The Prison Within: In a moving documentary on restorative justice | Documentary films

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TRoy Williams was on guard when Katherin Hervey went to San Quentin State Prison, where he was serving a life sentence for kidnapping and theft. The director was there to record the inmates for what would become the restorative justice documentary The Prison Within.

Williams was the resident filmmaker in San Quentin. He is also the founder of the San Quentin Prison Report, a media company that produces radios and videos of the interior, giving a voice to inmates and building a dialogue within these walls. Until his parole in 2014, Williams kept an eye on the media and the media that entered the prison walls. He told the Guardian how he fears the media will resort to scare tactics, showing prisoners who they are instead of who they are, stripping their humanity and feeding the public a desire for prison punishment, which favors longer sentences as a deterrent to crime.

But Hervey, a former public defender, immediately put Williams at ease. She was there to record a session with the Victim Offender Education Group (VOEG), a restorative justice program developed by the Insight Prison Project. In the film, men convicted of murder meet for unsupervised therapy talks. They accept responsibility for their crimes, assess the harm they have caused, and identify traumas in their own lives that contribute to their fateful decisions. Heartbreaking stories of abuse, poverty, survival and the loss of loved ones come to the fore.

In a stunning feat of empathy, the VOEG program pairs an offender with a “surrogate victim,” who is someone injured by a similar crime, whether it is rape, robbery, or crime. a murder. In tearful conversations, offender and victim share their experiences and find common ground. In this way, restorative justice serves both victims and offenders, helping them heal from trauma to better reintegrate into society. Emotionally, the victims are also in prison.

Williams, who is both a talking head and a director of photography credited on The Prison Within, participated in the VOEG program. He then became an animator for several years. He currently lives in Oakland and, like Sam Johnson and Michael Nelson, other documentary participants, has become a community leader advocating for restorative justice. Williams owns a company called Restorative Media and gave a Ted Talk on Reintegration into the Company.

He said he believed in restorative justice before he even knew what it meant. “It gave me a vocabulary for what my heart already knew,” he explained, describing the restoration process as a mastery of emotions. He added that restorative justice has been in practice for centuries in indigenous and African communities, where an offender is held accountable to a village or tribe. “It’s not like something is happening, you just throw that person out,” he said. “You would find a way to be reconciled with them.”

Hervey and producer Erin Kenway, another former lawyer who has practiced in high-conflict domestic violence cases, said the intimate stories in their documentary anchor a conversation that extends beyond the walls of San Quentin and beyond. the duration of a single documentary.

“Mass incarceration is that funnel of all that’s wrong,” Hervey told The Guardian, citing racial, class and systemic oppression as widespread societal issues that contribute to the overrepresentation of marginalized people in communities. prisons. Kenway told The Guardian that lack of education, health resources and childcare are other contributing factors that they did not address in their documentary and which also led to mass incarceration. ; all are subjects worthy of another film.

Troy Williams. Photography: Elisabeth Fall

The Inner Prison gestures toward the bigger picture while focusing on intimate accounts. Experts like Sujatha Baliga of the Restorative Justice Project explain how the current prison system in the United States is criminogenic. Instead of curing, prison punishment revictimizes, hurting inmates and their families; continue a destructive cycle that begins with the intergenerational trauma of slavery and colonization. The Prison Within can only scratch the surface of the functioning of the prison industrial complex as a new form of slavery, an argument advanced in Ava DuVernay’s documentary The 13th.

The militarization of the police is also beyond the scope of the film, as is the trauma law enforcement inflicts on marginalized communities. But The Prison Within remains relevant to the current conversation about police funding, which has escalated since the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the United States.

“We don’t need excessive oversight of communities that may have drug problems,” Williams said. “It’s a public health problem.

Like restorative justice, funding the police is about healing and breaking the cycle that leads to mass incarceration. In the United States, protesters are calling for the divestment of funds from a heavily militarized police force that could instead be used for education, mental health and other community supports. But opponents pass off police funding and the removal of prison sentences as a stretch of the imagination. Hervey admitted that, like systemic oppression, these systems are so deeply ingrained. Fixing them requires a complete mental and emotional overhaul.

“We’re locking up what we don’t want to face,” actor Hill Harper says in his narration for The Prison Within, describing a system that’s easier in the short term, but destructive in the long run.

A behind-the-scenes photo of The Prison Within
A behind-the-scenes photo of The Prison Within. Photography: Gravitas Ventures

Dionne Wilson is a ray of hope in The Inner Prison. She is a former employee of a gun store whose husband, a police officer, was shot and killed, leaving behind two children. Wilson, whose last name at the time was Niemi, endorsed the death penalty against the offender, Irving Ramirez. She has since fought to save Ramirez’s life and abolish the death penalty.

The Inner Prison followed Wilson’s unexpected and inspiring transformation. She went from seeking retaliation to seeking empathy for her late husband’s murderer. But while examples like Wilson are proof that humans who try hard enough can embrace the value of restorative justice, there are other examples that show the limits of this capacity.

In 2016, NBC Bay Area reported on the looming choice California voters had to make between Proposition 62 and Proposition 66, which offered California voters the option of either abolishing the death penalty or speeding it up. In it, Wilson spoke in favor of Proposition 62, while Marc Klaas passionately rallied around Proposition 66. The latter’s 12-year-old daughter, Polly, was kidnapped, raped and murdered. And he wanted to make sure that the man convicted of killing her served his sentence until the end.

“We’re talking about baby killers, cop killers, serial killers, serial killers – and sexually sadistic psychopaths,” Klaas told NBC. When opposing restorative justice, the media and politicians will exploit the deepest fears of the community while ignoring the humanity of the inmates themselves. California voted for Proposition 66.

Even Williams admitted that hurting a child would test their own capacity for empathy. “I’m pretty sure my thoughts won’t be good,” he said. He wonders if this reaction is conditioned or innate. “I want you to feel the pain my beloved felt,” he said, describing the very reaction he had when his own brother was murdered. For Williams, time has healed.

“You have to be in a sad situation to take someone’s life,” he said, finding empathy for the person responsible for his brother’s death. “When you take a life, you feel it. It matches your mind. I have been through this.


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