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Reel Relaxation for Female Prisoners

State of the Arts


Published April 9, 2008 at 6:20 a.m.

Anita Carbonell, superintendent of the Southeast State Correctional Facility in Windsor, has a down-to-earth description of life behind bars: "It's like hot lunch three times a day for two years," she says. "All of those elements of choice that we take for granted are taken away."

It's true that inmates don't get menus at meals. But at Southeast State, they do get movies on weekends - and even some say in what they watch. Which raises the question: How do you program films for a "captive audience"?

Southeast State, one of two women's prisons in Vermont, is the oldest operational facility in the state. It began life nearly 100 years ago as a men's prison farm and doesn't look much different today, except for the brick dormitory that sleeps 104. An old sugarhouse sits at the foot of the driveway leading to the facility; twin silos rise from rolling fields; and long, low barns abut the former herdsman's house, which is now the buildings-and-grounds office.

The down-home feel is nice for visitors, but inside, the old-fashioned layout translates to limited recreational opportunities. Though modern prisons, such as Springfield's Southern State Correctional Facility, tend to be antiseptic, concrete-block structures, they usually have well-appointed gyms and a couple of options for exercise outdoors. The women in Windsor have a short walking path and a volleyball court.

Carbonell is all too aware of these limitations, and she compensates as well as her budget allows: with TV. Each of the rooms the women share with one to four roommates has cable TV and a closed-circuit channel beaming three or four weekend movies beginning Friday nights at 8.

Showing films to prisoners is deemed a public performance by copyright laws, so Joan Kersey, coordinator of Volunteer Services and gatekeeper to cinematic entertainment, has to check http:// for a list of movies with the correct license. Practically every movie on VHS and DVD is available, so Kersey's real task is choosing which films are appropriate for female inmates.

"One of the things I like is ordinary women who succeed," says Kersey, a septuagenarian from Wilder. She looks for positive themes that will help the women recognize their ability to overcome the predicaments in which they find themselves, embodied in films like Erin Brockovich. "These women are all damaged," she says softly, "and we want them to learn and grow, but we don't want to damage them any further."

As a general rule, the women aren't allowed to watch R-rated movies, but there are exceptions. Carbonell permitted R-rated Saving Private Ryan because the violence in the film wasn't gratuitous. Still, the lion's share of the films on the jail's marquee - so to speak - don't depict traumatic experiences, and for good reason. "Saturday evening watching a movie is not the time you want to be triggering this stuff," Carbonell explains.

Swank Motion Pictures, Inc., the non-theatrical distributor of films, has another way to deal with touchy subjects: the "Edited Rated-R" category. Swank defines these as "special videocassette movies that have been edited to eliminate and/or reduce offensive language, nudity, violence and sexual situations." The selection of edited films is surprisingly large, though it's difficult to imagine, say, Bad Boys stripped of violence, or The Big Lebowski shorn of offensive language. Carbonell admits that picking movies is "a bit of a balancing act," because, after all, the inmates are adults.

That's probably one consideration behind the upcoming change in the film-selection process. Soon, a recreation committee composed of inmates and one staff person will pick the weekend's features.

That's good news to Jessie Germain, 26, of Burlington. She's been in Southeast State for 21 months for "escape," or breaking her furlough from her original charge of three counts of selling cocaine. Germain says she likes drama, action and dance films, and is happy she recently got to watch Step Up, which she'd begged Kersey to program for weeks.

Carolyn Wheel, 43, of Fairfax, has been inside for 18 months on an embezzlement charge. She says her favorite movie is The Shawshank Redemption. "It was my favorite before I came here," she adds with a laugh, "but now, being here makes it a little funnier."

One sign of a good flick is its power to transport the viewer to another time and place. That's a tall order for films shown in prisons. Wheel explains why: "You can't escape the noises around here." The distractions include crackling security radios, slamming doors and people yelling, talking and laughing, she says.

What movies gave the inmates a respite from those earthly realities last weekend? The Way We Were, King of California, Steel Magnolias and Elizabeth: The Golden Age.