At first glance, the image above looks like the usual press photograph of a suspect accompanied to the stand, being escorted between holding cells and a courtroom. Alternatively, it could be a scene from inside a jail. Jumpsuit, shackles and guards are glaring visual clues and we think we know what we are seeing. But, in most cases we don’t. And in this case were aren’t. This is a photo from the set of the in-production web series wHole, for which filming began last month at the vacant Wapato Jail in Portland, Oregon.
wHole, made by Think Ten Media and directed by Ramon Hamilton (who is actually to the left in this picture) aims to raise awareness about the sensory deprivation and widespread use of solitary confinement in American today. The limited information this fictional scene provides us is akin to the limited visual information available to us generally of solitary confinement in America’s prisons. (Aside of photography, we must recognise there is currently a good swell of great advocacy journalism about solitary, not least by Solitary Watch).
Even though Wapato was designed as a medium-level-security county jail. Think Ten Media thought it a worthy location for depicting Supermax facilities. wHole might be the only good thing to come out of this waste of space and money.
In 1996, the taxpayers of Multnomah County (Portland, Oregon) approved a bond measure to build a 168,420-square-foot, 525-bed jail back, but county leaders never set aside money to open and operate it. Construction was completed ten years ago at a total cost of $58M. Wapato was a bad idea to start with, but changes in legislation and a drop in crime proved it a terrible idea. The jail never went into operation. Don’t get me wrong, it is a good thing that no-one has been locked up at Wapato, but it is a terrible thing that it was built in the first place. What could have that $58M (plus the $3M of tax payers money spent over the past decade to merely to maintain the place) achieved in terms of rehabilitation, jobs training and addiction treatment?
Last year, sensible suggestions such as repurposing the jail as a drug rehab center, a homeless shelter or a community center were invoked but didn’t develop. More recently, the county made concerted efforts to sell the jail and get it off the books. In a typical Portlandish well-meaning, transparent but somewhat comic and farce-like public relations stutter, the county called for proposals from companies and citizens alike and then promptly rejected them. The proposals? Some people wanted to make a community garden for at-risk youth, other a prison for international war criminals. A TV production company wanted to make a reality TV show and a private prison firm wanted to use it and use it for you can guess what.
There has been a persistent myth in Portland that Wapato sat empty and was never used for any type of revenue raising, including the exploitation of opportunities presented by the many production companies wanting to film at Wapato. That’s simply not true. Maybe, more filming and more money could’ve been supported, yet, speculation aside and to date, wHole is the 32nd project filmed there int he past 6 years.
That wHole is about mass incarceration makes it, in my book, the most worthy of projects. When the nearly two-month-long California Prisoner Hunger Strike kicked off in the summers of 2011 and 2013, filmmakers Ramon Hamilton and Jennifer Fischer knew they wanted to make a project about solitary. wHole is intended to be “raw and real.”
The locals are excited about the future impact of wHole, which is a far cry from Orange is the New Black. While no mainstream TV show has depicted prisoners so sympathetically, Orange Is The New Black carries its fictional aspects and as such doesn’t reflect reality.
I wanted to know more about how you get into a jail to film and so asked Jennifer Fischer, Think Ten Media co-founder, a few questions.
Scroll down for our Q&A and then further still for more information on the project.
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): How many vacant jails or prisons are there in the U.S. in which to make feature films or TV series?
Jennifer Fischer (JF): I am not sure. I know Fred C. Nelles Youth Correctional Facility is used often for filming by productions in the Los Angeles Area. I believe Hancock shot there, and there’s lots going on with it right now.
PP: Why did you choose Wapato?
JF: There was really nothing like Wapato Jail that was reasonable in terms of cost. There is a facility in New Jersey I recall Five mentioning to me. I lost all of my research notes about prison locations when my hard drive crashed recently!
We looked into shooting at Nelles and at other locations, but all were prohibitively expensive for our project being made on a limited budget. There were other challenges, such as no running water or electricity, the requirement of a water truck on site.
Some active prisons and jails are often used for filming! But with these locations, if they need the cell you are shooting in, you get booted. At Wapato we’d have access to the entire facility.
PP: How was the process to secure use of the facility?
To secure the facility, we had to speak with Mark Gustafson, who is the property manager. He had a few questions, but the process was really pretty simple. The important thing was getting the correct insurance. Here’s the county’s property management webpage for Wapato jail.
PP: Were the rates reasonable?
JF: Yes, the rates are quite reasonable, basically covering the cost to operate — security guard on site, opening and closing of the facility and any janitorial costs incurred from our use.
In fact, we initially went up to Portland because of the [relatively low] cost of the facility. Before we went we were still considering building a cell somewhere in L.A. when the whole series was greenlit.
However, given how wonderful and support everyone in Portland was and how professional the local cast and crew were, we are now absolutely committed to being back in Portland at Wapato to shoot the entire show.
Scroll down for more info on the web series and links to production photos.
Filming the filmers.
A cell doubles as a make-up room.
Filming inside a cell.
wHole draws on the intimate knowledge of two people who have been incarcerated.
Actor William Brown plays the protagonist in wHole. He has served time in prison. Fischer and Hamilton connected with Brown through Deborah Tobola who runs the Poetic Justice Project, a theater program in California for individuals who have been incarcerated. Tobola and Brown worked together when he was in prison in a program called Arts in Corrections.
Five Mualimmak is a co-producer for the project. Mualimmak also spent time in solitary confinement, 5 years, before he was exonerated. Mualimmak works with the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow and is the Executive Director of the Incarcerated Nation Campaign.
“As I wrote the screenplay, I was in touch with Five throughout,” explains Hamilton who is the series writer and director. “I want to make sure that viewers get a real sense of what it is like for a person to live in complete isolation for years.”
Mualimmak wrote about Solitary confinement’s “invisible scars” for the Guardian.
In chatting with Fischer, one of the intriguing resources she pointed me toward was the set photography for wHole. I’ve included some of my preferred shots thorughout this post.
View images from day one, day two, day three and day four. Perhaps most interesting are photos made by crew of the facility’s control room, surveillance systems and control boards.
Five Mualimmak, who spent 5 years of his 12 prison term in solitary confinement, before being exonerated is co-producer on wHole. Above, he plays a prison guard.
Lunch on set
Looks depressingly accurate.
Downloading the day’s footage in the control room.
wHole was made in partnership with American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, the American Friends Service Committee, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, the United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society, the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow, Incarcerated Nation Campaign, the Media Change Makers (of the University of Texas-El Paso), SendAPackage.Com, Broken On All Sides, Jail Action Coalition New York City, The Bronx Defenders.
Additionally, Academy Award-Winning Producer Jonathan Sanger is an Executive Producer for the project and Dr. Arvind Singhal is the Entertainment Education Specialist for the project.
In Portland, specifically, the assistance of Jan Elfers, Public Policy Director at Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, and Shannon Wright, Deputy Director of the Partnership for Safety and Justice was crucial.
All images courtesy of Think Ten Media and William Meeker.