In late October 1960, just before dawn turned to light, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was jarred awake in an Atlanta jail cell and sent to a Georgia state prison more than 200 miles away.
Later, writing to his wife, Coretta, he requested that she and their young children visit and asked that she also bring a radio, several books and a number of his previously delivered sermons, the titles of which included, “The Death of Evil,” “The Peril of the Sword,” “Levels of Love,” “Vision of a world made New,” “The Impassable Gulf” and “Love for Action.”
“I have the faith to believe that this excessive suffering that is now coming to our family will in some little way serve to make Atlanta a better city, Georgia a better state, and America a better country,” King wrote. “Just how I do not yet know, but I have faith to believe it will. If I am correct then our suffering is not in vain.”
More than 60 years later, people impacted by the same unjust criminal-legal system are still pushing for change in America.
Reckon and Represent Justice, a nonprofit dedicated to using storytelling to transform the criminal legal system, are excited to bring you a collection of stories created by formerly incarcerated leaders and storytellers across the country. These stories, produced by Represent Justice’s seven Ambassadors, are the culmination of a yearlong storytelling training program that documents the breadth and impact of mass incarceration — and those who work every day to dismantle it.
Over the coming weeks we’ll be sharing this collection of short films, which cover everything from the immigration-to-prison pipeline, prison labor, parole reform, and so much more. And for many of the Ambassadors — including some who just came home during the pandemic — this is the first time they’ve been behind the camera, or had a sense of authorship over their own stories and experiences.
Chicago Ambassador Nelson Morris focused his project on the impact of youth mentorship in his hometown Morris describes his work as two-fold: On one hand, through mentoring, he offers an anti-violence message, even stressing how young people can use basic services like the city’s 3-1-1 system to bring about improvements they want to see in their communities. On the other hand, Morris also advocates for policy reforms in the Illinois capital, Springfield, including ending the practice of sentencing children to spend their natural lives in prison.
“My message is my story. It’s kind of hard to be pro-lock-people-up when you’re looking at someone who got locked up at 17 and came home at 47 doing 29 years,” Morris said. “I’m in your face telling you — that don’t work. I’m in your face telling you that you’re just throwing young people away.”
Atlanta activist Waleisah Wilson’s short documentary traces the throughline of slavery in Georgia from the 1800s to the contemporary prison system. The film particularly delves into how governments and private companies exploit this form of slave labor for profit.
“Once you’re sentenced to prison, prison is the punishment,” Wilson said. “My sentence says I’m sentenced to prison for a year. Nowhere in my sentence does it say I’m sentenced to be a slave, that if I refuse to do free work I can be raped, I can be thrown in solitary confinement, that I can be denied visitation with my children and my phone call or that a guard could abuse his authority and his power over me.”
She adds: “Silence is complicitness. When you’re seeing these people, and you think it’s okay for people to work for free, you are actually supporting a racist and oppressive system.”
In her film, Twyana Davis, a visual artist in Columbus, Ohio, reflects on being released from prison but being unable to live free. She tells Reckon that rules around supervision included paying cumbersome fees and being subjected to obtrusive rules about overnight guests and even romantic relationships.
“It’s kind of like you have one foot in the prison and one foot out of prison,” Davis said. “So it is, honestly, a measure of freedom that is contingent upon the parole board as well as the parole officer. So you’re free, but not really free. You know?”
Daniel Forkkio, Represent Justice’s CEO, said the organization was founded “because we believe that storytelling has the power to challenge the deeply-entrenched narratives that underlie our country’s criminal legal system, and in doing so, create change.”
He adds that this is Represent Justice’s first class of ambassadors to produce a short film as the cornerstone of their ambassadorship.
“We wanted to create a space where storytellers and advocates across the country had the means, access, and support to tell the stories they wanted to tell, in their own words,” Forkkio said. “It’s been powerful to see how they’ve evolved as storytellers. We’re just grateful we can be a conduit, and help them share these stories with the world.”
More about the Ambassadors and their projects
Nelson, a project associate for Restore Justice, is making a short film about the impact of youth mentorship in Chicago. He’ll interview people who were once sentenced to life in prison as juveniles, and put them in conversation with young people today to demonstrate the way cross-generational support can interrupt mass incarceration.
Andrew, Executive Director of the Louisiana Parole Project, is working on a short to demystify myths about commutations. The film would follow the stories of a few people who’ve had their sentences commuted by Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwardss, demonstrating that public safety is not sacrificed when those who’ve served long sentences are given a second chance.
Page Dukes, an organizer based in Georgia, is working on a short about felony disenfranchisement, highlighting the work of several women and their roots-up advocacy to win back their rights to civic engagement and to push back against “reforms” that reinforce disenfranchisement and inequality.
Waleisah, an organizer and founder of NewLife-SecondChanceOutreach, created a documentary short tracing the throughline of slavery in Georgia from the 1800s to the contemporary prison system. The short demonstrates public perception of the dependency of companies and city government on prison labor, and the way that this economic structure damages all members of the community.
Kent, a youth justice advocate and mentor with the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, is working on an animated short film based on his immigration story. The short traces his arrival from Mexico as an undocumented child to the moment he entered the justice system, and came out the other side to inspire young people to be leaders in their communities.
Shannon, Executive Director of The Community, is filming an original spoken word poem he wrote. The poem reveals the untapped potential and humanity of people with criminal records, and share’s Shannon’s own story of defying stereotypes placed upon him and helping others do the same.
Twyana Davis, an artist in Columbus, Ohio, created a short film reflecting the experience of being released from prison, but not being able to live free. She reflects on her experience by visualizing what it’s like to survive the trauma of prison, while living under strict parole terms and adjusting to a world that is quickly changing.