Dipartimento di Musica e Spettacolo - CONFERENZE, Women and the Silent Screen Conference

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Women, Prisons, and the Silent Screen
Alison Margaret Griffiths

Last modified: 2010-05-12


“There is no institution in the world about which so little is known”, wrote the unidentified author of a 1915 article in The Hartford Courant in discussing “the only moving picture ever filmed behind prison walls.”  The special screening in a Connecticut prison of the unnamed film shot within the Ohio institution was accompanied by a lecture delivered by the female penal reformer C.H. Roman, who declared that “nothing would be omitted in the makeup of the [Ohio] Penitentiary,” including the Bertillon measuring system, electric chair, and gallows.  “Women, Prisons and the Silent Screen” grows out of research on a book-length project I am researching on cinema’s multifaceted relationship to punishment and incarceration, including the earliest exhibition of film in both male and female prisons; how cinema was enlisted as a powerful tool in the prison reform movement, often spearheaded by women who were central in advocating for policy change; films made by women prison reformers documenting the injustices facing convicts; and finally, the representation of women convicts and their relationship to male prisoners during the silent period.

Drawing upon the discussion of film’s relationship to prisons in contemporaneous newspapers, magazines, and research I have conducted at the Ossining Historical Society (where Sing Sing prison is located) and the Lewis E. Lawes collection (Warden at Sing Sing during cinema’s ascendency at the prison) at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, I will address the following three issues:  first, in what ways did prisons create a unique reception context during the early cinema period and was this context affected by the gendered composition of single sex audiences (in other words was cinema perceived as fulfilling the same role in female versus male prisons)?  Exploring this question not only sheds light on the nature of early cinema spectatorship (inmates at the Reformatory for Women in Bedford New York, for example, staged a mutiny when they were denied permission to attend a moving picture show at the prison in 1920), but also offers a privileged vantage point from which to explore how the meanings of film were uniquely shaped by the questions of gender and exhibition context.  For example, in the early years of the 20th century, films were often shown to male and female prisoners who had never witnessed the phenomenon of moving pictures before, as reported in the 1912 article “Five Hundred Convicts See Outside World – ‘Movie.’”  “I didn’t know there wuz [sic] such things” said one lifer to the warden after the show.  In addition, a Thanksgiving Day 1915 screening of the films of Charlie Chaplin to inmates in Wethersfield prison, Connecticut, brought as “much of the joy…and spirit of Thanksgiving to the prisoners as anything could bring them except freedom,” according to the Courant

Lastly, I am interested in how cinema was enlisted in the prison reform movement, both in terms of films made by reformers such as Katherine R. Bleecker who in 1915 shot footage at three of New York State’s biggest penal institutions (Auburn, Sing Sing, and Great Meadow) and in relation to educational films shown to prisoners.  The final area I want to briefly examine involves the representation of women in fictional films about incarceration and prisons, the novelty value of pre-1915 nonfiction films featuring prisons included in theatrical programs and the anxiety such films created among censorship boards and outraged moralists who attacked cinema for its feared deleterious influence on children and young adults.




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