, to help give people a voice, and to do so in a way that maintains their dignity and humanity. A valuable lesson to learn, and one that, as a community of common citizens, is a value worth upholding.

Alex Witkowicz is a documentary-focused cinematographer based in Colorado. For more of his work, visit: www.AlexWitkowicz.com