By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J.
The award-winning documentary “The Prison Within” is available on Amazon Prime! “The Prison Within” team is led by former Los Angeles Public Defender, volunteer prison college instructor and director Katherin Hervey; formerly incarcerated documentary subject and cinematographer Troy Williams; former attorney-turned-producer Erin Kenway and narrator Hill Harper (“The Good Doctor,” “Homeland,” “CSI: NY” and “Covert Affairs”), featuring an original score from award-winning composer Ruth Mendelson.
Bringing audiences on a journey into redemption and forgiveness inside the unlikely walls of San Quentin State Prison, “The Prison Within” follows the powerful stories of prisoners and survivors of violent crime as they participate in a unique restorative justice program to uncover the trauma that binds them. Their heart-wrenching stories pave the way to radical alternatives to our current justice system and are an invitation to step into our own personal journey of healing.
As global demonstrators stand united demanding police and prison reform, “The Prison Within” is an extraordinarily well-timed documentary granting viewers access to a world that is seldom depicted in more exploitative prison dramas. Granting viewers access to the interior lives of prisoners and survivors of violent crime, “The Prison Within” is a moving and inspiring exploration of the healing and transformation possible when people are accountable, forgiven, and empowered to give to society with dignity and compassion.
We are asking the audience to set aside what they think they know about incarcerated people. Most people in prison are first a victim. Anger and violence stem from untreated trauma. When our justice system excludes the notion of rehabilitation, it necessarily perpetuates the cycle of violence by failing to address trauma. And the fallout from untreated trauma ultimately affects the entire community. This film serves as an example of how all people can change, how we can evolve as a community, and the power of connecting to the humanity in others, even those who have committed harm.
Hervey goes beyond why and how the system is inadequate, deftly showing viable and hopeful alternatives to our current systems of justice. This film is an eye opener, as we look in on a few sessions of VOEG at the prison. VOEG stands for Victim Offender Education Group and looks to hold weekly sessions with prisoners and oftentimes with victim surrogates to get to the root of the anger and trauma that might have caused the offender to commit whatever crime it is that has landed them behind bars.
And more often than not, prisoners were subject to childhood abuse, molestation or trauma that have affected their lives immensely. One man in the group killed a rival gang member who was bullying his nephew, and they both ended up in prison—however, while he was in prison, the elder of the two lost his sister to gun violence. So, he was privy to both sides of the coin—as an offender and as a victim.
The most surprising transformation was of a woman named Dionne, who was the conservative-gun-toting wife whose husband was a police officer who died in 2005 in the line of duty, after a young man shot him while the officer was looking into information before a pending arrest. Dionne was successful in getting the offender sent to prison, even getting him on death row.
However, years passed, and Dionne was depressed and realized that the best way to come out of her funk was to join the VOEG meetings as a surrogate victim and to help advocate for better ways at restorative justice for prisoners throughout the country. She ended up in a session—not with the man who had destroyed her life—but sitting not many feet from where he was waiting out his days on death row. She eventually apologized for making the public see her husband’s killer as less than human and rallying for him to be put to death.
The premise of the VOEG program may not sit well with many folks, but it does open one’s eyes a bit to productive possibilities for prisoners, once they are release. And statistics within the documentary show that a great number are eventually released; and it’s better that they had addressed what tangible reasons led them to a specific crime than on punishing them for the crime itself.
Take a look at the trailer: https://vimeo.com/190048873.