Two New Documentaries Investigate Our Troubled Prison System
In a 1997 shooting in Tacoma, Kimonti Carter unintentionally killed college student Corey Pittman. Because he shot from a car, Carter was charged with aggravated murder, the highest charge in Washington state, and sentenced to 777 years in prison, life without parole. Only 61 days before the shooting, he'd turned 18.
In her new documentary Since I Been Down, streaming as part of Seattle’s Social Justice Film Festival starting October 1, documentarian Gilda Sheppard follows Carter’s story and others like it. Sheppard weaves together interviews with cops who’d investigated gang violence in the 1980s and 1990s and community members who witnessed the devastation. That devastation is the product, as one points out, of a system that fights outcomes (violence, drugs) instead of fixing the inputs that create those problems (poverty, inequitable education). Sheppard also looks at the effects of supposedly tough-on-crime legislation—like Washington becoming the first state in the U.S. to implement a three-strike rule and being one of 16 states without parole—that’ve led to mass incarceration, particularly for Black people in Washington.
Carter’s story goes back to his first arrest at 11, when he’d run away from home and camped with other kids in an abandoned house. And it runs up to the present where Carter, still in prison, has been working with the Black Prisoners Caucus, a group focused on liberation through education. BPC started in Monroe prison in 1972. When Carter was moved to Clallam Bay, he started a chapter there. In 2013, he started TEACH (Taking Education and Creating History)—a group focused on “prisoners lifting up other prisoners,” says one inmate. TEACH brings in a diverse group of prisoners and they create their own syllabi, curriculums, and classes—African studies, Asian American studies—bent on growing tolerance.
The second half of Since I Been Down focuses on these programs as they’ve spread through Washington prisons and their effects on prisoners. One prison employee said that Carter “had done more in terms of race relations in prison than anybody who’d ever worked in that prison,” including prison employees. Yet Carter remains incarcerated for something he did as a kid, more than 20 years ago. At the core of the documentary are questions: What does forgiveness look like? How about true justice? (Chillingly, the cops interviewed say they haven’t given the meaning of justice much thought—“just do our part in the system.”)
Our criminal justice system, Carter points out early in the movie, is “not designed to help anyone grow.”
We’ve been here before, in TV shows, in movies. A circle of folding chairs in a nondescript, institutional room. Tough men acting surprisingly vulnerable, trying to work through their pasts, their feelings and motivations—how did they end up here, incarcerated? What feels new about The Prison Within, directed by longtime Seattleite Katherin Hervey and also streaming as part of the Social Justice Film Festival (as well as online through most major services), is that it doesn’t leave this room much. It’ll step out for context from an expert, to watch an inmate attempt to heal. Someone doing 60 years to life because, when he tried to defend himself during a shootout, his stray bullet killed a woman in an apartment.
The men in the circle are part of San Quentin prison’s Victim Offender Education Group (VOEG), a restorative justice program that aims to heal prisoners’ own trauma—centered on the axiom that “hurt people hurt people” (a sentiment echoed in Since I Been Down). It’s a model, stemming from an understanding of how violence is perpetuated, that’s upsettingly rare in contemporary prisons.
With a scope smaller than Since I Been Down, Hervey stays with these stories told in VOEG. The Prison Within doesn’t try to take in the totality of the systems that’ve led to over-incarceration, but it illuminates another way we might try to remake those systems into things working toward growth and forgiveness.
The Social Justice Film Festival
October 1–11, $5–$25 (single film), $75–$125 (festival pass)