Film documents inmates’ struggle for rehabilitation

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Most likely, lifers are people who have committed the most vicious crimes — murder, rape, robbery and so forth. Locked in their cells inside prison walls, they will stay for years, decades, and quite possibly for the rest of their lives.

But the documentary film “Lifers — Reaching for Life Beyond the Walls” shows a completely different side of some of these prisoners.

The film, which will be shown at a theater in Tokyo’s Higashi Nakano district starting in October, steps inside the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility near the California city of San Diego.

There, Amity Foundation, a nonprofit organization that for years has been helping convicts or people with drug problems return to society, has permission to use one cell block to help rehabilitate some 200 inmates. Ten lifers in the prison are working with the group to assist their fellow inmates.

Amity’s program is based on the concept of therapeutic community, in which the inmates gather in a group to discuss their problems.

This is no lightweight conversation. Sworn to confidentiality, they let it all out in front of the others — from their experiences of being sexually molested or raped during childhood and beaten by family members, to the crimes they committed and their feelings toward the victims.

“While these people are offenders, most are also victims,” said Kaori Sakagami, a Tokyo-based independent producer of the film. “And it takes them a long time to come to terms with their past. I’ve seen inmates try to talk but end up shaking, bursting into tears and even vomiting instead.”

Sakagami, who has also visited a number of prisons in Japan, says merely shutting inmates behind bars will not lead to rehabilitation.

Many of the inmates in Amity’s program were repeat offenders of such crimes as burglary or drug abuse, and eventually some crossed the line to murder. But their faces are not those that you would expect to see on serious criminals.

“I was surprised because most of them are wonderful human beings,” said Sakagami. “Through the long process at Amity, with years of conflicts among themselves and with others, (the inmates) became very gentle, peaceful-minded people.”

Take for example Reyes Orozco. Sentenced to 26 years to life for first-degree murder, Orozco has spent nearly 30 years at R.J. Donovan.

He is a convicted murderer, but now he uses his experience to help shorter-term inmates, encouraging them to open up about themselves and to face up to the reality of their crimes.

At the same time, however, Orozco is going through his own difficulties: his parole request has been turned down year after year.

The film shows one of his annual parole hearings. Though no eye contact is allowed, Orozco is placed in the same room with the victim’s family to ask for parole. The ongoing pain and suffering of the family is depicted vividly through their opposition to Orozco’s parole.

“It was so painful to be in that room because the air was filled with hatred,” said Sakagami, who was allowed to be present. “Care for the victims as well as the offenders is necessary so people can move on without getting locked into the sense of vengeance.”

With a staff of some 200, Amity currently has facilities in three states — Arizona, California and New Mexico — including five inside California prisons.

But it was no easy task building this network, said Naya Arbiter, one of Amity’s founders, noting that it took years to convince the California state government.

“We were able to convince the California legislature to let us do one experiment,” she said. That was the Donovan project, which has been so successful that the state has since allowed Amity to offer its programs to thousands of inmates.

And the program has helped reduce criminality. According to Amity, recidivist tendencies of inmates who have taken part in the program is one-third that of the general prison population.

The success, however, is attributable to more than the well-established rehabilitation program itself. It also has to do with the fact that many of the staff working there are former offenders, including Arbiter.

During her teens, Arbiter was arrested and imprisoned a number of times for using and smuggling drugs. She “has been there” — the addiction to heroin, the self-destruction, the anger.

“People who have been there can articulate their own process of change,” Arbiter said. “It’s very important for people to see someone that was as violent as they were, as angry as they were, but no longer carries (himself) that way, and can talk their talk.”

Almost like being in a classroom, one scene in the film shows Arbiter standing in front of the group with a magic marker and calling on an inmate to step forward. One by one, they pass around the marker and write on a white board a word that stands for their sanctuary — peace, compassion, trust, family, and so on.

“A sanctuary is an environment where it is emotionally safe enough for people to change,” Arbiter said. “People don’t internalize lasting change if they’re just terrified or angry. While they feel that way, you usually don’t get people to a point where they begin to actualize real remorse. I want them to have, literally, a change of heart.”