Clemency. Directed by Carol Jacobsen. Ann Arbor: Michigan Women's Justice & Clemency Project, 1997. 15 minutes.

Segregation Unit. Directed by Carol Jacobsen. Ann Arbor: Michigan Women's Justice & Clemency Project, 1999. 29 minutes.

Sentenced. Directed by Carol Jacobsen. Ann Arbor: Michigan Women’s Justice & Clemency Project, 2002. 6 minutes.

Time Like Zeros. Directed by Carol Jacobsen. Ann Arbor: Michigan Women's Justice & Clemency Project, 2010. 13 minutes.

Reviewed by Shreerekha Pillai Subramanian

If you are part of the minor group of academic laborers teaching feminist theories and women-centered texts to incarcerated students, it’s almost certain you experience a real existential tension with the majority of faculty teaching social justice to students in the so-called free world. In general, this latter world’s established norms and customs are casually comfortable with the idea of freedom itself, complaisant with heteronormative binaries like man and woman, adult and juvenile, legal and illegal. In panning one’s camera to sites of carcerality, specifically women’s prisons, the spectatorial gaze is forced to consider the contradictions and lacunae of both freedom and postfeminist “progress.” It reveals, as quotidian apocalypse, the discursive reality of state violence actuated in criminalizing and punishing the fragment of its own body-politic marked as wretched and worthy only of disregard.1 Carol Jacobsen’s four short films reviewed here provide important lessons in teaching about not simply the exceptional sites of un-freedom but the compromised quality of freedom itself in putatively free societies. The shortest and the longest films, Sentenced and Segregation Unit respectively, focus on the ordeals of individual women. The other two mid-length films, Time Like Zeros and Clemency, critique the carceral system as a whole.

Clemency, the earliest in this series, is a clear-eyed argument for the levers of justice to move on behalf of the incarcerated women who are actually victims of larger systems of structural violence: familial, communal, ideological, and state based. Jacobsen is seen talking at the beginning and sharing her story about entering the Michigan prisons, where she listens to the women to whom she will soon become indebted because they compel her to conceive a screen/canvas for their stories. The entirety of the fifteen-minute short is composed of extreme close-up shots of the women who are serving life sentences or extremely long sentences that span decades for having shot, killed, conspired to kill, or been around a spate of violence with abusive partners, lovers, and husbands. The harrowing tales include long years of abuse that leave them with a feeling of alienation and defenselessness—women lit on fire, women stabbed while sleeping, one running out of her home naked knocking on doors for help, women taking bleeding daughters for help after abusive fathers have raped their own progeny—and include the terror of attempting to flee their persecution without any idea about what rights or protections they can access through the community or the state. The very same women, cloistered in prisons, find ways to express their pain, stitch together a narrative, and support the newcomers whom they recognize as kin through their bruised faces and blackened eyes. Their voices make clear that oppressed women are also empowered and are articulate agents of self-representation; feminism is not limited to the academics and divas with the privilege of capital and education but is present in the everyday struggles and resistance embodied so expressively by each of these women. Through this film, Jacobsen also questions the limits of the principle of using deadly force in self-defense, a principle liberally used to sanctify and protect male life.

Jacobsen’s second film in the series reviewed here was released in 1999 with footage taken at Scott Correctional Facility in Plymouth, Michigan. The lengthiest of her works, Segregation Unit focuses on Jaime Whitcomb’s ordeals. It depicts long undisturbed sequences of corrections officers—men and women, black and white—gathering around a bare prison bed in a tiny room, restraining and chaining Whitcomb down. Some shots, purposefully blurred to respect Whitcomb’s dignity, show her completely nude; in some she wears black panties, a stark contrast with her pale white skin. She is often spread-eagled, leather straps on wrists and ankles, with an occasional cover tossed on her, as she screams, “Listen to me!” Some of her retorts sound like incantations to a higher power, summoning strength to surpass the threats she hears all day about getting beaten up, and she even is able to conjure humor when she quips, “It fucks with my head in the most peculiar way.” In a voiceover reflecting on her experience, Whitcomb explains that attempted suicides in the segregation unit are common, with seven attempted hangings on one particular day in 1994. She speaks of feeling depressed, unable to sleep in the fluorescent lit rooms where she loses a sense of self as she is divested of humanity. Particularly haunting is Whitcomb’s story of being nearly suffocated as a male guard raped her in the privacy accorded him when the lights were off and a female guard stood watch at the door; she remembers being worried more about just being able to draw a breath. Through Whitcomb’s experiences, Jacobsen’s camera bears witness and humanizes one woman’s pain enough to cause policy changes that prohibit the state from brutalizing incarcerated human beings to this extent and that bring the United States more in line with UN Human Rights policies.2

In her shortest film, Sentenced, Jacobsen continues to dwell on the theme of innocent incarcerated women with the story of Connie Hanes. Similar to Segregation Unit, this film uses voiceover in powerful ways. A friend’s voice opens the film, speaking of Connie’s utter innocence and hopelessness. Most of the six-minutes, though, present silent footage—in many ways mirroring the silencing experienced by the carceral subject—of women chained down, and guards organizing with great care instruments of repression (i.e., chains on prison beds, shackles on a nearby dresser). Hanes’s melancholy voice catalogs her long years of suffering, which includes six months of pregnancy before she is allowed to see a doctor, three days of labor before she is taken to a hospital, and going to court in a Michigan winter without shoes or coat and clad only in prison cotton. Despite the iniquities, she is afraid to complain lest she too is shunted off to the seg where the punishments are even more relentless and time, truly unendurable. She speaks of sleep as the only curative, and a repeated desire to just shrivel up and die. The film ends with text that Connie Hanes does indeed commit suicide in 2001. Sentenced thus attests to state violence by showing its repressive and ideological mechanisms with the voices of the very women whom it erases, dehumanizes, and renders lifeless. Yet despite the tragedy of her sentence, Connie Hanes has the last word as she fantasizes that one day someone will speak of her innocence. The film does just this, allowing her words to ring loud and clear for a much longer sentence.

Time like Zeros addresses the overarching logic of the punitive system: time. How do women, so often already disciplined and punished by patriarchal systems of late capital and modern imperialisms, do the time when it seems to stretch out, as one woman says, “like zeros”? Jacobsen matches the harsh penal visual text of concertina wire, gray walls, shackles, and guards directing inmates’ every move with auditory text provided by at least eight women’s distinct voices interpreting the journey into the carceral empire where broken, battered, mostly abused people are further broken and penetrated by state practices of systematic cruelty and sadism. First-time entrants acclimate to the dehumanizing experience of being interpellated from a “full citizen” to “six digits” as they remove each article of clothing one by one, bend over, and spread their cheeks. The accompanying voiceover makes critical connections between the fact that over 85 percent of women entering the carceral system were once abused, and now the state penetrates them in such minute ways on a day-to-day basis that it is not surprising to note the high number of suicides or attempted suicides in these facilities. The women say that complaining is futile since it can lead to being sent to seg or further punished in new ways, so they try to survive by making something of nothing. The film closes with a paradox—locking up and throwing away the key does not make the problems disappear; building on Angela Davis’s work on abolition democracy, Romarilyn Ralston, formerly incarcerated at Cal State, Fullerton, observes, “Prisons don’t disappear social problems; prisons disappear people.”3

Jacobsen’s four films provide a rich tapestry, a powerful oration by women left out of mainstream and radical feminist organizing because, generally, they are left out of the conversation, locked up, made inaccessible to their families and larger communities. Taken alone or together the films disrupt notions of American freedom and feminist gains. Since they focus on Michigan mostly in the 1990s, additional reading and media could deepen the regional focus and also resonate with larger national narratives about carceral lives and concomitant dissident feminist critiques.4 Overall, Jacobsen’s oeuvre is a significant corrective in the “correctional” text of the prison empire, and making visible the extreme pain and suffering in which these women’s lives are mired renders explicit the complicity between systems of state violence (carcerality) and good old-fashioned patriarchy (tradition).

1 For key texts that have reflected and been cited on this subject, see the inimitable Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003) and Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prison, and Torture (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005); Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2012); Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007); Regina Kunzel, Criminal Intimacy: Prison and the Uneven History of Modern American Sexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008); Douglas A. Blackmon, Slavery by Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (New York: Anchor Books, 2008); and Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015).

2 In fact, the release of Segregation Unit made organizations such as Human Rights Watch and the ACLU aware of these injustices, and they rallied together to agitate for prison reform. This brought not only necessary and hard-fought changes within the Michigan penal system, but also national policy shifts that made it illegal to segregate an inmate for such long periods or gas them while restrained. Other repellant practices of the carceral bloc were addressed as well; for example, sexual assault of an inmate was deemed torture under the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

3 Romarilyn Ralston shared this statement at a roundtable, “Imagining a World without Prisons” at the National Women’s Studies Association Annual Conference (Atlanta, GA, November 2018). Interestingly enough, national feminist conversations have focused on critiques of carcerality through abolition democracy for some years and are beginning to attend to the increased surveillance of women’s bodies and the criminalization of women, especially undocumented and indigenous women. Additionally, a number of formerly incarcerated women are spokespeople and renowned activists in the movement.

4 For further readings, or to select chapters for a classroom syllabus, I recommend Lora Bex Lempert, Women Doing Life: Gender, Punishment, and the Struggle for Identity (New York: New York University Press, 2016); Robin Levi and Ayelet Waldman, eds., Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons (San Francisco: McSweeney’s and Voice of Witness, 2011); Beth E. Richie, Arrested Justice: Black Women, Violence, and America’s Prison Nation (New York: New York University Press, 2012). Along with Angela Davis’s books, her lecture on feminism and abolition justice is a vital resource in critically absorbing the films at hand (Angela Davis, “Feminism and Abolition: Theories and Practices for the 21st Century,” Beyond Capitalism Now: Strategies for Living and Creating Organic Communities, August 8, 2013. Films recommended on this topic are 13th, directed by Ava DuVernay (New York: Netflix, 2016), 100 minutes, The Feminist on Cellblock Y, directed by Contessa Gayles (Atlanta: CNN, 2018), 75 minutes, and The Sentence, directed by Rudy Valdez (New York: HBO, 2018), 85 minutes.

Shreerekha Subramanian is associate professor of humanities at University of Houston–Clear Lake and the current chair of the Department of Liberal Arts in the School of Human Sciences and Humanities. Her teaching ranges across disciplines in the humanities from literature and women’s studies to cross-cultural studies. In 2008, she became the first recipient of the Marilyn Mieszkuc Professorship in Women’s Studies at University of Houston–Clear Lake. In addition to her monograph, Women Writing Violence: The Novel and Radical Feminist Imaginaries (SAGE, 2013), she has published articles on South Asian, African-American, and Caribbean literature and media, and she edited the anthology Home and the World: South Asia in Transition (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2006). At present, she is working toward her next monograph on carceral imaginaries addressed through the contexts of late capital and new imperialism.