The Return: A New Documentary Film Captures the Joy and Pain of Prisoner Reentry

For many of us, this documentary film, which premieres tonight on PBS, hits close to home. The stories of rocky recovery and tenuous returning loved ones are familiar; our own families' highs and lows echo though every scene.
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By Corinna Yazbek, Senior Associate for Strategic Partnerships, Vera Institute of Justice

"I'm writing this letter to ask for another chance for my dad." From the moment Kenneth Anderson's daughter reads her letter to the judge aloud, The Return restores prisoners' humanity. She continues, "It has been years since I've seen my father's face... I look to this as a chance to show him what I've become and hopefully allow him to be a father to me in my adult life."

For many of us, this documentary film, which premieres tonight on PBS, hits close to home. The stories of rocky recovery and tenuous returning loved ones are familiar; our own families' highs and lows echo through every scene. But what the film asks of us--whether or not you've had an incarcerated loved one or been incarcerated yourself--is, what does reentry look like in our communities and what can we do to make it work?

Our country is at a critical moment: there is nationwide, bipartisan support for ending the failed social experiment of mass incarceration. The #cut50 campaign has galvanized senators from both parties to commit to reducing our prison population; California has released thousands of inmates, including many who were serving decades- or life-long sentences for nonviolent offenses because of three-strikes laws; and New York City is making changes to its bail system to help limit the number of poor people languishing in jail, awaiting trial.

As much attention as our criminal justice system is getting, not nearly enough attention is being paid to the support systems in our cities and towns that will determine the success or failure of these efforts. The Return takes us beyond policy, past the courtroom and the prison walls, to the time after a person is released. We witness the often untold journeys of inmates returning home and see the toll incarceration takes on them and their families--even after the sentence itself is over.

The Return Project tour invites people around the U.S. to not only witness what's happening on screen, but also to share their own experiences. Last Thursday night, 40 people gathered at Zeitgeist in New Orleans to watch the film and hear from a panel that included local advocates. One of the panelists had been locked up in Angola, a former plantation and the largest maximum security prison in the U.S.; another one is a public defender and in her free time is working to build long-term economic opportunities for formerly incarcerated people; and the third panelist is the head of reentry for the City, working within the Mayor's Office to create job opportunities and connect people reentering society with services and care.

After the film, audience members shared their own experiences with incarceration--one young man served 20 years for a crime he didn't commit and an older woman decried the lack of services and resources for the unique experiences of women leaving prison. Panelists and audience members alike celebrated the film for catalyzing a public conversation about the serious challenges to successful reentry in New Orleans.

A wave of emotion and recognition washed over me when the previously incarcerated audience member described the importance of a broad base of community support. I didn't know how much I needed that conversation before that moment. I thought all my pain and sadness was from the time my dad was locked up, but his addiction and mental illness spiraled post-incarceration until, in 2005, it killed him. I finally understood that even though it had been difficult for me to support his reentry years ago, I can show up for formerly incarcerated people and families receiving them in my community now. The Return is a call to action.

Vera has been working in New Orleans since 2006 to end the over-use of detention. Though we focus on the pretrial population--people not tried nor convicted, and often not even charged--who are held largely because they are too poor to pay a bail to go home, we also understand the importance of supporting people reentering. Just this year, with guidance and support from Vera and local advocates, New Orleans's housing authority was the first in the nation to reverse its policy banning people with criminal convictions from rejoining their families.

While my professional focus remains steadfastly further upstream, ending unnecessary arrest and detention, The Return has reminded me of both the need and our collective ability as a community to support people reentering. If all of us diligently working to transform our criminal justice system want our policy reforms to endure, we must ensure people--and their families--are supported upon their return to lead healthy, happy, and fulfilled lives.