These are the stark facts: since 1980, the U.S. federal prison population has risen by more than 700%. Currently there are 2.2 million people behind bars and more than 65 million people living with a criminal record, many of whom come from poor communities and communities of color. Under the Obama administration, a new bipartisan message of hope emerged with politicians on both sides of the aisle agreeing to reduce the federal prison population. In November 2015, the U.S. government began a historic federal prison release program in which some 6,000 sanctioned inmates were reintroduced to society over a four-day period.
Robert Bruce Jr. is one of those granted early release after serving 21 years of a lifetime sentence (it was determined, retroactively, that he was punished too severely for a non-violent drug crime). Robert has found it difficult adjusting to life outside—neighborhoods have long since been torn down, local watering holes are gone, pay phones and subway tokens are things of the past. And Robert is far from alone. 65-year-old Reggie “Cheese” Spriggs and Louis Bennett, also 65, have been incarcerated for 35 out of the past 40 years. Reggie sums their situation up this way: “You come out, and you ain’t got nothin’ on the ball. And people won’t hire you because you too old, and people won’t hire you because you got a record, and people won’t hire you because you got no experience.”
It’s a cruel and ironic reversal of the “three strikes and you’re out” rule.
Fortunately, these individuals found help. The Washington, D.C. Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizens Affairs (ORCA) is headed up by Charles B. Thornton who knows a thing or two about what it’s like to reenter a society that has changed significantly; he was released from jail in 1988. Ninety percent of the ORCA staff are, in fact, previously-incarcerated individuals. That’s by design, Thornton proudly explains. Like Lashonia Thompson-El, who calls herself a “Female Re-Entry Coordinator.” She went to jail when she was 19, served 18 years, and has been out for three, working for Thornton. She attends college, has a government job, and “has totally turned things around.” “One thing I can attest to…” says Thornton, “You take an individual, and you provide him with the services that he needs to turn his life around… It will pay for itself tenfold.”
Saffron Cassaday’s interesting and insightful documentary Returning Citizens follows Robert, Cheese, Lashonia, and other Southeast D.C. residents as they struggle to acclimatize to a new and challenging environment. The film also focuses on community leaders and government workers, like Thornton and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (also interviewed), who are committed to the fight against mass incarceration and working steadfastly to create programs and provide resources to make a new life possible for these people, who are truly starting from scratch.
Returning Citizens, which Cassaday co-wrote with producer Brenda Rusnak (Cyber-Seniors), is a competent feature, neither slick nor preachy. Best of all, it satisfies its own self-proclaimed belief: in order to reform the criminal justice system, one must first humanize and learn from the individuals and communities that are impacted by it.
(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth