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The Return

Better inside or outside? The social "reentry" system for former prisoners in the US has severe flaws, leaving many African Americans marginalised and unable to reintegrate - new documentary explores

Prison release is not always about reconciliation with family and society. It is often an uphill struggle against social and financial reintegration, and the outcome is sometimes failure and frustration. Many former inmates battle to stay out of trouble (particularly with illegal drugs), but many re-offend and eventually become hardened, revolving-doors criminals. This is what routinely happens in the UK prison and probation system. The Return reveals that the rehabilitation establishment also faces very large and similar issues in the American state of California.

The documentary examines the post-release life of two former inmates, and their societal “reentry” challenges, including the financial hardship, family differences and the virtual closure of the job market for these people. It also reveals that the “Three Strikes” (three offences) policy in California incarcerated more than 10,000 drug users. The sudden passing of Prop 36 resulted in a abrupt law change and the immediate release of many people with little regard to their prospects of successful reinsertion, which also became a problem per se.

The Return is a very intimate and sentimental portrait of several black men who encountered such predicament, including Bilal and Kenneth.

Bilal Chatman received a 150 years to life sentence under Three Strikes for selling U$200 worth of drugs to an undercover police officer. In 2012, Chatman became eligible for release. He is currently married and works as the logistics supervisor for a major organization and oversees two campuses and 21 employees. He travels the country speaking about the effects of mass incarceration to communities and individuals.

Kenneth Anderson was sentenced to life in prison for a nonviolent drug offense also under the Three Strikes law. He was released in March 2013 after 14 years. He currently lives in a reentry home in southern California and receives support from his ex-wife Monica Grier, his four grown children and their families, but his job situation is not as stable as Bilal’s.

The film is populated with emotional statements and a mushy instrumental soundtrack highlighting the difficulties as well as the achievements that these men have made. It is successful at investigating a very serious problem from a melodramatic perspective. Long sentences and little reentry support are very detrimental to rehabilitation, the movie makes it very clear. A former inmate explains: “It is my convictions that define me”.

The Return fails, however, to provide some context and universal relevance to the events, and it may be difficult for a non-US audience to relate to it. It is a niche movie. While the conjecture in the California is unique, reintegration of former prisoners is a major challenge in many countries in the world, including the UK.

It barely touches on the issues of prison overcrowding and racism. It never reveals, for example, that the US has the biggest prison population in the world, that nearly 1% of the country’s population everywhere (not just in California) is behind bars and that the incarceration policy for drug users started as part of the Nixon failed moralisation campaign. It never investigates the issue of institutionalised racism, either.

By contrast, the American documentarist Michael Moore examined the historical reasons for racial profiling in the American judiciary in his 2016 film Where to Invade Next. He revealed that drug laws in the US where passed at times of civil rights. According to Moore, this was a stealthy way of denying Black Americans the vote, because drug users with a criminal record permanently lose their right to vote. He also shows that prison labour is a modern type of slavery, as prisoners earn close to nothing. Click here in order to read our full 4.5-splat movie review.

The Return sometimes gives the impression that Christian faith and family are the most successful road to reintegration. In a way, this exempts the judiciary from its responsibilities and legitimises its shortcomings. Not all prisoners have a Christian faith and a family to go back to, and ultimately it is the state’s duty to help these citizens to rebuild their lives.

The Return won the Audience Award at the Tribeca Film Festival last month. It also took the Bay Area Documentary Award at the San Francisco Film Festival last week. It will be broadcast on US television in the new season of Point of View (POV) on Monday, May 23rd, on the TV channel PBS. POV is one of the longest-running independent documentary series in the country. It is unclear whether the film will be shown outside the US.

Find out more about the film here, including production details and distribution rights, and watch its trailer below:


By Petra von Kant - 11-05-2016

Petra von Kant is a filmmaker, critic and performance artist. She was born Manoel Almeida to Brazilian parents in 1971 in Bremen, Germany. Her parents were political refugees fleeing the military dict...

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