A Beautiful Sentence, A Short Film about Women in Prison
When I read the title and synopsis of Suzanne Cohen’s short documentary about “women in prison as they experience the liberating effect of creative writing,” in the UK, I assumed that I would be watching a feel-good film about the wrongly accused; that I’d get to play jury over a group of alleged femme fatales gathered in a sister circle, discovering together the power of words as they wrote down “what really happened”.
But, thankfully, what I got instead was a poetic exploration of the meaning of “freedom”, and a refreshing re-framing of a familiar narrative, from the political and theoretical to the personal and heart warming, from the black and white of “issues” to vivid, colorful stories; from the sensationalism of harsh sentences to the mundane of living through them.
The first frame usurps the audience’s freedom as passive witness and replaces our eyes with that of a prisoner’s, through which we are forced to view the gray nothingness of the story’s landscape for three whole seconds: a barren prison ground from behind bars.
We soon meet poet Leah Thorn, a writer-in-residence at the high security women’s prison; she is standing outside an iron door as she offers instruction on “line breaks” into the window of a solitary confinement unit through which we see only a middle-aged woman’s head bobbing up and down, her eyes squinted as she smiles from ear to ear awaiting feedback on her latest poem; the contrast between the joy radiating from her face and the dark, rusted, metal door that separates her from the source of her temporary happiness takes a beat to digest.
In Beautiful Sentence, director Suzanne Cohen, holds no punches; this is a film about women in prison, in varying phases of searching and knowing, denial and confession, using poetry as a vessel to transport them to meaning, perhaps some form of self-determined salvation. Each scene in itself, feels like a poem that intentionally feeds the audience’s minds with enough personal truths to shatter single-minded perceptions, to know the prisoners as people, perhaps even, people like us.
I’m reminded of a line in a recent piece that called for transgender women to embrace writing as creative healing: “Poetry is the way I reveal the vital force that creates my being. It is the vehicle by which I can tell the world who I am,” writes Morgan, a transgender woman of color from Texas.
Incidentally, I first learned about the hardships faced by women behind bars when I became interested in better informing myself about issues facing transgender women, including the compounded hardships faced by transgender women of color. In the US, trans women of color are particularly at risk, as they are more frequently arrested due to a racist criminal system, and experience the highest rate of hate crimes against any subset of the transgender community. And on top of that, they experience harsh sentences for their crimes, such as CeCe McDonald, a transgender woman of color who was jailed for defending herself against a violent assault.
Hence, as an LGBTI activist, I learned to question prisons as an intrinsically flawed, racist, and sexist system. Thus, even though I hold the names and faces of the trans women of color I know in my heart as I unleash my critique of this system, my almost exclusive focus on the crimes, the sentences, the statistics, has held my perspective captive; admittedly, I’ve only been able to understand the impact of the prison system on a small segment of women, and in theory, until now.
For many of the women in Beautiful Sentence, poetry is freeing, but freedom from the confines of their quarters, and even from the memories of their crimes, and the circumstances that led up to them, remains an ever-elusive concept.
In the middle of a lively group workshop, Leah, the workshop facilitator, fans herself before she suggests, “It’s hot in this corner. Maybe we should go outside.” A woman shackled in prison garb eagerly replies, “Think we’d be allowed to?” to which Leah replies, “God, I forgot where we were.” They all laugh.
Perhaps some of the women are guilty of committing crimes, and some are not; Suzanne Cohen clearly isn’t interested in passing judgment, again. Her film doesn’t cast its subject into a shade of guilty or innocent, but rather, pleas “human”. From the margins of faceless prison statistics, she reveals her subjects as so much more: hopeful, anguished, flawed, good-humored, regretful, silly, an ambitious undertaking for 20 minutes, but, a beautiful sentence, indeed.
“This is more of a prayer than a poem,” a woman living with mental illness writes.
Narrated through vivid poetry, the experiences of these women living behind bars evoke a wide range of emotions: guilt, sadness, anger, hope, even pride. Though these women are behind bars, their lives and their feelings are familiar to those of us on the other side. Beautiful Sentence offers a poignant reminder to extend our hands (and our love) to our sisters behind bars, to celebrate their stories as our own, so that we too are never forgotten.
How to Support Women in Prison
I don’t know about you, but it’s hard for me to watch documentaries without experiencing emotions that demand I take some kind of action. So, if you’re interested in supporting women in prison, or learning more about how the prison system impacts women in general (including the LGBTI community), here are a few resources:
1) Documentary Films about (Trans) Women in Prison: Check out Beautiful Sentence at the first annual London Feminist Film Festival being held at the Hackney Picturehouse from Thursday November 29th – Sunday December 2nd. Also, check out Cruel and Unusual, a 2006 documentary about the experiences of male-to-female transexual women in the United States prison system. You can order it from Outcast Films to support conscious filmmaking for social justice, or you can watch it via this upload I just found on YouTube.
2) Women in Prison (WIP), a UK-based organization (founded by a former woman prisoner) provides specialist services to women affected by the criminal justice system. On their website, WIP offers a number of ways for people who are interested in supporting prison reform, including writing a letter to government officials, making a donation, or joining their SWAP network which organizes campaigns to educate the general public about the impact of prisons on incarcerated women’s lives. Visit www.womeninprison.org.uk for more info.
3) Black and Pink, a US-based prison abolitionist organization, is an open family of LGBTQ prisoners and “free world” (i.e. not in prison) allies who support each other through education, direct service volunteering, and letter writing. Their pen-pal letter-writing program has reached hundreds of LGBTQ prisoners, especially the most marginalized, transgender women of color, throughout the US. As the short film, Beautiful Sentence, highlights, writing comes with immense healing power. We may not be able to right the wrongs the prison system perpetuates against women, but through our words and our love, we may be able to make their sentences a little less gray, a little less hopeless, for them, and for us.