EEC: Documentary Studies

David Brancaccio reacts to “The Prison in Twelve Landscapes”

David Brancaccio Jun 10, 2021
Heard on:

Hello there.

Can you explore a pressing public policy and economic issue using poetry? This month’s Econ Extra Credit documentary answers that question with a vivid and haunting “yes.”

For those in search of a PowerPoint deck on prison reform in America, “The Prison in Twelve Landscapes” is not the place to look. This is a reminder, in the form of visual poetry, of the pervasiveness of our culture of incarceration and how businesses large and small feed this culture.

Given the film is practically devoid of policy wonks, what do we see and hear instead? We see a man teaching the strategies of chess for money. He learned the game in prison and, because of that history, sees this hustle in a New York City park as his best option. We hear family members calling into a radio show to deliver messages to loved ones who may be listening behind prison walls. We see the angry flames of a California wildfire burning up the night being fought, we learn, by an inmate on a prison detail that specializes in working the fire line. She tells of residents trying to thank her for saving property; as prison rules require her to remain mum, she can’t utter a word in return.

Canadian filmmaker Brett Story forces us to confront something crucial in an area of policy often submerged in statistics or budgets accounting for the cost of crime and punishment in our society. The film is also full of prompts about economics.

A librarian in Wheelwright, Kentucky, speaks of such a gnawing hunger for local jobs that residents cheer the reopening of a prison in their midst. Another of the film’s landscapes features an inmate who despairs of finding work after prison, with the knowledge the word “felony” on an application is often disqualifying. There is a young entrepreneur who sets up a store stocked with grocery and personal care items curated to meet the bizarrely arcane rules governing which gifts given to prisoners are or are not allowed in. There is an unforgettable line of people, some with children, waiting seemingly forever to pay petty fines that can provide a lucrative stipend for city budgets.

The film does not forgive people for what they may or may not have done. But it offers an extended reminder that the inputs and outputs of our vast system of criminal justice are living, breathing people. That is also a lesson that many economists are beginning to appreciate.

— David

“The Prison in Twelve Landscapes” is available to stream for free on Kanopy and Topic (if you sign up for a trial membership). It’s also available to rent for a small fee on various other streaming services. PLEASE NOTE: Certain scenes contain disturbing language.

We’d love to hear your feedback on the documentary. What did it make you think about America’s prisons and the socioeconomic conditions they’ve given rise to? What were your main takeaways, or what did it leave you wondering? Send us a note at We’ll feature the reactions in an upcoming newsletter.

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