At a time when criminal justice reform has gained national attention and bipartisan support from even the leading candidates for president, a handful of documentaries at the Tribeca Film Festival are giving a close-up to the human cost of mass incarceration.
The films pursue the issue in numerous directions, from the conditions of solitary confinement to the difficult re-entry to society ex-convicts face. But they're united in depicting a system that's dehumanizing and destructive for all who enter it.
"There's a lot of talk about a change moment. There hasn't been that much change," says Kelly Duane de la Vega, co-director of "The Return." ''We're hoping that this film and the many, many others that are in this struggle together can catalyze on this moment."
"The Return," also directed by Katie Galloway, movingly trails a pair of men released after California altered the harsh sentencing of its "three strikes" law.
David Feig's "Untouchable" delves into the distorted effects of Florida's stringent sex offender laws (more than 800,000 are listed on the state's sex offender registry).
"Prison Dogs," by Geeta Gandbhir and Perri Peltz, documents psychically damaged inmates finding healing by caring for puppies.
For "Solitary," Kristi Jacobson spent a year and half documenting a Virginia supermax prison and the lives of inmates who spend 23 hours a day within a 10-foot by 8-foot cell. There's even a virtual reality exhibit at the festival that simulates the experience of solitary confinement.
The films are filled with tender and tragic stories of people — many of them poor, many of them black men — who made mistakes at a young age and were locked away for questionably long terms. They are stories of debatable justice, but are more principally films about human dignity.
"The main thing I wanted my film to do was make you think about who these people are as humans: human beings who had childhoods and wives and for one reason or another, wound up here," says Jacobson. "The difference between them and you may be thinner than we think."
An estimated 2.2 million Americans are behind bars, many times more than most industrialized democracies. Though crime has fallen drastically since its peak in 1991, the prison population has grown exponentially. The National Research Council found that the 2009 state and federal prison population was seven times what it was in 1973. Studies have found increased incarceration rates only slightly improve crime rates.
Recently, criminal justice reform has emerged as a rare bipartisan issue. Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz has voiced support for easing mandatory minimum sentencing, as has Democratic candidate Hilary Clinton, who has written of an "incarceration generation." Last year, President Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison.
"The Return" debuted at Tribeca but its true premiere was at Manhattan's Otisville Correctional Facility. There, inmates peppered one of the film's subjects, Bilal Chatman, for advice on how to make it on the outside. For Chatman, who has found a good job and remarried, agreeing to do the film was first simply about "survival" — a means to help him get released.
He had to rethink his commitment to the film once he was out. Not only were cameras a distraction in a trying time, he didn't want to be defined as an ex-con.
"I didn't want them around," said Chatman. "Then I felt this sense that I had this opportunity to get this out there to the world. I had a sense of responsibility to all the guys that are still left there."
The film's other subject, Kenneth Anderson, has had a harder road. He served 14 years, entering prison with four young children. His struggles include mental health and crushing guilt over his absence. "I've been yearning for freedom even though I'm walking around free," he says in "The Return," which PBS's "POV" will air in May.
"I've seen it three times and I've cried all three times," says Chatman, who will meet Anderson next month. "Kenneth's family moves me every time. ... My connection to them is life long."
The personal tales of "Solitary," filmed at Virginia's Red Onion State Prison, are no less emotional. One inmate asks, "Could you live in a bathroom for 10 years?" The toll of nearly zero human interaction is severe. Another inmate, fighting for his sanity, says, "I feel like I've been buried alive."
Yearning for human connection, inmates often contort themselves to speak to other inmates through air vents in their cells.
And the prison is grueling for the guards, too, many of whom took the job as the only local option aside from the coal mines.
"The system is dehumanizing for all of us," says Jacobson, whose film will later air on HBO. "But there is some hope. We're at a particular moment in time where people who have been working on this issue for decades, just coming up against really well built brick walls, seem to be legitimately saying there is real progress and real reason to have hope."