Updated: Oct 24
On October 23rd, the Center for African American Studies (CAAS) will host a screening event and open discussion for Southern Prison Culture, a 2022 documentary directed by Jaquial Durham.
The screening will take place at Library 002 (Tukey Theatre) between 6 and 8 p.m. During the open discussion, students will have the opportunity to ask questions and interact with the film’s director. There is no cost to attend.
Southern Prison Culture, Durham’s debut in directing, highlights the importance of resisting rhetoric that blames marginalized people for their own suffering, and the necessity of publicly condemning Southern prison systems’ dehumanization of African American people. It centers around the deadly Lee County Prison riot that occurred in April 2018 in Bishopville, SC.
Durham sheds light on the fact that two rival gangs were placed, by prison staff, into the same dormitory, and he encourages his audience to educate themselves about how, particularly in the South, systemic racism shapes the disproportionate victimization of black people—both within and outside of prison walls. “Black men are seven times more likely than white men to be incarcerated at some point in their lives, and that over-representation matches late eighteenth-century incarceration practices,” said Dr. Peter Caster, Professor of English.
When this disparity is discussed, government officials often refuse to acknowledge racism as a direct cause, resorting to denial and distraction. An article published in the Greenville News on April 24, 2018 reveals that in the wake of tragedy, staff members at the prison blamed contraband—particularly cell phones—for the riots, ignoring the prison’s own role in the deaths of seven human beings and the serious injuries inflicted upon twenty-two more.
Ironically, two correctional officers at Lee County Prison were arrested in September 2023 for providing the very contraband they deemed responsible for the violence in April 2018. In a report from WIS published on September 14, Bryan Stirling, Director of the South Carolina Department of Corrections, disclosed that his team, in the span of a month, discovered and confiscated cell phones from over half of the inmates incarcerated at Lee County Prison.
When asked what he hoped attendees would take away from the screening event, Dr. Walter Lee, Interim Director of the CAAS, provided a thoughtful insight:
Simply an awareness and some level of agency to find ways within their discipline to contribute to the betterment of present conditions, or that they find ways to contribute to a healthier society. There are some prison abolitionists who believe prisons should not exist. It’s my hope that students would find a sense of awareness, find out how their lives are directly impacted, and locate a sense of agency to bring about change.
Societal change on a large scale requires specific action, both from individuals and collectives, to resist the mechanisms of oppression. In addition to further education on this topic, Dr. Lee suggests the following: “Be aware of laws that are passed to indulge in some level of civic engagement; call up your local representative; and, for a more intimate connection, befriend someone who is directly impacted by the prison system, so that you can get an up-close-and-personal perspective of what is happening.”
Dr. Lee has this message for students wondering if they should attend: “This is relevant to everyone: students in pre-law or political science, social workers, nurses. The system impacts every facet of our society.” No matter who you are or what your background, Dr. Lee encourages you to attend the screening and participate in a crucial conversation about racial injustice in our own state and beyond.
For those interested in further learning on this subject after the screening, there will be a course available in the spring. “It’s an extension of the film,” said Dr. Lee. “Students will learn about laws regarding prisons and the disproportionality of races represented in prisons. A lot of it will be project-based learning. The class is going to be hybrid—both online and on campus—and taught by Jaquial Durham.”