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Friday, April 20th, 2018

Documentary Review: “Breaking the Cycle” dares us to think differently about prisons

Break­ing the Cycle” is a rel­a­tive­ly short doc­u­men­tary that fol­lows Jan Strømnes, war­den of a max­i­mum secu­ri­ty prison in Nor­way, as he tours Atti­ca Cor­rec­tion­al Facil­i­ty, a max­i­mum secu­ri­ty prison in New York.

Breaking the Cycle

Break­ing the Cycle

There are real­ly no com­par­isons to be made; it is all stark contrasts.

Halden Prison in Nor­way was estab­lished in 2010 and hous­es about two-hun­dred inmates, who are over­seen by about three hun­dred and forty staff. Quaint by com­par­i­son to Atti­ca, which has about two-thou­sand inmates, but a pro­por­tion­al­ly small staff of eight hun­dred seventy-five.

To the eyes of some­one from the Unit­ed States, Hold­en’s “cells” look more like a nice dorm room, or a micro-stu­dio you would pay near­ly $1,000 a month to rent in Seat­tle. Inmates have a bed, desk, clos­et, shelves, a small bath­room, a mini-fridge, and even a window.

Pris­on­ers seem to be able to come and go from their rooms as they please, as there are com­mu­nal kitchens where inmates pre­pare and eat meals togeth­er. There is an auto shop where guards work along-side pris­on­ers, a new­ly-opened restau­rant with an inmate as chef, and even a record­ing studio.

Halden staff think it just makes sense for pris­on­ers to have enrich­ing, edu­ca­tion­al, and voca­tion­al expe­ri­ences. “They should be able to live a nor­mal life that ben­e­fits them and soci­ety,” said Strømnes. Their focus is on try­ing to pre­pare inmates for when they get released, so that they can be nor­mal, pro­duc­tive mem­bers of soci­ety, and “good neigh­bors”, as they say often.

Says one Halden inmate: “In Nor­way, we want to reha­bil­i­tate, not oppress peo­ple. I don’t think it’s too lenient, it cre­ates oppor­tu­ni­ties. It reduces crim­i­nal­i­ty. Peo­ple real­ize that they are able to do oth­er things than what they used to.”

By com­par­i­son, Atti­ca does seem designed to oppress. One inmate com­ments on the cold, not just of the air and walls, but also the “vibe.”

“You have to be a strong indi­vid­ual to sur­vive here.”

Strømnes is most dis­turbed by the cells, which are just like what we com­mon­ly see por­trayed in movies or on TV: Three walls of cement and a full open front except for the ver­ti­cal iron bars. Each cell has a small sink and toi­let, but noth­ing to obscure this small bath­room area from full view of the guards in the hallway.

Strømnes asks the Atti­ca Super­in­ten­dent, Dale Artus, about this lack of privacy.

Artus gives an answer along the lines of “it’s always been this way” and says that inmates are allowed to hold a blan­ket over the bot­tom half of their bod­ies while they use their toi­lets, as if that makes it less invasive.

When Strømnes asks an inmate about the lack of pri­va­cy from the open cells, the inmate says it is inhu­mane and degrad­ing. He says there is “no nor­mal­cy here” and that this “breeds a dys­func­tion­al per­son.” Anoth­er Atti­ca inmate says there is a cul­ture of intim­i­da­tion and oppres­sion. But cam­eras installed through­out the prison have made things a lit­tle bit bet­ter, he notes.

Strømnes was sur­prised to hear from mul­ti­ple inmates that there has been a reduc­tion in the vio­lence and harass­ment from guards since the cam­eras were added. I think his sur­prise was not from the reduc­tion, but that this harass­ment was hap­pen­ing in the first place.

At Halden, staff inter­act respect­ful­ly with inmates all the time. In the film, we see a female guard play­ing a board game with a male inmate. She talks about how she is hap­py to feel like she is mak­ing a pos­i­tive impact by work­ing with these men and help­ing them to be bet­ter peo­ple when they are released.

Guards at Atti­ca talk about how they are just hap­py to make in home safe­ly at the end of the day. One won­ders what they are afraid of, as they have weapons and pow­er, and the inmates have neither.

Over­look­ing the exer­cise yard at Atti­ca, guards are armed with an AR-15 and “chem­i­cal agents.” Artus seems puffed up with pride when he says they “haven’t deployed dead­ly force, the AR-15, in quite some time,” while they deploy the chem­i­cal agents a cou­ple of times a year.

One of the Atti­ca inmates talks to Strømnes about how many peo­ple leave prison with anger that has built up because of how they were treat­ed in prison. He notes that it would be bet­ter for soci­ety if that did­n’t hap­pen, that peo­ple would then be more suc­cess­ful when they got out of jail and go back to society.

Anoth­er inmate notes that peo­ple in prison have addi­tion­al issues, along with anger, that are not being addressed. Finan­cial issues are a major issue, since if inmates don’t have mon­ey to get extra food from com­mis­sary, they are like­ly to be hun­gry, which just fur­ther fuels their anger.

Strømnes notes that the meals appear small, “not nutri­tion­al­ly suf­fi­cient for an adult male.” Lunch they day he toured con­sist­ed of a hot dog on a bun, an orange, soup, and coleslaw (the lat­er two of which he not­ed most inmates declined, so they must be pret­ty poor qual­i­ty for chron­i­cal­ly-hun­gry men to turn down). So it’s under­stand­able that when Strømnes told a small group of Atti­ca inmates what Hold­en was like, one imme­di­ate­ly asked, “Do you take inter­na­tion­al transfers?”

A Halden inmate explains, “We like to think that we are here as pun­ish­ment, not to be pun­ished. We already have our sen­tence and should not be pun­ished more. There is no ele­ment of revenge. That’s the dif­fer­ence from the USA.”

After his trip, Strømnes says he met many peo­ple who want to change, even some of the exec­u­tives at Atti­ca, but, “I have also met many kind peo­ple who work in the wrong sys­tem. A good cor­rec­tion­al treat­ment has a huge long-term impact on soci­ety. Many Amer­i­cans don’t have that per­spec­tive. As a sys­tem, it is heav­i­ly based on pun­ish­ment. That’s a shame.”

It is not just this belief there must be some pun­ish­ment beyond the incar­cer­a­tion itself that pre­vents Amer­i­can pris­ons from tak­ing bet­ter care of their inmates and actu­al­ly attempt­ing reha­bil­i­ta­tion. It’s that fact that Amer­i­can pris­ons are often not run by the gov­ern­ment, but are con­tract­ed out to for-prof­it corporations.

Feed­ing pris­on­ers small, poor qual­i­ty meals and not pro­vid­ing good edu­ca­tion­al, voca­tion­al, and reha­bil­i­ta­tion oppor­tu­ni­ties def­i­nite­ly saves these com­pa­nies mon­ey in the short term.

But long-term, the lack of reha­bil­i­ta­tion and con­stant degra­da­tion that inmates face in prison makes it all the more like­ly that they will strug­gle after release, com­mit anoth­er crime, and end up back in jail, where com­pa­nies are paid per prisoner.

This for-prof­it aspect of Amer­i­can pris­ons was not dis­cussed in “Break­ing the Cycle,” per­haps because it was too large of a top­ic to cov­er, since it indeed could eas­i­ly be the top­ic of its own full-length film.

Nor was race ever dis­cussed, and the way racism has shaped not only the prison pop­u­la­tion in the Unit­ed States, but cer­tain­ly the con­di­tions of our pris­ons as well.

But even with­out address­ing these issues, the film still brought up many impor­tant points and is worth watch­ing, as long as you don’t mind read­ing sub­ti­tles when Nor­we­gians are speak­ing. It is not a com­pre­hen­sive look at all of the flaws in our pris­ons, but rather just a glance at some of the dif­fer­ences that are most glar­ing when com­pared to Nor­way’s respect­ful and humane max­i­mum secu­ri­ty prison.

“Break­ing the Cycle” is avail­able for stream­ing on Netflix.

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  1. Hi.

    Thank you for review­ing our film and hap­py that you want to rec­om­mend it to people.

    Fol­low­ing Jan Strømnes around meant we had to be true to his sto­ry and reac­tions, which made it hard to cov­er all aspects that makes the US sys­tem the way it is.

    Since release last year we know the doc has been screened inside many US Pris­ons and uni­ver­si­ties and hope­ful­ly it’s been the source of many new debates/thoughts/discussions.

    Thanks again for tak­ing the time watch and write about it.

    All the best.

    # by Tomas :: May 3rd, 2018 at 1:03 PM
    • I’m hon­ored to have you, as the direc­tor of my film, read my review! And thank you for tak­ing the time to com­ment as well.

      That makes sense, that you could only real­ly address top­ics in the film that Strømnes dis­cussed, since he is the main sub­ject of your film. Thank you for point­ing that out.

      Do you know if Atti­ca made any changes as a result of Strømnes vis­it? Or if any oth­er US pris­ons have been inspired by the film to make some changes?

      Thank you again for read­ing the review and for commenting.

      # by Theresa Curry Almuti :: May 4th, 2018 at 8:53 PM
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