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Conjure up the image that comes to mind when you hear the term “incarcerated drug offender.”
Whatever you think, this special episode of the HBO series VICE will most certainly expand your view and humanize those behind bars.
Executive producer Shane Smith digs deep to explore the issues of non-violent drug offenders, mandatory sentencing and a judicial system that’s biased against men of color. Smith is also on hand when President Barack Obama, the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, tours the Federal Correctional Institution El Reno in Oklahoma.
Smith casts a wide net, talking to prisoners, their family members and friends, lawyers, judges, police officers and politicians. He can, at times, ask leading questions (“Is the criminal justice system racist?”), and he’s definitely not an unbiased reporter. He asks both former Attorney General Eric Holder and President Obama if they are more empathetic to prisoners given their background.
The highlight of the special is the president sitting down to talk to six prisoners at El Reno. Obama displays a unique ability to put people at ease and actually seem like he’s “one of us” rather than the “leader of the free world.” He thanks the prisoners for taking the time to meet with him in a way that’s not condescending, adding that he wants to have a relaxed conversation. And that’s what actually happens. He teases one prisoner who wants to open a barber shop and a diner after he’s released. “We’re going to focus on the barber shop first, you’ll get the diner later,” he says and laughs.
The president is forthcoming. He credits his background growing up in Hawaii as one of the reasons he never had legal trouble. “I was just in an environment where you could afford to make some mistakes,” he tells the inmates. He also tells Smith, “The notion that you or I couldn’t have… fallen prey to the temptations of the street. That doesn’t feel right to me. That doesn’t feel true.”
Smith is fond of statistics that help quantify the distressing reality. For example, America makes up less than 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prison population. There are 1.1 million fathers behind bars. It is estimated that one in three black male babies will end up serving time in prison. “The bottom line is: If you’re poor, particularly if you’re a person of color, you’re presumed guilty,” Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative says.
The interviews offer some startling revelations. Holder has had many talks with his 17-year-old son about how to conduct himself should he ever encounter law enforcement. Federal Judge John Gleeson, who dates the country’s mandatory sentencing to the death of basketball star Len Bias in 1986 confesses, “If you’re the judge that’s imposing that sentence, you feel pretty bad about it.”
But it’s the interviews with the prisoners’ family members that truly are devastating. Bobby Reed has been in prison for 19 years for a first-time offense. His niece was going into her senior year of high school when Reed was arrested. She tearfully talks about all the milestones her uncle has missed, from graduations to weddings to the birth of her child. Reed’s brother plaintively says to the camera, “I don’t know what to say. I’m just waiting on him to get home.” Then there’s the little girl who talks about the effect her father’s absence has had on her brother. “I do feel like he will go to jail for something really stupid,” she says of her sibling.
This is a complex issue and Smith tries to tackle various angles and aspects, from plea bargains to arrest quotas to the fines former inmates have to pay once they’re released to the challenges of finding a job once you’ve served time. The special smartly links the prison problem to recent racial unrest and police brutality, including the violent protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and the death of Freddie Gray. Fixing the System can sometimes feel like a term paper that tries to cover too many topics; it easily could have been a three- or four-part special.
But it is extraordinarily thought-provoking. After you’ve watched, you may feel compelled to speak out about the problem and try to become part of the solution.
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