Prison Valley’s story is shaped by user engagement and interaction

From the producers of Gaza Sderot, the award-winning interactive documentary Prison Valley integrates discussion and user response into its story


SHORT STORY SYNOPSIS: This interactive web documentary explores Supermax, America’s new Alcatraz, in Cañon City, Colorado. Users follow the journey of the journalists who made the film through a video game-style site which recreates motel rooms, prison cells and other scenes of the story, discovering interviews, statistics and extra footage as they progress. Platforms for discussion and space for user responses are built into the story.

FORMAT: Interactive web documentary; 59’ linear documentary for TV



STATUS: Project completed

RELEASE DATES: 22 April 2010 (website launched); TV documentary aired 6 July 2010

AWARDS: FRANCE-24 RFI web documentary award 2010 at Visa pour l’image, Perpignan; 62nd Prix Italia – prize for interactive website linked to a TV and radio programme; Favourite Website Awards website of the day, 2 June 2010


Prison Valley explores the bizarre and disturbing reality of the prison industry in America through material collected during months of investigative work by reporter David Dufresne and photographer Philippe Brault. Dufresne and Brault focus on Cañon City, Colorado, a “prison town” which is home to 36,000 people, 13 jails and 7,800 inmates.

In keeping with producer Upian’s previous interactive documentaries Gaza Sderot and Havana Miami, the website design enables audiences to experience the story non-chronologically.

This difficult subject matter, originally rejected by ARTE as “too local” in focus, is presented in an engaging and original format: users are not just told the story, they enter and explore it for themselves.


The experience of Prison Valley is entirely shaped by the user’s engagement with and exploration of it. It is intuitively designed and works in harmony with those anchors of internet activity, Twitter and Facebook. Users can sign up using their Twitter or Facebook account – a straightforward and user-friendly function – and also a very savvy one which instantly gains recognition for the series among the personal contacts of an individual on the major social networks. It made Prison Valley an instant talking point in these online spaces where many of the broadest and most influential conversations take place.

The integration of social media also enables other user-friendly features: again, through Facebook or Twitter, viewers can exit the documentary to return to watch again from where they left off, and they can choose to share their progress through Prison Valley with automatic updates. Prison Valley has 250,000 followers on Facebook, and an iPhone app for the series was also developed.

Like Gaza Sderot and Havana Miami before it, Prison Valley was designed by, and like its predecessors it is an exceptionally high-quality product. The look of the site, which users explore like a video game, is smart, sophisticated and perfectly in keeping with the content. Its authenticity stimulates curiosity: interiors of the reporter’s motel room or a prisoner’s cell, presented in Brault’s evocative photographs, are full of details to be explored. From the outset it locates the viewer in the world of the documentary: clicking “start” on the homepage begins a short film following the drive into Cañon City. It is atmospheric and immersive, and immediately enables the user-participant to relate to the journalists’ experience as observers and investigators of this strange and sometimes frightening world. While it does not exploit the sensational potential, Prison Valley makes no secret of the difficult, sometimes dark nature of its subject matter, and users can record their emotional responses to the content, via the fear module, for example.

Dufresne and Brault were dedicated to their audience. During the live period from April 2010, they worked hard responding to comments and interacting with visitors and audience members, supporting and furthering the dialogue which grew up around their series. Discussion platforms are built into the site at various points during the user’s journey: chapter ends are gateways to forums and Brault and Dufresne participated in live chat sessions, sometimes alongside characters featured in the documentary. These enabled wider debates with high-profile figures: Jean-Marie Bockel, French Secretary of State for Justice, joined a Prison Valley chat on 6 May, for example. Prison Valley – Le Blog! continues to carry news and updates.

So far, Prison Valley has been viewed 600,000 times; there have been 250,000 visits to the site and 55,000 people have created profiles. Of these latter, 25 per cent watched right to the end, and another 25 per cent stopped at the first stage. The target is to achieve 1 million views within a year; taking into account the 285,000 people in France and 100,000 in Germany who watched the linear documentary that aired on ARTE in summer 2010 (at the same time as the World Cup semi-finals) the content has already reached that number of viewers. Reflecting on these figures, Joel Ronez, head of internet at ARTE who commissioned Prison Valley, says: “The internet is long-term media. We took eight months to do 600,000 views, we took one hour to do 385,000 [on TV].”


Prison Valley


Gaza Sderot – Life in spite of everything

Havana/Miami: Times are changing


Prison Valley – Le Blog!


Prison Valley

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5 Responses to “Prison Valley’s story is shaped by user engagement and interaction”

  1. [...] eta telebistaz 2010eko ekainean eman zen dokumentala; AEBko presodengien industriaren ingurukoa. Informazio gehiago:  How to take a serious topic and make people engage through another format [...]

  2. [...] eta telebistaz 2010eko ekainean eman zen dokumentala; AEBko presodengien industriaren ingurukoa. Informazio gehiago:  How to take a serious topic and make people engage through another format [...]

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