Firsthand Accounts of Surviving Prisons and Pandemic Power the Adachi Project’s Films
Paul Reddâs family was waiting for him with balloons, bear hugs and full-belly laughs when he finally came home after 44 years in May 2020. In the intimate, short documentary Forty Four Years Later, happy tears flow as he reunites in a park with his sister, brother, sister-in-law and grown-up nephew, who had only met him once as a toddler. Your eyes might get misty as you watch, feeling the love, relief and grief at the fact that Redd was gone for four decades for a murder he maintains he never committed.
âItâs always important when you can have your story told, especially when you have been in prison for a wrongful murder conviction … as well as 30-something years in solitary confinement,â says Redd, an Oakland native, when I ask why he decided to let the filmmakers into that life-changing day.
âFor a long, long time, you were stigmatized as worst of the worst,â adds Redd, who was a well-respected hospice worker and anti-violence facilitator while serving his sentence. Now, heâs an advocate with the Quaker organization American Friends Service Committee, which works to end mass incarceration and poverty. âAnd a lot of us never believed that. I didnât believe it because I always felt I was the best of the best, so did many other people. … We continued to do positive things despite what people may have said.â
Forty Four Years Later is part of a three-part film series called Defender from the Adachi Project, which is the first creative project of its kind in the country. Named after the late San Francisco public defender Jeff Adachi, who was also a celebrated filmmaker, itâs a collaboration between the public defenderâs office, Santhosh Daniel of creative strategy company Compound and filmmakers Mohammad Gorjestani and Malcolm Pullinger of Even/Odd.
So why are lawyers making art instead of, say, holding press conferences about criminal justice reform? âBehind the statistics are people and families and communities who are impacted,â explains Hadi Razzaq, managing attorney at the San Francisco public defenderâs office. âAnd so we really believe that we need those human stories to move the needle to make lasting change.â
â[Jeff Adachi] always had this ongoing intensity to make sure that people were not just telling a story, but telling the whole story,â says Daniel, who was a personal friend of the late public defender.
Adachi, who died unexpectedly in 2019, was the child of Japanese American parents who survived internment camps after World War II. âHe saw firsthand what the distortion of justice can do to families and to people,â Daniel explains. âAnd then I think on top of that, he saw the narrative that the U.S. tried to paint after that, about how it wasnât that bad or not that big of a deal. I think that really informed his need to make sure people heard the whole story behind things. He carried that intensity into the courtroom.â
Beyond painting relatable portraits of people caught up in the criminal justice system, the Adachi Project champions policy change. Paul Redd, for instance, was released because of a change in California penal code section 1170(d), which allows district attorneys and sentencing courts to reevaluate prison sentences. His activism began behind bars, when he took part in a 2013 hunger strike; later, he became a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit that forced the California Department of Corrections to cut down its use of solitary confinement.
Redd calls much of the treatment prisoners experience âanti-human.â âI would like to see bills put in place that show more compassion, that give a second chance for redemption,â he says. To that end, during the 2020 election, he campaigned hard for Proposition 17, which restored voting rights for people on parole. He wants to see more programs that help get formerly incarcerated people employed and on their feet.
âIâve never stopped working toward that objective of trying to organize, to get more people on board, talking to lawyers, students,â Redd adds.
WhileÂ Forty Four Years Later prompts the viewer to reflect on how incarceration tears apart families and communities, the other two films in DefenderÂ take different angles. One ElevenÂ Taylor is shot from the first-person perspective of a resident of a halfway house, owned by private prison corporation GEO Group, at the height of the pandemic. In the film, he and other residents describe crowded conditions where COVID-positive and -negative people lived in close quarters. The facilityâs many older people with health conditions faced a catch-22: exposure to a deadly disease or leaving and violating the terms of their parole.
In the latest film,Â From Inside, people held inside the San Francisco County Jailâmost of whom were there because they couldnât afford to post bailâdescribe through video calls the isolation, pain and fear of being locked up during the pandemic as the disease spread.
For the public defenders and the filmsâ creators, the series is a way to draw attention to the way the United States over-relies on jails and prison to address problems often brought on by lack of access to opportunities, healthcare and housing. âI think that the San Francisco County Jail is the largest mental health facility in the city,â says Razzaq.
Slowly, cities in the Bay Area are creating ways to treat mental health crises as public health issues rather than criminal issues. This year, San Francisco began a program where behavioral health professionals now respond to non-violent, mental health-related 911 calls instead of police, and Oakland will soon pilot a similar program. Oakland activist group Anti Police-Terror Project already runs an emergency response service called Mental Health First, which is available to the public every Friday and Saturday.
âWhy is one bad decision that was brought on by socioeconomic stress, desperation and hopelessness completely derailing not just one individual, but their entire family and community? What does punishment at large, the way we currently see it, contribute to a safer society in the first place?â asks filmmaker Mohammad Gorjestani.
He hopes the Adachi Project can create a âdeep emotional and informational baselineâ for people, especially those with power and privilege, to reevaluate the role police and prisons play in society. While its next endeavors have yet to be announced, Defender is far from its last project, and Gorjestani says that feature films and episodic series are also on the table.
âWe want more people to think like public defenders,â says Razzaq. âAnd the system largely portrays justice through retribution and punishment, through the eyes of prosecutors and the police. … We need to understand the underlying issues that people have, whether it be poverty, substance use, mental health issues … to create more lasting solutions.â
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