Back in May 2017, Vesla Weaver, a political scientist then teaching at Yale (now at Johns Hopkins) sent me a student project she thought deserved a wider audience. The thesis by senior Patrick Doolittle was called “‘The Zo’: Disorientation and Retaliatory Disorientation in American Prisons.”
“If I could give this essay an A+, I would,” she wrote. “Doolittle's essay is the most original, analytically complex, and most powerful essay I have advised over the years; I literally could not put it down.”
“The Zo,” prison jargon for The Twilight Zone, was based on a huge archive of letters compiled by the American Prison Writing Archive, a remarkable open-source database invented by Doran Larson, a professor of creative writing at Hamilton College. It is a disturbing study of a struggle between prisoners and their captors, waged not with fists or weapons but with deliberately disorienting rules and impossible tasks. Guards mess with the prisoner’s heads. Those incarcerated try to keep their grip on reality by clinging to details—days until parole, prices of items in the commissary, the minutiae of routine. Guards escalate, inflicting arbitrary transfers or random stints in isolation.
This was original and provocative work. But what was The Marshall Project going to do with a 96-page academic paper? As we thought about different ways of showing the experience of disorientation behind bars, we came up with a novel idea: turn it into an animated video.
First Look Media’s new streaming service Topic liked it—enough to option Patrick Doolittle’s essay and pitch the project to superstar artist Molly Crabapple. The actor Michael K. Williams, who works with justice-involved communities, signed on as the narrator, and the anecdotes, in the writers’ own words, were voiced by formerly incarcerated men and women. Several drafts and a lot of healthy creative friction later, we are proud to present The Zo. —Bill Keller
Narrator Michael K. Williams
Illustrator Molly Crabapple
Writers and Directors Kim Boekbinder and Jim Batt
Based on research by Patrick Doolittle and stories collected by the American Prison Writing Archive and The Marshall Project.
Including Stories from Debbey Adams Lawrence Bartley Bryce Canyon Curtis Garner Rodrigo Gonzalez Jr. Derrick A. Gordon Ivan Kilgore William A. Larson Brian K. McCarn George Peter Jr. C.F. Villa
Additional Voices Lawrence Bartley John Dukes Kiki Dunston Jassen “Dominic” Dupont Messiah Ferguson Neil “Fred” Johnson Sean Kyler Samuel Smith Donald Washington, Jr.
A Sharp As Knives Production
Assistant Producer Numi Prasarn
Assistant Editor Julie Gratz
Production Assistant Alex Webster
For The Marshall Project
Executive Producers Susan Chira and Bill Keller
Supervising Producers Ruth Baldwin and Tom Meagher
Contributing Writers Lawrence Bartley Susan Chira Emily Kassie
Development and Design Gabe Isman and Alex Tatusian
Reseracher Trip Eggert
Executive Producers Ryan Chanatry and Anna Holmes
Supervising Producers Jeff Seelbach and Jennie Bedusa
Editorial Gena Konstantinakos
Post-Production Olivia Marsh and Sherine Toussaint
Business and Legal Affairs Alex Robbins and Katie Bigley
Creative Stacey Politi Dwayne Lutchna Greg Boone