Growing up in southeast Washington, D.C. in the 1970s, Charles Thornton was never told he could or would contribute positively to society. Instead, “as far back as elementary school, I can recall being told by different counselors that we were going to Lorton, which was the District’s prison system at the time,” Thornton recalls in a new documentary, Returning Citizens. “There was a seed planted before I even walked through that door.” Thornton was first arrested in 1979 for a minor drug-related offense; that began what he describes as an 11-year “revolving-door odyssey in and out of jail.” In 1983, Thornton was among the first wave of offenders to be sentenced under the new mandatory minimum law, and received a three-to-nine-year sentence for possession. He was paroled in 1988, but within another three months, he was back inside.
There were no re-entry services to meet Thornton when he walked out of prison; he returned to the streets, and, as he remembers in Returning Citizens, he told himself he was going to get himself a pistol and some dope, because that was the only way he could see to provide for himself and his family. After another cycle of conviction and parole, though, Thornton enrolled himself in an AA program, and through his sponsor, found a place in supportive housing. A friend from Thornton’s neighborhood, who had turned his life around after repeated convictions, helped him find a job. From being told all his future held was Lorton, Thornton went on to serve as director of the Mayor’s Office of Returning Citizen’s Affairs (MORCA) from 2011 to 2016, and is now the board chair of the D.C. Corrections Information Council.
Through his work at MORCA, Thornton made it his obligation to reach those people returning from prison, and equip them with the resources–housing, education, job training, treatment–that he had lacked. Returning Citizens, which premieres on iTunes and Amazon on July 25, follows Thornton and the residents of Southeast D.C.–where director Saffron Cassaday says it feels as though every person’s life has been affected by the criminal justice system–as they collectively examine puncture wounds mass incarceration has inflicted on their community, and the role re-entry organizations like MORCA can play in repairing those wounds.
Cassaday became connected to Thornton through advocacy work around her first film, Cyber-Seniors, which examines programs that bring technology training to older Americans. While in D.C., she learned about a technology program through MORCA specifically for men and women returning from prison, many of whom, she tells Fast Company, were senior citizens who had spent decades inside and had never used a computer before. Her second film was initially going to focus on that program, Cassaday says, but she soon widened her focus to re-entry on a broader scale.
“There are so many issues stacked against people coming out of incarceration,” Cassaday says. Through Returning Citizens, she wanted to portray a range of people’s experiences with the prison system: There’s Robert Bruce Jr., who was, at the height of the War on Drugs in September 1994, sentenced to life without parole for a nonviolent drug crime and released in November 2015 as one of the 6,000 prisoners pardoned and granted early release by Barack Obama; there’s Cheese, now in his mid-60s and home after spending 45 years behind bars–his mother is his only family member still alive. We meet Maurice Howe, 25 years old and in and out of jail for the past four years, who is, through MORCA, trying to remain out for the sake of his two-year-old. We meet Lashonia Thompson-El, now a returning citizens advocate and founder of Women Involved in Re-Entry Efforts (The WIRE), who went to prison when she was 19, leaving two children behind.
At one point in the film, Cheese is in the car with a man who was recently released and staying at the Hope Village Halfway House. Cheese, at this point, has been out for three years and is struggling to find a job or a path that will keep him out of the justice system. “Coming out of prison, you have three strikes against you,” he tells the other man. “A criminal record, too old, and no experience–with no job, you try to hustle, sell drugs, and then you go back to jail.”
In making the film, “I got interested in understanding what it was that made people commit a crime in the first place,” Cassaday says. “And what I found was people were coming from situations in their families or in the community where they were faced with violence from a young age. Placing someone in prison, the idea is that you’re taking them out of a violent situation and giving them an opportunity to rehabilitate. But what happens is they’re placed in another situation where they’re struggling for survival every single day, and they come out worse off than when they went in, which isn’t benefitting anybody.”
With 716 per 100,000 people in prison, the U.S. incarceration rate is the highest in the world. The majority of people inside come from low-income communities of color, like Southeast D.C. And without robust alternatives to incarceration, and with parole boards disappearing as mandatory minimums became the norm in the 1980s, long prison sentences, like those served by people like Cheese and Thompson-El, have become a mechanism for breaking apart families, and keeping the threat of incarceration alive in communities.
In Returning Citizens, the message that comes through again and again is that the solution to the crisis of mass incarceration, and the resulting difficulty with re-entry, can be found in the problem. Around 90% of the staff of MORCA were previously incarcerated; Thornton maintains that every re-entry program and related service–from halfway houses to job training programs–needs to be staffed by former prisoners. “We’re the only ones that know what happens on the inside,” Thornton says in the film.
And though it remains unclear how Obama’s legacy of reducing prison populations will fare under Donald Trump, whose attorney general appointee, Jeff Sessions, has vowed to enforce tougher sentencing laws, it’s clear that continuing to build up and support re-entry efforts like MORCA is a crucial piece to slowing the rate of mass incarceration regardless of who sits in office. Immediate connection to resources, particularly jobs and housing, lowers rates of recidivism, as do efforts like Thornton’s and Thompson-El’s to reach and redirect young people before they get trapped in the “revolving door” of arrest and parole.
Though Returning Citizens focuses on a small community in Washington, D.C., Cassaday hopes the message will resonate in cities across the country. After the release of the film, Cassaday will be connecting with other communities and re-entry programs to organize screenings like the one she hosted in Southeast D.C. a few weeks ago. There, Cassaday saw how “the film really empowered the people who were involved in the issue–I think they’re going to be the ones who really run with this film and get it into schools and prisons to serve as a resource for people inside,” she says.
“With an issue like this, you can get into a lot of blaming and just pointing out the problem without doing anything about it,” she says. “But the goal of the film is to focus on the success stories; to focus on people who have successfully turned it around and build up a sense of hope for people returning home to know that it’ll be all right for them, too–that they have people looking out for them.”