Stateville Calling is a documentary about parole reform and its effect on aging prisoners.
The film follows 84-year-old activist Bill Ryan as he works to pass legislation reinstating parole in Illinois, which the state hasn’t had since 1978.
Screenings are taking place around the state. Reporter Dana Vollmer talked with Director Ben Kolak and Producer Yana Kunichoff ahead of a March 26 screening in Springfield.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
DV: How did this issue come to your attention and why it was important to make this film now?
BK: We kind of started following (Bill Ryan) and exploring his work. The initial focus of the project was really on the struggle of aging inmates, which has been a big issue since the death penalty got the moratorium put on it in Illinois. Through that, this whole notion of changing parole and moving from determinate sentencing back to indeterminate sentencing has come into the foreground as a way to hopefully fix or improve our criminal justice system in Illinois.
YK: Given the Trump presidency in the last couple of years, I think we're really interested in thinking about how change is made at the local level or the state level. And we felt that Illinois was a really interesting example of some of the work that a committed group of activists were able to do here around a criminal justice issue that seem particularly intractable, which was getting rid of the death penalty. Bill Ryan, who's a central character in our documentary, was a really big part of that. I think taking some of those lessons and thinking about how they might apply to the system today was really interesting to us.
DV: I'm hoping we can contextualize out a little bit more. Illinois once had a parole system. That ended in the 70s. We put a moratorium on the death sentence. How did we get to this point where you're not allowed to be sentenced to death, however you can spend your entire life in prison with no chance of getting out?
BK: Indeterminate sentencing is where when somebody commits a crime they're put in a prison and then they appear before [a review board] to think about: are you rehabilitated, are you no longer a threat to society, have you done your time and learned from it? That really emerged after the Civil War in the United States, and it was adopted across the whole country in the latter half of the 19th century.
That was the norm up until the 1970s, when a number of factors — most of which saw themselves as kind of liberal and progressive — said, ‘This indeterminate sentencing, it seems like every time somebody goes up for parole, and if they're rich, or maybe if they're white, they get out right away; versus if they're poor or maybe if they're a person of color, it seems like they never get out or it's not fair to them.’ Coupled with kind of get tough on crime, Richard Nixon thinking in the 1970s, that's when we moved to the determinate sentencing, which is the norm in a number of states — where it's just cut and dry, you get sentenced to certain number of years and you have to stay there that long.
With part of that shift, though, there's a number of people who were sentenced when it was still indeterminate sentencing. If they would have been sentenced during determinate sentencing, they might have gotten out by now, depending on the crime.
YK: This is where the issue of elderly prisoners come in. A lot of people we spoke to were on death row, and then their sentence was moved to life in prison without the possibility of parole. They’re aging in prison. Elderly prisoners are the least likely age group to reoffend. They're also the age group that it is most expensive to continue to incarcerate. That's some of the contradiction that we're hoping to address through this film.
DV: When we look at the issue of parole reform, who are the key players?
BK: In broad strokes, a lot of what we encountered is that the opponents to it often tend to be representatives of perhaps the state's attorney, who doesn't want to see these kind of existing sentences rolled back. Other people whose communities are in one way or another being supported by or benefiting from the number of incarcerated people. There's a lot of parts in the state of Illinois where the prison is the one of the larger employers and to see some kind of drop off in prisoners could potentially lead to a drop off of employment, which is certainly a pillar of some communities.
YK: Some of the way that this has been moving forward is that Bill Ryan and other folks he works with will draft legislation, either pertain to elderly prisoners or to parole in Illinois, and try and find legislators to support that. The trend that we've seen is that a lot of the language and framing of what those efforts look like in the legislature is kind of drafted at the activist or organizer level.
DV: In making this film, you were able to speak with prisoners who would be potentially able to get early release, if a program like [Pathway to Community] were to pass. Was there a story that really stood out to you?
YK: One of the prisoners that I do think is a really good example of why parole would be important is named Janet Jackson. She has been incarcerated for over three decades for the murder of her husband. Janet Jackson didn't actually physically murder her husband, but she contracted someone to kill him. Because of that, she was held responsible for his death and is in prison for life. She is someone who has was abused by her husband. She's spoken a lot about being a survivor of domestic violence and the the few tools that she had for getting out of that relationship or dealing with the trauma that in any other way. She’s found some of that while incarcerated. But, today, she still faces life in prison. She has a series of health ailments. A lot of the rehabilitative services that she feels helped her get to this place where she was able to move past being a survivor of abuse are no longer available in the prison system because of the cost. She's an example of someone who actually has a really complicated story for why they were incarcerated, and I think in a lot of ways is sort of a model for what rehabilitation what rehabilitation can look like. She feels she would be able to do a lot more good not behind bars.
BK: One of the people Bill’s had one of his longest relationships with is Ronaldo Hudson, who speaks very much to the very difficult upbringing and issues with substance abuse and how that led to the crime that got him in incarcerated — and then subsequently how he's had the time and space to reflect and distance himself from those kinds of conditions. Even while incarcerated, he's been such a contribution to society at large. He's been one of the key contributors to the newspaper Stateville Speaks that Bill Ryan helped start, you know, finding an avenue through art making and just supporting his fellow prisoners. He's really the person that Bill puts up as the prime example of how somebody can change one incarcerated, and how it's foolish and immoral for us as a society to to keep them locked up.
DV: What do you hope people take away from your film?
BK: The kind of working slogan we have for the film "Stateville Calling" is: Is rehabilitation a right? There's a number of rights we feel we have as Americans. In some other developed countries, rehabilitation is seen as a right — that if you commit a crime, it's your right from the state to get support to reflect on and reenter society. It's not seen that way in our society, either explicitly or implicitly. And I think the question is, should it be? Should our values — the same values that shaped this country, that many of us appeal to or reinforce every Sunday in church — is that something that we all have a right to? If so, how do we ensure that from a public policy perspective? I hope people leave thinking about that issue and continuing to discuss it, because it's something incredibly important to kind of maintaining our community. From a cost perspective, as well, with the amount of money going to prisons instead of schools, that really impacts every one of us as citizens.
YK: I would just say that we have tried really hard to bring as wide of a range of voices as possible into this project. So we obviously talked to people, most affected who themselves are incarcerated — elderly folks — and we talked to activists on the ground. But we also talked to people working with the state's attorney's office, we talked to victims’ groups and people who have themselves seen tragedy because of violence. I think that hopefully lays out a really thorough series of arguments and considerations for what I think is a really complicated and emotional but really pressing issue.
Ben Kolak is a documentary filmmaker with Scrappers Film Group. Yana Kunichoff is a reporter with Chalkbeat Chicago and a documentary film producer. The can learn more about the film and screenings at http://www.scrappersfg.com/stateville/.