Featured photo: Community members gathered at Winston-Salem State University’s CG O’Kelly library to view a screening of five short films that dove into prison-industrial complex abolition. (photo by Sudarshan Krishnamurthy)

Since 1980, more than 350 prisons have been built in America and has been accompanied by a steep increase in the number of individuals who are incarcerated, according to author Judah Schept. While 500,000 people were incarcerated in 1980, more than two million in the US are incarcerated today, the Vera Institute reports. Additionally, research has repeatedly shown that mass incarceration disproportionately targets Black communities leading activists to call for the abolition of incarceration and policing to create alternatives to these punitive systems.

In Winston-Salem, as workers rushed to get home after a day of work on April 16, a room full of people gathered in Winston-Salem State University’s CG O’Kelly library to view a screening of five short films that dove into prison-industrial complex abolition.

A discussion with three panelists, who had all interacted with the carceral system in different ways, followed the film screening. Lorenzo was incarcerated for over 15 years; Miranda was also incarcerated and has had multiple family members who have been incarcerated, and Cynthia has a son who she says was wrongfully convicted and has been locked up for 11 years in Arizona. The last names of panelists were excluded to protect their anonymity.

A discussion with three panelists, who had all interacted with the carceral system in different ways, followed the film screening. (photo by Sudarshan Krishnamurthy)

Beyond Walls, which created the film series, is an organization within Working Films that uses documentary films to inspire individuals to work towards a world without prisons and policing. 

One of the films, “Calls from Home,” told the story of a radio station that plays music and messages of love and support for folks who are incarcerated far from home. The “Calls from Home” show on Hip Hop from the Hill Top radio station features recorded messages from loved ones of folks who are incarcerated with requested hip hop and R&B songs played every Monday night. More than 75 percent of people in prisons are incarcerated more than 100 miles away from their homes, according to the Prison Policy Institute. The film showed how the radio show organized van trips for listeners to visit their loved ones behind bars. For many, this was the only way to get to the prisons to visit with their family and friends. Those interested in leaving messages for loved ones can call 1-888-396-1208.

This hit close to home for Cynthia, who lives in North Carolina while her son remains incarcerated in Arizona. Frustrated and dejected about the six years remaining on her son’s sentence, Cynthia said, “I’m tired of fighting. I don’t know if I’m going to make it.” 

Other films in the series tackled issues about the impact of the pandemic on jails and prisons to the story of a child born to a mother while she was still in prison; that one left no dry eyes in the room.

During the panel discussion, Miranda brought up topic that was featured in a few of the films: solitary confinement.

“Where I was placed in jail was what was criminal,” Miranda said. “Sometimes I had to spend 23 to 24 hours a day in solitary, and I didn’t have any light. I have spent months in the dark and was asked when I came out, ‘Have you learned your lesson yet?’”

Solitary confinement, a form of imprisonment where an individual who is incarcerated lives with little to no contact with others, is known to result in serious harm to those who are made to undergo it. 

In addition to micro effects like solitary confinement, the films also laid out the urgent need to zoom out and imagine a world without policing and the prison-industrial complex.

During the discussion with the panelists after the screening, one attendee pointed out how “[a] part that is missing from the conversation is the corporatization of prisons.” 

Private for-profit prisons incarcerated 90,873 American residents in 2022, and since 2000, the number of people held in private prisons has increased by 5 percent, according to the Sentencing Project.

When discussing the recent reports of the launch of new cop cities around the country — like the one in Atlanta that has made national headlines — one attendee said, “the people in power aren’t representing the people when they make decisions.” 

“And the bad part is, they’re spending our money to do all of it too,” added a local organizer in attendance.

Another film, “Defund the Police” by Project NIA, discussed the history of police being rooted in upholding enslavement by catching enslaved people. It showed viewers the ways in which members of society are socialized to form opinions around the police, through what is popularly known as “Copaganda”, and demonstrated with evidence how directing funding towards social services is more beneficial to the public rather than the billions of dollars that are spent on policing today.

Miranda asked the audience, “How much are you willing to pay a person to do a job wrong and to continue to do that job wrong?” 

She continued on.

“We do it everyday with the police. We pay them to do whatever service that they are going to provide after an incident. How that goes most times is not well. I believe in defunding the police.” 

She added: “if we would actually just put more into our communities, into our children, into our education, then maybe we could bridge a gap.”

Visit workingfilms.org/beyond_walls/home for more information about the organization or to host a screening of the films with your local organization.

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