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What really happens behind bars? Insiders make videos to show you.

Part of a wider media initiative at California’s San Quentin State Prison, FirstWatch gives participants the opportunity to tell their stories – and be held accountable – through the lens of a camera.

Lauren Lee White
FirstWatch participants (from l. to r.) Adnan Khan, Travis Westly, Eric Abercrombie, Lawrence Pela, and Kevin Neang learn about filmmaking through an initiative at San Quentin State Prison in California.

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Each weekday morning at San Quentin State Prison, a group of men reports to the media lab and spends the day working on video projects until midafternoon. The participants are self-taught, relying on a library of film classics to help them. Their work, part of a tradition of media and arts initiatives in prisons nationwide, offers an opportunity for those involved to share what their lives are like in jail, and in some cases, to come to terms with the actions that brought them there. It gives voice to those who are incarcerated, something advocates say supports individual and community healing. Most of the films focus on one element of one man’s story – what it’s like to be an incarcerated parent, for example. Participants say their videos are meant to counter popular culture narratives that suggest that accountability isn’t a priority for them. “What we’re trying to do is … show we are responsible,” says Adnan Khan, who has been a part of FirstWatch since its inception in 2017. “We’re not denying our crimes, we’re not denying our actions, we’re not blaming people. We are understanding what we did and why we did it.”

Against a vista of rolling hills and palm trees, a five-man film crew is setting up for a shoot. They white balance the cameras, adjust the tripods, play with composition. One man roams among them with a smaller camera, getting coverage of the shoot.

That’s not the only kind of coverage they need, though. Lt. Sam Robinson of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) watches over them, because they must be under the supervision, or “coverage,” of a corrections officer at all times. The men, members of a filmmaking program called FirstWatch, are incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison.

Their work, part of a tradition of media and arts initiatives in prisons nationwide, offers an opportunity for participants to share what their lives are like in jail, and in some cases, to come to terms with the actions that brought them there. It gives voice to those who are incarcerated, something advocates say supports individual and community healing. 

“Film [is] what’s out there right now,” says FirstWatch participant Adnan Khan. “When it comes to incarcerated people and how incarceration is perceived … the source of information that most people get is from the news, the movies, from YouTube. We want to reclaim that narrative.”

Artmaking programs for incarcerated people have been around for decades. California’s Arts in Corrections program, for example, began in the 1970s and – having weathered budget cutbacks in the early 2000s – currently has a presence at every CDCR facility. San Quentin itself has offered filmmaking before, as featured in a 2009 Discovery Channel series titled “San Quentin Film School.”

Lauren Lee White
Kevin Neang sets up to shoot in the San Quentin prison yard.

FirstWatch began in January 2017. Participants report to the media lab each weekday morning and spend the day working on projects until midafternoon. Two of them, Lawrence Pela, 35, and Mr. Khan, 34, have been with FirstWatch from the start. Mr. Pela has served 11 years of a 46-year sentence, and Khan has served more than 15 of a 25-year-to-life sentence. Khan co-founded FirstWatch and, in October 2017, co-founded the Oakland-based nonprofit Re:store Justice with executive director Alexandra Mallick. 

In contrast to those stories that highlight violence and racial tension in prisons, “We sit in conversations together about our lives, the things that we’ve done and how we should change,” Pela says. “We put ourselves in places where we’re willing to be vulnerable with each other, and that’s one thing you certainly don’t see in prison movies and shows. That happens so much here.”

Most of the films focus on one element of one man’s story: “Lumumba’s Prison Journey,” “Jeff’s Garden,” “Upu’s Story.” One of their most recent, and strongest, films is about San Quentin inmate Ralph Brown, who speaks about the pain of being an incarcerated father and missing huge parts of his son’s life.

The films run just a few minutes long, and the crew’s filmmaking skills undergo a striking evolution over time. The composition, editing, and sound design get tighter and more professional with each video posted on their site. The participants are self-taught, relying on a library of film school classics.

“We don’t have internet, we don’t have YouTube, and we don’t have a professional coming in here and teaching us,” Khan points out. “A lot of how I learn is just watching TV, watching movies and watching documentaries, literally counting how long each clip lasts.”

One FirstWatch film, titled “Accountability: Choy,” shows a man dramatically backlit, seated in a chair. Punctuated by long cuts to black, “Choy” tells the story of Doug, a man he killed, through the points of view of Doug’s family members. Watching it is something like participating in a virtual restorative justice circle, in which victims, families, those who are incarcerated, and other affected community members come together to discuss a crime and its aftermath.

“Restorative justice and FirstWatch are hand in hand,” Khan says. “Accountability is a huge piece when you come to these circle settings. So what we’re trying to do is fill that gap with these videos and show we are responsible. We’re not denying our crimes, we’re not denying our actions, we’re not blaming people. We are understanding what we did and why we did it.”

In addition to posting their work online, the FirstWatch crew is planning to work with CDCR’s Office of Victim Services to promote the accountability message through video. Mike Young, the manager of Victim Services, says, “This is one of the first times we’ve worked directly with a group of offenders, with the offenders being able to have a direct impact on the healing of the survivors.”

Better outcomes from arts participation

The benefits of formal, structured arts-in-corrections programs are well documented. Studies consistently show that participants have fewer disciplinary infractions in prison and are less likely to violate parole, reoffend, or return to prison once released, though the size of these reductions vary by study.

Lauren Lee White
Adnan Khan (l.) and Eric Abercrombie, part of the FirstWatch initiative, review footage at an editing station in San Quentin prison in California.

“In all cases where it was studied, arts programs [in prisons] reduced recidivism among people who had participated in the programs versus people who had not,” says Mandy Gardner, coauthor of the Prison Arts Resource Project, a comprehensive list of evidence-based studies looking at arts programs in US prisons and jails. Once released, she says, participants “became not only not negative parts of the community, but positive.”

Even for those with life sentences, she saw evidence of benefits to arts programs: Fewer violent crimes behind bars make the prison environment safer for officers and others who are incarcerated. And based on the volume of evidence that found increased confidence and communications skills among arts program participants, she says, “I would surmise that a program like FirstWatch would lead to better relationships with the people who are still on the outside,” such as friends and family members.

San Quentin’s media boom

San Quentin appears to take these benefits seriously. The prison is a hub of media-making. Its media center turns out a glossy magazine called Wall City, the San Quentin News, a closed-circuit news channel, the beloved podcast “Ear Hustle,” and FirstWatch. 

The decision to have this kind of programming at the prison was at first based on common sense, Mr. Robinson says. “[San Quentin warden] Ron Davis and his predecessors saw that 90 percent of people incarcerated in California end up returning to their communities. How do you want a guy to return to the community? Do you want a guy who’s been locked away and whose only opportunity has been to hone his criminalistic skills?” he asks. “Giving a person hope and a new way of looking at things is the better course of action.”

Ms. Mallick, of Re:store Justice, plans to create a similar program at the California Institution for Women, roughly 50 miles east of Los Angeles, with the hope that LA’s nearby film community will provide equipment and expertise to the women there.

Even so, replicating San Quentin’s level of programming, particularly arts programming, at other facilities would be tough. The prison is in affluent Marin County, just outside San Francisco, with all its attendant wealth and resources – FirstWatch itself was funded with a single gift to Re:store Justice from an anonymous donor, along with in-kind donations of software, computers, and other film equipment. The Bay Area is a hotbed of criminal justice reform activity, an easy commute for activists and other reformers to come teach classes.

And, as the FirstWatch crew emphasizes, the climate in the prison allows for education and self-reflection. “We’re in a very unique place in San Quentin,” says Travis Westly, one of the newer members of FirstWatch. “Because of our environment, we can let our guard down. When you put people in an institution where you provide hope, you give them the ability to change themselves. And if you give someone the opportunity to change, you never know what the results may be.”

Update: Adnan Khan was freed on Jan. 18 at a resentencing hearing, according to Alexandra Mallick, after then-Gov. Jerry Brown commuted his sentence on Dec. 12 to 15 years to life.

This story  was written for the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, a national news site that covers the issue daily. A version of the story also appears on the JJIE site. 

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