In 2012, Scott Whitney was imprisoned over a drug trafficking charge. Beginning in 2015, he used contraband cameras to record what was happening around him in Florida’s Martin Correctional Institution. And he did not merely snap scattered videos, but embarked on making a full documentary, complete with written contracts and release waivers signed by his fellow inmates. (He is officially vice president of the production.) Now his footage for the project, called Behind Tha Barb Wire, has been smuggled out of the prison and given to the Miami Herald, which has posted a compilation of “highlights” as part of a story on his efforts.
Whitney shot his footage using a pair of glasses with a built-in camera, as well as a cellphone secreted in a Bible, its camera looking through a hole made in the “O” in “Holy.” His fellow prisoners were aware of his project, but the guards were not. At one point he spent 60 days in solitary confinement after the phone was discovered; upon his release, he quickly procured a replacement and resumed filming. On September 19, ahead of the Herald’s story, some of his clips were posted on YouTube by Jordyn Gilley-Nixon, a prison reform advocate. (Those videos are embedded in this article.) As a result, Whitney has again been put in solitary.
Since the days of HBO’s Oz, American entertainment has had a morbid fixation on the country’s ever-expanding, ever-worsening prison system. TV shows have ranged from the alternatively goofy and serious-minded Orange is the New Black to lurid reality fare like Jailbirds, 60 Days In, and Lockup (which, as the Herald story notes, became the focal point of a political battle in Florida in 2012, when the show shot an episode at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution). Absent from these various shows are the actual perspectives of imprisoned people, who by the nature of their situations are perpetually subjects lacking real agency in their depictions. The exceptions to this come in the form of leaked cellphone videos, but those have mainly been isolated clips. A full-on film shot incognito by imprisoned people is unprecedented.
What’s missing from those polished, professional depictions becomes immediately apparent when viewing Whitney’s footage. For all that prison shows pride themselves on supposed “rawness,” it’s nothing compared to the conditions seen in these clips. Guards are utterly apathetic to prisoners who have possibly overdosed. Mold has completely overtaken a kitchen wall. During Hurricane Irma, inmates sleep on mats crammed into public areas. And this is but a small sampling of Whitney’s footage. Since only the material made after 2017 got out of the facility, there’s even more that the Herald doesn’t yet have. There is no word yet on whether the paper will post more footage. As of the time of this writing, Whitney remains in solitary confinement.