Interview: Makers Of ‘The Return’ Documentary Uncover Civilian Adjustment After Life Sentences

In The Return, a wave of relief washes over Kenneth Anderson’s family when they’re informed his life sentence is cut short. Tears streamed down the face of his 24-year-old daughter while his ex-wife Monica comforts her. Anderson served 14 years in a California prison for a nonviolent drug offense under the state’s notorious 1994 “Three Strikes” law, which gave thousands life sentences for petty crimes. Other states implement similar practices. Drug addicts, the mentally ill and people of color were the recipients of the incredibly harsh sentences, an afterthought lawmakers ignored in efforts to keep the “bad guys” off the street.

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After voters passed Proposition 36 in 2012 to repeal the law, many became eligible for early releases. One of them was Anderson, but his release was just one hurdle he had to face.

The documentary—put together by three-time Emmy Award-winners Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway—tell the stories of former ‘lifers’ like Anderson and Bilal Kevin Chatman finding they way back to normal life, the advocates who push for re-entry programs and the judges who hold the future of the disenfranchised in their hands.

The efforts of de-institutionalizing offenders are slim to none, with the lack of support to counter the trauma faced behind the cell walls. Since Prop 36 passed, 2,100 Three Strikers have been released with a recidivism rate under 9 percent. The efforts of Prop 36 will more than likely save Californians $1.3 billion over the next 10 years, but what remains today is a harsh reality.

After five months on the job, Anderson is fired and reverts back to using drugs, affecting his family tremendously. They’re able to help him find treatment and he lands on his feet once again. With the huge lag of re-entry laws and programs, will other former offenders find themselves on a ferris wheel of internal struggle? VIBE spoke to Galloway and de la Vega via email about the stories behind the documentary and what lies ahead for the criminal justice system.

VIBE: Do you think sentencing laws have been strengthened or weakened over the years?  
Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway: Since the mid-80s, when the nation first passed bi-partisan “tough on crime laws,” our country has come to incarcerate more people than any other nation in the world. With 5 percent of the world’s population, we have 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.  With our prison system growing, so too are its prisoners, hundreds of thousands of them “aging out” of criminal behavior yet remaining incarcerated at a cost of 65K a year per person. Not only does our draconian system of mass incarceration make no practical or financial sense—it’s inhumane. While in the past few years we’ve begun to see incremental reform, there is much left to be done both in terms of transforming future policy and reckoning with the legacy of decades of destructive policies. As a nation, we need to not only rethink the length of our sentences but also our approach to rehabilitation and re-entry. More than 650,000 people are released every year, only to face nearly insurmountable obstacles to obtaining housing, education, and gainful employment.

What was the inspiration for making The Return
When we learned that Prop. 36 was on the ballot and that, if passed, it would mark the first time ever that citizens opted to shorten sentences of the currently incarcerated. We were determined to follow the story, to provide a lens through which to explore the idea of undoing what we’ve done, i.e. mass incarceration writ large. We began by creating a series of shorts examining those actually serving life under 3xs in California – knowing there were a lot of false assumptions about this population as “the worst of the worst.” Our goal was to produce intimate, close-to-the-bone narratives while providing a vantage point from which to consider the question that is also the conceptual project motivating the feature film: after a half century of building this behemoth, how do we go about unbuilding?

How do you feel about the children of incarcerated parents? Why are they often left out of the conversation? 
The War on Drugs and our draconian sentencing policies have devastated the lives of millions of American children and untold families and communities. One of the reasons we focused on the Anderson/Grier family was to bring those children to the center of the conversation over mass incarceration and its legacy: to raise the profile of those who’ve loved and lost family members to prison. Those “serving time on the outside.” There are millions of Americans suffering with a feeling of shame and loss due to an absent parent. We have to start looking at our justice and incarceration systems in a more holistic way that acknowledges the punishing and destructive impact on children and families. If we do, we strongly believe our society will be safer and more just for all.

What does redemption mean to those who have served their time for their crimes? 
In prison, a lot of programming is focused on seeking redemption for one’s crimes. It seems to be the singular focus of many explanations given and expected – and we don’t underestimate the value of “taking responsibility” as a part of recovery and healing. But that focus often denies and belies many of the structural factors that lead people to become incarcerated in the first place. The lack of quality public education and decent work, the disparities in punishment for the poor and people of color, the lack of health care and services, the list goes on. People who have suffered the greatest inequities and injustices in American society are, not surprisingly, the most likely to suffer the brunt of dystopic policies. And they’re also most likely to be disenfranchised and to suffer the implications of not having political power and voice. The untold story of redemption in America—one that still hangs in the balance—is our collective redemption, only just beginning to show signs of life and desperately in need of nurturing and growing if we’re going to make the so called “change moment” on criminal justice real.  We need collective redemption for endorsing harsh sentencing policies that have yielded a profound human rights crisis in our nation. We believe the passage of Prop 36 and Prop 47 two years later signal a meaningful shift in public thinking around our prison system, and have highlighted public shame for and desire to correct what has taken place on our watch.

What can you say about the attorneys who continue to fight for better laws in the criminal justice system? 
We are both daughters of civil rights lawyers raised with the question of what constitutes justice as dinner table conversation. We have the deepest respect for Mike Romano, Susan Champion, Emily Galvin, David Mills, Jessica Delgado and many more public defenders and legal advocates who have fought hard from the trenches to the media to the halls of power—all against the odds—to pass and choreograph the success of this unprecedented and hopeful reform. Their struggle for justice, their generosity of spirit, and their deep empathy inspire us and motivate our work — work we hope will in turn inspire new generations to walk in their footsteps, holding our nation closer to its promise of liberty and justice for all.

The film, an audience favorite at the Tribeca Film Festival, will air as part of PBS’ POV (Point of View) series tonight (May 23) at 10 p.m. Learn more about the film at thereturnproject.com.

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