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In 2012, California amended its “Three Strikes” law—one of the harshest criminal sentencing policies in the country. The passage of Prop. 36 marked the first time in U.S. history that citizens voted to shorten sentences of those currently incarcerated. Within days, the reintegration of thousands of “lifers” was underway. The Return examines this unprecedented reform through the eyes of those on the front lines—prisoners suddenly freed, families turned upside down, reentry providers helping navigate complex transitions and attorneys and judges wrestling with an untested law. At a moment of reckoning on mass incarceration, what can California’s experiment teach the nation?
The directors, Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway, have spent much of their careers making films about the criminal justice system in the United States. In The Return, winner of the Audience Award for Documentary at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, they follow newly released prisoners Bilal Chatman and Kenneth Anderson and the people who supported them on their paths to reentry, including attorneys Mike Romano and Susan Champion of the Stanford Justice Advocacy Project.
“Three Strikes was sold to the public as a way of locking up the ‘worst of the worst,’ but its ultimate effect was to incarcerate more than 10,000 people—for life—for crimes as petty as trying to steal a car radio, possessing $10 worth of meth or purse-snatching,” say Duane de la Vega and Galloway.
“Many of those we interviewed came from families struggling with mental illness and drug addiction. Because African-Americans and Latinos receive disproportionately longer sentences than whites, most were people of color, people who needed support, not incarceration. People who were locked up due to bad policy based on fear, without any understanding of structural barriers they faced.
“After decades of inhumane criminal justice policies, we stand now on the precipice of change. Bipartisan lawmakers are calling for sentencing reform and uniting around legislation that prohibits employers from demanding that applicants disclose criminal records. Businesses are beginning voluntarily to ‘ban the box.’ We sincerely hope the film will inspire further efforts to correct the terrible injustice of misguided sentencing law.”
The Return is a co-production of Loteria Films, American Documentary | POV and the Independent Television Service (ITVS) with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in association with Chicken and Egg Pictures.
Changes lives, breaks barriers, and betters this chaotic world of ours...I often say in my writing that cinema changes the world, and I believe it wholeheartedly. But it's seldom that one watches lives being changed, for the better, throughout a film."
- E. Nina Rothe, The Huffington Post
INTERVIEW WITH THE FILMMAKERS
POV: Could you describe The Return for someone who hasn’t seen it?
Katie Galloway: In 2012 California voters became the first in the country to scale back sentences of the currently incarcerated. It was Three Strikes reform. And after that, thousands of lifers, people who had expected to spend their lives in prison, became eligible for release. And so we were interested in looking at, if we’re serious as a nation about how to scale back mass incarceration, this is a sort of microcosm. How would this play out? And so we followed people coming out. We followed it through various institutions to find out what really is needed if we’re going to scale down mass incarceration writ large.
Kelly Duane De La Vega: We wanted to make a film about our nation’s failure. This is our opportunity as a nation, as a society, as a people to redeem ourselves from essentially warehousing people of color, people born into poverty, in these horrible, horrible institutions. So one of the themes that The Return is about that really matters to us is redemption, but it’s our redemption, it’s our nation’s redemption, it’s our society’s redemption.
POV: Mass incarceration is a huge issue, and you did a really good job of balancing the lives of the individual characters you were following and the wider scope of the issue. Could you talk about how you selected your characters and decided which stories to follow?
Kelly Duane De La Vega: Katie and I started this project with a series of shorts that we had done prior to the passage of the law that amended California’s Three Strikes. And we had visited one prison in particular in California called Soledad. And we interviewed a lot of different people. We looked for an individual that was willing to share their lives and whose families were willing to share their lives with us over a long period of time. We wanted to balance people who had different struggles. We in fact filmed with quite a few people. In our film there are three characters that are formerly incarcerated. Then Mike Romano and Susan Champion, who are lawyers out of the Stanford Three Strikes project, we knew if we incorporated them into our narrative they could serve as a vehicle to talk about the larger, bigger structural and political issues that were at the backdrop of the individual struggles or characters we’re facing.
POV: The scenes with Kenneth Anderson and his family are particularly poignant and very emotional; you had a lot of access to their story. How did you build that trust with them?
Kelly Duane De La Vega: We had started filming before we met the Anderson family, and we had family members open up a lot prior to the release of their loved one. But once the loved one was out, there was an impulse to sort of get distance from that experience. We knew we had to get buy-in from the family. So we met Kenneth in Soledad prison. He was interested in being in the film. We hired, actually, a private detective to find his family, and we called them and asked if we could come over and introduce ourselves. Katie and I went and we told them about our body of work, the passions behind what we do. We also were really explicit about the burden that it is to have a film crew sort of move in and be part of your daily lives to the point that you don’t see them anymore. They gathered as a family; they listened to us; and they told us that they’d get back to us. I think it was three weeks we were so nervous, hoping that they would give us the green light. Ultimately they did, and while I don’t think it was always easy to have us there, the film was collaboration with that family. They knew their voices were going to be heard for something that they cared deeply about. It was a shared passion that we all had and that’s how we did it.
POV: The film is this amazing case study and the rise and fall of Three Strikes in general for California. Could you talk about how this story affects the rest of the nation?
Katie Galloway: Kelly and I, we really have focused in our work in telling very close to the bone, intimate, character driven stories, the idea is for audiences to really connect with a few people deeply and to have those people burned into their consciousness and their memory, when they think about the issues we care about. It’s very important to us that while they’re inevitably local stories because they are when you’re telling these close to the bone stories, that they tell national stories — stories of national import. California is a great place for that story to be told on criminal justice because we, as a state, spearheaded so much of what was wrong in terms of overcrowding, in terms of extreme sentencing. And, we’re hoping that with Prop 36 and Prop 47, which followed it, we can also be one of the main states to sort of lead the nation away toward a different path on mass incarceration, and lead the way on reform. One of the things that was really eye-opening and encouraging in terms of Californians response to Prop 36 is that for Republicans, Democrats often think, well it’s an economic issue, you have to make the economic argument, it was overwhelmingly successful everywhere in California at the vote and the primary driver was moral and ethical. That when people were polled, it was these sentences are way out of line with the crimes. That is a kind of public awakening to a new kind of redemption narrative, which is not about the people coming out and can they get their acts together. It’s about a state and a national redemption after so many years of such extreme policies that are really unlike anything internationally, historically. We really are so extreme. I think this is an indication that people are starting to recognize that. So it’s an exciting time when people are willing to say, hey maybe 40 years of increasing mass incarceration wasn’t the best move. And now what can we do to undo it in a smart way? What can we do with these resources that have gone into it that could lead to a healthier society?
POV: Your two main characters are two African American males. Could you talk about how you feel your two main characters are representative of this issue? And for those people who have not been following the mass incarceration issue about how race plays into it in this country.
Katie Galloway: So most people know by now that African Americans really are vastly over-represented in the criminal justice system at every stage. And definitely in terms of being incarcerated. I think what a lot of people don’t know is that the harsher the punishment, the more likely the person who’s incarcerated is to be African American, or Latino close behind. So lifers, those who were given life under Three Strikes, were vastly disproportionately African American. It’s close to 50% of the Three Strikes population when the African American population in California is 11% or 12%. So it’s pretty stunning. In terms of the two main characters, we didn’t know who our main characters were going to be. We followed many. Then, as the years went by and we understood how the stories related to each other, we selected the main characters. The primary differences between our two main characters, one went in to his life sentence with no children, so that was a big part of his story. The one who went in who had family was also struggling with issues of mental illness. Mental illness is such a huge part of the story of mass incarceration writ large. And it’s been particularly so in the news in California because the Supreme Court ruled California prisons cruel and unusual, in violation of the national constitution because of the way in which we house the mentally ill and also overcrowding, another piece of that story. So with these two stories, we were able to tell really different pieces of the incarceration story, both of which have resonance with much larger populations.
POV: So whether with California, or with the US in general, what are the next big issues around mass incarceration that you think we’ll be reckoning with?
Kelly Duane De La Vega: As sentencing reform is gaining traction nationally, the next big thing we have to look at is reentry. How do we create a system that allows people to reenter? And in our current system, you may get out, but either the parole system keeps you in a cycle of incarceration or the obstacles to student loans, to housing, to employment are overwhelming for people who have felonies on their records. I think the next big thing is to look at reentry, how do we start to look at drug addiction and mental health differently? They’re so interconnected. There’s a growing movement to have more mental health courts and drug courts. I think that’s incredibly important. I think we’re just at the beginning of understanding how to change this system that’s essentially created an underclass. It’s created a group of people in the United States that are just being forced down. They have so many obstacles. And there’s always a heroic person who can pull themselves up from their bootstraps and surmount incredible obstacles. But it’s not fair to judge a huge population by one success story. And so we have to look at how we can make more people successful and how we can welcome them back into our society.
POV: What were some of the ethical issues you faced making The Return?
Katie Galloway: I think that we’ve gotten into the conversation over the course of our partnership about what truth is. And journalistic truth and the facts of when somebody came out exactly or whether you can play this scene before that scene, versus a larger truth and if you feel you’re being honest to the story. I now believe, and I didn’t used to, that you can absolutely play this scene before that scene, even if it didn’t happen in that order, because it’s more important that you’re revealing someone’s emotional trajectory accurately. And I think we quake in our boots. I know we quake in our boots most and the most important audience for us is the people about whom we’ve made the film. So if they can look at two years of shooting boiled down to 80 minutes and say, yes, that wasn’t easy and I didn’t really like that part because it was uncomfortable, but this is true to my experience, then I think there’s no question but that we’ve told the truth. I mean we have above our edit bay, “The more honest, the better the film. But again, it’s this idea of honesty that has to do with the larger truths. And I think that we don’t feel ethically compromised, we don’t manipulate information in ways that doesn’t feel right, we don’t set things up. We often have our documentary gold, accused of being you know fool’s gold and it’s not. But that’s part of just spending that time, years and years. You get the goods if you really put the time in. And I think while we are independents, we don’t really compromise on that; we only work with POV or would work with Independent Lens because we want to know that we control the truth of our characters’ experiences. And it allows us to go so deep with people because we trust each other and we know we can tell them, you can trust us not to distort and manipulate this information…
Kelly Duane De La Vega: And also there are times where characters reveal things that are really personal at the end of the day, you think maybe that shouldn’t be in the film, to protect them. And I think we’re always talking about that. We’re always trying to make sure that while we expose hard truths, we’re also protecting our characters and protecting them from overexposure you know.
POV: Directing a film is very difficult work, and sometimes codirecting a film can be even more difficult. Can you talk about your process of collaboration and working together?
Katie Galloway: It’s interesting because people tend to think, well what does each of you bring to the table that is complimentary in terms of skill sets? And the truth is what we bring that’s complimentary is passion, political conviction, history and really quite similar skill sets. But it’s worked very well for us. We both just trust and respect each other’s opinions. We don’t talk about it a lot but our fathers actually worked together as legal aid lawyers. And we didn’t know that when we started working together. We found out a few months in, because my father passed away a long time ago. But we have you know shared Bay Area political, legal history. I would say it’s really more than anything, trust in each other’s capacity to tell stories, in each other’s motives and in each other’s taste. And it’s been an incredibly productive collaboration. As often as we’ve said, well if I were directing and producing alone, I would do this, we’ve said, I can’t imagine how anyone does this without a partner.
POV: After a viewer watches your film, let’s say they want to learn more about this issue, do you have any suggestions for resources on places that they can read more or watch more to become more informed?
Katie Galloway: We’ve known from the beginning with this project that the film is the sort of centerpiece in a larger campaign and that we were going to really be working with The Return Project, as we call it, to push as much as we can on this change moment. That means we’re creating shorts and we’re developing so many wonderful partnerships with different media and advocacy organizations. And we’re thinking about how to be really smart about the way we activate and educate audiences at key moments in key states about where to send people to connect with the right information. We also have Thereturnproject.com, which is going to be kind of our clearinghouse on information that we plan to keep up to date for our 18 to 24 month campaign at least. So that is a good place to go and that will be constantly updated with information about our partner organizations, with information about current legislation at the state and national level. And we’ll keep it fresh because we’re really committed to that campaign beyond the film.
Directed by Kelly Duane de la Vega, Katie Galloway
Produced by Kelly Duane de la Vega, Katie Galloway,
Ariella J. Ben-Dov
Executive Producer: Anne Devereux-Mills
Editor: Greg O'Toole
Writers: Kelly Duane de la Vega, Katie Galloway, Greg O'Toole
Director of Photography: Mario Furloni
Co-Producers: Mario Furloni, Becky Korman
Original Music: Tyler Strickland
Executive Producer for ITVS: Sally Jo Fifer
A co-production of Loteria Films & Independent Television Service (ITVS) with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB)
[Note: Community screenings of The Return can be booked at Bullfrog Communities.]