Will Roberts, University of Richmond Class of 2021, Fall 2020
Table of Contents:
An article on the jail’s R.E.A.L program says 16 Bars addresses the “why behind incarceration” and touches on “the choices the men made that led them to this point,” on “what went wrong” and “how these men fell into a very common pattern.” A Film Stage article says the film is a story of “what might have been if some offenders had chosen a different life.” And a review in Booklist says the film is “a reminder that prison can be more than punishment, and incarcerated people need help to break the cycle.” Film critic Mark Goodyear wrote that, “Through an unwavering lens, 16 Bars investigates the ways humanity traps itself in a cage through a cycle of crime.”
Mythologies of meritocracy and individualism — where individuals rise or fall because of their choices – are embedded in the American sense of freedom. It is no accident, James Baldwin observed in 1972, that white Americans cling to the myth that the conditions “on the street” are the faults of Black Americans, for “[white] Americans are very carefully and deliberately conditioned to believe this fantasy: by their politicians, by the news they get and the way they read it, by the movies, and television screen, and by every aspect of popular culture.”[i] Political philosopher Michael J. Sandel posits in The Tyranny of Merit (2020) that the appeal of meritocracy is its affirmation of what it means to be free: that one’s fate is in one’s own hands.[ii] This assumes that mobility and freedom are unencumbered by the state, history and social institutions. It figures carceral institutions as inevitable, their permanence secured by the persistent failures of (mostly) Black men.
The responses to 16 Bars above suggest that cycles of crime and incarceration begin with individuals making bad decisions. These descriptions reflect the film’s fixation with individual choice and failure. This fixation is no doubt a good faith effort to humanize the men it features. Yet the film’s tight focus on the individual men, saturated in pathos, diverts critical analysis of the social and carceral institutions and policies that produced and reproduce racial inequality in Richmond. The manner in which 16 Bars’ diverts critical analysis resonates with the rhetoric of rehabilitation within the jail. The jail’s former rehabilitation director Dr. Sarah Scarborough, a central character in 16 Bars, wrote in an article after the film’s theatrical premiere in New York City:
“…this is NOT JUST A MOVIE! THESE ARE REAL PEOPLE!!!!! The message could easily get lost in this sort of thing. It’s such a great flick, so entertaining, and just amazing all around – you could forget this is REAL LIFE, literally! … It cannot be forgotten that this [mass incarceration] is a huge issue in our country. That folks behind bars are humans. They are moms, dads, brothers, uncles, aunts, sisters, and friends. Most are really truly good people who made a terrible decision(s). They often want to get out of their situation, they just do not know how. (And that is what REAL LIFE does…show them how to live outside of these situations)! Incarceration, drugs, guns, overdoses – they all go hand in hand! There is most often a direct correlation. We are making progress, but there is much to be done,”
What makes 16 Bars a great flick, Scarborough writes, lies in its entertainment value. However, in its aim to entertain, the systemic nature of mass incarceration may be lost on some. Had 16 Bars contextualized the systemic racism its characters face, the film’s profitability and broad appeal might have suffered, for the audience whose sympathy and donations are needed perhaps doesn’t want to be told that the administration of justice in this country is, in Baldwin’s words, a wicked farce. The tragedy of individual stories might be an easier sell. Nevertheless, 16 Bars is described in the same article as a film that “digs into” issues of mass incarceration, the opioid epidemic, gun violence and high recidivism rates. It does not dig very deep, however. Instead, the film encourages viewers to understand the “huge issue of mass incarceration” as a matter of mostly “really truly good” people making “terrible” decisions.
In a 2015 YouTube video, former Richmond Sheriff C.T. Woody Jr., who oversaw the transfer from the old city jail to the Justice Center and the making of 16 Bars, said people in the R.E.A.L program live by the motto, “If nothing changes, nothing changes. Change I must or die I will.” He goes on:
“These men realize that their life has become unmanageable. They know that the lifestyle they once thought was cool landed them in jail. In many cases, more than one time. Enrolling in the R.E.A.L Program has taught them to look deep within themselves to determine those addictive and out of control behaviors. It focuses on improving their way of thinking and strengthening willpower. It focuses on the past because every present and future derives from a past. We try to find and extract any and every situation that could have had even a slightest bit of effect on the person and their addictive or behavior issue. They are changing their whole ways of life because, as the motto goes: ‘If nothing changes, nothing changes.’”
This quote from Woody helps establish the principles of rehabilitation in the Justice Center. Woody suggests that poverty, addiction and (re)incarceration are seen by some as a “cool” lifestyle and that it’s one’s choice to live this way. This is a widespread assumption. Sociologist Michael Eric Dyson observes that “…the near ubiquitous presence of prison in the social landscape of black male life means that it increasingly seems natural for black males to go to jail — or even want to go to jail, as a place they have allegiance to, a space where they shape a large part of their identity.”[iii] On its website, the Justice Center is described as a “rite of passage” and a “second home” for many inmates. Woody insists, further, that the men in the program have accepted that their lives are unmanageable because of their own warped desires and “out-of-control behaviors.” Acceptance into the rehabilitation program, according to the jail’s website, is dependent on someone’s criminal charges and their history in the corrections system. Yet, Woody makes clear that it also depends on one’s willingness to accept one’s circumstance as primarily the result of their own actions and choices. Rehabilitation is thus administered in part by absolving social and carceral institutions of responsibility for producing and reproducing environments that condition poverty, trauma, addiction, crime, incarceration and recidivism.
By focusing on the past, “We try to find and extract any and every situation that could have had even a slightest bit of effect on the person…,” Woody says of the R.E.A.L program. This claim might produce cognitive dissonance for some. Shouldn’t “any and every situation” also include the systemic racism of the social order the jail enforces? It’s paradoxical to suggest that it’s the jail’s function to remedy “unmanageable lives” when it is the carceral system and interlocking forms of systemic racism that make lives unmanageable. This situation recalls a dynamic the ethnographer Savannah Shange calls carceral progressivism.
Carceral progressive institutions “educate the desires [of its members] to conform to a notion of justice that is deeply compatible with the existing social order.”[iv]
When Scarborough claims that the jail’s mode of rehabilitation delivers the tools needed to “live outside of these situations,” she reinforces the assumption that “these situations” are personal, rather than systemic, political, geographic and communal issues. She positions the jail outside rather than integral to “their situations,” relieving the state from bearing responsibility for creating and maintaining the context that reproduces such situations.
I am not arguing that people who hail from impoverished and subjugated places have no agency or that they are absolutely trapped by totalizing social structures. I am arguing that the rehab gaze that, in Woody’s words, “extracts any and every situation that could have had even a slightest bit of effect on the person” is looking in the wrong place. Overemphasizing the role of individual “behavior modification” in combating issues arising from multigenerational poverty brought on by state policy and incarceration is futile. It sets people in the program up for failure, many of whom will return to the environments that increased the probability of their incarceration. And it sets the jail up as the solution. (“I believe in redemption. I’ma give it to them,” Woody says early in 16 Bars) The rehabilitation program’s overemphasis on individual mistakes and redemption is exemplified in 16 Bars.
[i] Baldwin, James. No Name in the Street. New York: Random House Inc., 1972. pp. 160.
[ii] Sandel, Michael J., The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020, pp. 34–35.
[iii] Dyson, Michael Eric. “Prisons, iPods, Pimps, and the search for Authentic Homes.” In Know What I Mean?:Reflections on Hip Hop. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2007. pp. 14.
[iv] Shange, Savannah. “‘Why Can’t We Learn African?’ Academic Pathways, Coalition Pedagogy, and the Demands of Abolition.” In Progressive Dystopia: Abolition, Anti-Blackness, and Schooling in San Francisco. Duke University Press, 2019. pp. 55–56.