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900 Women

Distributed by Women Make Movies, 462 Broadway, #500, New York, NY. 10013; 212-925-0606
Produced by Johnathan Stack
Directed by Laleh Khadevi
VHS, color, 73 min.
Women's Studies, Sociology, Criminal Justice, Psychology

Reviewed by Debra Mandel, Head, Media Center, Northeastern University Libraries, Boston, MA


900 Women provides an in-depth portrait of the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women (LCIW), in St.Gabriel, Lousiana, one hour north of New Orleans. Narrated by actress Susan Sarandon, this documentary weaves together personal stories of five inmates and one security guard with footage of daily prison life, family gatherings, and background information. LCIW houses more than 900 women, with the largest number of women correctional officers in the country. Inmates work nine-hour days, earn four cents an hour for yard work or housekeeping, and 12 to 20 cents, many years later, for sewing and upholstery work. There is attendance five times a day. Inmates can show no signs of intimacy--they are not allowed to even hug or shake hands.

Though 900 Women is very informative and includes excellent interviews and cinematography, its presentation seemed choppy and slow. In my second viewing, however, I connected more with the personal stories, and realized that the pacing was perhaps appropriate for the subject matter.

Of the inmates featured, Mary Riley and Keanna Hebert stand out the most. Mary, white, 68 years old, is in for two life sentences, having murdered two people. She describes her crimes and abusive past with powerful eloquence. Keanna, African American, incarcerated for two years for heroin possession, is dependent on her mother to take care of her three children, one born drug addicted. Her mother is filmed in this difficult caretaker role; she is imprisoned in her own way, having this huge responsibility. The most moving scene features Keanna’s tearful release from prison when her mother picks her up. It depicts a painful moment where Keanna must sign off on the conditions and responsibilities required by the prison system. Her mother asks Keanna if she’s ready and Keanna is filmed at home later, rebonding with her children. Sadly, we learn that Keanna started using drugs one month into her formal rehabilitation program, meaning she will have to return to LCIW.

900 Women might be useful in upper level criminal justice courses, sociology, women’s studies and psychology courses. Other documentaries recommended on this topic include: From One Prison (University of California Extension Center); Through the Wire, (Cinema Guild); and Women Doing Time (Ambrose Video Publishing).