________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 9 . . . .December 21, 2007


Life Inside Out: Behind the Walls of a Women's Prison.

Sarah Zammit. (Writer & Director). Peter Star (Producer). Silva Basmajian (Executive Producer).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2006.
56 min., 33 sec., VHS or DVD, $99.95.
Order Number: 153C 9105 216.

Subject Headings:
Women prisoners-Canada.
Female offenders-Canada.

Grades 11 and up / Ages 16 and up.

Review by Joanne Peters.

*** /4



In 1990, a Canadian Task Force on Federally Sentenced Women recommended a new concept for the incarceration of women. In 2000, five new federal institutions opened, amongst them, the Grand Valley Institution near Kitchener, ON, and in the opening sequences of the film, viewers see attendance checks being made on the "residents" (not "inmates") of this complex. The women at Grand Valley live in cottage-like little buildings; it looks not unlike some small suburban development, except for the levels of surveillance exercised over the residents' lives.

     This film focuses on three women, all over the age of 50, who are currently serving time: TA, who is continuing to serve 12 years for the killing of an abusive partner; Kim, an immigrant from Vietnam and former drug dealer who is serving a four-year sentence; and Pearl, whose life seemed to go wrong when she fell in love with a man who led her down the path that led to Grand Valley. Despite their stuffed animals, house-plants, pet fish in aquariums, and non-uniform clothing – all the little details that add a touch of normal life to an institutional setting – it is impossible to forget that Grand Valley is a prison. Razor wire tops the fence beyond the Private Family Visiting Unit, strict consequences face violators of rules against the possession of alcohol and non-medical drugs, and inventory searches of clothing after private family visits remind both the viewer and the women living at Grand Valley that their freedom is restricted, that they are, in TA's words, "prisoners, not humans."

      All three have had incredibly difficult personal lives, and the details of TA's past, growing up in a Newfoundland outport, the victim of repeated sexual abuse, are difficult to listen to, not just because of the profanity of the language used. Anger, boredom, and profound feelings of disenfranchisement are these women's dominant emotions. Navigating the judicial system, meeting with parole workers and legal counsel, and coping with seemingly endless bureaucratic screw-ups is the substance of day-to-day life for these women. Although the current mandate of 21st century penal systems is to attempt to rehabilitate and educate prisoners so that they might re-integrate with society upon release (whenever that might happen), most of the incarcerated are coping with profound emotional difficulties, limited education, and sometimes, cultural differences. The film ends with both Kim and Pearl's being released into day parole; TA is left to continue serving her sentence, and in the final frames, she is tidying up their quarters so that it is clean and ready for the next resident.

      An official "Hot Docs" selection for 2006, Life Inside Out is filmed in cinema vérité style; it has the look of live video, and that adds "edge" to an already gritty story. Senior grade level classes in sociology, psychology, and Canadian law are all potential audiences for this film. Still, this is a film which must be previewed before screening because both language and content are what might be expected from people who have spent considerable time on the wrong side of the law: raw and rough. Life Inside Out is not idealistic, but it is compassionate.


Joanne Peters is a teacher-librarian at Kelvin High School in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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