Our society likes to paint a certain picture of the incarcerated. They are likened to monstrous beasts that we are forced to lock up in cages. We’re told that they’re dangerous and irredeemable, not worthy of walking the streets among us. However, as those whose lives have been cruelly interrupted by the criminal justice system know, that could not be further from the truth. These men and women are our mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers. Our journeys have taken different paths, but sometimes those paths wind up merging once again.
In 2012, California altered its ruthless “Three Strikes Law” with the passing of Proposition 36. It was an amendment that suddenly freed hundreds of thousands of non-violent prisoners, who had previously been sentenced to life behind bars. Directors Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway followed this groundbreaking reform in their documentary film “The Return”. In the film, the filmmakers follow two newly released former lifers. Kenneth Anderson, a man who’d missed seeing his children grow up, and Bilal Chatman, a man determined to move forward despite the time he’d lost. In the gut-wrenching narrative, we watch as Kenneth desperately tries to reconnect with his family and his ex-wife, Monica Grier, while Bilal steadfastly moves to reintegrate himself into society.
During the Tribeca Film Festival, I got the opportunity to sit down with Bilal Chatman, as well as Directors Duane de la Vega and Galloway to talk about this long return home.
Aramide Tinubu: For over 15 years, your projects have focused on subjects that have profoundly affected our society. Did Proposition 36 inspire you to do “The Return”, or was it the criminal justice system in general that sparked your interest?
Kelly Duane de la Vega: What was really exciting about this story, was that for the first time in our history, voters voted to shorten the sentences of the currently incarcerated. It really was the first time we could really look at an implementation of reform. What does that look like? What can we learn from it? We wanted to follow the story through the institutions, the courtrooms, the prisons, but also on the outside. We wanted to look at the families, the people who have suffered and served time on the outside, while their loved ones served on the inside. We were eager to see what would happen. We had hoped that it would be a hopeful story, and I think it ultimately is a hopeful story; the recidivism rate is at a record low for this population. But, it’s also a heartbreaking story, because so many families have been broken and services are so few and far between.
AT: Bilal how did you get connected Katie and Kelly?
Bilal Chatman: Survival. My attorney knew them, and part of the three strikes law gave the judges the option of allowing you out or not. So the District Attorney used my case as a contested case. They were saying, “We do not what to let him out.” So with that, you also have to be able to be disciplinary free while you are in prison. You had to meet the criteria. Your crime had to be non-violent first, and then you couldn’t have too many disciplinary problems like fights or violence. In my case, I had a drug case, so what would it have looked like if I had drug sales or drug problems in prison? Knowing that, I made myself look more attractive to the courts because I did a lot of things while I was in there. I did anything that was possible, anything that was positive, anything that could have made me better. I went to everything, Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous. I made myself ready, and I should have been released, but they were like, “No”. So my attorney said, “I know these filmmakers who have been following Prop 36 and they’d love to interview you.” My attorney said, “We’re going to try to get them into the courtroom so that the judge can tell them, and you, and the world, that they aren’t going to let you out. He said, “The best thing that could happened is that they don’t let you out.” And at the time, I didn’t know what he was talking about. But he said, “That could be the best thing because then the world will see how terrible this system is.”
AT: Oh for sure.
BC: But at the same time, it can also open the door for the judge and the DA and everybody to say what they want to say on camera. Needless to say, they didn’t let [Kelly and Katie] into the courtroom, but I was fortunate enough to be released.
KD: And they knew we were watching.
AT: Bilal, going back to what you were saying about doing all of this important work before you were released, I read a 2011 interview that you gave about participating in yoga while you were in prison. Also, I know that you converted to Islam while you were incarcerated. Not ever knowing that you were going to be free, what inspired this profound shift in your focus?
BC: My first thought when I heard I was going to be in prison for the rest of my life was, I was going to thug out. I was like “I’m in prison that’s it. I’m just one of the guys, it doesn’t make no difference. Whatever comes my way, I’m going to hit it head on.” But then we had this big riot, and when we had the riot they put me in solitary confinement. I didn’t have any way of doing anything except for my big book of Alcoholics Anonymous and the Quran. I began to look at both, and I just had a time of reflection. I just thought that if I’m going to be here I don’t want to be a bad guy. I didn’t want to lose my morals, and I just didn’t feel comfortable being “that person.”
AT: So you really want to shed that persona because that’s not who you are.
BC: I wanted to stay who I was. You can easily go in and become a chameleon. People walk the same, talk the same, and hang around the same people. I wanted to be strong enough to just be me. I wanted to be kind to people, I wanted to be respectful to people, and I wanted to have manners. I wanted to continue down those lines. And yoga came, and I was like wow, I always wanted to do earthy stuff, I like earthy things.
AT: That’s right! I saw when you were on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” that you said you grow tomatoes.
BC: (Laughing) Oh, you saw that? I’m probably a more Berkeley person myself, so I like those things. So it was an opportunity. I thought, “Yoga why not?” It was something else that could broaden my horizons. It was something I could do to relax and meditate, and take me away from prison, so that’s why I did that. I’m also still in contact with my sensei, and I still talk to him. He was very instrumental in keeping me grounded. Also, all of the programs that you’re involved in while in prison, you have to be disciplinary free. You can’t be getting in trouble, making noise around the prison. I played baseball, I did yoga, I was a mentor, I was a facilitator.
AT: As a Black man in America, do you feel as if the system, especially the three strikes law failed you?
BC: I think that the three strikes law was literally created for Black men. It was literally created for people of color. And I say that because I believe that in the ‘80s when the crack epidemic came, it was vicious. I’m taking about burglaries, robberies, carjackings and assaults. All of that was just common because the drug was so strong. It didn’t matter what it was, anybody would do anything to get it, including myself. There are some things that I did that were horrendous. I stole money out of my mother’s purse, something that I would never do, ever. I stole my mother’s car in the middle of the night. It was so strong and pure that there’s no way anybody should have had that. But even in those days, you would get four years for a robbery; you could get two years and be out in a year and half, so we were just doing time. No one was afraid of prison. And most of the time we took plea bargains, nobody really went to trial. So all of that time that was happening we were getting strikes. I believe they already had a plan that in ten or fifteen years they were going to put a law in place that made everything that we were doing come back to haunt us. Because literally after 1994, the robberies went down, carjackings were almost unheard of, the home invasions and kicking down doors, all that stuff stopped months and years ago. But all of those crimes that we had committed, we were still getting convicted of. In my case, my strikes were over 16 or 18 years old. I hadn’t done anything in that time, and I sill got six life sentences and 150 years. I was still sentenced to die. I think the three strikes law was indentified for people of color; I think it was indentified for people who had gotten away. It went on for twenty years, dismantling families, taking people out of communities There are people in today’s society that have never met their family
AT: Kate and Kelly, speaking of all of these incarcerated people, how did you both determine which subjects to follow closely? I know in the trailer we saw several subjects that were not actually in the film.
KD: Some of the people in the trailer are part of what we call The Return Project, which is part of our larger campaign. We did a series profiling non-violent offenders prior to the passage of Prop 36. We ran one in the “New York Times” and several others on “Mother Jones”, profiling women. Essentially we spent a lot of time inside of prison. We went to Soledad Prison and met a lot of prisoners, and also family members. We were looking for people who we felt were representative of the three strikes population; the population that was eligible under Prop 36. We felt that the Anderson family was such an amazing family because of their love and their strength. Monica talks about serving the time on the outside, and we felt that it was really important to show that. Ultimately, we met a lot of people that we connected with, but I would say the Anderson family and Bilal we connected too most deeply. And also, their stories we felt resonated in a way that went beyond. There are 2.3 million people serving time or that have served time in prisons or detentions centers in the United States, so we know millions of Americans have been touched by incarceration. There’s also a large portion of the population of people in power who haven’t’ been touched, and haven’t come into contact with people who have served time; or they haven’t knowingly.
AT: Oh I never thought of it that way.
KD: We wanted to find characters whose stir arcs had a really powerful universal way of touching people. For example, Bilal’s connection to his mother, almost every human being has had an experience or thought about what it means to have a relationship with your mother or an aging parent. Kenneth is a father; his ability to parent was interrupted but the criminal justice system. For so many people, parenting is a human desire, and that was cut off. So we wanted our characters to touch people that have never been touched by the criminal justice system, and we also wanted to find people that felt representative of the population. We wanted to lift up the voices of the people who’ve had this experience, allowing them to share their stories. So many of these stories are not shared with the public, and these two stories we felt best embodied that for us. And, we were also carful to include Mike Romano and Susan Champion, the lawyers who helped pass Prop 36 and were instrumental in creating a structure of reentry for hundreds of the thousands. We wanted to tell a meta story; who is affected by mass incarceration, and what reform looks like.
KG: The other reasons I think we wound up settling on our main characters was that as Bilal said, three strikes was designed for Black men. If you look at the numbers there’s just no question about the racial disparities.
AT: Oh without question.
KG: And beyond that something that doesn’t often get noted but, the harsher the punishment, the more likely the numbers are to skew towards Black and brown people.
KD: Also, the mentally ill and that’s important to bring up.
KG: So basically, Black men are overrepresented at every level, but I think it’s important to say that the harsher your sentence, the more likely you are to be African-American or Latino, but especially African-American. Even though the Black population in California is 11% they are nearly half of the three strikers, if not half. So these are most of the people we have coming out. The other thing to point out as Kelly alluded to are the other big issues that we feel are problematic in the way that we criminalize. We knew that Kenneth was struggling with some type of mental health issue, and we didn’t know whether it preceded his going in to prison, we weren’t sure about that. However, there’s no question that it was exacerbated by bis being in. So it was important to show someone who had really struggled and suffered with that, and also who didn’t have the services coming out that would’ve helped him deal with that, despite his loving family. With Bilal, we could tell that this was a person who was going to fight tooth and nail, to find success. I think that from the time he came out, he was thinking about himself, his own success, and his plan. But, he was also thinking about how that would reflect on prisoners at large. He knew it was important not to forget the people inside, and to be an example for the public about the positive things that can happen when you make this choice to give people another chance.
KD: I do think it’s important to acknowledge that in the film, there is a white man named Shane.
AT: Oh yes, the guy on the farm.
KD: We did want to represent the poor white, rural communities that have also been affected by these laws we didn’t want to ignore that.
AT: Well, I think what was so important in the film was the Susan Champion saying that sometimes people don’t even have a chance.
KD: Yes, and it really is, it’s like a postindustrial story which we refer to as the “New New Deal”. It is true that by the age of twenty-three, 49% of Black men, 47% of Latinos and 40% of White men have gone to jail. So, that’s a very high number and they’re not getting the same duration of sentencing generally speaking, but as some prisoners say, “They are Black men, brown men and white boys who get in the way.” But that is largely a story of post-industrial society and not having jobs. And Mike Romano says in that little scene, “For decades our answer to poverty, mental illness and drug addition, has been to just throw people in prison.” That has been the solution, and that is a nationwide story. That is what we’ve been asking people to reckon with now. We feel like that narrative is very problematic and gets recapitulated all the time, “Can these people finally get their acts together and finally make?”
AT: But we are the ones who have failed them.
KG: If you look at the school to prison pipeline there is an expectation that those bodies are going to prison. At the rate that incarceration is rising, 50% of our youth will be incarcerated by 2050. And that for me was absolutely horrifying.
BC: Without question.
AT: Bilal, what do you think the most important steps that ex-prisoners coming out of the system should take?
Bilal: I think what is detrimental is the celebration when you come home to the neighborhood. When you come home, it’s like this rite of passage, and people start sliding you stuff, like here ‘s twenty bucks. Here’s some weed or some drugs, come see me, and so forth and so on. So what I wanted to do was remove myself from that. I didn’t want to be celebrated. I wanted to go straight to the halfway home. Well, actually I wanted to go to Starbucks, I had never been to Starbucks. (Laughing) And then I went straight to the home. I had a plan, I had a 24 hour plan because I had been to jail before, and I’d come home and go straight back to my mom’s house or a friend’s house or my girlfriend’s house, where there was alcohol and weed and things I just didn’t want to be apart of. So, what I had to make clear to me was I had done all that other stuff before. I have a loving family, I knew they would take care of me, but I didn’t want any parts of any of that. So I wanted to take the steps. I didn’t have a driver’s license, so I got that. I didn’t have a social security card, so I went and got that, I didn’t have an actual résumé, and in the film you see me putting that together. They had resources and welfare and I said well, “I’ve never been on welfare, I’m going to get on welfare for a minute because I’m not going to get any money any other way.” That’s what worked for me. I could have went home, my family was there, my brother would have had money for me, my mom would have been very happy to have me there everyday with her. But I couldn’t do that right then. Instead I just said, I will support financially, I will come over all the time, I will even mediate when anything is going on. That’s why I love them so much because they allowed me to do that.
AT: What do you want your legacy to be?
BC: That I tried very hard and I never gave up, I had people that surrounded me and gave me opportunity, and I want the guys to know that yes, it’s sad that when I was sentenced to die in prison society said, “I’m done with you. You’ve lived your life, were just waiting for you do die.” I think that’s sad, and economically, I think that’s bad. Now, economically I’m putting into the community, and I’m assisting the system. I have people that I mentor, I make my family stronger, I make my company much better with me there. I want my legacy to be that I tried hard, I set goals and I just wanted to get there.
AT: Thank you all so much this was wonderful.
“The Return” will be broadcasting on PBS May 23rd launching POV’s new season. Also to learn more information about The Return including how to host a screening, please visit http://www.thereturnproject.com/
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami