‘The Return’: A New Documentary Examines California’s Three Strikes Reform
What can California’s pioneering experiment teach the rest of the nation?
We, as a nation, stand now before the outstretched hand of change. After decades-worth of inhumane criminal justice policies, American public consciousness and the political tide have begun to rise away from practices of excess and lock-‘em-up-and-throw-away-the-key sentencing extremes. We have begun, albeit slowly, to alter course on mass incarceration. If kept on trajectory, we will hopefully join the right side—a saner side—of human history.
Of the earliest indicators of—and experiments in—a shift in this mindset came in 2012 when California voters overwhelming approved the Three Strikes Reform Act. The passage of Prop. 36 marked the first time ever in U.S. history that citizens voted to shorten sentences of those currently incarcerated. The previous statute imposed a life sentence for nearly any crime, no matter how minor, be it purse snatching or $10 worth of meth, if the person already had two prior convictions. Intended to curtail repeat offenders, the draconian law instead saw nonviolent offenders bloat the system, unjustly sentenced to life behind bars. Moreover, it ignored glaring racial disparities and neglected core problems of addiction, poverty, and mental illness. But, once Three Strikes was amended and applied retroactively, thousands of “lifers” suddenly faced eligibility for release.
Filmmakers Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway, long in the fray reporting on criminal (in)justice, seized the historic moment and began to capture the unprecedented reform unfold. The result is The Return, a documentary that brings you to the beating heart of the issue. Narratively manifesting the belief that the more specific you get the more universal something becomes, Galloway and Duane de la Vega follow two freed “lifers,” Kenneth Anderson and Bilal Kevin Chapman, as they reintegrate with their families and life on the outside. Through the specificity of their struggles—as well as the perspective of re-entry providers helping to navigate the thorny transitions, and the attorneys, advocates, and judges grappling with an untested law—the system’s flaws and our policies’ major missteps are laid bare.
At this pivotal moment of crossroads in mass incarceration, The Return rightfully asks: What can California’s pioneering experiment teach the rest of the nation?
Mass Appeal: As filmmakers, you and Kelly are placing the same demands on the viewer that we ask of those formerly incarcerated. We ask them to take a long look at, and to take responsibility for what they once did. To acknowledge who they’ve become, who they formally were. With the film, you are asking those very same questions of us, as a nation in terms of our criminal justice system. We have to acknowledge who we once were, the damage our incarceration policies have done in order to become “better” in the future.
Katie Galloway: That’s exactly right. This is the double meaning of The Return. It’s people coming out, but it is also us returning to a saner, more humane time in criminal justice policy. It really is a flipping of the very familiar redemption narrative with people coming out. That narrative is problematic because what put people in in the first place is problematic. Things that we firmly believe should be public health issues, like drug addiction or mental health problems, or things that we believe should be dealt with in other spheres, have been dealt with in the upsurge in law and order and mass incarceration. As we all in society now know—President Obama and [Eric] Holder have put a fine point on it lately—the racial disparity is undeniable. The harsher the penalty is, the more time there is, the more likely you are going to be Black or Brown. So, it basically is all those things and more. And thinking like, “You’ve blown it and now you’re getting out. How are you going to redeem yourself?” is problematic on its face. But beyond that, I think the drum we beat inside a prison about personal responsibility, and outside, about redemption and [the question] “Can you redeem yourself?” neglects a lot of the structural realities and the bigger picture. It also neglects that of who we are.
If you look at history and if you look at it internationally, there is nothing like the amount of people we incarcerate, the length of our sentences, the amount of prisons, or the way we punish people once they’ve done their time and have come out. Not giving them housing. Not giving them jobs. A lot of them can’t vote. It is totally unusual elsewhere in the world.
We feel like, yes, we need to take a hard look at ourselves now that we have done so much damage in the decades of this. How can we redeem ourselves? How can we meet these people, many of whom have done this incredibly long time for nonviolent offenses? We all recognize, or at least largely do, nationally and on both sides of the aisle, that this needs to change. What are we going to do for the 600,000 people a year that are coming out to try to help move society to a saner place? Because we can’t just start now. We need to start with what we’ve done.
Why do you think the conversation so often only focuses on what got someone into prison versus this latter aspect of ok-now-what and policies of re-entry?
I think that the focus of what’s wrong with people that went in is just easier. It’s easier. It just means that we don’t have culpability in it. It’s a much more simple thing to grasp: the individual level explanation for why things are the way they are rather than the structural and systemic elements. I think it took, really, a shift in the public consciousness and a raising of the public consciousness to the injustice in the system. I think largely it has been driven by these innocence cases way back when with Barry Scheck [who co-founded the Innocence Project] and finding out how many people were actually innocent and serving time. That was an important sort of motor behind understanding the systemic injustice. It paves the way for more people to say, “Okay. There are things about our system that are problematic. Things are not fair and just.” Once that became more broadly recognized, then people were able to think about the validity of helping people coming out. It is partial a justice argument and it is partial a fiscal-sense and public policy set of concerns. Like just how much money we are spending on incarceration versus education and things like that. It’s hard to deny that there is at least a big question over whether these policies makes society a better place.
What led you and Kelly to pursue this particular aspect of the reform puzzle?
We’ve both been in criminal justice films for quite a while. I’ve done, almost exclusively, criminal justice reporting for the last 20 years, and [laughs] everything has been bad news. From the use of informants in the drug war, to entrapment, to the length of sentences, to the racial disparities, to the kind of prison explosion in rural America and what that has meant to the fabric of that culture. So, when we heard, and we knew because we were familiar with some of the people working on Three Strikes in California and knew that it was going to be on the ballot, we did a series on nonviolent offenders doing life sentences for The New York Times and Mother Jones.
When the reform act passed, and we had no idea that it would, we were like, “Okay, this is historic. This is the first time that voters have ever scaled back the sentences of those currently incarcerated. Ever. So, let’s follow it.” At the time, in 2012, there was already a kind of a drumbeat starting to echo louder in the public sphere about the possibility for changing course on mass incarceration. But what you’ve built for decades, how the hell do you undo? Right? What do you do? So, we thought, if we follow this story as a microcosm, and we follow not just the lives of a couple of people coming out and their families—and that’s definitely the emotional heartbeat of the story—but we also follow it through institutions: the courts, re-entry homes, the prisons, then we get a sense of what is working and what isn’t—institutionally and culturally. We see what’s needed to find success for changing course on mass incarceration.
From what you’ve learned, can you share some insight into the mentality of a “lifer”? Many people may not quite grasp the repercussions of where you have to go internally in order to do a lifetime bid—and then to suddenly receive the news, “You’re getting out.”
One of the things I wondered about when I started this was: Do you kind of go through the stages of death and dying inside? Because they call it toe tag parole, right? You’re only coming out in a body bag. It’s something that I think does apply. There are people who have to make peace with the fact that they’re never getting out. From my experience, it’s like some people are able to get to that place of almost acceptance, which is like the final stage of dying.
I’ve heard it said that you accept that life is what you are going to do. Prison happens to be the place where you are doing it, but that doesn’t mean that you give up your life. Some people, like Bilal, one of the people featured in the film, is an example of that. He took advantage of whatever there was to do, in order to find self-understanding, to understand society and himself within it. He really grew intellectually and spiritually in prison. But, he did have the advantage of being in what they call University of San Quentin, which is a very unusual prison because there are a lot of services offered. He was able to really grow in prison and that does happened to some people.
But, plenty of people are also crushed by it. The reality of it, the weight of it. We see that in our other character Kenneth, who left four kids behind and suffered enormously this sense of lament and regret over not just the injustice of getting a life sentence for purse snatching, but the idea that his drug addiction has cost him his family. It is a psychological and spiritual weight which is crushing. Not to mention the environment that he was in. I’ve spent enough time in prison to think that it tests the absolutely strongest of us. And I don’t really understand why certain people come out sort of okay and others are broken or close. But, one thing that is a repeating theme with people that have super long sentences or are doing life is that they have to cut themselves off from the outside world. That there is real no meaningful way to have relationships and to stay connect. Doing so often winds up causing more harm than good. Kenneth articulates this. It didn’t make the final cut, but in the film he just says, “You can’t have a relationship from behind these walls.” But in the actual interview, he goes on and says that when he used to call home—you only get 15 minutes, and he has four kids, so each kid has three minutes, and you’re constantly interrupted by this automated voice. The kids would end up more disturbed after the call. You might call it a choice—it almost doesn’t feel like a choice—but, you have to cut yourself off in order to survive. And that’s devastating.
The system is so fat with humanity because people are doing such long sentences. These lengthy sentences are a large part of the story as to why our prisons are so overcrowded. And why we are so off-the-charts historically and internationally.
Does much of this stem from the reactionary get-tough-on-crime legislation of the 1990s? Is it that hand-in-hand with the failed war on drugs?
I think that those things are tied together. That legislation was on the back of a lot of the harsh sentencing laws and the drug war which had been launched previously. The Three Strikes law passed in ’94 and was on the books, before being reformed, for almost 20 years. It was definitely the height of the fearmongering, which did have some legitimate roots obviously, but in ways in which certain tragic incidents were exploited for political gain by both parties. California, unfortunately, was a leader in the march into mass incarceration and extreme punishment. My hope now is that we can be a leader in finding the path out and away from what we spearheaded in so many ways.
Do you think California’s experiment had any influence on the re-entry plan for those low-level drug offenders that received federal release this past November? Do you think that there has already been a lesson learned from this reform?
I think it has. They say, “As goes California, so goes the nation.” With criminal justice, that was definitely the case going in. And while the broader public hasn’t totally been aware of this, it has been a big deal in the state of California and in criminal justice circles. This has definitely been getting a lot of attention because it was the first time it ever happened. Many reforms are not retroactive, so, that, and the fact that it has been largely successful. The recidivism rate has been very low.
Now, you can chalk that up to a number of things, but one of them is this is a class of people who were paid special attention.They were given certain re-entry services which were really crucial. Also, they were older. They’d been in for 15 or 20 years, and that aging out of “criminal behavior” is real. So, people were holding their breath, waiting to see if this reform would fail, and it didn’t happen. With the public mood and this as a case study, I’m very hopeful that it will continue to shape the way things are being done. There are a lot states that have Three Strikes and other extreme sentencing laws who are now in conversation with the people that ran this campaign as to how to do it. So, each one, teach one, and hopefully we’ll get there.
The Return just made its world premiere at the ongoing Tribeca Film Festival, with additional screenings on April 19th, 20th, and the 23rd. The film will also be shown at Otisville Correctional Facility in Upstate New York, and a screening at San Quentin is anticipated as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival. The Return makes its television premiere on Monday, May 23, 2016, at 10 p.m. on PBS.