"Prisons are basically patriarchal institutions--they are set up for men," says Brenda Webb, executive director of Chicago Filmmakers. "In some jails women get men's shorts. They don't get female underwear. Everything is oriented toward men."
Webb says prisons have numerous training and educational programs for men, largely because they were set up years ago. But they have very few for women. The number of women in prison was very low until the 80s, when it exploded; but by then there was no longer any money to set up new programs. So last spring Webb decided to set up the Women's Prison Media Project, a program for women prisoners in Illinois that would screen films and invite women filmmakers in to discuss their work.
Webb had been interested in prisons for a long time. "When I was an undergraduate in psychology I wanted to be a prison psychologist, because I was convinced that all prisoners were basically political prisoners. I was pretty idealistic." While attending Indiana Central University in her hometown of Indianapolis, Webb worked as an intern at Indiana Boys School in nearby Plainfield. "One of my jobs was to sit there with a clipboard and a graph, and chart their behaviors in very concrete terms, like number of curse words. It was a disaster. The kids learned to manipulate us in five minutes.
"That was the beginning of my interest in the prison environment, though that approach was very sterile. Now I want to approach it coming from the artistic point of view. Whenever you put people into an artistic role, they become more reflective. I think that through self-analysis comes the possibility for change, sort of a psychological transformation through art."
Webb had wanted to do a screening program in part because she was disturbed by the steady diet of sexually violent images fed to women prisoners, from MTV to the latest shoot-em-up videos. She also thought a screening program would get her into the prisons, and later she might be able to teach the women filmmaking. She talked to officials at the Dwight and Dixon state prisons, who told her that an earlier screening program at Dwight hadn't lasted very long. But to her surprise, they were quite interested in having her set up a program to train the women to use video equipment--using film was out because wardens think film splicers are a security risk.
Getting the program going has been a slow process. "In the same way you can't call inmates, you can't call prison administrators," she says. "When you call some prisons, you're not even able to leave a message. It's strange. There's a real problem of communication."
Webb would still like to include screenings of independent and art films to show the women what's possible outside the mainstream. She also envisions an inmate-produced news show modeled on prison newspapers, as well as video letters that young mothers would make for their children on the outside. She particularly likes the idea of teaching them technical, nontraditional skills that will help raise their self-esteem.
A 1987 California study showed that inmates who participated in an arts program for six or more months had a recidivism rate after two years on parole of 38 percent, compared to the usual 58 percent. A later report praised the arts program for "replacing lost physical freedom with an inner freedom gained through the discipline and rewards of art." Webb aims even higher. "Doing time can turn you into an emotional zombie. Art may be the one place in your life where you can reclaim your own humanity."
But Webb's program hasn't started yet, as it has to be fully funded before she can get it through the door. She has received grants from the Chicago Foundation for Women and the Sara Lee Foundation. More funding is needed for instructors and equipment, so she has set up a benefit screening of two British documentaries by Pratibha Parmar, an Indian woman born in Kenya who helped launch Black Women Talk, the first black women's publishing house in Britain. A Place of Rage honors three pioneering African American women, a poet, a philosopher, and a novelist. Khush celebrates the emerging lesbian culture of southern India. Show time is 7:30 PM on Saturday, June 20, at Chicago Filmmakers, 1229 W. Belmont. Admission is $8; call 281-8788.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Stamets.