Books Not Bars

2001, 22 minutes
Director: Mark Landsman
Co-producers: Witness, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and the Rights Now campaign of Columbia University's Human Rights Institute
Distributed by Witness

A sign for the “Books Not Bars” campaign



This short documentary focuses on the growth of the prison industrial complex in the U.S. through the eyes of the youth who are working to reverse the trend. The title refers to the claim that adolescents are four to five times more likely to go to prison than be educated.

Books Not Bars - Woman at demonstration to support the campaign “Books not Bars”
Many think the problem stems from the criminalization of youth, especially minority youth. While only 15 percent of violent crimes are perpetrated by youth, the public believes that they commit the majority of crimes. Black and Latino youth are 48 and 13 times, respectively, more likely to be locked up on an offense than white youth. Interviews with young prisoners reveal the brutality of the prison experience, and the traumatic effect it has had on them. They allude to isolation, violence, and sexual violation.

The U.S. leads the world in incarcerations with two million Americans behind bars; the number of poor, minority and female prisoners is increasing. The impact of the prison industry on the economy contributes to the complexity of the issue. Between 1988-97 there was a 30% increase in prison spending, which translates into jobs in the areas of construction and maintenance, and revenues for companies that provide products and services

A great film for high school classroom use, Book Not Bars provides concrete examples of the positive results of activism. For example, the Prison Moratorium Project worked with students on 50 college campuses to force a major food service provider to divest from the world's largest private prison company. And in New York City, Youth Force, a South Bronx-based youth activism group, was working on a campaign to prevent the building of 200 new beds at two juvenile detention centers at the time of filming. Students will need guidance and preparation for accounts of prison abuse.


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