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Film festival explores solutions to mass incarceration

What first comes to mind when you hear the word “incarceration?”

Is it a loved one or a life sentence that can’t be erased? Have you ever been looked at as less than human or denied opportunities because of your past? These are the questions that run through my mind when I hear the word “incarceration.”

The fifth annual Justice On Trial Film Festival was a three-day event presented by A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project and hosted by Loyola Marymount University Sept. 15-17. The purpose of the festival was to offer those who are impacted by mass incarceration a voice and a safe place to tell their stories while exposing social injustice within the judicial system.

Although some may feel that you have a choice to make it out of the cycle of imprisonment, that isn’t always the case. The system isn’t designed for success. There are 45,000 collateral consequences impacting people with criminal records.

More than 70 million individuals within the United States have a misdemeanor and/or a felony conviction. Daily, they struggle to qualify for sustainable employment, decent housing, higher education and a litany of other barriers that the law has sanctioned to prevent re-entry success.

Previously incarcerated individuals have the door shut on them time and time again. Many return to crime just to provide for their families.

The festival presented a series of films that focused on the many barriers faced by formerly incarcerated individuals. One of the films, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” won the festival’s Best Short Film award.

Director Ja’ Ron Thompson tells the story of a young black man attempting to do the right thing as he encounters the day-to-day struggles of living in the hood. I believe it is our duty for our communities to embrace, inspire and help those who come back home after doing to time in prison. They need to be encouraged to dream again — to reconnect with their life’s purpose.

I spoke to a formerly incarcerated gentleman who graciously volunteered his time to help throughout the festival. He shared that it had been 30 days since his release and how good he felt to support others as well as being supported.

From that comment, I realized that a little love and care goes a long way. During the festival, conversations about incarceration became more intimate and diverse. They were not only about one race. Everyone connected and came together as one to share their experiences.

As I spoke with a few of the directors, I wanted to know what inspired them to create their films. Tamara Perkins, the director for “Life After Life,” told me her film took 10 years to create.

After seeing the trauma her family faced as they watched her cousin go through the judicial system as a youth offender, she knew she had to tell her truth through film. She stated that the film kind of chose her.

Another director, Dawn Alexander (“When Justice Isn’t Just”), shared that she wanted to tell her story through everyone’s eyes.

During one of the festival’s panel discussions, formerly incarcerated activist Donna Hylton, said, “We are not our worst mistakes and our worst moments do not define us.”

I agree. We must also create more opportunities for our communities to thrive instead of just survive.

Myesha Johnson is an office associate for A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project.