VICE on HBO’s Obama Prison Documentary ‘Fixing the System’ Adds to the Drumbeat for Criminal Justice Reform


“Good people can make bad decisions, but you shouldn’t be punished for life,” an inmate of Oklahoma’s El Reno prison tells VICE’s camera crew. “The system’s backwards,” says the family member of another inmate, reflecting on the human separation enforced by the jailhouse walls.

Fixing the System is VICE on HBO’s foray into the topic of criminal justice reform at a very timely moment. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent Atlantic piece, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration”, and a major new report entitled Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families are taking the conversation about mass incarceration outwards, focusing on the broader social effect of America’s extreme propensity for locking up its citizens while connecting this issue to others: poverty, education, police brutality and social unrest. Even pop culture is in on the action: Orange is the New Black, with Emmy-winning Uzo Aduba at its forefront, is bringing discussions about solitary confinement, mental illness, and privatization of prisons into living rooms everywhere.

Suddenly, everyone agrees that at least some aspects of the justice system need to be “fixed,” so much so that the Obama administration feels comfortable taking on the issue. In fact, the President even toured a federal prison, El Reno in Oklahoma, a first for a sitting President. VICE’s film crew documented his interaction with a group of inmates, an interaction which forms the centerpiece of “Fixing the System.”

The documentary switches between President Obama’s prison visit and personal interviews with various inmates and their families. It also spotlights Shane Smith’s sit-downs with the President, Attorney General Eric Holder, experts, and other politicians — including Republicans Mike Lee and Rand Paul, and New Jersey Senator Corey Booker. The latter speaks to ex-cons on the streets of Newark, learning how difficult — nearly insurmountable — their post-prison re-entry to society can be. Visiting a welding workshop, the filmmakers make a strong case for the kinds of educational and skill-building programs that are always threatened with funding cuts because no one wants to finance a prisoner’s education.

It’s moving to watch President Obama talk to the guys in prison. He has a natural rapport with them, although he can be a bit lecture-y (you can almost hear him saying to himself, “Well, I have to talk about the evils of drugs now to cover my bases”), but it does feel like a historical acknowledgment that prisoners are people. Still, the most effective interviews by far are with the families of incarcerated men (it’s worth noting that not a single incarcerated woman is included) and the filmed rap sessions between inmates, where they open up about their dads, their kids, drugs, and their struggles in and out of the system.

The VICE-y voice-over narration provides a lot of information that anyone who is relatively well-versed in the issues will already know, but the sub-topics that Fixing the System covers are useful and fairly thorough. These include the way minimum sentences lock people up for disproportionally long periods of time, the fact that many people “plead out” instead of taking cases to trial, the difficulty of paying parole fees, the problem that no one will hire felons, and how families, particularly sons, suffer terribly — and are at risk for incarceration themselves — when their dads are taken away.

The disproportionate effect of these discriminatory practices on families of color is made clear, as is the pain and trauma of long separations, Christmases and Thanksgivings and graduations without a loved one’s attendance. It’s “an overly punitive and racially discriminatory system,” says one commentator, while another speaks of “a presumption of guilt” that follows men of color, even those with no experience in “the system.”

In addition to skirting over imprisoned women, Fixing the System doesn’t cover the question of violent crime, focusing exclusively on non-violent drug offenders serving hard time. This leaves a giant gap in our understanding of how we’re going to have to fix the system, as Coates points out: “The popular notion that [reform] can largely be accomplished by releasing nonviolent drug offenders is false — as of 2012, 54 percent of all inmates in state prisons had been sentenced for violent offenses.” As Coates writes, “Decarceration raises a difficult question: What do we mean by violent crime, and how should it be punished?”

In his essay, Coates explicitly makes the connection to history, arguing that instead of government reparations to the black community for slavery and a century of post-slavery ills, mass incarceration has been a deliberate solution to the problem of what to do with an emancipated black population: locking them away instead of lifting them up. “The chasm in incarceration rates is deeply tied to the socioeconomic chasm between black and white America,” he writes.

Coates would probably object to the title of the VICE on HBO documentary, saying that the system isn’t “broken” — like racist policing, it’s there for a reason. It’s a system whose purpose is to oppress, to line the pockets of for-profit companies, and to sweep racial inequality out of the public eye while perpetuating it. But even if it’s not radical enough in its critique, “Fixing the System” is another solid step towards asking the tough questions: can we get past our own encoded fears and prejudices in order to see those behind the barbed wire and brick walls as human beings, deserving of dignity and a second chance?