We met Tamara Perkins on Twitter, where we spoke about recidivism amongst prisoners. This is something very near and dear to my heart because of the homeless population we’ve worked with here in Puerto Rico: unemployment remains a huge barrier to their rehabilitation, but it’s almost impossible for any of those with a criminal record to find jobs. This Catch-22 pits our street team’s measly hot dogs and hugs against a completely unassailable hopelessness: there’s literally no way out for these guys. With no way to get a job to get back on their feet, what’s to stop them from just committing crimes again?
As a victim of crime, and the family member of an incarcerated person, Tamara is intimately familiar with these issues in the mainland United States, and she’s made a film about that.
Tamara, you mentioned you survived a crime, and had a family member facing life. Would you mind talking a little more about those situations?
I think I was referring to a specific incident when I was 17, and I was picking up my sister. While waiting for her at the apartment she was staying at, a young man (also 17) made a physical pass at me and when I rebuked him put a gun to my head. Thankfully my sister’s boyfriend was there and was able to deescalate the situation so that I could leave. It breaks my heart to say that that young man is in prison for murder now. Unfortunately, this was only one of the four times that I have had a gun to my head. Though the others seem more random (robbery, etc.) and less personal, since this incident happened in a place I felt safe. I think I also changed a little after that incident; I have always been fiercely independent, assertive, and proud, but my responses are a little more measured now. I assess danger more regularly, and am not sure I have the same sense of ease I had previously. It also opened my mind to questions about how that young man got to a point where he had a gun, and when made uncomfortable was immediately drawn to use it. That doesn’t just happen. Something happened to him. Of course, this was a long time ago, but I would argue the seed for making Life After Life was sown then.
It was actually pretty soon after I had started the film that my nephew was first arrested for something minor as a young juvenile. Since I had started a yoga program in the juvenile hall I knew the superintendent, chief probation officer, and even some of the judges, but I couldn’t do anything besides get my sister a visit right away. I want to be clear that what happened that night could have been handled by calling his mom to come pick him up, and if he had been white I feel pretty certain that would have been the case, instead he received a misdemeanor and a long juvenile hall stay. I can’t really express how damaging this is for kids. He was 14 and isolated, given psychotropic drugs to deal with his depression and insomnia, a reasonable reaction to being locked up as a sensitive young kid. This isn’t a unique situation, but it changed that way I saw everything. I won’t go into the details but being under the scrutiny of the probation system took a toll on my nephew and at 17 he was facing life, charged as an adult. He was lucky to be given a second chance and after serving a handful of years is home. At this point we’re all just incredibly grateful, but I can’t help being angry at a system which takes aim at black and brown boys beginning in elementary school and even as now has been proven through the schools in preschool.
What pulled you through those difficult experiences?
Family, loved ones, and an incredible and supportive community. And I guess also pouring myself into the film and my activism work. It helps to feel like you might be doing something to help the next kid, and possible make a dent in changing, and in some cases dismantling the system. Of course, self-care is key. For me, yoga, meditation, and bicycling were my touchstones. They have always helped me to ground myself and process both what my family and I were dealing with as well as the stories I was holding for the men. More recently I also got involved with Essie Justice Group for women with incarcerated loved ones, which was a big support.
What does your film have in common with your experiences?
For each of the men in the film there was something that happened in their early lives that took away a bit of their innocence, and often several several traumas that they never received help to address. It’s hepful to understand that nothing happens in a vacuum. We are all the sum of our lived experience, and yet these men are seen only for their worst act.
My nephew is a wonderful young man with a sensitive soul, but some would only see him in this same light. And I cannot sit back and let that be. The film, Life After Life, shares the experience of 3 men coming home from San Quentin State Prison, but it also shares the lives and experiences of their families who shared in their incarceration for 10, 20, and 30 years. Anyone with an incarcerated loved one understands what I mean. You can see the trailer for Life After Life here and you can see a related TEDx talk I gave here: Life After: Embracing our Common Humanity.
What other lessons did you learn from your experiences?
So much humility… I’m still learning as I try to honor and pay homage to the incredible sacrifice that the men, women, and families I followed made in order to make this film. This is a raw and honest film and it would not have been made without their dedication to the project, and vulnerability in opening up their lives and family to me on camera. I have such incredible respect for each of them. And I know that this is part of their redemption story.
Was there anything that people did that helped you out?
Everything! This film was a complete community effort from the beginning. Colleagues in Alameda County Public Health first invited me to teach Yoga at San Quentin State Prison where I met the men who asked me to tell their story, then later vouched for me with the warden in order to have access to make the film. My co-producer and cinematographer Jesse Dana (@jessedana), who signed on from the start, brought his prowess with the camera to bring an unparalleled beauty to the imagery, and without whom there would be no film. Also, our editor Kevin Jones (@kingjones9000) brought a poetic view of the subjects and story along with incredible skill. Simron Gill (@simrongill) took a year off before going to law school to help us get the film off the ground. Jeanine Rodgers (@j9rodgers) brought her business acumen to the team to help us fund our efforts. And countless others over the years made sure that we were moving forward and making a beautiful and meaningful piece.
What can people do–what kind of call to action is there–for people who want to help those whose family members are in prison?
How can individuals help incarcerated folks to rehabilitate? And how can we help crime survivors, and step up to the plate to help you out?
The prison system in the US is growing at epidemic proportions and primarily targeting people and communities of color. More than 60% of the people in prison today are people of color. Black men are nearly six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men and Hispanic men are 2.3 times as likely. For black men in their thirties, 1 in every 10 is in prison or jail on any given day.
The roots of what is often termed the “school-to-prison pipeline” often begins as early as pre-school when, according to recent data from the U.S. Department of Education, black children are 3.6 times more likely to be suspended from preschool than white children. These trends continue through high school and especially for older students, trouble at school can lead to their first contact with the criminal justice system. And in many cases, schools themselves are the ones pushing students into the juvenile justice system — often by having students arrested at school.
Those realities coupled with a lack of support services both inside prison and upon release perpetuate a growing cycle of recidivism. As this cycle grows and perpetuates itself the health and wellbeing of more and more Americans is at risk. At the same time media representations of incarcerated men and women have dehumanized and alienated them to such a degree that there is little public connection to the problem. This lack of public empathy is the largest hurdle to reform across the prison system. It will take a decisive and concerted action to steer our culture away from the stereotypical fear and anger that dominate public perceptions of incarcerated people and their families.
Our goals for this film stem from the very reasons we became filmmakers. We want to create transformative experiences that reframe the way people see the world delving into often untouchable subjects and presenting them from the inside out. Through making this film we have become adept at embedding ourselves within communities and cultures in a way that supports the voice of our subjects.
We filmed our subjects over many years in their own environments, striving always to remove artifice from the process, and going so far as to put cameras in our subjects hands letting them lead a thread of their own story. We, along with the audience, are in the moment with our subjects connecting through common experiences; we feel what they feel, establishing a tangible connection, witnessing as the events in their lives radiate out into their family, and into our community. As their paths to a new life are revealed—often measured in small, awkward steps over weeks, months and years—the precarious nature of freedom after incarceration in America is revealed.
Our film comes at a time when — although we had begun to rethink our criminal justice system and the pipelines that feed it — we now face incredible uncertainty with the current administration. We are preparing for local and national screenings of the film and will be promoting the film as an educational and advocacy tool.
In California we are working with advocacy agencies to educate the community on the effect of Prop 57. Other campaigns are working to eliminate Cash Bail, and ensure that families are able to visit their loved ones in person and not just through a computer screen. People can help by staying informed and voting for and supporting policies that uplift and empower people. But mostly, pay attention, and do your best to see people, engage in meaningful conversation, learn and share.
You can help the film and this movement by talking about and sharing the film, and hosting a screening and conversation at your university, policy or advocacy agency, or in your community. You can also check our site for upcoming screenings and events. Upcoming screenings and panel discussions include:
UC Berkeley, School of Law, Berkeley, CA – Monday, March 20 @ 6pm (Reserve your spot here! http://evite.me/MmDm1Xcc9Y)
Indiana Theater, Terre Haute, IN – Sunday, April 9 @ 2pm
New Parkway Theater, Oakland, CA – Tuesday, June 6 @ 7pm