The Wasted Years is a 1960s television documentary disclosing the impoverished existence of prison life. There is a great deal of handheld camerawork intersected with interviews and audio samplings of inmates. The use of makeshift lighting and low angles lends an atmospheric quality to many interior scenes.
The film opens with a camera tracking backwards alongside a prison guard as superimposed shots of inmates fade in to discuss the worthlessness of prison life. “If I had it to do it all over again, knowing that I would never get out, I would rather have been executed.” Opening titles roll, accompanied by moody guitar. The camera zooms out from an Illinois State Penitentiary sign (1:12) and then pans to prison gates with narrator Hugh Hill who introduces Stateville penitentiary as “one of the toughest cell houses.” A penitentiary bus leads the viewer through prison gates. The film details prison routine beginning at 7am in Cell Block D. Guards affirm a headcount from the cellblock gallery, a solitary guard yells, “Chow!” and the prisoners file out. A lifer describes the “World of Can’t” that is controlled penitentiary life. Warden Frank Pate speaks about the intense conditions at Stateville (7:04). Pate shows off a case of contraband, mostly weapons—sharpened spoons, a spoon skeleton key, a sharpened brace of a bed, etc. (8:22). Solitary confinement, called “isolation” is shown (9:35). An inmate is walked and locked into Isolation as the terms of solitary confinement are described. “Segregation” cells are shown and described. An inmate is interviewed who has managed to obtain a high school education while in Stateville (13:00). High school and grammar school are shown (13:44) along with ESL classes. Prisoner art is shown and discussed (15:53). A machine shop is shown, jazz music playing in the background, the creation of shop-made contraband is discussed (17:12). A large mess hall is shown during mealtime (19:25), eerily, the faces of inmates are mostly unseen. A mess hall guard tower is shown, the dangers of rioting discussed. A sign reads: “ALL YOU CAN EAT BUT NO WASTE” (22:16). Warden Pate is again interviewed, stating the need for minimum security institutions (23:11). Conditions during winter are discussed as the cell locking procedure repeats. An inmate is shown playing the film’s guitar music (25:20). The prison at night is shown, looking otherworldly, backgrounds dominated by expressionistic shadows. Various inmates voice their laments. “I’m at the end of the world’ one states, ‘there’s no description for it.” Hugh Hill is shown in an empty cellblock as he discusses the distrust and paranoia that predominates (27:02). End titles run (28:39). A WBBM-TV editorial follows (29:28): Clark B. George, vice president of Columbia Television Stations Division introduces interviews with three inmates, designed to discourage those who may be headed towards prison life (30:25). Each details their personal struggles and backgrounds. Clark George returns to state “I’m sure you’ll agree’ that the preceding interviews were “dismal and depressing.” Education is emphasized as the solution. Editorial end titles (38:48).
Stateville Correctional Center (SCC) is a maximum security state prison for men in Crest Hill, Illinois, U.S., near Chicago. It is a part of the Illinois Department of Corrections. Opened in 1925, Stateville was built to accommodate 1,506 inmates. Parts of the prison were designed according to the panopticon concept proposed by the British philosopher and prison reformer, Jeremy Bentham. Stateville’s “F-House” cellhouse, commonly known as a “roundhouse”, has a panopticon layout which features an armed tower in the center of an open area surrounded by several tiers of cells. F-House was the only remaining “roundhouse” still in use in the United States in the 1990s. It was closed in late 2016 but the structure will remain standing due to its historical significance. A duplicate of the prison opened in Cuba in 1936, but has since been abandoned.
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