What If It’s Not the Prisoner Who Needs Forgiveness?

Screenshot from Redemption of the Prosecutor
Screenshot from Redemption of the Prosecutor

We started making our new documentary “Redemption of the Prosecutor” for the same reason we always do: someone told us a story.

Bill Mefford works in the social justice office of the United Methodist Church, and he called us last August to say he’d just seen an amazing talk. The talker was one Preston Shipp, a devout Christian and former prosecutor from Nashville who went into a local prison to teach. When Preston heard the inmates’ stories, he began to realize how unjust the system was. He was especially torn up about an inmate named Cyntoia, who was Preston’s star student and had received a life sentence as a juvenile. Preston underwent a spiritual crisis that boiled down to a fundamental question: “How can I reconcile the job I was being asked to do as a prosecutor with my faith in Jesus, who proclaimed release for prisoners?” We won’t give away the ending, but there’s a surprising twist that left us saying this is a story that needs to be told in churches across America.

Our short documentary (22 minutes long) is premiering tomorrow at the headquarters of the United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. Our aim is to draw attention in the Christian community to our country’s policy of mass incarceration. Today, the United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population but almost 25 percent of its prisoners. That makes us the prison capital of the world, both in absolute terms and per capita. We lock up more people, for longer amounts of time, than other countries do. And then there’s the system’s racial bias, which forces people of color (particularly black men) to bear the brunt of policies that are designed not to build strong communities but for retribution and control.

In the course of making the film, we saw first hand how cold and distant the system can be. We sought to shoot an interview with Cyntoia but were rebuffed over and over by the Tennessee prison system, which gave abstract excuses like "security concerns" or "scheduling difficulties." Fortunately, Cyntoia had previously appeared in a PBS documentary, and we were able to use images from it to give viewers a sense of who she is. In our film, though, the interactions with her take place solely over the telephone — a stark reminder of how prison separates an individual from her community.

Another revealing moment came when we interviewed Preston’s former boss and fellow prosecutor. He acknowledged that the system often treats people as just files in a folder but was unmoved by Preston’s concerns about justice. He, like so many, is content with the system the way it is. That indifference is what activists against mass incarceration are up against.

Yet the viewer’s response ought not be defeat. Nor should it simply be a grave shake of the head that says “What a shame.” The answer — the prophetic, faith-based answer, anyway — must involve working for reform. It must involve turning sadness into outrage and outrage into action to chip away at the nation’s disastrous system of mass incarceration. Our campaign, Beyond Bars, is producing a long series of videos on this topic, and we urge you to sign up for alerts on how to get active. You can do that and obtain a copy of the (free) film at the “Redemption of the Prosecutor” website.

Jesse Lava runs the Beyond Bars campaign on mass incarceration at Brave New Foundation. Jordan Melograna is a producer, director, and editor at Beyond Bars.

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