That prisons and the penal systems are a mounting social crisis exposing the inefficiencies of current practices and policies is an international topical subject which has received much attention and media coverage. Yet, despite all the coverage, the problem not only still exists but is in fact exacerbated at an almost daily rate. Prisons are repeatedly reported to be overpopulated, under-staffed, and under-budgeted while violence and drug abuse are prevalent among inmates. How are these issues supposed to be addressed and dealt with? Are governments truly interested in tackling the crisis and eliminating it? Could there possibly be a universal solution to the incarceration problem? And if yes, how far should it be allowed to go morally?
One man, New York-based Professor Malcom P. Rutterford, claims to have found the ultimate solution in the riveting pseudo-documentary ‘The Programme’. Written and directed by the talented writer, director and editor, Antony Spina, the short film dramatizes the inadequacies of current theories and policies applied to managing prisons as well as raising sorely vexed questions. What the professor asserts to be “the solution” is a five-stage program that “in simple terms” will solve the prison crisis by forcibly installing a “conscience” in inmates in order to “correct” them and “make them better.” As AICP (Advanced Inmate Correctional Programme) is gradually gaining global recognition, it provokes considerable controversy among different classes of people both in and out of the prison. The film develops its themes and raises its questions through a series of meritoriously organized interviews with people involved in all levels of the penal system, from inmates to the frontline guards, officers, managers, and high-ranking decision makers.
The opening of the film is strong and outstanding. It consists of fast cuts of news excerpts compellingly edited and mixed into a meaningful sequence that readily transports the audience into the universe of the film, and ensures them that they are about to watch a professional piece of work. It is through these pieces of news reports intertwined carefully that the grave prison problems—overcrowding, lack of staff, corruption, violence, and drug abuse—are introduced and we first hear about the programme as the only hope for betterment. However, the audience is also warned by one of the news anchors that some distressing images are coming up. Besides creating suspense, this warning is quite equivocal since it is in sharp contrast with the words “New Programme Declared to Save Prison Crisis” on a screen behind the news anchor. The title of the film then comes up after the brilliant opening sequence, at first a bit blurred, conveying the confusion, doubts, and dilemmas inherent in the themes the film is going to explore including the possibility of drawing a line between good and evil and then judging people accordingly, the possibility of an absolute one-size-fits-all solution to these problems, how far can such a solution be allowed to go, and who gets to decide. The aforementioned themes are convincingly blended into the film by having the guards, experts, managers, inmates and their immediate family members speak openly about their experiences and what they think of the programme.
The inmates selected for the interviews include convicts with various kinds crimes. Listening to them, the audience learns that prisons have their own hierarchy and set of rules. They are doing their prison terms for different reasons and while some of them seem deranged and unstable, others sound logical and in full control of their behavior. They point out how, in order to survive in a prison where guards cannot protect even themselves, they need to learn more “bad ways”, turn every object into a weapon, seek solace and look for distraction in drugs that are abundantly available. The staff are also interviewed in their work places wearing professional uniforms which gives the film a more realistic tone and provides the audience with an authentic chance to relate to the story. There are a sister and father among the interviewees whose accounts of two of the convicts’ crimes and their motivations present two contrasting cases making it all the more difficult for the audience to arrive at a solid conclusion.
From the United States to Britain and Brazil, they all complain about the same issues. They all concede that the old punitive system is falling apart and the programme seems to be their last resort. The five-step programme is designed to be a combination of a chemical compound treatment and psychotherapy and intends to concentrate on the patient’s most serious guilt to the point where, as a warden puts it, it “scares” the crap out of them with their own guilt until they become “decent” citizens. What she refers to as “decent,” is referred to by inmates as “zombies” or “vegetables.” But who is a decent citizen? Inmates entrapped in a vicious cycle of violence that starts from homes? Guards and wardens who call some of the inmates “animals” or “monsters” ignoring the fact that they may be behind bars but at the end of the day they are still “humans”? The Brazilian National Prison Department Manager who looks directly into the camera and denies all the ills of the system? Or the professor whose sanctimonious attitude and air of confidence shake and who leaves the interview hastily when asked seriously about the long-term side-effects of his programme?
‘The Programme’ pungently reminds the audience that prisons form micro-societies which, in Michel Foucault’s words, are not unique as they are “positioned within the disciplined society, the society of generalized surveillance in which we live” and, therefore, astonishingly reflect “our factories, schools, military bases, and hospitals—all of which in turn resemble prisons.” This perpetual surveillance is best captured when Benny, inmate #1401 to undergo AICP, asks which camera he should look at as well as in all the footage added as evidence in between the interviews. Rutterford’s programme for “correction” and “reform” is, in truth, a programme for turning inmates into “docile” and even “malleable” human beings by “twisting their brains” rather than a therapeutic approach aiming at pinpointing the roots of crime and trying to eliminate them, and all inmates, even those who “just need to learn to help themselves,” must undergo the same debilitating process.
Award-winning ‘The Programme’ is Spina’s second short film and benefits enormously from his writing and editing experiences. He says he loves turning his ideas into “interesting scripts, full of suspense” and this is exactly what he has successfully done in The Programme. To generate and establish an atmosphere of suspense, entrapment and bewilderment, Spina has manipulated the elements of cinematography masterfully. The close-ups from different angles draw attention to the characters, and the rapid camera movements from hands to faces and vice versa accompanied by frames that seem to be squeezing the characters out convey their doubts and uncertainties. Images of barbed wires and wire fences combined with the strong colors and hues of a setting sun inculcate a sense of entrapment and danger that is felt not only by the inmates but also by the people who run prisons. The performances are fervent and the effects of the scenes and interviews are greatly enhanced by the excellent choices of music. ‘The Programme’ is no doubt a showcase for Spina’s talents and skills in filmmaking, and the fundamental questions and moral dilemmas it puts forth along with some poignant scenes will linger in one’s mind for quite some time.