‘Riot in Cell Block 11’ Has the Courage to Ask Important Questions

Will America's prison system ever change? Or is meant to keep America’s caste system in place?

In Erik Olin Wright’s The Politics of Punishment: A Critical Analysis of Prisons in America (Harpercollins, 1973), John Pallas and Robert Barber note that “more than 50 major riots occurred in American prisons between 1950 and 1953” (238). Pallas and Barber claim that the riots resulted from “intolerable living conditions”, and until the inmate disturbances of the ’70s made infamous by the Attica Prison riot of 1971, the riots of the ‘50s “characterized the worst period ever for American prison administration” (239).

Don Siegel’s ’54 film Riot in Cell Block 11 is a fictional recreation of one of these riots, and despite being made nearly 60 years ago, the film’s social message remains timely and relevant. In fact, it’s somewhat depressing to realize that so much time has passed and the American prison system has arguably gotten worse for inmates. There may not be as many riots, but convicts across America continue to be treated harshly both in and out of prison.

Siegel’s 80 minute melodrama is what Peter Roffman and Jim Purdy have identified as a “social problem film” in their book The Hollywood Social Problem Film: Madness, Despair, and Politics from the Depression to the Fifties (Indiana University Press, 1981). Other popular social problem films include Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) and Home of the Brave (1949), and the purpose of the genre is to integrate a larger social conflict into the individual conflict between a film’s characters.

In the case of Riot in Cell Block 11, the film fictionalizes a prison riot to illustrate the terrible treatment of inmates. The riot occurs out of desperation, and the film implies that inmates wouldn’t react violently if they were regarded as human beings by the State. The film is inspired by the experiences of producer Walter Wanger, who served a four-month term at The Los Angeles County Honor Farm in 1952, which further grounds the film in social urgency.

So what, exactly, do the prisoners fight for? This is a complex question, because the term “harsh living conditions” is an amorphous one. However, the film does point to specific changes that need to be made by the administration. The most significant is what might be described as alleviating “prisoner unrest”.

Essentially, prisoners aren’t given anything to do. They sit in their cells and dully pass the time, and since 95 percent of federal and state prisoners in the ‘50s were released at some point, the film argues that their prison time could be more productive by learning a trade and working. As Wanger writes in “West Points of the Underworld”, an article that was originally published in the 1954 edition of Look magazine, and is included in Criterion’s DVD booklet, “An inmate’s life is one of rudderless motion and idleness” (17).

As a result, of the 95 percent that were released from prison in the ‘50s, 55 percent returned within five years of their release. This is known as recidivism, and is one of the biggest obstacles the prison system has always faced because prison is often used to punish instead of rehabilitate. Some of this stems from morality, as a number of law-abiding citizens in America believe that prisoners should be punished, and that harsh living conditions are their burden for committing crimes in the first place.

However, most of it has to do with money, and the debates about whether it’s cheaper to give prisoners little resources and have them come through the system again and again or to spend more on rehabilitation programs in the short term to reduce recidivism in the long term. There are no easy answers, but the film has the courage to ask the important questions.

Another problem that plagues the prisoners is overcrowding. In his article, Wanger writes that the large, expensive penitentiaries must be replaced with smaller ones so “sex perverts, incorrigibles, and ‘nuts’ could be segregated from the salvageable youngsters, first offenders, and harmless old derelicts who make up the bulk of our prison populations” (21). Today, much advancement has been made in the United States to ensure that low risk offenders are separated from dangerous criminals, but jails and prisons remain overcrowded and prisoner unrest and recidivism are still major issues.

Siegel’s direction is sharp and assured, and the film is at once thrilling and educational. The 2K digital transfer is gorgeous as usual, and the audio commentary by Matthew H.Bernstein is insightful. In addition to the DVD booklet, which features the Wanger article, an essay by Chris Fujiwara, and an excerpt from Sam Peckinpah’s 1974 tribute to Siegel, the DVD offers a number of engaging special features.

Chief among them are excerpts from the 1953 NBC radio documentary The Challenge of Our Prisons, excerpts from Siegel’s autobiography that is read by his son Kristoffer Tabori, and excerpts from Stuart Kaminsky’s book on Siegel, also read by Tabori. These aren’t the most exciting special features in the world, and part of me wishes that the entire NBC radio documentary was included. However, this lesser-known film is worth re-discovering and Criterion deserves praise for restoring and releasing it.

Riot in Cell Block 11 is important because it asks the American public to evaluate how it wants to treat its prisoners. Some of the issues that plagued the ‘50s prison system may be resolved, and others have surely taken its place (drug and internet laws, to name a few), but for many reasons, the message of the film bears repeating.

After all, the American justice system still hasn’t figured out how to distinguish between those who are truly dangerous and those who are ignorant, and it still hasn’t figured out how to prepare those who enter the prison system for eventual life on the outside. Whether the administration itself changes some of its laws on what constitutes a crime and what constitutes a just sentence, or whether we, the public, decide to stop denying ex-convicts job opportunities because of their records, one thing is for sure: something needs to change.

The despairing question that Riot in Cell Block 11 leaves us with, ultimately, is if the prison system will ever change, or if it’s purposefully meant to be ineffective in order to keep America’s caste system in place?

RATING 9 / 10