Craig from Texas asks: Why do you think there has been such a prison boom in the United States over the last few decades? Compared to other industrialized countries, such as those in Europe, the U.S. has many more inmates per capita. Do you have any insights into the situation?
Po Kutchins and Katie Galloway: There are many theories about why we imprison so many for so long in the United States. Some of our harsh policies can be explained by public fear of crime — though why the that fear is still so powerful even after decades of declining crime rates is somewhat puzzling. Some point to increasing tabloid-style journalism, especially on TV — “If it bleeds, it leads.” Some blame opportunistic politicians who play on fears of crime. Factors like increasing sentence lengths (which, as we point out in the film are much longer for comparable crimes than other industrialized countries), mandatory minimum sentences, the war on drugs and lack of alternative treatments for drug offenders (which have been very successful in other countries), and high recidivism rates are all factors.
None of these factors can be fully understood without reference to the increasing racial differential in America’s prisons. As the prison population has grown, so too has the percentage black and brown people in prison. And unfortunately, many Americans are still less concerned about unnecessary arrests, longer sentences, lack of preparation for release, lack of reentry services and high parole violation rates when the majority of people directly affected are people of color.
Below are two particularly good sites for the latest research studies and updated facts about prison policy:
Barri from Canada: Congratulations! As a doc filmmaker myself, I can well understand the rewards and many challenges of making a film. My question concerns overall access to prisons in California. I know this can be very difficult in that state. How were you able to obtain consent from the Corrrectional authorities?
Kutchins and Galloway: It was difficult to gain consent — and it took quite a few years of trying to do so. Once we found out about the California Film Commission we were in much better shape. Because we were trying to gain access to state prisons (the correctional officer training academy is state run as well) the Film Commission lobbied on our behalf. That said, legislation was recently passed in California making it easier for press, at least, to gain access to prisons. That didn’t help us because we were already finished shooting, but it should help people with access in the future.
Jeannie from California: After watching the documentary, I wanted to find out more about the issue of healthcare within the prison system. What did you observe when you were in the prisons? How does healthcare within the prison system affect the local economy in the area?
Kutchins and Galloway:
We didn’t see much when it came to healthcare in the Susanville prisons — we were allowed very limited access for the film. We understand that in many prison towns the local health care system acts as backup, emergency room and much more to the local prison(s). In some cases, the funding from the prison system to the local hospital or clinic helps keep the doors open. In others, payment has been so late that they have refused non-emergency services unless the state pays in advance. We have heard anecdotally of poor medical care in various prisons across the country, but were not witness to this aspect of incarceration in Susanville.
We’ve also heard that, as salaries have been raised recently for nurses and other med-tech workers inside prisons, the shortage of these workers has intensified throughout private and public sectors, especially in rural California.
Brian from Colorado asks: I enjoyed this documentary, but had some questions at its end. Did Lonnie really go to jail for 16 months for stealing $40 worth of groceries? I’ve never heard of anyone getting so much prison time for such a minor offense. Was there a weapon involved? Did Lonnie have a prior record? Also, was Lonnie in the same prison as hardened criminals? The prisoners in the state penitentiaries at Susanville are typically brought in from elsewhere in the state, whereas Lonnie was evidently arrested in Susanville. Could you tell me what prison Lonnie was in? Thank you very much.
Kutchins and Galloway: We’re going to give you a slightly longer answer than your question calls for, because there were a number of viewer questions about Lonnie and we’re trying to answer several of them here.
Lonnie was sentenced to 16 months for commercial burglary, which he was charged with after stealing groceries from a Susanville grocery store. According to Lonnie, he hadn’t been paid at his last job in Southern California for the last few weeks of work (he was laid off), and he decided to take his family to Carson City, Nevada, where he had a job prospect. He and his family had been on the road for few days and, at the point he stole the groceries, only had enough money left for gas. When Lonnie was caught stealing he resisted arrest.
After his arrest Lonnie spent 66 days at High Desert State Prison before being transferred to Susanville County Jail — though he was always considered a “prisoner” since he was given a felony conviction. Half of the County Jail is composed of what they call “lightweight” state inmates. Lonnie met the criteria of a low level, low risk, non-violent offender, and so was transferred.
Lonnie ended up serving 9 1/2 months, which is standard for a 16 month sentence, before being released on parole. There was no weapon involved in the arrest, and he wasn’t on parole at the time, though he did have a prior record.
It goes without saying that an individual’s criminal history should be considered in fixing punishment for a crime, but even in light of Lonnie’s past conduct, we believe that it was excessive and counterproductive to send him prison and keep him on parole for stealing such a nominal amount of food from a grocery store in order to feed his family.
We also think that Lonnie’s story reflects the current climate of harsh sentencing, the dearth of post release support and lack of opportunities in many cases, and the severe implications for families of the incarcerated, not to mention the subsequent monetary burden on taxpayers. His line in the film “there must be a better way,” says it all.
On the question of why we don’t discuss his record in the film? We don’t discuss Lonnie’s record because we don’t discuss anything, really. We made the choice early on not to use narration, but to follow people’s lives and to see/hear what happened organically, and so many details of our “characters” lives were not brought out in the film. And that goes for everyone, not just Lonnie.
On another point: while families and friends of the incarcerated do live in and visit Susanville town, most of the people incarcerated do not stay in Susanville after their release, as they must serve their parole in the county where they committed their crime. We chose to follow Lonnie’s family because they are representative of so many families in the U.S. whose lives are radically altered when their loved ones are incarcerated — in this way the family is quite typical. We were also interested in Lonnie’s experience on both sides of prison walls — his family’s story provided an opportunity to compare and contrast the different experiences of people, and whole families, affected by prisons, living in the same town.
Glenn from Maine asks: I enjoyed your film very much. What, if anything is done to help prisoners like Lonnie get ready for life after the leave prison? It seemed as though he was on his own after his release? Are there programs in place to help?
Kutchins and Galloway: We’re not sure about Maine, but as for California prisons we understand that there is, on paper, a set of services provided inside, some by state employees, some by contract workers, some by volunteers. Unfortunately, the ever-increasing size of the system pulls money away from these “programming” functions and back to more custody staff (and overtime for existing custody staff). In California there are programs in the major urban areas to help parolees reenter society.
Unfortunately, the funding for such programs allows them to provide services to only a small percentage of those in need, so most people depend on whatever social and familial networks they have to get them through — networks which are often already strained and frayed from the incarceration itself. There are some places with good programs in place, and there are some places where there are none to speak of.