The Prison Within
“Hurt people hurt people.” Those words, spoken by Sonya Shah (founder of a restorative justice program called the Ahimsa Collective), are later repeated by Sam Johnson, Sr., an inmate at San Quentin State Prison who is shown working through his trauma — and the grief that he has caused others — in this emotionally devasting documentary. Directed by Katherin Hervey, a multimedia artist and social activist with years of experience in the criminal justice field, The Prison Within is the rare cultural production that manages to foster empathy for men who have committed violent crimes, including murder; peeling back the protective shell of their hardened masculinity to reveal an inwardly directed pain that they have inherited from their similarly traumatized fathers. Thanks to the efforts of Shah and other proponents of rehabilitation, including those affiliated with the Insight Prison Project’s Victim Offender Education Group (VOEG), individuals like Johnson are coming to terms with the life-altering consequences of their actions as well as the residual effects of intergenerational suffering. That they do so in the company of other male inmates, choking back tears while opening up about their long-suppressed adolescent experiences and the cycle of abuse that they are seeking to end (before it affects their own children and grandchildren), is a testament to the VOEG program’s success in reducing recidivism and creating an atmosphere of group support that is conducive to larger societal healing. Patiently hanging on every word of her subjects (each of whom speaks from his heart with raw yet carefully composed elegance), Hervey’s camera grants viewers access to a world that is seldom depicted in more exploitative prison dramas, making good “listeners” out of even the most unforgiving of audience members while highlighting the humanity of these often-dehumanized people.
By David Scott Diffrient