This essay explores how watching movies in prisons both affirms and compromises the spectatorial contract of commercial filmgoing, picking apart the various kinds of interferences that defined and modified the experience of motion pictures in the nontheatrical setting of the early twentieth-century prison. Prison spectatorship is examined in relation to issues of policing and safety in prison screenings where all manner of distractions came between the inmate-spectator and the screen, including flammable nitrate catching fire in improvised projection booths, hostile or absorbed guards, fights breaking out between inmates, and the presence of dignitaries or celebrities. Using accounts of prison spectatorship from prominent archives and the popular press, this essay constructs prison moviegoing as an enigmatic and discursively complex phenomenon – an important if little understood example of the cinematic apparatus.

The integral version of this article can be found in the printed KINO!