On Friday, Germantown Friends Meeting welcomed filmmaker Matthew Pillischer and a panel of justice-system activists and former inmates for a screening and discussion of the film “Broken On All Sides,” which examines racial disparities in America’s ever-rising prison population.
A large crowd filled the Yarnall Auditorium of the Germantown Friends School, transfixed by the hour-long film.
Afterwards, attendees engaged in a frank question-and-answer session with the panelists, moderated by Germantown Meeting Racial Justice Committee clerk Ed Nakawatase.
Panelists included Tyrone Werts, a former State Correctional Institution at Graterford inmate who now works with the Inside-Out Center which facilitates academic courses that inmates and college students take side-by-side; prison chaplain Phyllis Taylor; former inmate and “Ban the Box” activist Michael Ta’Bon; and Malik Aziz, a former inmate who later founded the National Exhoodus Council, through which formerly incarcerated professionals mentor at-risk youths.
Pillischer, an area native and a practicing attorney, said he was drawn to his film project by an interest in addressing overcrowding in the county prison system.
His initial 15-minute film became a documentary feature on problems plaguing the American justice system as a whole. The latter featured interviews with Philadelphia’s Human Rights Coalition, the Pennsylvania Prison Society, former inmates, former corrections officers, lawyers, academics, judges and Michelle Alexander, author of “The New Jim Crow.”
Jim Crow era vs. today’s justice system
The film asserted that modern convicted felons’ limited civil rights (such as being barred from many types of employment or the right to vote) echo laws affecting blacks during the Jim Crow era.
According to the film, about one in 15 African-American adults is currently incarcerated, while one in four is subject to justice-system supervision. While African-American adults make up 12.4 percent of the total U.S. population, they account for 38.2 percent of its total prison population.
Pillischer asked viewers to consider that in 1850, 3.2 million African-Americans were enslaved in the nation, while in 2007, 3.5 million were under supervision of the criminal justice system.
For an international perspective, Pillischer noted that while the U.S. has only 5 percent of world’s total population, it holds 25 percent of the world’s prison population.
The country’s prison population has ballooned durng the past 40 years, mostly because of a rise in drug-law enforcement, the film maintains.
Asserting racially biased enforcement at the “discretion” of American police and judges, Pillischer noted that 90 percent of imprisoned drug offenders are black or Hispanic, while research holds that these groups are not statistically more likely to use or sell drugs than whites.
A move away from rehabilitation
The film also drew attention to the justice system’s shift away from an incarceration model, which allowed for inmates’ education and occupational training, to a “warehousing” model which increasingly makes no effort to offer inmates the tools that help them reclaim their lives upon release.
This, Pillischer noted, could explain why two-thirds of former inmates re-offend. With addiction and mental illness criminalized rather than treated, incarceration often fails to address what drove an individual to crime in the first place.
The post-screening panel discussion focused on several local topics, including Werts’ announcement that the commonwealth budgeted $2.2 billion for prisons in the upcoming fiscal year. When Werts began service his 37-year sentence, there were seven prisons; now, there are 28 with more planned.
“Classrooms don’t have books,” Werts protested, pointing to ongoing cuts for education in Pennsylvania. “If we’re going to cut education, we’re going to need more prisons.”
Taylor spoke about the realities of Philadelphia’s jail system, which, according to her latest research, holds 8,264 inmates, of which 6,464 are pre-trial detainees.
“This, in a society that says innocent until proven guilty,” she said.
As “Broken On All Sides” notes, while black males make up only 20 percent of Philadelphia’s population, they account for 66 percent of its jail population.
“I don’t want to have another meeting where we talk about the solution but feel afraid to really peel back the problem,” Ta’Bon said.
Call to action
The film concluded with a plea for viewers to get involved in fighting justice-system inequalities; the panelists suggested real change would involve a movement as large as the one to end Jim Crow decades ago.
“This new group of faces interested in the struggle sparks joy in my heart,” Ta’Bon said.