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Television

A Decade Behind Bars: A Return to The Farm

In A Decade Behind Bars: A Return to the Farm, inmates are moved when they watch the inauguration of Barack Obama on television.

A Decade Behind Bars: A Return to the Farm

Airtime: Tuesday, 8pm ET
Cast: Bishop Eugene Tanniehill, George Crawford, Burl Cain, Vincent Simmons, Karen and Sharon Sanders
Network: National Geographic
Director: Jonathan Stack, Liz Garbus
Air date: 2009-06-16
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I believe in the human race.

-- Burl Cain

"Time don't move here." Emerging from his cell at Louisiana's Angola Prison, George Crawford looms in a low angle frame. He makes his way outside, hoe on his shoulder, his eyes cast toward a seemingly endless horizon. He and his fellow inmates are about to start a work shift out in the fields. "Gon' be a long day," he says.

Crawford is one of four inmates featured in A Decade Behind Bars: A Return to The Farm, premiering tonight on the National Geographic Channel. A follow-up to 1998's The Farm: Life Inside Angola, the documentary follows the diurnal routines of prison life, while also noting the extraordinary efforts needed to make it through each day. Again, the documentary looks to warden Burl Cain to explain his approach to managing a prison, or more to the point, the men inside. The overwhelmingly black population at Angola is comprised of long-term, hardcore offenders. "One out of every two prisoners you see in here is a murderer," says Cain. Still, he means to treat his charges with respect, with an eye to rehabilitation instead of punishment.

To that end, Louisiana's high-security penitentiary is organized as a small town, in part owing to its large inmate population (10,000) and in part its isolation. Facilities for inmates include five churches and a Bible college, a self-sustaining agricultural community, and a television station. Located "25 miles down a dead end road," the prison has erected a literal town on its property: Beeline houses 600 employees and their families, along with support businesses.

Prisoners are organized by seniority and good behavior, their statuses ranging from lockdown to work assignments beyond prison walls; inside, they can work salary jobs (for two to 20 cents an hour) and outside, when they speak to students and other groups, they are accompanied by armed guards. Of course, the film insists, it is impossible for inmates to forget they are incarcerated: their windows have bars, their yards are marked by walls and razor wire, and the isolation cells are small. Some prisoners spend 23 hours a day in their cells, while others live in large rooms full of bunks. While they are encouraged to attend church, "Religion alone does not keep order in Angola," the narrator notes. "Security is a round the clock concern." The film offers a montage of guards with rifles, a dog chase team that's "always on alert," and "shakedown crews randomly working their way through the prison."

Each of the prisoners at the center of the documentary has a complicated story. Vincent Simmons, convicted of raping two white twins, Karen and Sharon Sanders, in 1977, continues to insist on his innocence. The emergence of a photo showing his lineup -- where he appears to be the only man wearing handcuffs -- suggests the procedure was questionable, as does the revelation that one of the sisters claimed at the time that "All blacks look alike to me." (When she meets with a parole board, she confesses that she's afraid of blacks to this day; when the black member of the board asks if she's afraid of him, she smiles nervously, "No, but I wouldn't be alone with you either.")

Simmons' lawyers have been appealing his conviction for years, and the film shows an interview between him and the twins. While the Sanders arrive, the narrator says, with an intention of offering forgiveness, Vincent's "objective is to convince them they helped to convict an innocent man." Sitting across from each other at a wide table, the individuals look as though they will never find resolution. The film follows Karen, who has written a book on her ordeal (she says she was told she'd never be able to do it, as she has only a sixth grade education), on a pilgrimage to the "scene of the crime." Here she contemplates her violation and stands by her version of events, praying for Simmons' eventual confession as a means to his own peace.

As she uses this film to make her case, Cain also uses media -- including a third Angola documentary, Wildest Show on Earth, about a rodeo sponsored by the prison -- to argue for his inmates' potential for progress. "I knew that we were on track of something that really worked," he says of his methods, his efforts to educate the prisoners and "stop the brutality," whether committed by inmates or guards. "The media used us economically," he smiles, "but we used the media philosophically." Just so, his techniques have been publicized, as well as his admirable success rate.

Indeed, the film shows two inmates who get out. George Ashanti Witherspoon, whom Cain supports at his parole board hearing as a "model inmate," was released in 2000. He goes home to his daughter Bwashena, now a grown woman, but born three months after his original incarceration. He had been sentenced to 75 years hard labor for his involvement in a 1972 shooting (he was on LSD at the time, and no one died, he points out). Outside, he becomes a community organizer and motivational speaker, working, he says, "towards to turn young people away from lives of crime."

Bishop Eugene Tanniehill is pardoned after many years of efforts to be released, his pardon signed by Governor Kathleen Blanco in 2007. A preacher in the prison, he continues his work outside: "I sewed the good seed at Angola and come to New York City to reap the harvest," he asserts.

As wonderful as it is to see these redemptions outside Angola's walls, the film returns at its end to the inside. Here inmates watch the inauguration of Barack Obama on television. Heartened and tearful, they imagine a new future for their children, for the generations to come. "I finally feel like we're included," observes one prisoner, "I'm a part of something real. I'm a part of something good." A Decade Behind Bars submits this hope, that small steps and commitment will lead to that sort of good.

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