Filmmakers discuss THE CORRIDOR, new documentary about a high school behind bars

Filmmakers discuss THE CORRIDOR, new documentary about a high school behind bars

Annelise Wunderlich and Richard O'Connell discuss their film THE CORRIDOR and how one county jail approaches recidivism and restorative justice through holistic education. Interview conducted by Kara Grant.


Tell us a little bit about your film.
Annelise: Our film takes the viewer on an intimate journey through a part of our society that a lot of us don’t have access to, which is inside our county jail system. The film looks at alternative modes to criminal justice and explores different ways towards rehabilitation, other than just a strictly punitive approach. It looks specifically at education as a way to reduce people coming in and out of our jail systems.

Richard: I would add that the film is about resilience and hope -- about treating people differently, more humanely, and in their true light. It’s about understanding the trauma they have been through.

How did you both come to this project, and how did you find the individual students that were highlighted in your film?
Annelise: My husband is a teacher in the high school that we depicted in the film and he always has a lot of stories about his experiences as a teacher there. It was actually Richard who was first intrigued to make a short film about those stories. It became a much bigger project over time. It took us two years just to get access to go in there and film inside the county jail system, but it started with that spark of hearing those stories.

Richard: Annelise found Bethany and I found William, and we lucked out in finding two incredible people that we became intimately involved with.

Annelise: And I will say that both Bethany and William also found us. Once it had gotten out in the jail population that we were there as filmmakers, I think both of them had a lot of motivation to share their stories with the public for different reasons. They both recognized the opportunity to be able to reach a larger audience even while they’re in the most confined environment. I really want to give them credit for their agency, it was a true collaboration between us and them.

Many of the folks in your film spoke of having negative experiences in the public education system before their time in jail. What were some of their reactions and attitudes towards being a part of this program?
Annelise: Different people had different attitudes. A lot of folks that we spoke to had initial resistance to the program. They felt resentful that they were essentially being forced to enroll in this school because really, they were. If they didn’t enroll in the school they would have to be in different kinds of housing in the jail and wouldn’t have access to a lot of great programs. But there’s people like Bethany and William who are a little further on their journeys in life and they recognize this as a second chance to finally realize their own potential. Both of them talk a lot about feeling worthless before they got involved in the program and for the first time having their own intelligence nurtured for the first time. It was a lifeline for them.

Richard: A big part of why some of these people fall out of the public education system is due to other issues in their lives. For example, William fell through the cracks when his dad left home and his parents broke up -- two hugely traumatic events. The program was good at creating hope that you have a future, that there are people out there who care about you, that you’re loved. Annelise and I know that this process is the opposite of “the system.” The film is tangentially about how these characters have suffered at the hands of the school-to-prison pipeline.

Annelise: Another big piece of the school’s success is that it has a whole support structure around failing and the possibility of not necessarily making it the first time getting your diploma. A lot of people like Bethany feel so much guilt each time they go back out there and then fall back into the same habits that got them into jail in the first place. That guilt can be so heavy and weigh them down to the point where it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy to keep failing. The school recognizes that and a lot of the teachers there help them shore up this resilience that Richard mentioned. That it’s okay, you might mess up and that’s part of the process.

Richard: The film is about education but it is also about compassion and acknowledging what has happened to people. We were at the Mill Valley Film Festival and it was a middle school screening. A girl got up and she was fourteen years old, and she talked about Bethany being her hero. That was a very powerful moment for us. She felt that Bethany was someone who had rebounded from adversity. Bethany had never been told in her life that she was somebody’s hero.

One of the most interesting parts of the film was watching the power dynamics operate amongst the incarcerated students, the teachers, and the correctional officers. What was it like to see those relationships work first-hand? Did you encounter any difficulties?
Annelise: They are three very different cultures in one institution. At first that struck me -- how different they were and how their cultures clashed. But over time during filming, what struck me more was the common ground among those three different groups. All three of them were navigating this new kind of justice. I went in with a lot of prejudice of my own against correctional officers, coming from a pro-incarcerated people position. That shifted throughout the process, when I began to recognize the humanity of correctional officers and the range of people in that job. Some had a very real connection with certain incarcerated folks and wanted them to succeed. Not all -- but it was a more complicated negotiation than I ever thought it would be going in.

Richard: There’s a great statement in the film: “We’re all doing time.” I feel like that’s the case. Everybody is doing time in there. Obviously some people get to go home, but there is a certain alignment between them. Some deputies have only had a law and order training, where there is no concept of restorative justice. But some of the sergeants and captains who have been there longer have evolved a little further. I will say, frankly, that we did have a difficult time with the deputies and we can’t deny it. I was told by a deputy that the only time we would see him on camera would be if he was hurting or hitting people. He wouldn’t be on camera for any other reason. On the flip side we had a captain and a sergeant who were completely compassionate. It’s the full spectrum. We found it easier to work with the teachers and the students.

What were some of your biggest takeaways about this form of correctional education and its impact on recidivism?
Annelise: I think that it is so much more useful to get a real education than to just get your GED or some kind of job certificate training. It was a really holistic approach -- you’re getting your basic academic skills, job training skills, and you’re also doing this deeper personal work around restorative justice, healing, recovery from addiction, and parenting. It’s this recognition that it’s the whole person that needs to be healed and empowered and not just one piece if you are going to break the cycle of incarceration and recidivism.

Richard: It’s an incredible approach and it deserves support. And it’s completely cost-effective, because recidivism rates just plummet. People become wiser, they see themselves differently, they see the world differently, and of course they’re all change agents. They have nearly 3,000 graduates now, and they can go out and speak about the school and their own transformation when they go back to their communities. There’s a huge ripple effect.

Annelise: And it really impacts their kids. One of the things that moved me the most about the graduation ceremony was seeing so many young people in the audience watching their family members cross that stage. They have probably spent a lot of time feeling angry, resentful, and scared. To then see this moment of accomplishment -- who knows how you measure the impact of something like that but I can only guess that it was very powerful for them.

How did the fact that this program took place in jail, where people are coming in and out, affect the dynamics of the classes?
Annelise: It’s a big logistical hurdle. It’s really disruptive every time a new group of students comes into a classroom or some leave as they begin the process of learning. I know from hearing my husband speak as a teacher that that’s one of the biggest challenges for him. Right as somebody is making progress, they get a court date or somebody gets released. And you might see them again a few months down the road, but there’s a lot of stopping and starting.

Richard: I expected, in the completely wrong way, that there would be an aspect of the education that would be “dumbed down.” What you find is that’s not the case at all. It was striking to me the quality of the education and the curriculum. It quickly mimicked a high school corridor. Woven into this is therapy, meditation, rehabilitation from drug and alcohol abuse, so there’s constantly bits and pieces going on to make the whole process easier. It’s quiet a complex constellation of work.

Annelise: The school and curriculum is designed with recidivism in mind. Bethany at one point in the film says, “Yeah, I failed. I got out and came back in. But bit by bit, I’m working towards getting my credits.” The school has out of custody programs for those people so they can keep earning those credits and working towards their diploma while they’re on probation.

Have you kept in touch with Bethany and William? If so, what are they up to now?
Annelise: We did for a while. It took us five years in total to make this film. Unfortunately, we lost touch with William. He appeared to have gone back into the system but we don’t know for sure. With Bethany, she’s done well for stints of time and then she disappears for stints of time. I usually hear from her on Facebook when she’s doing well and she reaches out to reconnect.

Is there anything that you would like to address that I haven’t asked you about?
Annelise: I would add a technical thing that comes up when people watch the film. They are confused between prisons and jails -- we hear this over and over again. There’s been a lot of documentaries about really cool programs in prisons. It’s possible to do so much more in prisons because people are serving a determined sentence. Not all prisons, of course. But locally, San Quentin has a lot of really amazing programs. It’s much less common to see any of these kinds of programs in county jails. They typically are holding people for indeterminate amounts of time so it’s much harder to bring in educational programming that relies on continuity. The jail population is growing exponentially in the United States, as more and more prisons are getting overcrowded and more laws are being passed to downsize prisons and funnel people back into the county jail systems. I say all that because it’s urgent to get the message out that our jails are a mess and they urgently need reform. This program is an isolated example of a county jail system that’s doing something right. I hope it spreads to other sheriff’s departments across the country because it does take cooperation between local school districts and local law enforcement agencies. Those are two communities that don’t usually have much communication with each other. I’m hoping this film can spark a dialogue between school districts and law enforcement agencies because they need to work together to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline.