Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture Copyright © 1993 Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture
All rights reserved.
ISSN 1070-8286


Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 1(5) (1993) 48-51


Cancelled Lives: Letters from the Inside

Director: Martin Good
Producer: Brett Hodges
Co-Producer: Ann Panizzon
Principal Actors:
Cameos: Danny Glover, Louis Gossett, Jr, and Jimmy Smits

Letters read by: Matt Adler, Peter Dobson, Dermot Mulroney, Kirstie Alley, Corey Feldman, Edward James Olmos, Kevin Bacon, Danny Glover, Leaf Phoenix, Alec Baldwin, Louis Gossett, Jr., River Phoenix, Tempestt Bledsoe, Kadeem Hardison, Martha Plimpton, Gail Boggs, Neil Patrick Harris, Jimmy Smits, Max Casella, Joe Mantegna, Mary Steenburgen, Peter Coyote, Kelly McGillis, Blair Underwood, Ted Danson, Danica McKellar, Malcolm Jamal Warner, Brian Dennehy Alyssa Milano, and Jonathan Winters.

Release Information: Milestone Media Inc. (1991)
VHS 50 minutes
MMPA Rating: NR

Cancelled Lives is a video designed to provide an impressionistic view of prisons and jails as seen through the eyes of the inmates. Letters, which inmates have written to their friends and relatives, are read by a group of celebrities while scenes from a number of prisons are displayed in the background. The letters read in the video include selections from men, women, boys, and girls, and the scenes depict a wide range of prison settings and activities. In most scenes, the background sound reflects the normal activity in the setting; however, in some scenes, the background sound is composed of songs which reflect the prison experience. A number of interviews with inmates supplements the impressions created by the content of the letters. This video is designed to illustrate the negative impact of the prison experience with emphasis placed on the psychological stress, personal regret, unpleasant physical environment, and physical threat to personal safety. The "cancelled lives" theme is symbolized by the repeated use of a hand stamp to cancel a stamp on a letter. The stamp depicts a person or setting featured in the various scenes.[End page 48]

The video is organized into four sections: (1) arrest, booking, and juvenile hall, (2) juvenile prison, (3) county jail, and (4) prison. The video opens with cameos featuring Danny Glover, Louis Gossett, Jr., and Jimmy Smits reading letters which set the tone for the video. These letters express sadness, despair, and resignation.

The first section opens with scenes from an arrest as background for those letters which focus on the embarrassment, terror, and regret experienced by a person being arrested. Scenes and letters from the booking sequence emphasize the individual's loss of identity as well as the impersonal nature of the jail. Selections focus on the arrestee's loss of control, anxiety, and denial. The juvenile hall portion of the video highlights the regret that the inmates experience, and this is most tellingly expressed in their efforts to warn others to avoid the mistakes that they have made.

The juvenile prisons that are presented in the second section, much like the juvenile detention hall, resemble prisons with their bars and solid steel doors on the cells and rooms. This section opens with an interview that explores the fear experienced by a young man as he enters a secure facility for delinquent youth. Other letters in the sequence revisit the themes of regret, absence of physical safety, and feelings of depression while additional themes that touch on home sickness and the consequences of drug use are also developed. Gang involvement, both in the prison and in the community, is a primary focal point for much of the latter portion of the sequence. The letters present prison as a cost of gang membership and express dissatisfaction with gang involvement and the consequences of the violent nature of gang activities.

The third sequence, the county jail, stresses the overcrowded conditions in the jail. The letters chosen emphasize this theme by graphically describing the poor living conditions characteristic of jails with visual scenes projecting similar images. Several recurring themes are developed including the lack of privacy, poor environmental conditions, consequences of drug use, as well as inmate regret and depression. The theme of drug use is expanded by presenting inmates experiencing severe withdrawal. A new theme introduced in this segment examines the destruction of family[End page 49] ties, particularly between women in jail and their children. This is linked to the cost of drug use theme in that the women attribute the loss of their children, in addition to their incarceration, to their use of drugs.

Segment four, the prison, begins by looking at the strictness of prisoner transportation procedures. The visual scenes follow a group of men throughout the process of being handcuffed, chained, and transported by bus to San Quentin Prison. After this, the image shifts to a women's prison and enters a setting in which a strip search is in progress. During this sequence, the song "Prison Bound" enhances the visual impact of the scenes. Again, the letters repeat the recurring themes of the lack of personal safety, depression, destruction of family relationships, and unpleasant environmental/living conditions. However, a new theme developed in this segment suggests the redeemability of inmates. And, while the predominant tone of Cancelled Lives is one of depression and rejection, the video does attempt to end on a positive note by presenting a letter that expresses a desire to change in conjunction with a positive song.

The video has some limitations. It is 50 minutes long. As a result, it would be difficult to present this video properly in a single one hour class period. This is particularly troubling as the video will not stand alone. There is no plot, story, or clear issue presented. The video presents a somewhat repetitive set of impressions which are seemingly selected to convey the more negative aspects of imprisonment. Much of the material will need to be interpreted, and considerable guidance from the instructor will be needed to maximize the educational value of this resource. A minimum of two class periods would be necessary to utilize this resource adequately. Its four segment format is amenable to this type of presentation if repetitiveness is not an issue. This resource could be more effectively used by selecting specific segments that are most relevant to the content of a particular course. For example, the juvenile hall sequence and the juvenile prison segment could be effectively employed in a juvenile delinquency or juvenile justice course while the county jail and prison sequences could be used in a course focusing on institutional corrections.[End page 50]

The technical quality of the video is good. The sequences flow, and the impressions that the producers attempt to project are effectively conveyed. There is a brief discussion guide included which will be useful, but not sufficient, to maximize the pedagogical potential of the video. On the whole, this educational resource is assigned a rating of 3 (good) on the JCJPC "gavel scale." It is an effective, well produced, impressionistic resource that can be used effectively as a teaching tool when properly placed in context by the instructor.

Robert T. Sigler
The University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa
Department of Criminal Justice[End page 51]