’13th’ as a Call—and a Tool—to Connect the Past and Present of Mass Incarceration

Director Ava DuVernay avoids focusing on individual scapegoats to show viewers the cumulative effects of the racism that continues to drive policies of mass incarceration and mass criminalization. Even so, however, the film has a few flaws: namely, the absence of women's stories and those of activists working to change and overcome that culture of mass criminalization.

In 13th, the visually stunning documentary released on Netflix this month, Ava DuVernay makes clear that the racist and punitive laws that followed the Civil War have modern-day counterparts that continue to fill U.S. prisons and jails. Netflix US & Canada / YouTube

How do you trace the racialized history of mass incarceration, from the post-Civil War period to the present, in one hour and 40 minutes?

In 13th, the visually stunning documentary released on Netflix this month, Ava DuVernay manages to do so. DuVernay avoids focusing on individual scapegoats to show viewers the cumulative effects of the racism that continues to drive policies of mass incarceration and mass criminalization. Even so, however, the film has a few flaws: namely, the absence of women’s stories and those of activists working to change and overcome the culture of mass criminalization DuVernay documents.

While the title of the documentary invokes the 13th Amendment—which abolished slavery after the Civil War with the exception as “punishment for a crime”—DuVernay doesn’t oversimplify the cause of mass criminalization as simply a need for cheap labor. Instead, through montages of historical images and footage, as well as interviews with many advocates, she lays out the ways in which social control morphed post-slavery from the Black Codes, to segregation and Jim Crow laws, to the “tough on crime” legislation fueling today’s mass incarceration. She also dives into the role of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in drafting and pushing punitive legislation, such as Florida’s notorious “stand your ground” law and Arizona’s SB 1070 as well as the more recent pushes for “reforms” such as increased electronic monitoring.

Among the many advocates who share their insights and analyses are people who have experienced incarceration firsthand. DuVernay avoids the trap, commonly seen in many academic conferences and panels, of bringing in formerly incarcerated people simply to ask them about their personal experiences behind bars. Instead, she asks them to analyze how the country’s history of racism, particularly the fear of Black men, have fueled the phenomenon now known as mass incarceration.

For example, James Kilgore, a formerly incarcerated scholar and activist, decodes Richard Nixon’s War on Crime as a “code word, what we might call dog-whistle politics now, that referred to the Black Power movements of the day … which Nixon felt compelled to fight against.” Meanwhile, Corey Greene, a formerly incarcerated activist and co-founder of HOLLA! (How Our Lives Link Altogether!), reflects on the role of politicians and media in “creating a context where you make people afraid and, when you make people afraid, you can always justify putting people in the garbage can.” A montage follows of politicians—including Hillary Clinton referring to children as “superpredators” and the 1989 public railroading of the teenagers who became known as the Central Park Five. (DuVernay also reminds viewers that, at the time, Trump took out a full-page newspaper ad about the Five calling for the reinstatement of the state death penalty.)

Despite these strengths, however, 13th has two large oversights. First, in focusing on the effects of racial terror and fearmongering on Black male bodies, it largely ignores the myriad ways in which these policies have also disproportionately affected Black women. Women are occasionally shown—there’s a brief mention of Sharanda Jones, a Black woman sentenced to life in prison for a first-time drug crime in 1999 (and granted clemency in December 2015), a scene in a women’s prison in which Black women line up to use the phones, and the inclusion of two formerly incarcerated women in interviews. DuVernay also examines the arrests and prosecution of Assata Shakur, a member of the Black Liberation Army, and Angela Davis as examples of the ways in which the state has attempted to devastate the Black Power movement. But the stories, experiences, and issues of everyday women who are not political prisoners remain absent, as do the narratives (or even any acknowledgment) of trans women behind bars.

Second, given that DuVernay’s Selma was a two-hour dramatization of the organizing behind the 1965 civil rights march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, one could reasonably expect 13th to examine the organizing and advocacy led by people who have been directly affected by mass incarceration policies. Sadly, the film misses this opportunity. This omission is particularly glaring given that every one of the formerly incarcerated interviewees—including Glenn Martin of JustLeadershipUSA, Dorsey Nunn of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, Dolores Canales of California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement, and the renowned scholar and ex-political prisoner Davis—have long been involved in organizing against mass incarceration.

It’s not as if DuVernay is unaware of organizing happening behind bars. In an interview with Slant Magazine, she talked about the nationwide prison labor strike, stating:

I’ve been following it really closely, and the main thing I think is that it’s not on nearly enough people’s radar that it’s even happening. I think it’s incredible and tragic that it’s not being carried on the front page of newspapers. No one even knows this is happening. This is revolution in a part of our system that we ask for a revolution for in 13th. I’m in full support. I’ve been corresponding with some incarcerated individuals who’re involved with the efforts. When you understand the story, and really understand how all of these incarcerated people in different institutions across different states were able to unify and come together and strike as one—how did they even communicate? It’s a really intricate, amazing story that isn’t being told. I hope with 13th coming out, it gets journalists to start making connections between the prison strike and some of the questions we ask.

Obviously, DuVernay had finished filming 13th long before people imprisoned across the nation refused to report to work on September 9. But prison resistance has been happening for as long as there have been prisons, and there are many other examples of organizing she could have included in the film.

For instance, 13th examines private companies that profit from contracts in government-run prisons, including phone companies that charge exorbitant rates for 10to 15-minute phone calls. This is a financial burden that falls mostly on the families and loved ones of people in prison, sometimes forcing them to choose between paying to hear their loved ones’ voices and covering other bills.

But family members have not passively accepted this outrage. In 2000, Martha Wright, then in her 80s, and other family members of people in prison filed a class action suit against private prison corporation Corrections Corporation of America about the cost of prison phone calls. Her grandson was incarcerated and, because he had been transferred to various out-of-state prisons, visiting was not an option. Wright was also blind, so letter writing was also out of the question. So the only way that she could keep in touch with her beloved grandson was through phone calls, and those were outrageously expensive: A three-minute call can cost up to $18.

In 2007, when the suit failed to yield a settlement or changes, the family members filed a petition with the FCC asking the agency to regulate the cost of prison phone calls. Others, including formerly incarcerated people, family members of those still in prison, and prisoner rights advocates, joined what became the Campaign for Prison Phone Justice. In 2013, they packed a hearing and shared their experiences; the FCC voted to cap rates for interstate phone calls. In August 2016, the FCC set rate limits for local and long-distance calls from jails and prisons.

As mentioned earlier, DuVernay asks numerous formerly incarcerated people to share their analyses and insights about mass incarceration and the forces behind it. She also could have weaved the organizing efforts of those she interviewed into the documentary. Dolores Canales, for instance, is the mother of a man who spent more than a decade in solitary confinement. In 13th, she describes the conditions her son Johnny endured for more than a decade in California’s Security Housing Unit (SHU), where he was confined to a small cell 23 to 24 hours each day with not even a window to see the outside world. What the film leaves out is that, in 2011, Johnny joined two mass prison hunger strikes to protest not only California’s conditions of solitary confinement, but the policies that allowed people to be placed in these conditions indefinitely. Both strikes ended after prison officials promised changes. His actions spurred Canales to connect with family members of SHU prisoners and create California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement (CFASC) to support their loved ones’ efforts.

In 2013, people in California prisons launched another hunger strike. On the first day, more than 30,000 people imprisoned throughout the state refused meals, making it the largest strike in prison history. The strike lasted 60 days (though by then, the number of participants had dropped into the hundreds) and drew nationwide attention to conditions inside California prisons as well as the issue of solitary confinement. Throughout the strike, CFASC held vigils and rallies and spoke to media to continue highlighting their loved ones’ plight. In September 2015, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation agreed to a settlement in which those who have spent 10 or more years in the SHU will be allowed into general population or a facility that is more restrictive but still considered general population. In other words, they will no longer be locked into their cells for 23 to 24 hours a day, but instead be able to interact with other people, participate in group classes and programs, and have contact visits with their loved ones. As a result, when she visited on New Year’s Day 2016, Canales was able to hug and kiss her son. It was their first contact in 15 years.

These are only two examples of the incredible organizing by currently and formerly incarcerated people. By not including these or other examples, 13th misses the opportunity to show resistance to the shifting ways in which mass criminalization and incarceration continue to exert racial control and terror over people and communities of color. Presenting a 150-year history of mass incarceration without examining efforts to challenge its course could leave viewers, particularly those new to the issue, with the sense nothing can be changed.

Despite these oversights, DuVernay’s 13th does a fantastic job of organizing and presenting the history of racism fueling mass incarceration and showing that no one politician, period, or era is responsible for the phenomenon that has made the United States, which has 5 percent of the world’s population, the country with 25 percent of the world’s prison population. Even without examples of current-day organizing by people who have been affected by mass incarceration and mass criminalization, 13th is also a call—and a tool—for viewers to connect the past and the present.

“People say all the time, ‘How could people have tolerated slavery? How [could] people have made peace with that? How could people have gone to a lynching and participated in that? How did people make sense of this segregation? If I was living at that time, I never would have tolerated it,'” reflects Bryan Stevenson, the executive director of Equal Justice Initiative, in the film. “But the truth is, we are living in that time and we are tolerating it.”