Pris­on­ers’ films gives those on the out­side a look at life be­hind bars

The Morning Call - - STATE NEWS - By Kris­ten De Groot

PHILADEL­PHIA – Ezra has been locked up for about 45 years. In that time, he’s taken the op­por­tu­ni­ties he’s been given in prison, grown from them and feels like he’s turned his life around.

He heard about a pro­gram at the Ch­ester State Cor­rec­tional In­sti­tu­tion, a medium-se­cu­rity prison for men near Philadel­phia, where he could learn an­i­ma­tion and cre­ate a short film based on his life ex­pe­ri­ences. He saw it as a chance to send a mes­sage, both to peo­ple on the out­side and to other men in­side.

En­ti­tled “The Phoenix,” his minute-and-a-half-long film de­picts what he calls his meta­mor­pho­sis, from the streets and wrong turns to his trans­for­ma­tion in prison.

“We’re locked in, but the com­mu­nity is also locked out. This is one way for us to get out to the com­mu­nity,” Ezra said on a re­cent morn­ing from a side room in the prison’s chapel. “I thought it would be a pow­er­ful mes­sage, that we can be trans­formed and we can be a part of so­ci­ety.”

It is one of 20 short films created by in­car­cer­ated men and women for the ex­hibit “Hid­den Lives Il­lu­mi­nated,” on dis­play through Thurs­day at Eastern State Pen­i­ten­tiary. The films are be­ing pro­jected onto the ex­te­rior walls of the Gothic for­mer prison-turned-mu­seum, and of­fer a glimpse into the lives of these in­mates to passersby and mu­seum vis­i­tors alike.

Sean Kel­ley, the direc­tor of in­ter­pre­ta­tion at Eastern State Pen­i­ten­tiary, got the idea for the project af­ter see­ing a sim­i­lar ex­hibit in Chicago called “Free­dom/Time” and se­cured a $297,000 grant from the Pew Cen­ter for Arts & Her­itage to bring it to fruition. All he needed were film­mak­ers.

“Pris­ons are some of the most in­ac­ces­si­ble spa­ces in Amer­ica,” Kel­ley said. “We wanted view­ers to be able hear the voices of peo­ple from the other side of those prison walls.”

About a year ago, Kel­ley spoke about the an­i­ma­tion project in the au­di­to­rium of SCI Ch­ester. About 100 men applied, and 20 were se­lected (one film­maker was re­leased be­fore fin­ish­ing his project). Over the course of about nine months, the men at the Ch­ester prison and women at the River­side Cor­rec­tional Fa­cil­ity took what amounted to two semesters of a col­lege-level film pro­duc­tion class. They learned pre­pro­duc­tion, script­ing, sto­ry­board­ing and fi­nally an­i­ma­tion.

“As one of the artists says, ‘The hard­est parts of teach­ing in prison is prison,’ ” Kel­ley said.

All class ma­te­ri­als had to be screened two weeks in ad­vance, so there was a lot of plan­ning, in­struc­tor Erika Tsuchiya-Berg­ere said. There was no ac­cess to the in­ter­net or com­put­ers, so all classes were taught the old-fash­ioned way: on a white board, with photo copies and us­ing pencil and pa­per. They had to do all their cutouts with­out scis­sors, us­ing ta­ble edges and plas­tic rulers in­stead. It was a lot of work, much of it te­dious at the start. TsuchiyaBe­rg­ere said she was amazed by how much ef­fort the in­mates put in, and how much they learned.

The film­mak­ers have been able to get feed­back from the au­di­ence via postcards view­ers can fill out.

“Peo­ple don’t of­ten learn or think about the added dif­fi­culty of ill­ness when in­car­cer­ated” a viewer named Jade wrote in a postcard. She’d viewed the film “Lymph Notes,” which de­scribes battling can­cer in prison.

“Not hav­ing some­one to phys­i­cally com­fort you through the process has to be dif­fi­cult,” Jade wrote. “Your story will stick with me and makes us all think crit­i­cally about the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence.”

The sub­ject matter can be heavy: One is a tribute to an in­mate’s young niece who died of leukemia while he was in­car­cer­ated. Many fo­cus on re­grets and miss­ing fam­ily.

Robert’s film, “A Spe­cial Per­son,” is a love let­ter to his 10-year-old son, and he’ll be re­leased in time to view the film to­gether at the ex­hibit’s fi­nale Thurs­day.

He said the process of telling this personal story taught him the value of open­ing up and mak­ing him­self vul­ner­a­ble.

“Now I’m open­ing up to peo­ple all over the world. It’s my way to give back,” he said. “I want peo­ple to know I’m not the mis­takes I’ve made. I’m bet­ter than that.”

For film­maker Donyea, he felt like the chance to cre­ate the film was such an im­por­tant op­por­tu­nity and it gave him a lot of stress to make sure he sent the mes­sage he en­vi­sioned.

His short called “Big Boy Shoes” de­picts how the de­ci­sions he made in his life ended up tak­ing con­trol of his life. At the end, the viewer is presented with an im­age of a road, sym­bol­iz­ing the choices that lay ahead.

“It’s not how you start, or what hap­pens in the mid­dle, it’s how you end,” he said.

For fam­ily mem­bers on the out­side, viewing the films has been cathar­tic.

Justino’s film, “Pi­ano Priest,” hon­ors his son, a tal­ented mu­si­cian. His wife, Sharon Griggs, said see­ing the film was ex­tremely mov­ing for both her and her teenage son.

“When the film came on and I heard my hus­band’s voice, I be­gan to weep,” she said. “It was so poetic and pro­found to see the ado­ra­tion that he has for his son.”

It’s also a re­minder to fam­ily mem­bers “that their loved ones aren’t monsters or just a num­ber. There’s hope and op­por­tu­nity for change,” she said.


A film by Dee Hib­bert-Jones and Nomi Tal­is­man, “Last Day of Free­dom,” is pro­jected on the wall of Eastern State Pen­i­ten­tiary in Philadel­phia. The art ex­hibit at the for­mer prison-turned-mu­seum in Philadel­phia is show­cas­ing an­i­mated short films created by guests and in­mates in an ex­hibit ti­tled “Hid­den Lives Il­lu­mi­nated.”

Robert poses for a por­trait at Ch­ester State Cor­rec­tional In­sti­tu­tion, where he learned how to make an an­i­mated film. His movie, which is be­ing shown at Eastern State Pen­i­ten­tiary in Philadel­phia, is a love let­ter to his 10-year-old son.

Donyea’s short, “Big Boy Shoes,” de­picts how the de­ci­sions he made in his life ended up tak­ing con­trol of his life.

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