By Lewam Dejen
A few weeks ago, President Obama pardoned 46 low-level drug offenders. The next day, he visited the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s annual conference in Philadelphia to proclaim his commitment to prison reform in the last stretch of his presidency. Although this issue may feel recent to many Americans, it has afflicted our country for decades. Seventeen years ago, the documentary film The Farm: Angola, USA brought unprecedented insight into mass incarceration and its disproportionate effects on black Americans.
“I’ve been raised here,” Eugene Tannehill Jr. says matter-of-factly. By “here,” he’s referring to the former plantation he lives on, where his food is monitored, hard labor profited from, life threatened frequently, and individuality stripped. This place, which he is forced to call home, is the largest prison in the United States, known colloquially as “Angola.” (Its informal name derives from the Angolan slaves that previously worked the land.)
“It was October 4th, 1959… I must have been 24 years old then,” Mr. Tannehill says of the day of his sentencing. At the time of this interview, he had lived in Angola for 38 years. Tannehill is a black man– one of many, as Angola had a 77% black demographic (at the time of this film’s release). The prison also has an 80% death rate within the prison. Few who enter leave alive.
In a chilling scene, the film introduces Vincent Allen Simmons, who is African-American. Simmons brings his case to the parole board for appeal–his first hearing in 20 years at Angola. He was charged with the rape of two white girls and sentenced to 100 years. Simmons sits tall and broad-chested on one side of the table as he supplies the three-man board with evidence challenging his guilty verdict (evidence for which he petitioned several U.S. courts a dozen times, after which they finally provided documents allegedly “lost” previously). Simmons provides the board medical evidence that suggests both sexual assaults never occurred (made stronger by the complete lack of physical evidence that sentenced him), testimonies from the two women who said they could not identify the rapist because “all blacks look alike”, and a photograph of Simmons as the only man in the lineup with handcuffs on. This discussion of unfair sentencing did not take into account the prevailing anti-black racism in 1970’s Louisiana.
After Mr. Simmons steps out of the room and the door shuts, the camera pans to the three men and within seconds, all three board members claim defiantly that Simmons is guilty–with nearly zero explanation or discussion of the presented evidence. “He did it… Let’s get this thing over with” one says, rushing to have the other two sign the decision of dismissal.
The Farm opened viewers eyes to the U.S.’s vastly flawed criminal justice system in 1998, as did several other documentary films, news specials, and books written nearly a generation ago. Why has it taken until now for a U.S. President and Congressional body to address the issue? Why is it that President Obama is the very first to visit a federal prison, although mass incarceration began plaguing our country in the 1980’s?
Towards the beginning of the film, singing inmates fill viewers’ ears with a hymn as they bury a fellow inmate:
…Praise the Lord, I’m free. No longer bound, no more chains all in me. Soul is resting, and it’s just another blessing. Praise the Lord, hallelujah I’m free…
100Reporters intern and Stanford University student