It's Doing its Job
“The phone automatically turns off at 12 o’clock,” Spoon Jackson explains. The last time he called the Swedish filmmaker Michael Wenzer, they were cut off. Jackson’s voice is remote and coarse, recorded during a phone call and identified as that of “an inmate at a California State Corrections Facility.” “Do you remember where you were?” Werner asks. Jackson laughs. Where he was is where he is, Folsom Prison. Time and place are consistent here, where movement is restricted and minutes counted.
As you listen to Jackson’s recorded voice at the start of At Night I Fly: Images from the New Folsom Prison, you see a bird, alone and aloft in a dull blue sky. As he speaks, the call is repeatedly framed and interrupted by official recordings, identifying the recording process, warning of imminent “termination.” The bird flies over telephone wires, into more sky, until the shot gives way to another, a mobile frame looking up from a car on its way to the prison, a fame comprised of more telephone wires, heavy grey clouds, and, as the camera tilts down and ahead, endless road.
Under beeps and breaks, Jackson recites a poem about his first visit to the prison cafeteria: “I could not find any familiar spot inside myself, able to relate to the bars, concrete, steel, guards barking out orders to hurry and eat.” The camera cuts to a spot on a train track, waiting for the train. “There was nothing natural about cells,” Jackson continues, “even the air was tainted and twisted with unrealness, fading hope and violent unrest.” You see it and hear it coming and yet, when the train rushes over you, it is twisted with unrealness, loud, crushing, and fearsome. Jackson compares his incarceration to times in his childhood, descending with other boys into a tunnel, watching a greyhound die, gasping for lack of breath. “I watched everything then, a completely unseen little boy, as though I was invisible, which I wanted to be.”
The phone call ends, the scene cuts. The rush and noise give way to a shot of an inmate so still you think it’s a photograph. He sits on his bunk, blue shirt, blue laundry, grey walls. He’s watching TV, which you know only when he stands to reach out and adjust the set, and the scene cuts again, to a series of shots of other men in other cells, tattooed, distracted, wide and narrow. One looks into the camera, then turns away to play his harmonica. The men are different. The cells are the same.
A devastating, oblique introduction to life inside the “new” Folsom Prison, this first sequence in At Night I Fly—selected for MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight—leads to interviews with inmates and guards, instances of the Arts in Corrections program (initiated in 1977, ended in 2010, due to the state’s budget crisis), and diverse looks at walls, gates, and men in small spaces. “Prison is an unnatural situation as it is,” one inmate observes. And so you see, the unnatural angles constructed here by doorways and halls, surveillance monitor frames and meeting rooms where inmates assemble folding chairs and support each others’ performances. Some footage shows video-grainy attacks in the yard, other clips offer instruction, by the associate warden (the “no hostage policy” means, he says, “We cannot allow an inmate from this prison to be exchanged for you”) and a guard (“I’m always on my feet, I’m always carrying the mini-14, and I’m constantly roaming,” observes one guard, “I can’t sit down as long as I have inmates on the tier”).
In between these cautions, inmates describe themselves and their prison. “It’s a great place,” says Marty Williams, “It’s a place where everything that’s fucked up gets deposited and that’s why I’m here, in my judgment, that’s why we’re here.” He goes on, “Hopelessness just pervades the place, a sense of dreariness that’s like weight, like cold that sucks out the heat. This place, it is what it is. It’s doing its job, keeping us contained. That’s it. It serves no other purpose but containment. Right there, that’s pretty bad.”
Williams sits on a stool at a table on the central floor, fluorescent lights over his bald head, bars and smooth metallic surfaces everywhere. Tables and stools are attached to each other and riveted to the floor. A railing circles the space, like a pen. Williams is thoughtful, resilient, and resigned. He and other interviewees share their resolve to survive in an impossible place, a place designed with and as no options. The inmates are here for long terms, some with years added after incidents in prison. They don’t speak about life outside, they can’t imagine a life after this one, so contained, so continuous. “Prison’s taught me that there’s routines,” says Rick Misener, “and if you follow the routine, you can make it through the day.”
One way to make it through the day, through the unrealness, is by pondering space and time, limits and possibilities, not only to see in a childhood or young manhood what went wrong, but also to see contexts, the ways that this life, this unreal, contained life, is like and unlike the outside. A series of discussions break down race and racism (“Blacks are unique in prison because they can do what the fuck they want to do”), the structures and effects of violence (“What is respected by everybody, officers and everybody, is an extreme act of violence”).
Everyone in prison measures time: guards run riot drills and collect homemade weapons, inmates pace in circles, write poems, find and refine their routines. Time allows for self-reflection and restlessness, inspiration and recognition. “I’m just saying, we are you,” Williams offers. “People say, ‘Oh, we’re your sons, we’re your daughters, we’re your fathers.’ It’s not just that. We are you. Everything that’s true about me is true about you, and I cannot be convinced otherwise.” And so you see, the place is doing its job.