Restorative justice film offers insights into criminal, societal behavior

This is a production still from the documentary “The Prison Within.” (CNS photo/courtesy Katherin Hervey)

By Mark Pattison, Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — It’s not often that someone — anyone — goes 20 years between films.

But Katherin Hervey is not just anyone.

Hervey served as art director for the 2000 short feature “Her Urge,” which the Internet Movie Database website estimates cost all of $20,000 to make.

And that was it, until she returned last year as the director, producer and co-writer of the documentary “The Prison Within,” which looks at how restorative justice principles work with those society typically regards as the most hardened murderers.

“The Prison Within” had its premiere last year in California, where Hervey lives, at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, where it won the award for best social justice documentary. Last summer, the film was made available via video on demand.

Hervey made a presentation in October during the Catholic Mobilizing Network’s online symposium on restorative justice, and said she’ll make a new presentation for the anti-death penalty group in mid-April.

In that 20-year pause between movies, Hervey published an arts and culture magazine when she was living in San Francisco, in addition to videography and filmography work.

“Then I went to law school and I became a public defender, a college instructor — and worked in assorted justice capacities, inside prisons and outside of prisons, with survivors and community members,” she told Catholic News Service. “Within that, of course, I started making this film.”

To get deeper into the movie’s subject matter, Hervey said, “I took the training that is featured in the film to really go in and be a proper filmmaker,” even doing some of the exercises that the men featured in “The Prison Within” did.

The documentary shows how restorative justice circles can elicit realizations by those convicted of serious crimes on how their abuse at the hands of others shaped them, and often leads them to conclude that their abusers themselves had been damaged early in their own lives.

They also focus on the anger and rage that led them to commit their crimes of violence, leading to the realization that they may have damaged victims and survivors, thus contributing to a continuum of violence.

Many of the scenes in “The Prison Within” were filmed inside San Quentin Prison in California, long regarded as the home of some of the worst criminals.

Hervey gave much credit to the imprisoned men for facing up to their past and wanting to improve the future for themselves and their communities, even from inside prison walls. She compared this to society, “where all of us are supposedly better people because we’re not in prison, and really being disappointed in people in their lack of integrity and their lack of accountability in even the smallest things.”

She asked, “Why aren’t these men out in the world as leaders in their communities and voices of how we can stop this madness? How we can stop this cycle of violence, how we can stop the cycle of incarceration and trauma?”

“The Prison Within” shows not only changes within the men in prison, but with an indirect victim: Dionne Wilson, the widow of a police officer who was murdered by a gang member in San Leandro, California. She said her campaign to get the convicted murderer a death sentence was successful. But as the years passed, she had her own conversion.

Wilson said in one speech, she came to see that her misplaced priority “was my seeking healing in the death of another human being.” In another speech, she told her audience to “be open to the possibility that people can and do change. I did.” Before a bipartisan group working on criminal justice issues, Wilson asked, “If our system worked, why is my husband dead?”

She even went to San Quentin to sit in on a circle. “There’s a three year waiting list to get into these programs,” she says in “The Prison Within,” “and there shouldn’t even be a three-day waiting period.”

What’s missing, Hervey said, is a lack of focus on the inequities of the U.S. prison system.

New York’s new HALT Solitary Confinement Act, which curbs the use of solitary confinement, is good as far as it goes, Hervey said.

But the issue goes deeper, she noted.

The bill “is 100% helpful and necessary, but it’s still solitary confinement. We’re still over incarcerating people, we’re still giving people way too harsh sentences. It’s still too racially disparate, right? Of course, all this needs to happen at the same time,” Hervey said, adding she sees her role is “to get people to step back and look at that whole eye-for-an-eye thing. We’re punishing instead of trying to heal the situation.”

She said her fear about the solitary confinement bill is that people will think, “So now our hands are clean, and we don’t have to worry about people in prison anymore.”

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