WILLIAMSTOWN -- A new documentary film focusing on the Philadelphia jail system reveals harsh truths about public safety everywhere, and what really needs to be done to find solutions for what ails the institution.
Matt Pillischer ‘s "Broken On All Sides" screens at Images Cinema on Monday, Jan. 14, at 5:30 p.m.
The movie is a direct result of Pillischer's present working with his past. Currently a lawyer in Philadelphia, he attended Bennington College and studied art with a focus on film -- his film playing at Images is a double thrill for him since that's where he used to go see movies all the time.
"Broken On All Sides" resulted from an effort to create a public education piece about prison overcrowding.
"I worked on my firm's last lawsuit against the city," Pillischer said, "and went in and interviewed prisoners and saw some of the conditions first-hand. That's actually how I started the movie."
He first created a short version that focused on overcrowding, and continued work on it to expand it into the current movie.
"Strangely enough, law school lead me back to filmmaking," said Pillischer. "I love what I'm doing right now. It's a very unique combination of all my interests and skills, and I'm hoping I can continue doing this public education/advocacy through storytelling and filmmaking. That's where I'm hoping to continue going. "
As captured in the film by Pillischer, the system of incarceration as we currently practice it is one of a replacement for the social programs that are routinely dismissed by conservatives. The money is going to be spent because the problem is not going away, with poverty and crime becoming a government expenditure that's impossible to dismiss from the spreadsheets -- it's more about the form that spending takes.
"We could have instead had an increased war on poverty, but instead, the war on poverty was ended and the war on drugs was started to deal with the same problems, the same communities," Pillischer said.
"If you're really interested in public safety and dealing with crime, the current system actually creates more crime, and creates a permanent second class citizenship, particularly for people of color, that are permanently cut out of the legal economy."
Pillischer cites affordable housing, increased education efforts, better healthcare, job training, drug treatment programs and mental health programs as all proven initiatives that bring down crime and incarceration rates, but have been politically decimated as options. It adds up to a societal manifestation of blaming the victim.
"We hear personal responsibility, it's a catch phrase, and it moves away from societal responsibility," he said. "If we can convince society that poor people are that way because of their own failings, and not necessarily because of certain institutions in society, then that takes the blame or the responsibility off society at large, the government and the majority of people, to even care about the problem. It makes us say that those people deserve to be in jail because it was their choice to not get a good education and instead turn to a life of crime."
Pillischer draws a straight line to laws during slavery and the Jim Crow era that put limits on the African American population and then held them responsible for the results of those limits. Though shifted on paper to the criminal population, these attitudes affect African American communities more than any other, thanks to inequality in targeting and sentencing. The white population use drugs statistically the same as the black one, but the black population is victim of more vigorous law enforcement efforts.
"If you control for joblessness, compare jobless white men to jobless black men, the differentiating rates of violent crimes disappears," said Pillischer. "We know that people are put into certain circumstances where they are chronically jobless. That leads to violence and has nothing to do with the color of their skin or their race."
"I don't think most people understand that or know that. Independent media and activists need to be mindful of creating a narrative that is telling the truth and trying to hammer it across these people's heads that some of the things you believe just aren't true. Even things like violent crime in poor communities."
Pillischer says that the result of this is a bigger crime rate and less public safety. What is often missed in the debate is the way incarcerated felons are transformed into permanent ones who, through entirely legal efforts, are stripped of their ability to just get by in life. No opportunities breed desperation, desperation breeds crime. Punishment breeds more crime. The simple fact is that even hard-liners on crime, even racists, will benefit from humane prison reform.
"If we can reduce the amount of people in prisons, if we can start to talk more humanely and compassionately about people who go to prison and are branded with criminal records for the rest of their lives, it actually helps all of us," Pillischer said. "You don't want people pushed out of mainstream society and marginalized to the point that they can't survive in a legal way. That is just going to perpetuate crime, because they have to figure out some way to make money in this society, especially as social service programs and social safety nets are being cut, cut, cut."
"People have less access to welfare, public benefits, job training, education, and if on top of that employers are legally allowed to discriminate against them because of their criminal record, if the government is allowed to not give them certain grants for school, if the government prevents them from getting certain licenses like becoming a barber or bus driver, things like that, because of a criminal record, this just forces them into the illegal economy. That's the way we create more crime. "
Pillischer says that though there are very definite solutions to many of these problems, he can't actually point to many legislative examples of enacting them. One he does cite is the recent California reform of the three strikes law.
"In some cases you had people going to prison for life for their third offense, which might be stealing a videotape from a K-Mart or really ridiculous things, the possession of a joint of marijuana. California modified the three strikes law and I think that's a great example of how we could start to change sentencing laws."
Pillischer also points to the legalization or decriminalization of marijuana in Washington and Colorado as positive moves forward as well. The ideal, he said, would be for full legalization and a new strategy treating drugs as a public health problem, but these are small steps. The point is that the standard methods have not lessened drug use and the time has come to try something different, something that would not only cope with the drug problem, but the crime and incarceration problem as well.
"We should be shifting to look at more of a restorative justice approach, rather than a law enforcement, criminal justice approach," Pillischer said, "which means we need to look at the harm that it's done in the community when a crime has been committed, and try and right those wrongs, instead of just the state punishing the actor."
Pillischer points to the idea of drug courts and mental health courts, which some programs are trying to introduce in the United States, and which have be appearing in Africa. These would divert the appropriate issues to savvier courts and allow the criminal courts to better handle crime sentencing.
Pillischer says that the traditional way such things have happened has been through the public making it happen. In today's current protest-friendly climate, and the echoes of the Civil Rights movement showing what good crowds can accomplish, it no longer seems impossible, especially in the kind of economic times where anyone could find themselves incarcerated just trying to survive.
"We're probably only really going to start to see some of these major reforms if a real social movement puts some pressure on politicians and courts to enact some of these things," he said.
Broken on All Sides can be found online at brokenonallsides.com.