It’s Criminal. Directed by Signe Taylor. San Francisco: The Video Project, 2017. 79 minutes.

Seats at the Table. Directed by Chris Farina. Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films, 2018. 87 minutes.

Reviewed by Shoshana Pollack

Bringing together incarcerated and non-incarcerated people to study or work together on a collective project carries tremendous potential to break down boundaries and shed light on the gendered, racialized, and classed workings of the criminal justice system. The documentary films It’s Criminal and Seats at the Table connect college students and incarcerated people through arts and literature and provide powerful insights into both the importance of and challenges inherent in establishing collaborative and authentic relationships across prison walls. Both films also explore themes of personal agency, structural oppression, criminalization and punishment, and experiential learning through relationship building.

It’s Criminal documents a class taught by professors Ivy Schweitzer and Pati Hern├índez in which Dartmouth college students and women incarcerated at the Sullivan House of Corrections collaborate to write and perform a play. The film chronicles the process of co-creation and explores power, privilege, and criminal justice. While following Hern├índez’s passionate, wise, and authentic leadership, the film intersperses individual interviews with Dartmouth students, women prisoners, and correctional staff to illuminate how socioeconomic inequalities create bodies to criminalize and bodies to valorize. A central focus is the Dartmouth students’ reflections on their own class privileges and their growing awareness of the criminal justice system as a mechanism for disciplining the poor while implicitly sanctioning similar behavior conducted by the privileged. Although there is a missed opportunity to talk about the intersections of racism with classism, the film nonetheless illuminates the socioeconomics of the criminal (in)justice system.

It’s Criminal also illustrates the complexities of power when engaging in projects with incarcerated people. Given the lengthy history of experimentation on prisoners and the contemporary reality of surveillance, assessment, punishment, and control within prisons, relationships are rife with nuanced power dynamics.1 For example, while working on the scripts for their performance, women prisoners shared experiences of pain, vulnerability, disadvantage, and criminalization. In contrast, student participants remained close-lipped about their personal experiences, focusing instead on the women’s narratives of struggle. In a scene that illustrates feelings of frustration, hurt, and distrust, an incarcerated participant asks if they are some sort of “experiment” for the Dartmouth students, and Malika, an imprisoned participant and key figure in this documentary, powerfully explains the painful impact of reducing the women inside to the label of “inmate.” These poignant moments of resistance by women at Sullivan are reminders to be wary of engaging in pain voyeurism when working with folks inside prisons and to attempt to account for power dynamics in all aspects of a collaboration.

In the feminist classroom, I would pair this film with Susan Starr Sered and Maureen Norton-Hawk’s book Can't Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility in order to support a critical analysis of gendered and paternalistic narratives that emerge in interviews with prison staff and university faculty and that are common within discourses about women prisoners.2 Beth Richie’s Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence and America’s Prison Nation is also essential reading and would provide some context for the personal narratives offered in the film.3

Seats at the Table is a riveting exploration of a Russian literature class taught by professor Andrew Kaufman as part of the Books Behind Bars program that for ten weeks brought together University of Virginia students and young men incarcerated at Belmont Correctional Institution. Based on the idea that reading a powerful piece of literature can change a person’s life, the film documents the experiences of program participants through small-group discussions and interviews.

Ethical relationship building within the context of power differences is a central theme in this film. Kaufman begins the Books Behind Bars class by meeting with both groups of program participants separately. He tells the young men incarcerated at Belmont that the university students are not coming to help or support; the project is a mutual exploration of Russian literature, and both groups are expected to come prepared to engage in the classroom. To the college students he asks “Is it possible that we can make them [the young men at Belmont] full subjects, instead of objects?” as they reflect on what is involved in creating equitable relationships with incarcerated people.

During the ten-week course, participants explore questions such as what kinds of relationships do you want to create? What does freedom mean? What gives life meaning? While Tolstoy’s novels are the foundation from which to explore these themes, inevitably participants learn much more than Russian classics. The program’s philosophy and relational approach is the scaffold upon which students’ perceptions of self and other are transformed. Yet both groups of participants discuss the impact of dispelling stereotypes, becoming aware of preconceived assumptions, and the care they cultivated for one another. While a book of literature may change lives, so too does this program. Seats at the Table is an insightful film that illustrates the transformative potential of an intentional learning community behind bars.

1 See, for example, Allen M. Hornblum, Acres of Skin: Human Experiments at Holmesburg Prison (New York: Routledge, 1999).

2 Susan Starr Sered and Maureen Norton-Hawk, Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility (Oakland: University of California Press, 2014).

3 Beth E. Richie, Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation (New York: New York University Press, 2012).

Shoshana Pollack is a professor in the Faculty of Social Work at Wilfrid Laurier University in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. She is the director of Walls to Bridges Canada, which brings together incarcerated and campus-enrolled students to study semester-long courses. Her current research is on social justice pedagogy, the impact of Walls to Bridges on students, and feminist praxis with incarcerated women. Publications include “Building Bridges between Students: Experiential Learning and Integrative Learning in a Women’s Prison” (2016) and “Transformative Praxis with Incarcerated Women: Collaboration, Leadership, and Voice” (2019).