Like a Rose
Women's struggle in jail

by Robert Pest

from Jump Cut, no. 16, 1977, pp. 7-9
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1977, 2005

On the surface, LIKE A ROSE is a gentle, low-key film. In the opening sequence, an off-screen voice reminisces over a fairly typical collection of personal and family photographs. Only the authoritarian clang of the dinner bell, violating the affectionately nostalgic mood of this "photo album" sequence, brings us into contact with the stifling regimentation of prison life. But it is unsettling moments and jarring contrasts such as this that give LIKE A ROSE much of its power and conviction. For beneath its quiet, unobtrusive cinematography and delicate piano background, this black-and-white documentary undertakes a probing and insistent analysis of the concrete conditions of existence at a women's prison. More precisely, the film focuses on two inmates' views of the oppressive conditions at the Female Correctional Institution at Tipton, Missouri and on their mutual struggle to maintain their integrity and their sanity in the face of those conditions. In a skillfully integrated combination of on-camera conversations and voice-over commentaries, Peggy and Carolyn, the film's central figures, are given the opportunity to share both their experiences and their understanding of the personal and political realities of prison life.

 Director Sally Barrett-Page and the other members of the feminist collective responsible for the film allow the interests and concerns of the two prisoners to determine the film's direction; the filmmakers limit themselves to visually corroborating and elaborating upon the prisoners' analysis. (1) As a result of this internal perspective, LIKE A ROSE does not suffer from the sensationalism common to other prison films, both fiction and non-fiction. Taking its focus from the prisoners themselves, the film moves instead to address the day-to-day problems and aggravations both personal and institutional, both petty and not so petty, which ultimately define the character of prison life. Because it focuses on a small, minimum security prison, LIKE A ROSE does not deal with the institutionalized violence and wholesale brutality which have become a way of life at larger, maximum-security prisons. But the film does present a convincing portrait of the tedium, the lethargy, and as Carolyn puts it, "the waste," which are equally part of the oppression of prison life. Some of the issues raised in LIKE A ROSE deal specifically with women's prisons. But, for the most part, the film speaks eloquently against the mental decay and the physical degradation experienced by all prisoners in this nation's "correctional institutions."

Most of the discussion of prison life in the film centers on the contradiction between the rhetoric of correction and the actual conditions and programs within the prison. A sign in the Tipton facility asserts that the institution's mission is to help female offenders "re-enter society as productive wives, mothers, and employees." This view, in essence, is also articulated by the warden, who appears briefly near the end of the film to provide what can only be interpreted as an official rebuttal to some of the charges made by the prisoners. The choice of these particular roles for the women is, of course, tremendously revealing. Clearly, Tipton officials do not want their prisoners to become employers or to succeed at self-employment, nor do they want the ex-offender to exist outside the confines of marriage and motherhood. Correction at Lipton does not involve growth or development, but rather learning to accept a limited and well-defined social and economic role. Yet even in terms of its own sexist goals, Tipton is sadly deficient. As Peggy and Carolyn point out and as the filmmakers document, little if any productive activity takes place at Tipton. The lack of educational and vocational programs and the limited number of jobs within the institution pose major barriers to any kind of growth. The warden claims that many of the women in Lipton choose to "sleep their sentences away." LIKE A ROSE helps explain why.

Discussions about the inadequacy of prison programs tend to become discussions about money very quickly. Carolyn informs us that Lipton once had a college program but that it was discontinued due to "lack of funds." But at most institutions, and the film gives us no reason to suppose that Lipton is unique in this respect, the strawman of financial contingency is pulled out of the closet only after a significant number of prisoners get involved in college programs. For prisons are run on a master-slave or parent-child model, and prisoners who have been given the opportunity to study and to understand their situation, to articulate their dissatisfaction, and to express their rage often refuse to behave like either slaves or children. Prison educational programs are usually discontinued because they pose a serious threat to status quo relations of oppression within the institution, not because of any lack of funds. When funds are discontinued, it is often due to lobbying efforts of "law-abiding" citizens who resent the expenditure of federal or state funds to educate and train "criminals."

 Like the shutdown of the college program, the employment situation at Lipton betrays the institution's real goals and priorities. According to Peggy and Carolyn, there are essentially three kinds of jobs at Tipton: in the laundry, in the kitchen, and in the sewing room. One or two individual jobs exist, such as teacher's aide in the high school equivalency program, but these are obviously tokens and public relations gestures. The primary job opportunities conform to the sign that delineates the roles for which the women are being prepared; a prisoner who leaves Lipton is ready to cook, clean, or sew. Yet once again, even those "busy work" jobs do not provide a break from the long hours of boredom, since there is never enough work to go around. Shots of the laundry room reveal women slumped over ironing boards, playing cards, or just sitting. Thus, those who do elect to work at Lipton learn that their labor is unessential and trivial.

The economic situation of the prisoners also plays a role in the gradual destruction of any sense of self-worth. Those who have no family to provide funds receive $2 a month from the state, $3 after six months, for personal items. To insure that the prisoners understand that this money bears no relation to their labor or to their right to a minimal subsistence, prison officials refer to it as a "tip." Clothing also poses a major problem for those with no outside funds. The state provides only the barest essentials of the lowest quality. Everything else comes from donations of second-hand items, not always functional or in an adequate range of sizes. Certain kinds of clothing, such as gaudy, oversized "sack" dresses, stand out in the film. Thus, we come to realize that while the women at Tipton are not forced by regulation to wear standard uniforms, many of them are still forced by economic circumstance to wear ill-fitting tokens of their debased status.

Any film about a women's prison is bound to invite comparisons with men's prisons. Superficially, Lipton is a garden spot compared to all but the most exclusive, "white collar," men's institutions. Nowhere in the film do we see the ever-present machine-gun guards who walk the walls of most men's prisons. In fact, there are no walls at all, only fences. But, as Peggy perceptively argues, the contrast ends there. Admitting that Tipton seems both pleasant and peaceful, she points out that the real punishment of prison is not external but internal — being forced to leave behind the people, places, and things that once made up your life. Prison is an absence as much as, if not more than, a presence. This point is made most forcefully in the film's treatment of the "Saturday Night Dances." Carolyn ironically refers to this inmates-only event as "a real treat, complete with Kool-Aid." While she describes the general pattern of initial enthusiasm followed by a gradual withdrawal from these affairs, the normally steady camera darts nervously around the recreation room, capturing both the tension and the desperation of the participants. Neither the women sitting nor the ones dancing seem comfortable or relaxed. Like everything else at Tipton, the dances appear to be a combination of pointless activity, on the one hand, and deadening inactivity, on the other. At the end of the sequence, Carolyn simply points out that most women eventually quit going to the dances because they can't find "what they're looking for."

 Unfortunately, the filmmakers do not use the dance sequence as a springboard for looking more closely at the negative aspects of human sexuality in the prison environment. The few shots of women dancing — together in an overtly sexual way are handled quietly and discretely. One must, of course, credit the filmmakers with considerable respect for the private lives of the prisoners. But respect for the lives and preferences of others does not necessarily preclude an intelligent examination of the social and sexual pressures that women (and men) in prison must deal with. The omission of this sort of analysis is, however, consistent with the overall movement of the film and especially with the film's positive treatment of the Peggy-Carolyn relationship. The filmmakers make no attempt to conceal the strong intimate relationship between the two women. On the contrary, the choice of Peggy and Carolyn as the film's central figures involves a deliberate effort to stress the positive aspects of physical and emotional relations between women. The love, affection, and emotional support which these women share stand in sharp contrast to the manipulative, exploitative relations which prevail both in prisons and in the society as a whole. Peggy and Carolyn are able to deal with their incarceration at Lipton because of their successful relationship. Repeated shots of the two women sitting together on a small sofabed serve to bring us back to this central point. Significantly, these are the only shots in the entire film in which prisoners seem even somewhat content, comfortable, or at ease. But the strength of this remarkable and beautiful relationship is captured most fully at the end of the film. When Carolyn begins to despair about the future and its limited possibilities, Peggy gently strokes her companion's hand and reassures her, "Don't you worry, baby, because we'll always come up smelling like a rose."

 LIKE A ROSE is a powerful and moving film. But because of the budget limitations which determined its length and also, presumably, because of the limits on what the filmmakers were allowed to film, it is a film which avoids almost as many issues as it addresses. Even small, rural prisons like Lipton can be violent places, yet the film gives no indication of even the potential for violence. The choice of two articulate, fairly well-educated white women as the film's primary subjects must also be questioned. While their problems are, of course, both real and important, one cannot help but assume that less fortunate prisoners, white and black alike, have grievances more pressing than the absence of college courses. Fortunately, however, both Peggy and Carolyn seem to be capable of moving outside of their own situations to deal with conditions in general.

Tomato Productions was formed by a small group of women, some with experience in public television, who wanted to counter the sexist bias of both film and television. This purpose informs and helps to explain many of the collective's filmmaking choices. Peggy and Carolyn are chosen to discuss prison conditions precisely because of their intelligence and their strong, supportive relationship. By focusing on them, the filmmakers hope to call attention to what women, even in incredibly difficult situations, can accomplish. Given the general absence of such a perspective from most current film and television productions, this aggressively positive direction seems not only reasonable but also necessary. In any case, the film never attempts to conceal or to mystify the choices that went into its making. LIKE A ROSE is an honest and sensitive film, one which avoids the pitfalls of both vulgar sensationalism and excessive polemic, and which offers instead a detailed analysis of a concrete situation. LIKE A ROSE is a film that should be seen by anyone interested in America's prisons or in women's struggles to shape their own lives. Most importantly, it should be seen both by the people who run our prisons and by the people who occupy them.


1. Cinematography by Ellen Grant; edited by Nancy Margulies; stills by Sara Wykes; music by Anne Heath. Black and white, 26 minutes. Distributed in l6m by Tomato Productions, Box 1952, Evergreen, Colorado 80439.