“The Return” Sparks Conversation About California’s Three-Strikes Law

Since the 1990s, over 20 states have implemented three-strikes laws mandating harsher court sentences for repeat offenders. Among these laws, California’s was both the most far-reaching and the most controversial version due to the fact that it applied to non-violent and violent crimes alike. In 2012, Proposition 36 marked the first time voters chose to shorten prison sentences. As a result, many prisoners convicted under California’s three-strikes law, including prisoners serving life sentences, were released. Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega’s film The Return documents the challenges and the triumphs of two of these released prisoners, Bilal Chatman and Kenneth Anderson, as they attempt to reintegrate into society.

On Sept. 27, Pomona College’s Rose Hills Theater hosted a screening of the film followed by a panel with Galloway and three characters from the film–Chatman, along with Anderson’s ex-wife Monica Grier and son Sam Anderson. The event was introduced by Ian Schiffer PO ’17 on behalf of Claremont’s Young Progressives Demanding Action (YPDA). While the film screening was primarily educational, Schiffer encouraged audience members to take action by voting “yes” on California’s Proposition 57 to increase parole opportunities for felons convicted of nonviolent crimes. Schiffer also invited the audience to join YPDA at the Oct.1 public vigil in honor of women lost to the abuse & neglect at California Institution for Women state prison in Chino, CA.

The screening attracted a diverse audience of undergraduate and graduate students, Claremont Colleges staff, and community members, including recently released prisoners who shared their own experiences during the Q&A portion of the night.

Caroline Bourscheid PZ ’16, who works for Pitzer College’s Community Engagement Center, was glad to see a lot of students at the screening.

“I think a lot of people at the Claremont Colleges are very sheltered from experiences like these. I think it’s really important that we become educated and it’s also really powerful to hear stories from the people who are actually experiencing them,” Bourscheid said.

Diane Arellano, a Master’s Student in CGU’s Applied Women’s Studies Program, noted the importance and strength of personal narratives.

“When you’re in school, you do so much reading, so much statistical analysis on the complexities of social issues and interlocking factors,” she said. “Being here and having [the panel members] present and really expand on who they are and answer our questions really collapsed that clinical barrier between what we do as students and their experience.”

Comparing lived experience and the aggregated data she deals with on a daily basis at CGU, Lily Rowen, a PhD student in Politics and Policy, said: “It’s night and day. But they’re both valuable, they’re both necessary. They can work together.“

 Galloway has been exploring themes of incarceration and criminal justice since her days as a UC Berkeley undergraduate, but the Return was a unique project for her as a bright light in a gloomy field.

“I was really looking for the good news at the time I started this film,” Galloway said. “I needed to not tell another horror story. I needed to tell a story of hope.”

The film doesn’t shy away from the extremely damaging social implications of mass incarceration under the three-strikes law, but it also features a strong undercurrent of hope on both an individual and a societal scale. Mike Romano, director and co-founder of the Stanford Justice Advocacy Project, says, “We are creating underclasses of people who can’t get out of prison and are destroying families and neighborhoods. We as a society have to take some responsibility for what we’ve done and try to fix it.”

As students looking to effect the kind of change Romano is talking about, Rowen found the film and panel empowering. “It’s reaffirming. This is why I’m in graduate school,” she said.

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