The Terrible, Real-Life Consequences of California’s Three-Strikes Law
Talking to the filmmakers behind a powerful new documentary about one of the most notorious criminal justice excesses in American history.
In the 1990s, California was at the forefront of the tough-on-crime wave taking America by force. The state's severe three-strikes law meant many nonviolent offenders received a 25-years-to-life sentence for relatively petty crimes like trying to steal a car radio. At least, that's the fate that befell a mentally ill man named Lester Wallace, one of the first to be sentenced under the law in 1994.
In 2012, Californians voted to approve Proposition 36, which modified the three-strikes law. Inmates, family members, advocates, and reformers rejoiced: Thousands of inmates were now eligible for release, and organizations such as the Three Strikes Project (since renamed the Stanford Justice Advocacy Project) began working on a new problem: how to help people reenter society.
Filmmakers Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway set out to document that struggle. Their new documentary, The Return, tracks roughly a year in the post-release lives of Kenneth Anderson—a father and grandfather who struggled upon release—and Bilal Kevin Chatman, who has become an activist and spokesperson on the challenges of reentry.
The duo spoke to VICE about documenting one of the most notorious criminal-justice excesses in American history.
VICE: What compelled you to look at the fallout of Prop 36 and the challenges of condemned people rejoining society?
Kelly Duane de la Vega: Katie and I were following the campaign for Prop 36 and got wind of it before it went on the ballot. We did a series of shorts for the New York Times and Mother Jones profiling nonviolent offenders who were serving life in prison because of California's harsh three-strikes law. So when it passed, we were pretty deeply connected with the lawyers involved with the campaign, but also with various people serving time that were going to be eligible. So we knew we'd have almost immediate access.
We realized that this is the first time in our nation's history that voters have shortened the sentences of the currently incarcerated. We've done a lot of work looking at the problems of the criminal justice system, but this was our opportunity to look at a new reform we were hopeful would be the tip of the iceberg of the pendulum swinging the other way. So we knew immediately we wanted to capture... the larger collective story, not just the individual's story, but the story of their families and of the system after a really monumental reform has passed.
In seeking out subjects for your film, what were you looking for, and how did Kenneth and Bilal each fulfill those roles? Did you think Kenneth actually had a better outlook considering the supportive family he had waiting for him?
Katie Galloway: We met them both in the course of making the film after the proposition passed. We think of Kenneth and his family as the major characters in the film and Bilal as a very strong additional character, as are all the other people in the mix. We definitely wanted someone who had left a family behind, who had kids who had grown up while they were incarcerated. We were conscious of how things go with race and class in American criminal justice, so we were looking for people who were going to be representative of some of the broad swaths of that population. Of course, that's really everybody at this point, except for people who are neither poor, nor brown and black.
There are these stereotypes about who's in prison and what a felon is like, and for a lot of people, that's scary and two-dimensional and "other," in spite of our huge prison population. From the moment we met [Bilal], we could feel his motivation, and you could see how much of a survivor he had been in prison. From the time he got out, he really has been a success story all the way through. He's incredible. At the same time, we wanted the film to be reflective of the fact that lots of people don't have that experience—a lot of people suffer greatly and can't just triumph over all.
You also included a bit of Lester Wallace's story, although we don't hear from him directly in the film. What did Wallace and his story mean to you?
Kelly Duane de la Vega: He was significant to us in a lot of different ways. One, his story really illustrated how harsh the sentencing was for such a minor crime. We didn't want to do the thing where we paint everybody as a pizza thief, because that's not true. A lot of people have had records that are more complicated, yet that still don't warrant the kind of insane sentencing that they received. [Wallace was also] symbolic of how many people are struggling with severe mental illness in prison, and also if you're not of means and you struggle with a mental illness, the likelihood of you ending up in prison is quite high, and that's important to shed light on.
One of the most powerful moments in the film is the scene in the bathroom where Bilal is having his urine tested for drugs by his parole officer. Despite the fact that he was set up to fail by having to meet his officer during work hours, he makes it to the appointment, and despite the fact that his PO seems relatively respectful, the urine test is humiliating. What were your thoughts on that scene, and what were you trying to convey about parole? Did you debate whether to be present in the bathroom during the test?
Kelly Duane de la Vega: It's a system that's not working with you, and at times, it's working against you. And here's this guy who's got so much motivation and miraculously got a job—he's got everything together, and he's trying to work with his parole officer, and his parole officer is not making it easy. I think it's important for the public to understand that. If you haven't ever known anybody in that situation, or you haven't been in that situation yourself, you may just never think about it and why there are so many parole violations—which is a whole different thing that we don't get into in our film: people being stuck in the cycle of incarceration because of the parole system.
We asked Bilal if we could film that scene, he said yes, and at some level, we knew that for it to really pack a punch, we had to show it. I think when he saw it on the big screen for the first time, he felt it was a little hard to watch, as it is for everybody who watches it, but more so for him. But he also understood at that point, that character was perceived with so much dignity in the film, and we do retain his dignity, but we also shed light on all these ways that your dignity is attacked and how hard that is psychologically. We knew that scene was key to convey it because it's just so painful.
You manage to address many of the obstacles facing inmates and former inmates in this film, including the lack of mental health and addiction treatment in prison, the difficulty of finding work upon reentry, and the challenges of the parole system. Did you consciously try to weave these in, or did they evolve naturally in the narrative?
Katie Galloway: It's great to hear you say that, because my concern has been that we don't give the full enough scope of what people are up against when they come out. There are really so many concrete obstacles that you have to deal with as a result of being a felon, which a lot of people don't know. And I think this is also an American problem, which is that we really don't look very much at history or what people are doing internationally. But other countries look at our prison system and also our system of what happens when people get out and think, "What the hell? You really do that? You really add these many additional punishments when people get out?"
They've served their time, and they now wear these scarlet letters and then some, in so many ways.
This conversation has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.
The Return will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on Sunday, April 17, and will debut on POV on May 23. You can learn more about the film and the filmmakers' ongoing campaign to educate about reentry here.
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