Feature Documentary Reviews

12th Street (2020) – 3.5 stars

Director: Gregory Lovett & Matthijs Heesemans

Running time: 45mins

If you ever want to feel small, think of the size of America’s prison industrial complex. Nearly one out of every 100 people in the United States is in a prison or jail, with 0.7% of the population living behind bars. The American criminal justice system holds almost 2.3 million people as of 2020. That’s across 1,833 state prisons, 110 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,134 local jails, 218 immigration detention facilities, and 80 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, civil commitment centres, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in US territories.

When establishing just why so many people are incarcerated in the US, or why so many people end up back in prison after apparently “paying their debt to society,” a number of questions need to be asked – and if you are looking to get to the heart of the issue, they are not just the comfortable individualised queries which liberal thought is usually preoccupied with. Certainly, an individual’s upbringing and or lack of opportunities have something to do with putting people in jail – but we also need to ask how economic and political capital offered up by mass incarceration might have seen powerful people invest heavily in keeping them there?

Gregory Lovett and Matthijs Heesemans’ 12th Street is an earnest enough look at the shortcomings of the US’ prison system – but it struggles to look more aggressively at the systemic failings intertwined with the matter. While there is a high level of professional polish on display throughout the documentary, there is not a lot of input which might prompt deeper thought on the matter.

Centring on the comings and goings of a Greyhound bus station near a penitentiary in Huntsville, the film does a fine job of painting a sympathetic picture of newly released prisoners as they exit the jail. First, we are treated to a fleeting montage of jubilation, as family and friends greet their loved ones after being separated for so long. When this dissipates, however, we are left with the people who have nobody else – either their loved ones are no longer around, or they have tired of waiting for those deemed to have made one too many “mistakes.” These waifs and strays are left to fend for themselves in a world that has turned its back on them; their first task being to find a way ‘home,’ wherever that is.

In the purgatory of the bus station, Lovett and Heesemans listen patiently to the men – many of whom are worried rather than elated by their new liberty. With nowhere to go, little chance of finding work, many suggest they will struggle to get by outside, while several more have either been inside so long they do not know “the laws of the land anymore” or have psychological issues which likely led to their incarceration in the first place – and since they have not been addressed will likely see them return swiftly.

It is a grim fate which awaits these men, and on some levels, it helps to bond us to them, to empathise with their situation. The immediate issue with this is that we are not clearly being asked to empathise with them toward any particular end. There is little in the film to explore how this socio-economic system might be bettered, besides the presence of a number of charity workers looking to give the former prisoners a “hand up.”

Even within the film, the impotence of clean clothes and a slice of pizza against reoffending rates are illustrated, as just hours after release, one noticeably unstable felon, who has told us he intends to “fight the system” as an apparent member of the marine militia goes missing – and is expected back in prison very soon. He is one example of several felons who, whether or not there were gainful employment available, would likely find themselves in trouble with the law.

The question here is, why is the wealthiest country in the world so keen on punishing people like this, rather than offering them support and rehabilitation? Could it be that permanently incarcerating them in a jail system that is willing to use them as free labour profits someone? Could it be that the political class might have a vested interest in keeping certain demographics who are more inclined to vote a certain way disenfranchised? It is something that only briefly comes up – as one volunteer worker suggests fleetingly “the system isn’t broken; it was made this way.” It’s a point which sorely needs to be built upon, but here it is something of a side-note.

Something else which never surfaces is any detailed information on the prisoners themselves. While we do hear several of those released speculate on what the future might hold for them, we hear precious little about their past. What did they do? Why did they do it? There are a broad range of convictions served among the interviewees – from two to 28 years – suggesting there are some trivial offenses, and some severe ones which are being skirted round.

Daring to press the subjects on this matter might have proven difficult, but by neglecting it altogether the film undermines itself. If we should empathise with these people, it is difficult to do while wondering whether or not they murdered someone – and whether they have actually faced up to that enough to speak about it. No amount of insufferable plinky-plonk piano or mournful guitar chords can sufficiently distract from that. At the same time, it would have been an opportunity to discuss just how frivolously sentences have been handed out in the US to artificially bump up the prison population – including the ludicrous sentencing policies surrounding the War on Drugs.

Arguably the saving grace of 12th Street is the presence of Elroy, who runs the bus station. At first you might assume he is a conservative old hand, who simply dislikes the people he is serving for the fact they are criminals. However, what becomes increasingly clear is that having staffed the station for decades, he has seen thousands of inmates come and go, and come again, understandably it has made him more than a little cynical about the whole affair.

Elroy details exactly why he expects to see a number of the day’s travellers again in a number of subtle monologues. Many people suggest systemic changes are not needed to keep people on the straight and narrow, and simply finding God will do – but Elroy points out that religion has done them little material good before jail, and they have taken on religion in jail as a means of socialising. Knowing that finding God provides little actual help in the outside world, Elroy notes to the mounting pile of bibles which inmate subsequently ditch on the way out.  

He also goes into detail of the “sad” lives many long-term inmates are returning to. He laments their lack of meaningful friendship, of community support in their lives which could help them to avoid reoffending, and notes that “hard lives” and shoddy economic circumstances pushed many of them to crime in the first place. All the time, he never lapses into the trope of the bleeding heart, giving a more honest take on the situation than is to be found anywhere else in the film. It is to the filmmakers’ credit that they were able to recognised his input for what it was – as it elevates the end product significantly.

Without taking a more forensic approach to analysing systemic failures, 12th Street is left without many differentiating factors to boost it above the crowd. Honestly, there are a lot of documentaries which have offered up a similar take on the US prison system – and in a more committed, unflinching manner, even if they fall into the same individualistic trappings around responsibility and criminal activity. When the film does manage to tap into this – particularly with the starring performance of the surly bus station manager – it scales greater heights, offering up a little more food for thought, but these moments are too few and far between.

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