For the past ten years, nestled in an industrial park on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, a 525-bed minimum-security jail has sat empty. Now it's being used to showcase America's infatuation with mass incarceration and solitary confinement.
Wapato Jail, erected just as the frenzy of "tough-on-crime" politics began to wane, is fully equipped—it even has a dentist's office. But despite a $59 million outlay for its construction, the prospect of the place ever being filled was suspect from the start thanks to a strange brew of high-minded local liberalism and the minutia of the tax code. That makes it a potent symbol of the shifting national conversation on punishment and government waste.
Ramon Hamilton just wrapped shooting a pilot at Wapato for an upcoming web series about solitary confinement, wHole. It will debut in January and he hopes it will provide the public with a window into the daily reality of all the people involved in prison, from those incarcerated to guards and wardens to their respective family members. (There are 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States today.)
"We just sort of forget about these people in prisons," Hamilton said. "We've built up a society that is very punishing. We want to punish, we don't want to see the so-called criminals and so we forget about them like they never existed... You know, that has worked; mass incarceration is not a topic of general conversation. We've psychologically locked it out of our lives. Most of society is happy we've done that so we don't have to face the reality."
In 1996, when Multnomah County voters approved funding to build the new detention facility that became Wapato, they also voted for a tax reduction, which pulled some of the money officials were relying on for day-to-day operations of the jail. Nevertheless, the 466-square-mile county has spent between $300,000 and $400,000 each year—$3.5 million so far—on maintenance and upkeep, basically just to keep the lights on.
"It was built over a decade ago, back in the day when we were really interested in mandatory sentencing and we needed more jail space," Jan Elfers, the public policy director of the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, explained. "Once it was built, the cost to run the facility was brought to light, and we realized: Wow, we didn't have the money to keep this facility running. So they were coming up against an issue of not wanting to raise taxes and a societal shift in our attitudes as to whether or not incarceration is really making our communities safer."
Wapato is just one of several jails operated by the County Sheriff's office, whose website includes a video about prison policies on composting and eating local that looks like it might have been ripped from Portlandia.
"We held a ceremony, cut the ribbon—then locked the doors," former Sheriff Bernie Giusto told the LA Times in 2006. "We have a brand new jail sitting here empty, and I don't have a good answer when the public asks me, 'Why was it built if there was no plan to operate it?'" He added, "Even I get tired of telling people how dumb we are.
Two or three times a year, film crews come in to shoot various television series, and Portlandia has been among them. But the story of the rise and fall of the facility has been an especially useful talking point for Hamilton, a founder of Think Ten Media Group.
"I'm glad that it's not being used as a prison, but it's a big space that millions of dollars went into that's not being used. Maybe it can be used as a tool to help the cause, to talk about mass incarceration. It can serve a purpose but maybe not the one they intended," he said. "Obviously, the symbolism was good."
Hamilton counts himself as a recent convert to the anti-prison cause. Although he lives just three miles from the Pitchess Detention Center in LA County, until this year he had never appreciated the vastness of the prison-industrial complex.
"We became aware of the hunger strikes at Pelican Bay and just started doing some research. We had no knowledge of what was going on in the prison system at that time," Hamilton said. "As we started going down the so-called rabbit hole, we learned about the horrific conditions. It's a large, complex thing that is going on in America with a lot of moving parts, from the companies profiting off those who are in prison right down to the individual in solitary confinement."
The title of the series attempts to reflect this, with "the hole" being a colloquial phrase for solitary confinement while "the whole" is meant the entirety of the system, according to producer Jennifer Fischer.
"We are hoping it really opens people's eyes to this issue," Fischer said. "I think a lot of people don't realize the extent of the use of solitary confinement and what solitary confinement actually means. It's a way to open the door to conversations and reach people who aren't already aware of it."
As neophyte prison reformers themselves, Fischer and Hamilton reached out to people directly impacted by the experience of solitary confinement to help write the script and portray the characters in the series.
"Being able to have someone with that personal experience was instrumental in getting the script right," Fischer said.
Working in the facility was a challenge for both the artistic goals and logistics, she said. It's hard to make the dull, soul-crushing space of a jail look interesting on camera. At one point during the filming, the whole crew accidentally locked themselves into a cell, and no one could find the key.
"It was eerie to be in an empty prison," Fischer said. "It certainly affected us all to be in that space. I kept thinking, I can't believe I'm voluntarily doing this."
Five Mualimm-ak is a prison reform advocate based in New York City who served as consultant for wHole and plays a guard in the show. He spent five days at Wapato over the summer during the shoot.
Mualimm-ak was incarcerated in New York State for 12 years, five of which were spent in solitary confinement. So working inside the abandoned jail was a complicated experience.
"They really just gave us the keys," he told me. "When I felt the keys in my hand, I wanted to run through the jail and unlock every door, even though no one had ever been in there. It was a creepy feeling. I couldn't connect to being on the other side of the fence."
Although naturally an outgoing individual, Mualimm-ak struggled in his scenes as a guard.
"I had to do 20 takes of one scene that was about one second long. I was supposed to be checking the security of the cell, but couldn't do anything but look directly at the person inside to see if he was alright," he said. "Even though it wasn't real, I felt like just letting him out the whole time."
The series begins with solitary confinement, "the dungeons of mass incarceration," Mualimm-ak said, to talk about the way we, as a society, are hiding our problems rather than addressing them because we fundamentally don't care about the people locked up in the prisons.
"All this concrete and steel, $50-something million, it could have paid for two colleges," he said.
If nothing else, the web series is timely; while Wapato's emptiness reflects a recent reduction of jail and prison populations in some states, the rate of incarceration remains a recalcitrant national issue. On Wednesday, the Pew Charitable Trusts released a report showing that state prison populations will rise by about 3 percent before 2018. (Oregon is one of the few states expected to reduce the number of incarcerated citizens.)
According to Hamilton, the aim of the show to humanize the various characters—to see not only the end result of what the system did to this one person, but to look into what happened and what got us here. At the same time, the show tackles criminal justice in America at large.
"This is about all of us," Fischer said. "What does it say about a society that we would allow this to happen?"
Nick Malinowski is a social worker, writer, and activist living in Brooklyn, New York. His recent work can be found at the Huffington Post, Alternet, Truthou,t and the Indypendent. Follow him on Twitter.