Prison warden takes on role as film critic at ACI

CRANSTON — Chick flick or Clint Eastwood? Disney or Quentin Tarantino? It’s an aggravating exercise for couples or families with children: The video store debate over what to rent.

But for James Weeden, a warden at the Adult Correctional Institutions, the stakes are higher. Parents dread tantrums. He worries about riots.

Weeden and his staff pick the programming for an unusual audience, the 400 or more inmates in the ACI’s maximum security unit. They have particular characteristics and tastes that have to be considered.

If someone’s in maximum, the fortified gray stone building bristling with razor wire on Pontiac Avenue, odds are he has drawn a long sentence for a serious crime or has been transferred from another state for discipline or behavioral problems. It’s a group that can have difficulty with authority, he said, and intense rivalries along racial or other lines.

Often the most-acclaimed movies provoke a strong emotional response, he said, and strong emotional responses are exactly what the ACI staff does NOT want.

So, some genres are an obvious thumbs-down, Weeden said. Graphic violence, violence toward women and cruelty are out. Movies like Gangs of New York, Martin Scorsese’s violent take on criminal gangs in 1860s New York, is off the list, as are particularly gruesome films like the Friday the 13th series.

Ironically, the inmates usually lose out on seeing films or shows shot on the prison grounds, like the Showtime mob series Brotherhood, or James Woods’ 1996 movie Killer: A Journal of Murder.

But that doesn’t mean it’s all musicals and art films at the ACI. Last week’s offerings at maximum (rented via Netflix) included a documentary on former heavyweight boxing champion Michael Tyson and Revolutionary Road, a look at the emptiness of 1950s suburban life that won Kate Winslet a 2008 Golden Globe.

Also offered was King of California, a 2007 Michael Douglas comedy about a released mental patient who thinks Spanish treasure is buried under the local Costco, and Anaconda 4: Trail of Blood, a monster movie about two giant snakes that was filmed in Romania.

Movies are seen on televisions, either ones in gathering rooms or on individual sets some prisoners are allowed to have in their cells. Viewers are provided with headphones. The sets are not wired for cable but instead receive an over-the-air signal that covers the ACI grounds. Broadcasts are on a single channel during lockdowns or on weekends.

Weeden acknowledged that some outside the corrections facility might wonder: Why offer movies? Prison is there to punish, he said, but eventually the inmates are released and how they were treated inside affects how they act on the outside.

“If your nephew is in jail, you want the place to be safe and humane and protective of him,” Weeden said. “But if you’ve been a victim of a crime, you want to leave them in their cells. Let them hit each other.”

Douglas Dretke, director of the Correctional Management Institute of Texas at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, and a former prison guard and administrator, said society has a long-term interest in punishment being stern but not vindictive.

“You want to make prison a hopeful place,” Dretke said. “We recognize in corrections that our challenge is to see that a prisoner leaving prison doesn’t leave angrier than when he came in because of the way we treated him.”

“Picture their view of their world,” Weeden said. “You’re sitting in a 6-by-9-foot cell. You can’t peek your head out. All they know is what walks past the door.”

In such a small world, small things become important. Like Tom Hanks losing his stained and deflated volleyball in the 2000 marooned-on-an-island movie Cast Away, Weeden said he has seen inmates become distraught when something as simple as a pen they have had breaks.

Dretke said correctional officers have to be careful when searching inmates’ cells.

“Small things become hugely important” to them, he said. “When a lot of conflict can occur is when an officer is doing a cell search. The property may have very little value, but if it’s treated as such, it can cause a huge amount of tension.”

“It’s hard to understand the loss of freedom that incarceration means,” Dretke said, like being able to choose what to watch. “The loss of those little things, [that’s] how incredibly tough being incarcerated can be.”



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