What does it mean to be released after a life sentence in prison? A unique California vote passed in 2012 known as Proposition 36. For the first time in US history, citizens decided that petitions for reduced sentences of lifers for non-serious crimes shall be considered. The powerful film ‘The Return,’ as part of the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival World Documentary Competition, gives a frank and touching look at California’s shift from their Three Strikes Law that sentenced individuals to life in prison after three (even nonviolent) offenses to grappling with the challenges of life on the outside.
Directors Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway wanted to explore a positive element around the American justice system. Regarding Proposition 36, Galloway said in interview, “It was a no brainer. If it passed, we were definitely going to follow the story because we felt that this was an unprecedented event.” Of narrowing down their film subjects, Duane de la Vega said, “we thought that they had the power to transcend the community that already knows that world” and draw the public in.
The film follows two main subjects, Bilal Chatman and Kenneth Anderson, whose life sentence cases were both reevaluated and granted release. Bilal, after eleven years in prison, integrated into a reentry house that provided a structure, a community, and career guidance. Kenneth, after fourteen years in prison, joined his ex-wife Monica, four children, and now multiple grandchildren outside of prison’s walls. Though Kenneth’s family circumstances were more opportune, the system in his neighborhood did not proactively assist him in finding a job or mental health support.
Both men, amongst others highlighted, did not easily come to terms with their function in a society they’d been away from for so long, guilt being a large issue. Kenneth struggles with the thought of failing as a father and a husband, speaking to how he felt when he was sentenced, “it’s like tearing each other apart when you need each other.” He regrets not having finished his degree and fights temptations that could get him swept back up in the system. His flashbacks and anxieties address the need for better mental health and addiction services, which in their own right should not be criminalized, but treated as a public health issue.
Bilal works to maintain a routine, hold his job (now promoted), fight temptations by staying away from the community he was once wrapped up in, and keep his now ailing mother close. Having been in prison, Bilal reckons with his mother’s sacrifices while he was not able to be there for her, hopeless in getting out. “The sentence itself,” said Bilal in an interview “puts a great deal of limitations on what you can do in prison when you’re a level four. Some guys have a date, but I had nothing to shoot for.” Hard hitting was his comment regarding the first failed vote to repeal Three Strikes years before, where hopes were high, but torn down overnight. “We had suicides and attempted suicides – the air around the prison was like rush hour and no one’s honking. It was just dead quiet.”
Also diving into the legal aspect that holds a huge influence is the Stanford Three Strikes Project that actively pushes for the release and successful reentry of lifers who’s crimes do not justify such a sentence, theft or the sale of minimal drugs for example. Says attorney Susan Champion in the film, “I want to impact injustice.” And this injustice encompasses not just the prisoners, but their families as well. Monica says of her experience with Kenneth, “he was serving inside while I was serving outside,” indicative of many women left at home under similar circumstances.
‘The Return’ also shows cases that were contested, including that of Lester Wallace, a lifer sentenced after attempting to steal a car radio the morning that the Three Strikes policy was enacted. Eventually Wallace did win release, which does pose the question of how he will do outside having been the longest served sentence, over twenty years, under Three Strikes.
In the United States, more than 2.3 million people are incarcerated and more than 650,000 return from prison annually to the obstacles of the outside world where families and communities now stand at a distance. 10,000 prisoners were sentenced to life in California after the Three Strikes law was enacted in 1994, Solidad State Penitentiary holding the majority afflicted by the law. As Galloway recollected of attorney Mike Romano’s common observation, that even with Proposition 6 finally in swing, “it’s also really late. We’ve destroyed generations of families and communities.”
Both directors, having been raised around the mass incarceration boom and with a long history of criminal justice related work (including an Op-Doc for The New York Times and a series for Mother Jones), were noticing trends. “There is a familiar narrative,” said Duane de la Vega of released prisoners. “It’s generally about if they can redeem themselves in the eyes of society. But in this case where we’re incarcerating more people than any other country in the world, it’s really a moment of how do we redeem ourselves as a society.
Since Proposition 36 was passed, 21,000 prisoners have been released in California, estimating to save the state over $1.3 billion. ‘The Return’ vividly captures what is wrong with our criminal justice system, these prisoners now vulnerable in society after years locked away for lesser crimes and with families significantly affected. “We’re trying to help our partners and the public catalyze and galvanize on this moment and see if we really can make meaningful change,” said Duane de la Vega. ‘The Return’ helps boost that foundation.
To learn more about ‘The Return’ at Tribeca 2016 visit here.
To learn more about the film’s campaign, visit The Return Project here.
The film will be taking a ten city tour after Tribeca, with a POV broadcast debut on May 23.