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The Return: Talking about the realities of mass incarceration and criminalization in the US

Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway have spent much of their careers making films about America’s criminal justice system. In their latest documentary, The Return (supported by JustFilms and Ford’s Youth Opportunity and Learning program), Duane de la Vega and Galloway follow Kevin Bilal Chatman and Kenneth Anderson as they adjust to life outside of prison. Both men got life sentences for non-violent drug offenses and later had their sentences commuted. Through their experiences, the film examines California’s "Three Strikes" law—one of the harshest criminal sentencing policies in the country—and its unprecedented amendment in 2012, via the passage of Prop. 36.

In advance of the film’s national television premiere on PBS’ POV on May 23 (check your local listings), the filmmakers joined Chatman to discuss their experiences making the documentary and how it speaks to our broken criminal justice system. Vivian Nixon, executive director of College and Community Fellowship, an organization committed to higher education for women with criminal records, moderated the discussion.

Below are highlights from that conversation.

White people must stand up to mass criminalization

From her experience documenting court proceedings, Duane de la Vega has seen people struggling with poverty, mental illness, or drug addiction—most of them from communities of color—locked away with life sentences without regard for how their lives and choices have been constrained by structural barriers. She emphasizes that standing up to the injustices of the criminal justice system cannot be the sole responsibility of the communities most deeply affected. Instead, everyone—especially white people—must feel and express outrage, understanding that mass criminalization is everyone’s problem.

 

Formerly incarcerated people need support, including basic necessities

Bilal Chatman reflected on his transition back to society after being in prison for several years. It was challenging to leave prison, lacking the most basic things he needed to survive: a place to stay, money to buy clothes, a bus token or a bicycle to be able to get around and look for a job. After his release, he wanted to do right and be a productive member of society, but it was difficult to do so without these small things so many take for granted.

 

Police and probation officers can help formerly incarcerated people succeed—or make their lives more difficult

After being released from prison, people face obstacles that can make even the simplest tasks into overwhelming challenges. After his release, Chatman was able to find a job (a requirement of his probation) but also needed to see his probation officer for regular drug tests. Because he had just started a new job, Chatman asked his probation officer if he could schedule the required drug test after work hours. He was told “probation doesn’t work around you; you work around probation”—though ironically, to meet this requirement of his probation could mean jeopardizing his standing at work.

 

Philanthropy needs to fund and support formerly incarcerated leaders

Vivian Nixon underlined the importance of supporting people who are most directly impacted by the criminal justice system as well as those who are leading movements for sentencing reform. These include formerly incarcerated people who have experienced systemic injustices firsthand, and who are working to help us understand criminal justice reform as a civil rights issue.

 

 
Because it targeted people of color, the Three Strikes law was fundamentally unjust

When initially implemented, the Three Strikes law put communities of color at a decided disadvantage: As a result, African-Americans and Latinos received disproportionately longer sentences than whites. Chatman’s story is but one example: When the economy crashed in the 1980s, Chatman lost his job. Soon after, in the thick of the crack epidemic, he began dealing and became addicted to drugs. After being caught selling $200 worth of drugs to an undercover police officer, he was sentenced to 150 years to life—a sentence far less likely to be given to white people in similar situations.

 

Watch the full discussion:
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