By Thom Nickels
Something’s seriously wrong with America’s criminal justice system. The world’s greatest democracy is also the world’s greatest embarrassment when it comes to incarceration. The American prison system is, in fact, a mammoth Guantanamo, bursting at the seams with massive overcrowding.
While the United States accounts for just 5% of the world’s population, it houses 25% of the world’s prison population. Twenty-five percent is no small percentage. These numbers reflect a rise of drug offenders. In fact, the numbers of incarcerated drug offenders has risen 1200% since 1980. Today there are over 500,000 people in the nation’s prisons for drug-related offenses.
These Orwellian statistics give one pause: Either the world’s greatest democracy has the most “evil” people in the world, or the system itself is rotten and flawed.
In Pennsylvania, the state prison population has grown by 21% in just 6 years, from 37,995 in 2001 to more than 49,300 today, according to Marc Goldberg, deputy secretary for administration at the State’s Department of Corrections. Mr. Goldberg speculates that the state prison population is expected to grow at an average of 4% each year through 2012.
So why is the United States throwing everyone in jail?
Senator James Webb, D-Va., is asking the same question. On March 26, 2009 he sponsored the National Criminal Justice Commission Act, which calls for the creation of a blue-ribbon commission to study every aspect of the criminal justice system, with an eye to reshaping it inside and out. Senator Webb’s statistics are even more alarming then the numbers quoted above.
There are four times as many mentally ill people in prisons than in mental hospitals, Senator Webb reports, and when it comes to post-incarceration and re-entry programs, they are virtually non-existent in this country.
Moral of the story: The world’s greatest democracy comes up empty.
Enter the Philadelphia Mural Arts Project, which for years has been sponsoring rehabilitative mural painting inside Pennsylvania prisons. Paint and color might appear to be a lightweight connection to the state of U.S. prisons, but when the U.S. prison system offers prisoners so little, MAP’s value skyrockets.
Case in point: A documentary film, “ConcreteSteel&Paint,” by filmmakers Cindy Burstein and Tony Heriza, is the story of a group of Graterford State Correctional prisoners and neighbors coming together to paint a MAP mural dedicated to healing. Forget the notion of a “feel good” retro Haley Mills Disney film epic. This story of healing is a compelling one, as the two groups, prisoners and victims of crime, struggle to understand one another. (Mr. Heriza, the Director of Educational Outreach for the American Friends Service Committee, and a teacher of video production at the University of Pennsylvania, also happens to be married to MAP Director Jane Golden. As Ms. Golden’s husband, Mr. Heriza opted not to “cosmeticize” Ms. Golden’s looks of frustration and heartbreak as she is shown listening to victims explain why any interaction with the prisoners might not be possible.)
It’s no cliché to say that the viewer feels the painful struggle between these two factions as they mesh out differences: the prisoners, some convicted for murder or rape, reaching out to victims and victim advocates only to be told that they have no right to ask or demand forgiveness from people they have victimized. The first meeting between victims and prisoners is tight with accusatory stares, sour expressions carved underneath forced smiles. One feels the impossibility of the situation.
At the world premier of the film at International House, Mayor Michael Nutter offered a few introductory remarks, as did Dr. Howard Zehr, Professor of Restorative Justice at the Center for Justice & Peacebuilding.
The reception buzzed with compliments and stories of how the film had changed, over a period of several years when it was a work-in-progress, from “rambling” versions to the work of art it had become.
“Some of the initial tension came from the advocates wanting to come in and hear a lot more remorse from the prisoners,” Ms. Burstein told me by phone. “With these guys in many ways, their crimes were committed in the past. This doesn’t excuse them for having done it, but they are at the point where they’ve expressed their remorse, and that’s why they wanted to do the mural project. They were onto a step where they wanted to give back and show that they could positively contribute, and that that would be their message to the community. On the other hand, there was tension when the victim advocates would come in and just wanted to hear the remorse, over and over and over again….There’s only so many times you can express remorse, then it becomes, ‘Can we move onto something else?’”
Ms. Burstein, who also works as Adjunct Professor of media and cultural studies in the Film & Media Arts Dept. at Temple University, said that the film comes along “at the right time.”
“The number of people in prison since the late 1970s, when the prison population was about 300,000, is now up to two million. A lot of that has to do with the drug laws of the 1980s, as well as sentencing laws that are keeping non violent offenders in jail for longer periods of time,” she said.
While State law mandated that the prisoners’ faces not be shown, the filmmakers opted for discreet “fuzzing” of the faces or close ups that included everything but their eyes. “Our intention was to conceal the identity in such a way where you could still feel the humanity of the prisoners,” Ms. Burstein said. “Some people said to me after the premier that even though blurring the faces wasn’t our intention, it was a positive outcome in terms of the messaging of the film. Having to conceal identities made people more aware of the dehumanization that goes on when people are in prison.”
At the conclusion of the film, Dr. Zehr suggested that audience members turn to someone they didn’t already know in order to discuss what they had seen.
“People appreciated the chance to talk with one another, to meet somebody they didn’t know, to have a brief conversation with them. Our goal was to use the film as dialogue. At the premier we wanted to demonstrate how that would happen.”
Graterford State Prison opened in 1929 as a maximum security facility. Of the 3500 or so prisoners the most famous were Ira Einhorn (who now resides at the State Correctional Institute at Houtzdale, Pennsylvania), and Garrett Reid, son of Eagles coach Andy Reid.
A new building housing up to 4,000 prisoners now replaces the 1929 structure. We need bigger and better buildings to ensure the quick processing of America’s booming new criminal class.
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