The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 440 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast I’ll be talking with a panel of experts about the criminal justice system and incarceration, looking at what TV and movies get right and get wrong and how to do better. It’s a great discussion we held this week in cooperation with Hollywood Health and Society. If you’d like to watch this panel rather than listen to it there is a link in the show notes to the video.
Craig, it was good, it was fun. I missed you but there was so much to talk about that an extra person up there probably would have been a challenge.
Craig: Sometimes I feel like it’s important to have these moments where you get to do your thing, or I get to do my thing. It keeps it fresh. I’m not saying that we’re swingers or anything. I don’t think – that’s not our lifestyle.
John: It isn’t.
Craig: No. We don’t have an open relationship, but you know how married couples talk about a hall pass?
Craig: I feel like we actually give each other hall passes every now and again. It’s like instead of the fake ones that you know will just get you in permanent trouble.
John: Absolutely. Like my husband for many years, he would go on one vacation by himself each year which I think is just great. So, it’s a chance to sort of like what is interesting in the world that is not just a shared couple thing.
Craig: Yeah. It lets you be yourself. I’m glad that I could let you be yourself.
John: Now Craig, what has been your experience with the criminal justice system or writing about the criminal justice system? Because I’m thinking back through your credits and I don’t perceive you writing a bunch about lawyers and jails and prisons. But have you done that?
Craig: Only in the most bizarre and non-realistic way for the third Hangover film.
Craig: Which features Thai law enforcement as well as Mexican law enforcement and I don’t think any of it was accurate in the slightest. So mostly I watch law enforcement. I don’t think I’ll ever be one of those people that writes a big jury trial movie or anything like that.
John: Yeah. Like you, I mostly have my experience of criminal justice system watching it on TV. Yes, I’ve been on juries, but most of what I perceive is the things I see on television. And those things are not particularly accurate, so it was a great chance to talk with the folks who do this for a living about what is actual and accurate and real and sort of how to think about it more smartly. And how to really include characters and stories that aren’t being told on the screen. So, enjoy this panel discussion. Craig and I will be back at the end of this for our credits. And if you’re a Premium member stick around because Craig and I are going to talk about the coronavirus. And Dr. Craig–
John: He will have it all covered and handled for you.
Craig: I’ve got it all.
John: All right. Enjoy.
Hello and good evening. It is so nice to be here with you all in this nice little intimate room. Tonight we are going to be talking about the criminal justice system. We’re going to be talking about the myths and realities of what the criminal justice entails. And we’re really going to be talking about biases. And so I want to start by talking about my own biases. I’m coming at this as a screenwriter. And so I’m looking at some of these issues from the perspective of what a writer, a filmmaker, someone in the medium might want to learn about when it comes to criminal justice, and so how we tell the stories accurately, how we tell them better, how we avoid some of the tropes and how we just do a better job writing about the criminal justice system.
But I’m also coming at this as a citizen and as a person who votes and as a person who picks people who make policies that really impact how we think about criminal justice. So, I really have two hats on my head, on my very bald head, as I look at these issues. And so I’m so lucky to have an amazing panel here and I’m going to ask maybe some really naïve questions, but I think questions that so often are not asked as we think about what criminal justice entails.
So, I’m going to start with you Aly. So Aly Tamboura is a manager in the criminal justice reform program at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative where he brings firsthand experience after spending a decade of his life incarcerated. Tamboura partners with formerly incarcerated leaders who are accelerating reforms, giving those who are closest to the problems a voice in reimagining a better criminal justice system. Welcome Aly.
Aly Tamboura: Thank you.
John: So a couple months ago I did a panel here for Hollywood Health and Society where we were talking about addiction and mental health and one of the things I really wanted to start with is that there are a whole bunch of terms we use related to addiction and mental health that are just inherently negative. That start from a judgmental basis. Like alcoholic or addict. And so when you start using those words you’re automatically coming in at a deficit.
And there’s words like that in relation to criminal justice as well, so before we start talking about anything else can you talk us through some of the words and some of the terms that we may be using that are really not helpful at all. And so can we start using some better words as we start this conversation. What are some words that you hear or terms that you hear that maybe we could just take off the table from the start?
Aly: I was going to say all of them.
John: All of them. All right.
Aly: so, I mean, when you think of things like ex-convict, prisoner, felon, ex-felon, parolee, those are all pejorative words meant to marginalize people. Right? I remember having this big argument when I first came home with my parole officer. You know, he’s calling me a parole and this and that. I said I’m not. And he’s like, yeah you are. I’m like I am not the worst mistake I ever made in my life and I will never, ever, ever accept anybody telling me that I’m the worst mistake I ever made in my life. Right? And I challenge the audience out here. Imagine the worst thing you’ve ever done in your life. And imagine if someone called you that for the rest of your life, in employment, in housing, in access to healthcare, everything. You walk in the door and that’s what they call you. And that’s what it feels like when I hear this language.
John: So, you started to explain why it’s a negative, but also what are words that we can use that are neutral, at least neutral, that actually acknowledge that you are a person and not the worst thing you’ve ever done.
Aly: Right, so instead of calling people prisoners or inmates, call them incarcerated people. I think if you keep the word people–
John: People or individuals.
Aly: Or individuals.
John: Acknowledging that they are human beings.
Aly: In this context, right, it not only helps the individual who may have transgressed on one of our social norms, but it also helps society as a whole to be able to accept those people back in our society.
John: You spent a decade of your life in prison.
Aly: 12 years, four months, 21 days.
John: All right. And so can you talk us through the reality of going from your normal life into a life as a person who is incarcerated. Talk to me about the degree to which you lose your individuality. Are there aspects of that process? Because I’ve seen this in movies before. I’ve seen a person enter prison. What aspects of that are accurate that I’ve seen in movies and TV shows? What aspects of that are not accurate in your experience?
Aly: Almost every aspect is not accurate. And I have to tell you when I – I never thought for a minute in my life that I’d end up incarcerated. But I had – all of my knowledge was from media on what prison, jail, the court system was like. And I’m going to say it starts in court. The idea that you have any control. You hire an attorney or one is appointed for you. They take your name. They give you a case number. You become a case number. And you become a spectator. Right? Very rarely and most of the times most people don’t get up and testify in their defense. So you’re just a spectator in this process.
And then once you get to prison then you really start getting stripped of your identity. You get a prison number. And that becomes who you are for the time of your incarceration. They take your clothing from you and mark you as a prisoner. You no longer can do the normal things that you did in life, like cook for yourself, or wash your clothes, or decide when you want to take a shower. So, you really start losing – you lose your individuality but you also lose your purpose, right.
You know, most people in here have a purpose. Get up, go to work, take care of your kids, take care of your family, go to school, whatever it is. In prison your purpose soon, like actually not – the day you arrive becomes survival. How am I going to make it through this? How am I going to make it back to my family? Then you add on top of that this just crushing oppression and isolation. You’re just ripped completely away from your social network and very, very small channels of communication. It’s why I love my job because we’re content on changing the system.
John: So we can all talk about the same terms, can you explain the difference between jail and prison, or sort of what kinds of incarceration are out there?
Aly: Sure. So jail in most jurisdictions means that you are a ward of the county. You are – it’s usually lower level offenses, so misdemeanors and some felonies that they call wobblers. Usually couldn’t spend more than a year in jail. In some jurisdictions that’s changed now though. And then if you have a sentence that’s more than a year then you become a state prisoner and you’re a ward of the state. If you’re in jail you get probation after jail. If you go to prison you get parole.
John: Thank you. Next I want to talk to Lovisa Stannow. She’s the executive director at Just Detention International. She’s also a trained rape crisis counselor and has written extensively about prisoner rape, including a series of high profile articles in the New York Review of Books. Previously Lovisa served as the executive director of the Pacific Institute for Women’s Health and the West Coast director of Doctors Without Borders. Welcome Lovisa.
Lovisa Stannow: Thank you.
John: So your organization works with jails and prisons in the US but also internationally. So I would love to get some perspective on what do you see internationally that’s the same or different than US prison and can you broaden this out to a global perspective here.
Lovisa: Absolutely. Thank you. So you’re right. A lot of my work is in the United States, but I also am spending quite a bit of time inside South African prisons and also doing work in places like Mexico and the Philippines, but also Canada and Europe. And there are prisons in the world that are logistically speaking a lot worse than US prisons in the sense that I have been inside facilities where half of the people don’t have beds, where they sleep on the floor. I have been inside facilities where the government agency that incarcerates people doesn’t supply food. So you rely completely on your family on the outside.
There are also prisons in for example Canada or parts of Northern Europe that are relatively healthy institutions in the sense that there’s much more of a focus on helping people heal from whatever trauma brought them to the prison in the first place. And that are really committed to making sure people never come back. And the US ends up somewhere in the middle there, but what’s important is that we should not think that we’re doing well here. And I think a lot of Americans believe that relatively speaking our prisons are OK and that’s just not the case.
You know, we incarcerate more people than anybody else in the world, both in terms of relative numbers and relatively speaking. And we keep people in prison for such a long time. People spend decades inside. They lose touch with their families. They are dehumanized at every turn, like we just heard. And in addition US prisons are suffering from an epidemic of rape and sexual abuse. So every single year in US detention 200,000 people are sexually abused. So that’s not the number of incidents. Most of these people are assaulted more than once. And that’s not good enough.
So, I think there are reasons for us to be ashamed and alarmed about our prisons.
John: Now we see portrayals in media of prison violence and sexual violence. Is it realistic or is it reinforcing that we see these portrayals? To what degree are the expectations being set by the media that we’re seeing? What are you seeing in terms of sexual violence in prisons?
Lovisa: The narratives that we see in most movies and television shows that touch on sexual abuse in prison are really misguided and dangerous and frankly inaccurate. Both in the way prisoners themselves, incarcerated people, are described and portrayed, but also the way the institutions themselves are shown.
So prisoners tend to be portrayed as somehow one-dimensional, casually cruel, less than human beings. And that’s so far from the truth. And the actual institutions are often portrayed as these inherently violent places where there’s no way we can keep people safe. And that’s also not true. And these false narratives have real life consequences. Because it means that we start to believe that prisoners are disposable. That it’s OK to ignore people who are incarcerated. That it’s OK to hate people who are incarcerated.
John: Zach I’m going to ask you the next question because you actually are making a show that is about an incarcerated person. Zach Calig is a writer-producer for the new ABC legal drama For Life, loosely based on the true story of Isaac Wright, Jr., it tells the story of a man who was wrongfully imprisoned but while incarcerated became a licensed attorney and helped overturn the wrongful convictions of 20 of his fellow inmates. Zach, welcome.
Zach Calig: Thank you.
John: Zach, now, I was reading up about the show and I was struck by this quote from Isaac Wright, Jr. who sort of inspired the show. “I think one of the things happens in the criminal justice system is that the prosecutor is able to control the narrative from the very, very beginning. The moment an arrest is made they put out a press release to the media and the media follows that narrative. They control the destiny of the person they’re going to be prosecuting.”
So you as writing on this show, you got to sort of set your own narrative for what this story was going to be about and what it was going to be like. What were your challenges and what did you see as the opportunities for setting the narrative for this person’s life?
Zach: Well, one of the opportunities that we were able to exploit was giving every single person that was incarcerated a full backstory. We were able to talk about their relationships, their loves, their children, their hopes and dreams and really humanize every single person, whether they were – I don’t want to say the word villain, but whether they were an antagonist to our main character, actually both in prison and even the prosecutors. We tried not to have full heroes or antagonists.
But we don’t have any control over how a prosecutor will present the case and probably will continue to be the same on their end, but we can on our end start to peel back the curtain and understand that it’s not black and white. That at least in Aaron’s case there was an eye witness line up that he will prove to be tainted. And so one of the reasons he was able to do this, like for example you’re called into an eye witness lineup and there’s me and four other people. You don’t recognize anyone. Two weeks later they say John we want you to come back in and you see me and four new people. And now suddenly I look familiar. And in that case Aaron, our protagonist who was based on Isaac’s life, is able to attack that and kind of set a precedent for his own case and free him.
Also, able to look at other issues in terms of like paid criminal informants and in one case of someone who is giving information to a DA in order to get a get-out-of-jail free card for himself. So, with humanizing everyone who is incarcerated on our show, whether they deserved to be in their prison or not, and peeling back the curtain on the prosecutor, we’re trying to paint a picture that there’s more than what meets the eye.
John: Well it sounds like, and we’ve all seen police lineups in TV shows. As long as I can remember I’ve seen that scene. But I’ve never seen it from that perspective. So you’re actually just taking a look at the same moments we would have seen in other shows but from a different perspective, from really looking at sort of what’s going on behind the scenes. There was a second one and so therefore that’s why that character is familiar again. So you’re questioning sort of how it actually really works. And was that research or how did you get to that?
Zach: Research. Well, I want to say in dramatizing how loaded some of these portrayals can be. But, yeah, that was research. We had an incredible staff. We had a writer who was a former CO. We had two attorneys, one of whom was a public defender and opened up three non-profits in criminal justice. We had a lot of writers, myself included, who had friends and family incarcerated. So everyone was able to bring these perspectives to the table to really put a vivid portrayal on a side of prison that we hadn’t seen. I am personally guilty of watching Oz when I was a teenager and enjoying it at the time, but I also understand that that’s problematic because it’s one side of prison. But it I would say by and large dehumanizes most of the people who are on the show.
John: No one comes off well on Oz. There are no heroes in Oz. Let’s get to Dan Birman. So Dan Birman is an award-winning producer and director. He’s spent six years producing and directing the documentary Me Facing Life, Cyntoia’s story, which follows 16-year-old Cyntoia Brown who received a life sentence for murder in Tennessee. He’s currently producing the second installment of Cyntoia’s story exploring juvenile justice issues and her fight for freedom, slated for release this spring on Netflix. So Dan, while Zach was talking about taking a real life person’s story as a jumping off place, you are talking about a real person who you met early on in this process. Can you catch us up to speed on like how you first got to know Cyntoia Brown? How you first got involved with this story? And what the change has been over the course of these years you’ve seen? How both she has changed but really it feels like some of our assumptions about criminal justice have changed over the course of the time you’ve been making this documentary.
Dan Birman: So about 2004 I decided to take on the task of understanding how juveniles can become violent. And so it was my job as a documentarian to figure out how to tell that story. We don’t get to write out the narrative. We actually have to go find it and bring it in. So I did a lot of research and found myself in Davidson County, the seat where Nashville is located. Gained the access to the juvenile justice system, to the public defender’s office, and over the course of a year between 2003 and 2004 somewhere in there Cyntoia Brown was arrested and I got a call from the public defender’s office saying I think we have a story for you. That’s after gaining a lot of access and trust.
And I found myself on a plane within three hours with a little camera in my hand. The next morning I was in Nashville at 6:30 in the morning and by 7:30 I was staring in the face of a young girl, 16 years old, who looked like anybody’s little girl, only knowing that she had done something pretty horrible. And so what I started doing is recording interviews with Cyntoia Brown and we had an agreement back in 2004 that nobody on earth is going to allow me to do the story I wanted to do over time, so I was just going to have to follow this story on my own.
And I decided to do that, as long as she agreed not to lie to me or send me down, manipulate my storytelling process that I would stay with this story as long as I needed to that. And that has been 16 years.
John: So over those 16 years in the little trailer we just saw we talk about how she was initially described as being a prostitute and now she’s described as a victim of sexual abuse. That does feel like a change that’s happened over the course of this time.
Dan: That’s an insightful – you’re going down an insightful path. Because first of all there are a lot of assumptions that go on in this system. And I started out as a – I’m a filmmaker. I’m a documentary producer. So, what I know about justice systems you could put on the head of a pin and still have room for an entire bowling alley. But what I went in with were my own assumptions. I started this story, to be quite frank with you, a very close personal friend of mine lost his mother because her granddaughter murdered her for drug money. And so I thought well that’s messed up. So, what do we do about that?
So my assumptions when I got the call, I said tell me Cyntoia. 16-year-old girl in the middle of prostitution, on drugs. Got picked up by a 43-year-old man who picked her up for sex. Things went from bad to worse and she murdered him. And so I thought to myself, and as I was flying to Nashville I thought Birman what the hell are you doing? I mean, this is stuff we read in the newspaper every day. Why are you going down this path?
And all of a sudden I found myself asking what the hell kind of question is that. She’s a 16-year-old girl. So at that time Cyntoia Brown was eviscerated by media. She was painted as someone who committed murder, a really bad thing to an upstanding citizen of the community, and whatever. So my initial assessment centered on the crime. And centered on a whole lot of factors that are our prejudices.
But what I found over time is it ain’t that simple. What took me seven years to put out the first film was to really peel back the layers of humanity in a human story, because Cyntoia Brown is a human. And the world that grew up in had a lot to do to shape her. Yes, she made a really bad decision on August 6, 2004. Really bad decision. But if we are busy not couching what people do with at least trying to shoot for some level of understanding, some level of perspective, then we’re missing it.
And the reason I think our film has been so successful and now we’ve got this new film that’s coming out, it’s a redo, it’s not an update, it’s a redo, is because I think we bothered to take a hard, hard, hard look at the humanity.
John: So in the Cyntoia Brown story it’s a murder that gets her caught up into the system, but that’s probably not – that’s not the reason why most people end up in the criminal justice system. Can we talk about the start of the process, like what it is that gets people involved in the criminal justice system and gets them into a situation where they may be incarcerated? What are the common reasons for which a person is arrested and how do arrests then lead to sort of the incarcerations that we’re seeing? Aly, what are you seeing as what are the common factors that are getting people into our jails and our prisons?
Aly: I don’t think that there’s any like we can just say these are the five factors because every person is different. You know, in my case lack of emotional intelligence, lack of impulse control, being raised in a hyper masculine environment. But there are – I think a big chunk we can codify and that’s lack of opportunity. When people are thriving in the world they’re not going to go out and commit a crime. You know?
And so I think if we have opportunity for that segment of society then we would be able to deal with the people who really need the help.
John: And what are the specific things that people tend to be arrested for? Because we know about like there’s the issue of like nonviolent drug offenses that are getting people into the system. But what are the things that you see in your time in jail and in prison that you saw as being reasons why people are caught up in this net? What are the specific incidents that tend to get people–?
Aly: A vast majority of the people are for drug sales or violence surrounding drug sales, or drug use. Then there’s a segment of people who have mental health issues and as a society we don’t know what to do with those people anymore. So, we send them to prison and jail. And then you have the people, the category that I put myself in, who were in a bad situation, emotionally-charged situation, and made a poor choice in that situation.
And I want to challenge you a little bit. I don’t think Cyntoia murdered her victim. I think she killed him, definitely. But the definition of murder, that premeditation, right – this little girl was being trafficked and made a poor decision but I don’t think – and I’m speculating – but I just don’t believe in my heart that she got up that morning and said, “I’m going to go kill someone in a hotel.” Right?
Dan: That’s correct.
Aly: And to me that’s the definition of murder.
Dan: That’s correct. She didn’t get up that morning and decide to go murder somebody, to kill somebody. I use the word murder for a very dramatic reason. And the reason I use the word murder is because that is a label that is put on someone who does kill somebody. She was convicted of murder. She went to prison. She became incarcerated for having convicted first degree murder. So I use the word for a little bit of dramatic effect.
It’s not perhaps the best word because I think we showed that there’s a much deeper story and as in fact Cyntoia Brown is walking, is a free person, today. Today. Because somebody stopped and bothered to look at a young woman in 360 degrees. But I want to just add one more thing to your question. In the year that Cyntoia was arrested 2.2 million children – children – were arrested for violent crime that year. That year. A third of them were girls. 98% of the girls who were arrested that year according to the Department of Justice, the data that I found, were also victims of sexual and physical abuse.
I think you can maybe – there are ways to categorize what are the crimes of the day but I think what we’re really looking at are the situations of the day. And I think what we miss as writers, as filmmakers, I’m a documentarian so I have to go for facts anyway, but is be able to find perspective because it’s not as sexy to find perspective.
John: So you’re saying that the – we might notice the arrest but the actual incidents that were leading up to that arrest happened way before that. And we’re outside of the control of—
Dan: It’s big. It’s way the hell big. And I will tell you that there were no lawyers who were ready to put in six years of their time to go find the birth mother, the adoptive mother, the maternal grandmother, and to understand their stories that led to three generations of violence that resulted in Cyntoia Brown. I don’t think the system knows how to do that.
John: Let’s talk about the process from the moment that a person is arrested and sort of portrayals we see in the media we tend to see it from the prosecutor’s point of view. We tend to see like, well, we’re trying to figure out who committed this crime. We found a person. This is the person who committed the crime and we’re going to convict this person and then credits roll and the thing is over. What are we missing from the other side of the story? What side are we not seeing? And Zach maybe you can speak to that just a little bit. What side are we not seeing of what it’s like to be on the receiving end of criminal justice systems?
Zach: Well, for the people that matter, the jury, they’re not seeing the human element. They’re not seeing the circumstances in which some of these crimes were committed. And they’re not seeing what goes on in the police department. They’re basically only seeing what the prosecutor wants them, especially if someone can’t afford a good attorney.
And the quality of attorney that one has kind of determines the narrative that’s going to be put out there. And when you said we don’t see other narratives, they just maybe think of Harvey Weinstein. Well, we see his narrative because he can afford the best attorney money can buy, and most people cannot.
John: Aly, when you see people who are caught up at the start of the criminal justice system, you see people who are arrested, do you have any sense of like what the percentage of people who are arrested or go to trial are going to be convicted? I’m guessing it’s quite high.
Aly: Yes. So, in America, and this is just a shocking statistic, if a prosecutor charges you with a felony you have a 97% chance of being found guilty, whether you’re innocent of the crime or not. And I want to highlight something about the prosecutor narrative. Prosecutors have a very, very, very difficult job. And I argue that they’re also system-impacted. They see the worst of humanity every day. They work in an antiquated system, with very, very little to no technology. They read a police report and literally in a manner of minutes, most times less than an hour, make a charging decision that is going to affect the offender, affect the victim, affect the community, affect tax payers. And, yeah, I’m proud to say one of the things that we are doing at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is working with prosecutors, helping them use data and technology and get better at making more informed decisions that have better outcomes for everybody.
John: So when a person is arrested you would like the prosecutor to say not only how good of a case can I make but I really first ask is this person the actual person who committed the crime. Is this person the guilty person? And what is actually the appropriate response for what’s happened there. Those are two things or what else am I missing?
Aly: Well, I think, I mean, it’s more nuanced than that. But I think one of the things is we have this adversarial system, right? What a police officer writes in a police report is held as gospel. And once a person goes in you really, really have very, very little control of, like Zach said, unless you can hire an expensive attorney you are literally a spectator.
And it’s even worse if you can’t afford bail. Because you can’t even assist your attorney in your defense because you’re in jail.
John: Talk to us about bail. Because that’s a system that I don’t really understand. And how does bail come about? What is the decision about who gets bail, who does not get bail? And what is a person expected to be able to put up for bail, because I know bail bondsmen and all sorts of stuff. I’m sure it’s different state by state. But what are some useful things that writers and filmmakers can understand about how bail works if a person is arrested?
Aly: So, supposedly you’re innocent until proven guilty and bail is a way to get people to show up to court. So if you have some skin in the game, right, if you’re accused of a crime and there is a bail scheduled for offenses in every jurisdiction or every geography they say, OK, you stole a car, your bail is $50,000. Usually people don’t have $50,000 so what they do is they pay a bail bondsman 10%. The bail bondsman—
John: So they would have to pay $5,000 and the bail bondsman would basically do an insurance policy on them.
Aly: Exactly. And that’s funny because the insurance industry underwrites most of the bail bondsman and they take that 5% as a fee, or 10%. It really depends on the bail bondsman. But anywhere from 5% to 10%.
John: It’s basically a tax on that person for having been arrested.
Aly: Right. And so what happens is if you’re wealthy you can post the whole bail and after you get out of trial you get your money back, or you can leverage your real estate. But if you’re poor you’re stuck in jail. And you’re stuck in jail, this is pre-trial, you’re not proven guilty. So you’re already incarcerated and the issue with that is people that are poor you lose your job, you lose your house. It’s just a cascade that goes downhill.
And then it also forces you into a lot of times prosecutors if you’re sitting in jail four, five, six, seven, eight days they’ll come up and say, oh well, take a plea deal, I’ll let you out today. And people plea out sometimes think [they knew].
John: Now, Lovisa, if a person is sitting in jail during this time they’re unable to make bail, what are the range of things they could see in jail? Because I’m guessing that jail is not a place that anyone ever wants to be. But in your experience dealing with jails because I know you were consulting with like Aspen jail, but also there’s I’m sure worse jails than the Aspen jail. What does one encounter in jails?
Lovisa: Well, one of the biggest jails in the world is just minutes away from here which is the Men’s Central Jail, Downtown Los Angeles. And jails tend to be pretty terrible places. Partly because people are supposed to be there for only short periods of time, either waiting trial or as Aly already said spending maybe up to a year if they get a short sentence. And that means that there’s even less programming. There’s even less attention being paid to why people ended up there in the first place. There are so few services in a jail to actually help all these women who arrive because they have endured horrible trauma previously in life, or men who have endured trauma.
So, jails tend to be really chaotic places. And violent places. Both in terms of physical violence in general, but also sexual abuse.
John: So obviously we’re focused on the media narratives here, but let’s just a step at the process here. What are some things that could be done to fix this part of the early process? So from arrest to trial, what things would you here on the stage like to see done? So I hear things about cash bail reform or the end of cash bail. Can someone explain what that actually means because I don’t want to explain it wrong?
Zach: One of the writers on our show created a nonprofit, one of the attorneys, called the Bail Project. And the idea behind bail was that if someone who has gone through a trial has skin in the game than they will post a bond and be able to return to collect that money. And what this organization did is it paid bail for people who cannot afford it, predominately people in lower income communities, and they found that 96% of their clients came back. And it kind of blew away the notion that people need skin in the game to even consider coming back to their trial. And now they’re in 20 cities across America and that’s one of the things that they’re pushing for and collecting the data to kind of dispel this myth that we have.
John: Dan, Cyntoia was a teenager, so what did you see in terms of a teenager entering the jail system? What do we do with juveniles who are caught up in that system? What are the right choices? Putting you on the spot to fix juvenile detention.
Dan: I think the hard work of understanding of what a juvenile’s process should be centers on a lot of factors. One is where did they come from. What situations are they in? But you know the system is not designed, it’s not intended to understand the circumstances. It’s not intended at all.
Look, I think in television and film it’s easy to vilify everybody. It’s easy to vilify the prosecutor. It’s easy to vilify the cops. It’s easy to vilify everybody associated with the system. But everybody comes at this with pieces of information, pieces of destiny, what they’re supposed to do. And I think that for the – I’ll never forget that the sheriff of Davidson County asked to take a look at the fine cut of our first documentary before we released it. And he said, “Oh my god, we missed this one.” And I said, you know, I’m not sure you could have seen it.
I mean, these are people who are overworked, overwhelmed by a lot – a lot – a lot of people coming into their system. And Cyntoia Brown was just one of them, one of many that day. How do you stop and go take a look at what their environment was like?
John: But I would challenge that as storytellers we have the opportunity to put – to make a character out of one of those prosecutors and let that person realize that there’s actually more to the story. And actually let that person be a heroic person, to actually step beyond their job to actually realize what’s going on there and how to sort of best—
Dan: I got to tell you, these are great characters. I mean, Jeff Burks, who was the prosecutor in Cyntoia’s case, was a hardworking guy, a thinking guy. He’s also an animated guy. And he’s a guy who has got a great theatrical presence. For anybody who is writing a story, if you were to watch Jeff Burks in action you’d go, oh my god, I want to write about that guy. And if you look at each of the people involved, the police officers, the detectives involved, they all have that presence. Again, the hard work for us as the filmmakers, as the writers, as the producers, you know, for me the documentary guy, is to take a much harder look, a much closer look at what makes those characters tick.
That’s the fun stuff. Because you could take it from the surface, we’ll see a prosecutor who is doing his job. But if we dig a little deeper we’ll find something more.
John: This person we’re talking about is now incarcerated. This person is going into a prison situation. Can we talk about the depictions of entering prison versus what reality is? Because I feel like I’ve seen the scene where the character goes to prison a zillion times. And I don’t know how much of any of that is accurate. Aly, can you talk us through some of the things you see in media about entering prison and what myths you’d like to see dispelled?
Aly: You know, you always see the guy walking – or gal – walking with—
John: The folded clothes?
Aly: The folded clothes. You got your sheet. Your towel. And your socks and underwear. And then there’s a bunch of people catcalling. And I’m just like, oh no, oh god, this is just not how it works. In reality how it works, I mean, it’s a very, very spirt-breaking process. You’re taken from the county jail to what they call a reception center.
John: Which is not the prison itself or sort of outside?
Aly: So they are prisons. I think in California we have four reception centers. So depending on what geography—
John: It sounds so nice.
Aly: Well, no, they send you there and you’re put directly in isolation. So, there is no contact with family members. I spent 101 days in isolation in a prison called [Delano]. I had no paper, no pen, no pencil, no phone calls.
John: And is the stated purpose behind this for safety and protection?
Aly: No. It’s an assessment time. So, you get medically screened. You get screened for education. Then you go in and you go to an actual hearing and they decide your custody level. Then you get shipped to one of California’s 36 prisons, the main prisons. And then in California you have Death Row, which is the highest custody level. And then it goes level four down to level one. And the way – usually you can earn your way down, so the idea is by the time you’re getting ready to go home you’re in a minimum security facility.
Some people depending on their score never reach like a Corcoran Level IV or like Pelican Bay. And there’s a total different type of violence that happens there. It’s very extreme. But it’s not the whistling catcalls that you see in movies, on cinema.
John: Lovisa, this last week a big Hollywood person, Harvey Weinstein, got sentenced to prison. We were talking beforehand that you were expecting there to be a whole bunch of like Harvey Weinstein rape jokes and they did not come. Is that progress? Is that good news that it wasn’t the first thing Twitter jokesters went to?
Lovisa: I hope it’s progress. I hope we won’t find that there is a bunch of jokes happening tomorrow about Harvey Weinstein. But one of the things that really filled me with dread was once the conviction hit the news we learned that his lawyer had said he “took it like a man.” And I just thought, oh no, now we’re going to get all the jokes. All the don’t drop the soap jokes.
But to my great surprise it didn’t really happen. There were some sort of minor tweets that were just tasteless, but there was also some strong pushback from higher profile media folks. And I’d like to hope that that means we’ve turned some kind of corner, because I think that the sort of flippant treatment of rape in detention is really one of the – it’s a really dangerous trope. And it’s one of the biggest problems with Hollywood’s approach to criminal justice.
John: You talk about detention and detention, you know, in the US I think we think about criminal justice as keeping those people outside of society. And other countries may think about it more as rehabilitation and pushing people, you know, getting people the skills they need so they can function back in society. Can you talk us through some of the different approaches that other countries, or sort of more positive approaches other countries might take to this person who was convicted of a crime and is now incarcerated? What are some things that we might see that are different in other countries?
Lovisa: In healthier prisons those who are incarcerated are allowed to live somewhat normal lives. They get to still have some control over their lives. Whether it’s just that they’re allowed to wash their own clothes or cook their own food, which doesn’t necessarily seem like a privilege to those of us on the outside, but that’s hugely important to actually – especially for people who arrive with profound trauma in their past, who may never have lived a mainstream life. They have a chance to learn basic skills that are essential upon release.
And so those are really important basic, basic programs that we are typically lacking in the US.
John: Zach on your show your central character gets his law degree while incarcerated?
Zach: In our show he gets his law degree while in custody. It made it simple for the audience to understand that he’s an attorney. In reality he got his law degree after, but he did everything that we’re portraying as a paralegal in prison.
John: I would say as a screenwriter that he was able to build a sense of purpose and autonomy for himself in doing the work for other people who were incarcerated. And the education that he’s getting, the education he’s able to get is what allows him to feel like not just a number, but actually a person with value. Was that a goal of the show?
Zach: It’s interesting you say that because he’s actually not this altruistic do-gooder at the top. He’s really taking cases at the beginning of the season specifically to knock down the pillars of his own case and get himself a new trial. Obviously because it’s Hollywood and it’s television we may see this character evolve and start to do something for someone else without personal benefit. But we also go in – I mean, he starts out an attorney in the pilot, but we do have a flashback episode so we can understand how he got to where he is and we see him arriving in prison. We skipped through a lot of the areas where he’s not interacting with other people. But we see him kind of acclimate to this culture and decide to find purpose in the law. And at first, yes, it’s a selfish-driven purpose, but it does give him purpose. And ultimately he’ll find value in helping other people.
John: And Dan I haven’t seen your movie yet, but I want to know to what degree—
Dan: April 30.
John: April 30. To what degree is Cyntoia able to grow into being a woman over the course of her time in prison?
Dan: Watching Cyntoia over the 15 years that I watched her I was amazed. Here is a young woman who walked in with a whole lot of issues going on for her. She’s staring at a life in prison that she might not walk out of. And yet she bothers to take advantage of everything that the prison has to offer in this case and she got an education, one course at a time. She graduated while in prison with an Associate’s Degree. Then she worked her way toward a Bachelor’s Degree. She worked on a whole mechanism for helping kids keep them from going down the same path that she went and helped them out of trouble. When they see themselves getting into trouble before they get into trouble.
So, you know, I’m watching her grow up through this entire time so the transition for her walking out of incarceration and back into a life means the continuation of a process that she’s been doing. It’s not an on/off switch. She’s not all of a sudden a new person. She’s a developing person.
And even, you know, stop and think about it, too, and I think something that we had to wrap our heads around is that even the Supreme Court recognizes that kids who are incarcerated are starting out with [squirrely] brain syndrome and at some point they grow up and mature and they become something different. They evolve.
John: Now, part of – ideally the end of an incarceration comes at parole or there’s some sort of hearing, there’s an assessment. I’ve seen, again, I’ve seen that scene in movies and I don’t know if anything I’ve seen in movies is accurate. Aly, can you talk us through what the end of incarceration looks like and what a parole hearing, or how that actually happens in real life?
Aly: It really depends on your sentence. So there’s two different types of sentences in California. And actually across, more than two. Because you can get the death penalty. But the basic two are determinate and indeterminate sentences. So in indeterminate, for instance, if you’re sentenced in California to 25 years to life, after the 25 years you go in front of a parole board and they assess your behavior in prison, your growth, your ability to articulate how you were able to commit a crime. And they make a decision and you’re either released or you go back to prison and they give you some recommendations and you come back later.
Then there’s determinate sentences. Determinate sentences you’re just sentenced to five years. And when you’re done you get out and you’re on parole for usually three years.
John: And so in a determinate sentence could you be released earlier on good behavior? Could there be other circumstances which get you out in less time than that?
Aly: So in California there’s three tiers of credits that you can earn. So most everybody can get out a little bit early. If you’re a violent offender you’re going to do 85% of your law under the truth and sentencing law. If you’re a drug offender you do about 50% of your time. If you’re a very, very low level offender you can actually get out in a third of your time and those are the men and women that you see that are out fighting fires in California. They earn a lot more credits.
John: How do we feel about that? I don’t know how to feel about that. That actually was a topic we brought up on Scriptnotes was about these people who are fighting fires on California’s behalf. And you can see that as an inspiring story of these people who are getting a chance to sort of do stuff, but you can also see it as they are kind of incarcerated labor and it’s very dangerous. So, I don’t know how to feel about that all.
Aly: Slavery is still legal in prison. The 13th amendment abolished slavery everywhere but in prison. I mean, I worked for $0.09 an hour when I was in prison. I think there’s a way to do it right. I just think we’re doing it wrong right now. I think – I actually went to Norway and Finland and one of the people in our delegation was an assemblyman here in California. And I talked to him about these men and women are going out there, risking their lives for I think they get a dollar a day and I think it’s $5 a day if they’re fighting a fire. And then to come home to have fines and fees, right? What do you mean? I just risked my life, saved millions, and maybe billions of dollars of property and I still owe $20,000 for my fines and fees. So I think that should be eliminated.
I think that they should be compensated decently. And third I think they should be eligible to work as firefighters post incarceration.
Lovisa: Can I add something there?
Lovisa: Is that there are other prison jobs that are quite invisible to the outside world. And that I think most Americans are completely unaware that for example there are major sweatshops inside prisons. There are – when you buy your next t-shirt that says Made in the USA, chances are it was actually made in a prison and then it was sent out to some other place that just applied the logo. There are government agencies that use prisoners to answer their phones. So next time you throw a fit because someone can’t help you, you might be talking to a prisoner who has no power and who is making I think now it’s probably $0.11 an hour. So it’s just important to have an awareness of that.
John: And what are ways people who are incarcerated at this moment could get some skills for work, for instance I really want to transition to what is life like after prison. And so how do you find a person who has been incarcerated who is then out in the world, what are the good outcomes? What are the success stories? What are paths that could sort of get somebody to not be caught back up in the system again?
Aly: You know, there’s 70 to 100 million people in the United States who have a criminal conviction. So there’s a lot of success stories out there. We just don’t highlight them. We always go to the parolee that did something wrong. But I think—
John: And terms like ex-convict doesn’t help.
Aly: It doesn’t help. Could you imagine if I went and applied for my job and I said, hey, I’m an ex-convict, want to hire me? Right? It just doesn’t work. But getting back to your question, I believe that our elected and our carceral system has a duty to make sure people leaving the system don’t go back and revictimize communities. And until—
John: So it’s a duty both to the person who is leaving the system so they’re actually ready to function, but also to society.
Aly: Right. I mean, and I believe in personal responsibility and taking advantage, like you were saying Cyntoia taking advantage of all the educational opportunities. But if you don’t have those educational opportunities and you’re locked up in a concrete steel box for decades and then they push you out – in California they give you $200 – with no skills, very low education, what are you going to do?
And so I think there’s a lot of programs. I learned to write computer code. And I can tell you I wouldn’t have the job today. I don’t write code anymore, but I learned how to write computer code. There was a program called The Last Mile. I get to fund them now which is awesome. Right? And it’s this sort of crazy turn of events. They’re in six states and 13 prisons. And so when I came home I had these skills, these marketable skills. Like software engineers are in high demand. And I don’t know if you’ve ever been on a floor of an engineering group, but people with red hair and tattoos on their faces. They don’t care. If you can write the code – if you can build it they’ll hire you.
And so I think really starting to think about what – and skills that pay a living wage. What the carceral – public/private partnerships in the carceral setting can do to offer opportunities to our folks when they’re coming home.
John: Dan, we’re going to lose you in a couple minutes because I know you have to catch a flight, but I want to talk about sort of Cyntoia Brown- and a little spoiler – like post-prison. We will watch your movie so we will see what happened. But did she feel like she was ready for life outside of this? Because she had spent half of her life—
Dan: Well, she spent 15 years incarcerated. And as I said she did take advantage of programs and people who were in contact with her to help her just kind of readjust her thinking and her approach and who she was. And to rethink who she was. I don’t know how somebody, I don’t know where that turn happens because I’m neither a psychologist nor have I lived with incarceration. But I can tell you what I observed. And what I observed was a young woman going through stages. Denial at first, I’m going to walk out of here. When I first interviewed her she was sure that within a few weeks this was all just going to be done and she was going to walk out of the jail and back into her life. She was sure of that. And then there was a point in which, oh my god, the likelihood is that I’m going to spend the rest of my life in prison. And that is my destiny.
And there was a bit of a resignation. But then when she actually went from jail to the Tennessee Prison for Women and she started working on things, by having at least a program. And I’m not going to sit here and say that Tennessee Prison for Women is the most progressive prison in the world. It is not for a whole lot of reasons. But they are also taking progressive steps to allow an education program. That’s big. So for her whether she was going to walk out or not, she at least had some hope. There was something called hope in there. So even if there’s a little flicker of that, she gets to develop as a person while she’s going through the maturation process. And through an education process. And it kind of works out so that when she walks out she has written a book. She started writing that before she got out. She’s giving talks. She’s helping legislators. Tennessee is taking some very progressive steps which is amazing to see. They’re learning from it, too.
John: Great. Well it sounds like what you’re describing is we think about the criminal justice system as sort of extinguishing hope and you’re stressing that we have to make sure that we are igniting hope in people who are incarcerated. That society wants them back and that there is going to be a place for them and that they are meaningful and valuable people.
Dan: I suspect there’s a place called balance where we might see situations treated differently so that hope becomes the goal as opposed to punishment as the goal. Look, people do bad things. There’s no question about it. I’m sure that for Johnny Allen, his family was certainly not very sympathetic to whatever Cyntoia Brown went through. She couldn’t turn that around. It was impossible for her to turn that situation around. However, do we throw away a person, do we throw away a human, without at least considering alternatives? And I have a flight to catch.
John: We’re going to open it up to questions. Dan, thank you very much.
John: All right. We have time for some questions now. So we have people with microphones. And so raise your hand and we will get somebody with a microphone to you so you can ask your question of the panel.
Female Audience Member: Hi, my name is Angelica. I’m from the south, so I’ve been deep, deep in the south and seen some of the horrendous conditions that have been in the prisons, like Parchman in Mississippi. If you haven’t heard of what’s happening there you should look it up. So I have kind of two questions for Aly and Lovisa. I wanted to know have you all explored any alternatives to justice like restorative justice or prison abolition. What do those concepts look like for you and how they work in the real world? And for Zach, mass incarceration has a lot of racial and socioeconomic disparities, and how have you approached those in writing, producing, research on the show?
John: Angelica, you have totally a job as a moderator. Those were great questions. So I want to start with alternatives to traditional criminal justice. Aly, do you want to start?
Aly: So, in my personal capacity, absolutely right. I try to bring those voices into our foundation. But our foundation, like we can only do so much. So right now we’re really focused on two areas. And that’s the funnel of people coming in to the criminal justice system. So really transforming the way we prosecute this country, so we’re putting people in prison for less time and having alternatives to prison. Because prosecutors really right now only have one lever and that’s like incarceration with fines and fees.
And then than the tail end is really expanding opportunities to formerly incarcerated people. Really making sure they have the opportunities in their life to thrive post-incarceration.
John: Lovisa, do you have any thoughts on alternatives to prisons or things you’ve seen that we should be considering?
Lovisa: I think it’s pretty clear that we are incarcerating people at a crazy level in this country. And that it’s not a fair system at all. One of the questions you asked early on John was what are some of things that make people end up in prison. And of course the answer to that is quite complicated, because it depends on what you look like and who you are. Because the kinds of things that if we all committed the same crime in this room we would be – some would be much more likely to be arrested than others and convicted and get very long sentences and be denied parole. There’s just incredible racism and classism in the system.
So, if we started addressing those really fundamental issues then I think our incarceration rates would become a little bit more normal as they relate to the world, because incarcerate six, seven times more people than Canada. Why?
John: And Zach, let’s talk about the racial component of disparities in criminal justice and sort of in the show how do you address and how do you look at that?
Zach: You absolutely have to address it doing any sort of show in prison now. The last I read the statistic being that African Americans make up 13% of the US population but nearly a third of inmates in prison. And Latinos under 15% but almost a quarter of inmates in prison. And so we’re very conscious of that. We don’t shy away from it. But we don’t try to lean in too hard to recreate that narrative, if you know what I mean. We also had a very diverse room of storytellers to make sure we did include everyone’s perspectives and that was very important to us.
And in terms of looking at mass incarceration I think one of the things that our show does very well is it looks at the collateral damage as well. And it’s not a show just about Aaron behind bars in [Bellmore], it’s a show about Aaron Wallace and his family and what it did to his daughter who was raised without a father at home. And what it did to his wife and their relationship. And what it does to the families of not just Aaron but all these secondary characters in our show, too. And that’s in my opinion the beauty of our show and the comment that that makes on mass incarceration.
Female Audience Member: I’m currently doing work in bail reform in California, working in partnership with the LA Superior Court, and LA County Probation. And with the SB-10 and bail reform in California, you know that the process under SB-10 would require the use of risk assessment tools as an alternative to having cash as a way for a person to be released. And I just wanted to know what the thoughts are on the use of risk assessment tools in determining whether or not a person should be released.
John: And just, because I don’t know, SB-10 is a state law—
Aly: It’s a bail reform law that’s trying to essentially eliminate cash bail. There are some places that have done it way better than California. There’s a lot of issues with SB-10 and to answer your question we’re a tech-based philanthropy so we build tools for nonprofits. So that’s how I came into this work, as a software engineer. There are some really, really tough things that we have to consider when we start using technology to determine the destiny of people’s lives.
And so we don’t take that lightly. I think – there’s no like one answer for that. A lot of the risk assessment tools or the data that they put in them are already biased. So, you can create something that has the bias that’s in the data. So, it’s a tough thing that smarter people than me are working on.
John: Another question.
Male Audience Member: Hi, so another group that’s often treated in dramatizations of anything that has to do with prison reform and in a sort of caricature way are the guards. And I’m wondering if you could talk for a second about the psychology of and experience of and bureaucracy of the guards?
John: I can talk about sort of the stereotypes I see of guards. And then I would love to hear some reality checking on this. Is that I always see the burly, under-educated, hot-headed prison guard who is abusive and sort of a know-nothing. And I’ve rarely seen a positive portrayal of a guard in prison. What are some realities? I’m sure there’s a whole range of sort of what these people are like, what people who do that job are like. What are things that we’re missing? What are stories that we’re not seeing about people who are guards in prisons?
Aly: I think the portrayal of guards, you know, there are those type of people. But there’s also some very, very empathetic – I’m reluctant to tell this story, but you know I had the flu before I came home and I really thought I was going to die. You know, you go through the stages where you think you’re going to die, then you want to die, right, as an adult with the flu. And this prison guard bought medicine from Walgreens or something out there and risked his job and brought it in and gave it to me. And so, you know, I think they’re human beings just like anybody else. They get a bit jaded and get calloused from being in a job. But like I have a great relationship with the California Department of Corrections.
And I don’t have Stockholm Syndrome. I think if we’re going to improve the system we need to improve their lives also. And get some trauma-informed care for them also.
John: Lovisa, I’m guessing training is an important thing for prison guards?
Lovisa: Yeah, and I just want to agree with what you were saying which is that there’s a full spectrum of people in the corrections profession. And some are definitely drawn to prison jobs because they like hard power. And for example when you talk about sexual abuse in detention, half of all sexual abuse in detention – you wouldn’t know this through Hollywood – but is actually perpetrated by prison officials. And half is among incarcerated people. So there definitely are guards who are in the job for all the wrong reasons.
But also many who come to the profession because they care and they want to make things better. They don’t always succeed because these are really toxic environments. And some people also get destroyed in these jobs. And it’s something that we see very clearly that former corrections officials upon retirement, they tend to retire early, and they usually have very poor outcomes in retirement.
John: Zach, as you were looking at prison guards in your show what were some of the expectations and how did you try to push against them?
Zach: So it’s interesting. We originally characterized one prison guard and he was kind of like this tough, burly – I mean, if you watch the pilot you can tell he’s an emotionally abusive guard. And one of the things we were able to do in the season is dive into this person’s depression. And I won’t give anything away but we do look at his home life. And we do look at the trauma that he has suffered from spending so long here. And this is a person who actually went into the profession because his father was in the profession, and that’s very common as well.
And I will say, funny enough, we had a wall in the writers room of all of our guards, because we would just script like guard number two, guard number three, and then we started over the season to like ascribe character traits of these guards. And then we would find situations where certain guards could display moments of kindness and allow Aaron to hug his daughter while he showed up early to court and his daughter wanted to watch him. Or allow Aaron to touch his father when his father came to visit him for his character and fitness hearing. And they’re not supposed to do that, but sometimes we characterized them in really small moments that humanized them. And it would be nice to get into the guards more in future seasons.
John: So you’re recognizing them as individuals and not just one monolithic force that everyone who wears that uniform is the same.
Zach: Is not monolithic. And we’ll differentiate them and figure out who is going to do what and who has what characteristics.
John: Great. A question was right over here. Hi.
Female Audience Member: We’ve talked a lot about humanizing them when they’re in prison, but I’d like to know what your experiences are as far as humanizing them before they enter the prison system. And I know that that’s very, very complex what leads these people to prison, but there’s so many traumas, so many experiences like Cyntoia Brown was sexually assaulted. They never questioned her psychological state of mind. The fact that she herself was a victim before she committed the act that she committed. And I don’t know if you guys have exposure to organizations that are working on that, but sort of what the preventative measures are, if any at all, within the community, within societies to prevent them from even being convicted at all. That’s my question. I know it’s a little complicated.
John: Aly, you started talking about this and we sort of moved on early in the process, but you were saying it does start well before any interaction with law enforcement. That there’s something that has happened here.
Aly: I think as a society we really have to start looking at the history of racism and the use of the carceral system as a social control mechanism. But I really think like I said in the beginning that if we offer more opportunities to people they’re not going to end up in our prison jails. And then I’ll answer your question. There are some organizations like Debug who is doing participatory defense, where your family and everybody gets involved in your defense. There’s an organization called Root and Rebound who is growing into – I think they’re like in seven or eight states now. So there are organizations that are trying to help people on the front end to really, really have a robust defense that brings in some of these things, so the judges and the DAs can hear them.
But one of the problems is that our criminal legal system is not built to allow that information to come in. A lot of the times they’ll just say it’s irrelevant, it doesn’t have anything to do with what happened with the crime, therefore depending on the judge they’re not going to let that kind of data come in.
Lovisa: Can I add something? I think trauma is a bit of a blind spot in society generally. And especially inside prisons. That if you look at the pathways of women entering prison it’s not just juveniles, but adult women as well, or the vast majority, maybe 90% of women in prison are sexual abuse survivors from prior to their detention. So these are extreme numbers. And their trauma has tended to be ignored before they were detained and then it continues to be ignored inside because trauma doesn’t count as a mental illness. It’s not something that there are services for in detention. So people are then sitting in detention for years or decades with this untreated trauma. And then they’re released. And they may be getting some help to find a job, or find somewhere to live, but if they still get no support to deal with their trauma they won’t succeed.
Male Audience Member: One of the things I feel like in this conversation that we miss is the economic incentive to incarcerate. And so the economic incentive to incarcerate and the incarceration test system is literally designed to prioritize the incarceration of black and brown folks. And so like the residual spillover of that, you know, infects our systems. So, kind of going to the question earlier about guards, I used to be a prison guard for almost four or five years. With those who are incarcerated as well as those who are the jailers, most of those folks are coming from communities that are decimated by poverty. And so you have the incarcerated who more often than not, especially with the majority of people who are incarcerated being locked up for drug crimes, which has its own rich history on why that happens, are in there because they didn’t have the resources to be able to survive and thrive.
Then you have folks who are looking for employment in order to survive in their communities and they’re taking on jobs with little to no post high school education to go in and work in these systems. So, one of the things I’m really curious about your thoughts on is how do we talk about the intersection of race and how it functions with economic incentives to incarcerate black and brown folks in this country?
Aly: You know, there’s this wonderful woman, her name is Bianca [Tyler], she puts out this report every year about the prison industrial complex and who is profiteering off of it and how that keeps driving incarceration. We have private prisons who lobby for tough on crime laws. We have guard unions who lobby for tough on crime laws. So, there’s a lot of work to be done in this area. I’m fortunate that I work with a lot of really, really smart people. And there’s other foundations and lots of nonprofits that are chipping away on all of these little aspects.
But it’s going to take – it took us 400 years to get here. It’s going to take us some time to get back. But really recognizing the racial part of it is part of it. And coming to Jesus. Like, you know, we built this system that is biased and we need to deconstruct it.
John: A question, are you a writer?
Zach: Lee was a writer on our show, I just might say.
John: Because I was going to say like well it sounds like you should write about that. Because I think – here’s what I’m hearing and what you’re saying. You’re talking about the intersection of the people who are on either side of those bars have similar stories and that is fascinating and the degree to which this whole system – everyone is caught up in the same system. That is a really great, strong narrative cinematic element. So, I would just encourage you to write on that.
I want to make sure that as part of this panel, and this will also go out on Scriptnotes, is that we as storytellers are not complicit in sort of perpetuating these myths and that we do rise to the challenge of actually talking about these things honestly and making sure we’re exploring what’s really going on. So, thank you for sharing that.
In that spirit, I don’t think we have any time for more questions, but I did want one last little segment here which is a thing I did for the addiction and mental health panel which is called Please Stop. Which is the things people up here see on a repeated basis in film and television and media that is just wrong or not helpful when it comes to criminal justice. Lovisa, I know you had some recommendations for Please Stop. So what are some things you hope to never see again onscreen?
Lovisa: I would hope to never see a “don’t drop the soap” joke again, ever. And also to never see one of these flippant taunts in police shows where cops who are portrayed as the good guys are telling the bad guys essentially do what we want because otherwise you will go to prison and get raped, but they say it differently.
John: Yes. Zach, what would you like to stop?
Zach: Stop creating as a writer’s perspective one-note characters where people are entirely good or entirely evil. And Lee was mentioning the prosecutors, we talked about the prosecutors before, we go to great lengths to characterize the people who put Aaron away and they legitimately believe that he is guilty. They legitimately believe they’re doing the right thing. They may have cut some corners we’ll come to learn through the season. One of them may know, one of them may not. And they’ll have some in-fighting with each other. But both of these people are men who believe they were doing the right thing.
And I think if one were to characterize him as a Klansman it would not do justice to the system and it would not be accurate to the reason why he gets a report on his desk and says, you know what, this is a good case, I’m going to put this person away.
John: If that person were thoroughly evil and a villain then we wouldn’t see any of ourselves in him and we wouldn’t recognize our own complicity in those types of decisions.
Zach: And we wouldn’t know how we can improve the system and do it differently.
John: Aly? What things don’t you want to see out there?
Aly: You know, I was at LAX when I was coming here and I saw this kid throw himself on the floor and just do this tantrum. And his mother gave him what he wanted. And I said, damn, that’s a learning experience for me. So for me, even up on this stage, I heard like Zach saying [inmate], it just kills me to hear people categorized by these words that we use. And so if you as writers can start using people, like instead of calling someone a felon you can say a person convicted of a felony. Right? Because if we keep the word person in there, right, employers and people out in the community, when we come home we have a chance if they see us as humans.
John: And I’m actually going to break the rules and give sort of a One Cool Thing instead. Because it actually ties in very well to this. It’s a great charity called Manifest Works. It’s an organization that is right here in Los Angeles and it pairs formerly incarcerated people and gets them trained for jobs in the industry for film and television which is exactly sort of what we need to do. So Manifest Works and we’ll have a link to that in the show notes for this episode.
I want to thank our amazing panelist. I want to thank Hollywood Health and Society for putting this together. Thank you all very, very much.
And that’s our show. So as always Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Seth Podowitz. If you have an outro you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions. For short questions on Twitter Craig is @clmazin, I am @johnaugust.
You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find the link to the video for this panel. You’ll find transcripts there. They go up about a week after the episode airs. You can sign up to become a Premium member at Scriptnotes.net where you can get all the back episodes and bonus segments like our upcoming discussion on coronavirus. Craig, thanks.
Craig: Thank you, John.
John: Craig, so how freaked out should I be about coronavirus? Now, to stipulate we are recording this on Thursday morning, so who knows what the world is like on Tuesday as this episode drops.
Craig: Right. I mean, it could all be over by then. Look, I think everybody should be concerned about it. We are definitely experiencing a panic right now in no small part because the disease vector started in China. China is not an open nation. They are not known for freedom of speech or press. The government has done a very Chernobyl-esque job of saying things out loud that they prefer to be true instead of were true. No one quite knows. Even the statistics we’re getting now are confusing. Based on some reports it’s already starting to kind of Peter out slightly. But we also know that it is vectoring its way across the Middle East and Europe and the rest of Asia. And we do have our first case of what they would call community infection here in the United States in Northern California, meaning somebody that isn’t here on our soil because they traveled here with the virus or somebody with the virus traveled here and gave it to them. It’s just here.
So, how freaked out should we be? Hmm, we should be concerned.
John: Yeah. We should be concerned. So right from the debut of this disease it’s been interesting to see how movies and television have influenced our perception of it. Because you know when the outbreak first began we heard people going back to Contagion, the Steven Soderbergh movie about Gwyneth Paltrow just destroying the world. And Chernobyl in terms of the degree to which information was being controlled or the government sort of misleading us about what was actually really going on.
So, obviously as storytellers we can look at all these things from the perspective of the movies we’ve seen before, the TV shows we’ve seen before. But it’s also important to look back at history and so if this ends up being a very bad flu, well, a very bad flu is a big deal. And so I don’t want to sort of minimize what a bad flu would look like. But there’s also the range up to it’s probably not going to be Contagion. And I don’t think we as Americans particularly have a good sense of what the possibilities are for a disease coming across the states.
Craig: Well, one of the things that generally protects us from a fictionalized virus that wipes the planet out is that viruses exist for the same reason we exist, which is to make more of us. And viruses cannot make more of themselves if they kill their hosts too quickly. Or kill too many of their hosts. They actually need you to be alive. The problem of course is that they’re use of you is to spread more of themselves. So viruses are little bits of RNA, little single strand bits, and they get inside your cells and then take your cells over and have the cell become a little virus factory and then your cell pops open. And this is the part that’s the problem. Lots of cells are being popped open so essentially the virus is starting to kill you a little bit.
If it goes too fast and does too much or the area where it acts is so sensitive that even small damage can kill you, then the virus has a problem. We have seen worse viruses – and I’m not doing the [Vira] thing, I can’t – we’ve seen worse viruses in terms of fatality rates. Assuming that the fatality rates we’re hearing about are correct, SARS was a deadlier virus.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: Than coronavirus. As is MERS. So is that good news? Not really. Because SARS and MERS kind of burnt themselves out. This one has the potential, well, let’s put it this way. We’re all going to get it. I do believe that. So, coronavirus, and people may think this is a new virus like it’s the Ebola virus, the common cold is a coronavirus. It’s just this is a twist on it. And it’s a really nasty cold. And right now it seems like, first of all, it doesn’t seem to be infecting children very much which is interesting.
John: Yeah. Some of the speculation is that because kids get coronaviruses all the time, they’re constantly dealing with that stuff. Their immune system is just better able to handle it and sort of shrug it off.
Craig: Yes. So here in the United States where we’re constantly wiping our children’s environment down with Purell we are doing them a disservice. It does appear that the 2% mortality rate is a factor of age. So, older people are dying. People who are immunocompromised are dying. People who have congestive heart disease or pulmonary issues definitely are at risk because ultimately coronavirus seems to be killing you by giving you a pretty advanced pneumonic state. And your lungs are filling with fluid and can’t get enough oxygen to your blood.
One thing that people have pointed out is that women are dying at a slightly lower rate than men, and this is from China, if the statistics are accurate. And one of the reasons they think that may be is because about 50% of men in at least Wuhan, in that area, smoke. So, smoking clearly once again not compatible with good health. But if you look at the numbers of people that are perhaps under the age of 80 and not smoking and generally healthy my guess is that they’re quite low.
But what it means is that it’s coming here. And people are going to die. And our system is going to be severely taxed and our global economic system has already been seriously impacted because we all decided in our lust for lower prices and cheaper goods that China should be the factory of the world. And the factory currently is sick.
John: Yeah. Now let’s talk about the practical effects in terms of daily life in our industry. So, I’ve already started to notice that there’s some hands that are not being shook. There are some more elbow bumps happening. I don’t know if it’s necessary or helpful, I’m not seeing masks come out. The general consensus seems to be that the masks should be saved for people who are actually in medical fields who are encountering a bunch of people. That normal people shouldn’t be wearing the masks.
But it is a change and I do – you and I for example, we’re thinking about doing a European Scriptnotes visit. And it’s great to make those plans, but I think I’m making all those plans with the back of my mind saying like, huh, I wonder if that’s actually a thing that’s going to be continuing, or going to be possible when that date comes. And so it is an interesting thing to be thinking about in terms of the projects that I’m handing in, movies that could go into production, knowing that everything could be effective.
Our friend Chris McQuarrie, his next Mission: Impossible movie they’re supposed to have a big Venice shoot. Well, Venice has coronavirus and they’ve decided to pull back from shooting in Venice because of those concerns. So it is going to impact production. It’s going to impact some of the daily functioning of Hollywood, even if it doesn’t become the Steven Soderbergh level of disease.
Craig: Yeah. I think it’s going to impact everybody. It’s hard to say if more people are going to die from the coronavirus or specifically COVID-19 which is the disease cause by this strand of coronavirus. It’s hard to tell if more people are going to die from COVID-19 or from the economic fallout of COVID-19. Because when economies start to topple people die. So, this is all connected. We forget sometimes. Sometimes we think the economy is just a ticker. Or a statistic about gross national blah-blah-blah. Really what it comes down to is food, medicine, money. The ability to work and pay for things.
So, it’s going to get bad. But we don’t know really at this point what we’re looking at. We can say this with surety. The individual that our federal government has put in charge of leading the effort against coronavirus is not qualified even in the remotest, slightest way.
John: No. No. There is almost no person I would feel less comforted is doing this thing. I guess there are probably some MAGA professional wrestlers who I feel would do less of a good job, in the sense of having no understanding of how bureaucracy works. But, no, you do want somebody there who actually believes in science. It feels like a bare minimum.
Craig: I mean, I could imagine if they put someone named Karen O’Virus in charge or something like that, but beyond that I can’t imagine anybody less qualified. The good news is those people who are put in charge of these things don’t do anything anyway. We do have the CDC, one of my favorite governmental programs. The CDC I suspect as endlessly not as fully funded as they should be is behind the eight-ball on this. They’ve been behind the eight-ball on a lot of these things because that’s how disease works. And they struggle at times to get the message out. But they’re trying.
I will say to people listening to this, don’t go and try and buy face masks. First of all you can’t. I guess there’s been a run on them which is ridiculous. But we do need those for health professionals. And it’s not going to save you from anything. It really isn’t. Just walking around with a face mask on is not going to save you because that’s not how you’re going to get it. You’re not going to get it walking around. Unless someone literally sneezes directly into your face. Wash your hands.
But eventually you’re going to pick it up. Unless you’re one of those people who can actually say I’ve never had a cold, and I don’t believe you, this one is out there. And unless it does a much, much better job of killing than it seems to be doing, it’s – so there are lots and lots of coronaviruses. Most of them affect animals but not people. Every now and then one of them has a little change in it and kind of jumps the barrier.
John: Makes the jump.
Craig: And this one made the jump. And that’s going to keep happening. That will never stop happening. And I have no doubt that sooner or later, hopefully sooner, there will be some sort of retroviral drug to help reduce the impact of coronavirus or COVID-19, the way we have Tamiflu which does an excellent job with flu, I can say personally.
But we’re in for trouble. It’s not going to be fun. And people are going to get sick.
John: Yeah, so going into this, anticipating that this will get rough and bumpy is probably the best preparation you can do, more so than stockpiling food or trying to get a mask is to recognize that we’re going to be in for some bumpy territory and just be emotionally prepared for that. And also to be thinking about what your life would be like if you did need to stay home for a time, or your kid needed to stay home, or your elderly parent needed help. Just thinking through those scenarios, not panicking yourself, just being ready for them I think will be the guidance we can offer somebody.
Craig: And, you know, just don’t do anything that you think would be wildly risky. You know, like bringing in chunks of pangolin from China, which honestly if this really did start with pangolin I’m going to lose my goddamn mind. This is a perfectly innocent, beautiful little creature that for whatever many people in china – and anytime you say many people in China you’re talking about so many people – believe has some sort of medicinal qualities, which it doesn’t, and so they keep hunting them almost to extinction and then selling them in these open air markets and…. [sighs]
John: Craig, should I get some crystals? Will crystals help?
Craig: Yes. If you do need to finally end it and you have a sharp crystal.
John: That would be the choice.
Craig: Yes. Beyond that, no. I’m so sorry.
John: I’m hoping we can revisit this segment a year from now and say like you know what our advice was reasonable but actually it did not turn out to be as bad. And there is that possibility. It’s also possible that it’s much worse than we’re saying. But again, it’s only Thursday.
Craig: Yes. And we haven’t had a big worldwide pandemic that really killed millions and millions and millions of people since HIV, which is still pandemic but under control. And prior to that I think it was polio.
John: Spanish flu. Oh, polio.
Craig: Oh, yeah, Spanish flu before that. But it’s been a while. We’re due. These things happen every 30 years or so, kind of like clockwork. And this is the one. So, but this is a different one.
By the way, most people apparently who get COVID-19, it’s very mild. Some people are infected by a coronavirus and experience no symptoms. So, this is a bit of an odd one. We’re not quite sure what’s going on.
John: Craig, thank you for making me feel much more nervous.
Craig: [laughs] I’ve done it again.
John: All right, bye.
- Beyond Bars: Changing the Narrative on Criminal Justice
- Watch the full panel here
- Aly Tamboura from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative
- Lovisa Stannow executive director at Just Detention International
- Zach Calig writer on For Life
- Dan Birman documentary producer, watch Me Facing Life on Netflix April 30th!
- What Happens After You’re Released from Prison?
- Scriptnotes, Episode 324 How Would This Be a Movie? On the Line: The Female Inmates Who Battle California’s Deadly Wildfires by Matt Toder for NBC News.
- Coronavirus Updates
- Sign up for Scriptnotes Premium here.
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- John on Instagram
- Outro by Seth Podowitz (send us yours!)
- Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao and edited by Matthew Chilelli.
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You can download the episode here.