Date of Award

May 2020

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Roger Hallas


Carceral state, Film studies, Prison documentaries, Prison studies, Visuality, War on Terror

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities


This dissertation examines the shared politics of visuality that govern American domestic civilian and foreign military prisons. Though scholars have pointed to the interlocking systems of power that govern both spaces, this visuality renders them as fundamentally distinct in the public imagination. I argue that challenging and demystifying these power structures requires an interrogation of the visual regimes that help sustain them. This project builds on nascent scholarship by criminologists who have begun to theorize what has been termed “carceral visuality,” or the intertwined hegemonic ideological and visual frameworks that discipline how citizens see and think about incarceration. I examine how carceral visuality operates in distinct, but interconnected ways across four prison sites and documentaries about them: Louisiana State Penitentiary (more commonly referred to as Angola), Attica Correctional Facility, Guantánamo Bay, and Abu Ghraib.

Across each site, I trace how a set of dialectical tensions organize their visual fields: inside/outside, visible/invisible, presence/absence, and past/present. I argue that the formal capacities of documentary film offer unique potential to challenge the naturalized visions of the carceral state through their ability to exploit these tensions. The documentaries discussed in this dissertation operate as “carceral counter-visions,” as they play with these tensions to fashion alternative ways for publics to see these prisons and to understand differently their relationship to the carceral state.

Chapter one looks at the centrality of the inside/outside boundary in both the visuality of the Angola penitentiary and the public activism surrounding a trio of Black Panthers known as the Angola 3, who collectively spent over 100 years in solitary confinement. I argue that as Angola operates as both a prison and tourist site, it paradoxically positions the public as distanced spectators from the racialized bodies of the prison, even as visitors come into their proximity. I then analyze the ways in which this boundary runs through a group of documentaries about the Angola 3: In the Land of the Free…(Vadim Jean, 2010), Herman’s House (Angad Singh Bhalla, 2012), and its related web documentary The Deeper They Bury Me (Bhalla and Ted Biggs, 2016). I argue that these films draw on, and play with, these same boundaries between inside/outside in order to disrupt the public’s otherwise distanced relationship to the trio of men.

Chapter two examines the visuality of the 1971 prisoner uprising at the Attica State Penitentiary. I explore how the large collection of visual and written archival materials from the rebellion are deployed across four documentaries that span roughly 30 years: Third World Newsreel’s Teach Our Children (1972), Cinda Firestone’s Attica (1974), Brad Lichtenstein’s Ghosts of Attica (2001), and David Marshall and Christine Christopher’s Criminal Injustice: Death and Politics at Attica (2013). The tension between past/present is central to the political work in these films. I contend that each exploits the gap between the archive and the embodied experience of those who survived the rebellion in order to disrupt the detached spectator’s viewing position and to bring them into a closer proximate relationship with the social conditions that produced the rebellion in the first place.

Chapters three and four shift to the military prisons Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. In chapter three, I discuss how Guantánamo Bay’s visuality has been framed as inherently transparent and open. Through carefully curated public relations tours and imagery that depict it as a tourist site, the very exceptionality of the Guantánamo prison becomes normalized. I then analyze two documentaries about prisoners at Guantánamo that draw attention to the erasure of torture from the prison’s visual field: Laura Poitras’s The Oath (2012) and Patricio Henriquez and Luc Côté’s 2010 documentary You Don’t Like the Truth: Four Days in Guantánamo Bay. I argue that both documentaries are governed by an “aesthetic of failure” that self-reflexively highlights how little access the filmmakers, and the public, have to the prison. This failure productively calls attention to how the desire for full transparency into Guantánamo is fraught with a problematic set of assumptions and beliefs about the political power of transparency.

In chapter four, I analyze two documentaries about the Abu Ghraib photographs and abuse scandal that rocked the American military: Rory Kennedy’s Ghosts of Abu Ghraib (2007) and Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure (2008). I argue that the American military bureaucracy is an underexamined, yet significant force in the production of the visual field in which the detainee bodies appeared. While Ghosts of Abu Ghraib and Standard Operating Procedure have rarely been read alongside one another, I contend that both documentaries can be read as critiques of this military bureaucracy and that they both attempt to re-shape the American viewer’s relationship to the photographs and to the bureaucracies that enabled the torture.


Open Access