It’s early morning at Metro State Prison for Women in Atlanta, Georgia. A line of police cars waits outside the gate, bringing with them the next set of inmates who will embark on their time in the state’s prison system. Inside the gates, in the prison’s sallyport, we stand alongside the officers… waiting, watching, and ready to record the first few unforgettable moments of life behind bars.
One by one, the women step through the back gate and then file into line alongside the other newcomers. Several wear the uniform from their time in county jail – green, blue, orange – while a few others wear their clothes from the streets. I can’t help thinking of this as an ironic final moment of individuality. Soon, they’ll turn in the old uniforms and street clothes for a white jumpsuit and black boots… and while here, they’ll exchange their names for an inmate ID number.
At first glance, the world of Metro seems closer to a military boot camp than a prison. The officers set the tone from the very beginning – giving instructions and barking orders like Marine Corp drill sergeants. With the offenders’ diverse crimes – from shoplifting to murder – it’s a way to standardize the procedures, instill discipline, and make sure the new arrivals stay in line. By the end of the first day, the phrases “Sir, by your leave, sir” and “Ma’am, by your leave, ma’am” seem to have been repeated several thousand times, and the marches and cadence play on loop in our heads for the rest of the night.
But this intake day is not exactly like the others. Today, there’s a National Geographic Film crew documenting each step of the process… standing alongside as a silent observer. As outsiders to the system, we exist in the narrow space between officer and inmate… in the sort of “no man’s land” of the prison world. It’s this neutral quality that allows us to best listen, observe, and document the stories of doing time. And for us, intake is also a beginning. A way to make eye contact, establish our presence, and meet the people who will share their lives with us over the next several weeks.
But even as we observe the first day, I’m reminded that filming inside a prison is a process not only of watching, but being watched. In the same way we move through the environment, feeling out different dorms, talking to new inmates, and taking the temperature of the world behind bars… we are also on display. And while male inmates tend to ignore the presence of the film crew and go on about their business, from the start, the women at Metro are full of questions. Where are you from? How old are you? Are you married? Do you have kids? The questions seem to revolve around the same thing as the female prison world: relationships.
Over the next several weeks, we’ll film everything from the most significant moments – from arriving in prison to being released – to the most mundane elements of life behind bars – chow time, daily inspection, and the daily marching. We’ll see women laugh, cry, and tell their stories with great honesty. We’ll document the passage of time, inevitably witnessing women who are making a change… and those who possibly never will. But it all starts with an introduction… a nod, a glance, and today, a morning intake.
Written by Peter Hutchens, Producer/Writer/Cinematographer
Be sure to tune in to Hard Time: Women on Lockdown tonight at 10P et/pt. Here’s a sneak peek from tonight’s episode: