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Second Chances for Ex-cons

The Triumphs and Challenges of Re-entry
By Paul F. South

In America, more than 700,000 men and women will leave prison annually, often returning to the violent, impoverished cauldrons of hopelessness that forged their criminal mindset. Two-thirds of them will return to prison.

A documentary created by two Philadelphia filmmakers—one an ex-con—moves beyond the numbers and offers an unflinching glimpse into a world rarely seen by most, the challenges faced by former inmates as they re-enter society.

“Pull of Gravity,” a film by ex-offender El Sawyer and his co-director Jonathan Kaufman, will be shown at the Saenger Theatre on Sept. 18 at 6 p.m. The screening is free and open to the public and will be followed by a panel discussion.

The 90-minute film explores the challenges of re-entry and recidivism, and hopes to foster community conversations about those issues in Pensacola and across the country. Recidivism saps tax dollars, shatters families and exasperates every stakeholder in the criminal justice system.

“Pull of Gravity,” the brainchild of Sawyer, who spent eight years in prison for his involvement in a drug-related shooting, explores his own re-entry into society, as well as that of two other former inmates at different junctures in the re-entry process.

“The biggest goal of the film is to shed light on the humanity of this population that so often gets turned into a statistic, just another story about an ex-con or somebody on parole committing a crime,” Kaufman said. “El still has two years remaining on his parole. We consider him to be the model of success, as someone who has completely turned his life all the way around.”

Growing up in ‘Beirut’
As a teenager growing up in North Philadelphia, turning his life around seemed a million miles away for El Sawyer. He and his family were “knee deep” in the drug trade, in one of Philadelphia’s most dangerous neighborhoods, the 22nd Police District, known to the locals as “Beirut.”

“I was 17 and selling drugs and I shot a guy who was trying to rob me,” Sawyer said. “He was trying to strong arm me and I was trying to protect what I thought was important at the time, because I was knee-deep in drugs.”

All three of his brothers did prison time; one is still in prison. Exposed to filmmaking while serving time, Sawyer chose a different path.

“The movie speaks to my family’s mindset as I was coming home,” Sawyer said. “They thought I was coming home to sell drugs. That was the expectation. I was afraid they wouldn’t support me [in efforts to turn his life around]. I played along that I was going to sell drugs, because I was afraid they wouldn’t support me anymore. But I’d made up my mind that wasn’t going to happen. I had a whole plan I’d written up … a manifesto.”

Sawyer’s manifesto–crafted while still in prison—included a list of film projects, including “Pull of Gravity.”

Once out, Sawyer picked up an unexpected and unlikely ally in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania—Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert K. Reed, a 30-year veteran of the Justice Department.

The two met when Sawyer was hired to help mentor at-risk youth. Across hours of conversation, a bond developed between the ex-con and the attorney. Sawyer shared his dream to make a film that gave a realistic view of the challenges faced when one gets out of prison. As a result, the Department of Justice provided $30,000 in seed money for a documentary. Grants would come as well from The Knight Foundation and other nonprofits.

“I’ve been in court many times and there’s always satisfaction when you get a good result and you see that justice is done,” Reed said. “In our office being able to support this film and being able to create this dialogue that now exists within the various communities that hear about the film, we have done justice.”

According to Reed, re-entry and recidivism were not hot topics in the criminal justice community until the mid-2000s when President George W. Bush signed the Second Chance Act. Today prisons are bursting at the seams and federal, state and local coffers are drying up. The re-entry process is getting more attention once again.

Reform on the Horizon
In the Northern Judicial District of Florida, Chief Judge Casey Rodgers has made re-entry and lowering repeat offender rates priorities. Judge Rodgers, Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward and Dr. Ken Ford of the Florida Institute of Human and Machine Cognition have partnered to bring “Pull of Gravity” to Pensacola.

In 2010, Judge Rodgers established the Robert A. Dennis Re-entry Court to help ex-inmates make a successful transition to life outside. She has been instrumental in making re-entry education a priority through job training, mentoring and therapy to alter criminal thinking to pro-social thinking. Reform, she said, is on the horizon.

“The film speaks poignantly to the problems that cause so many people to return to prison:  Poverty, joblessness, homelessness, hopelessness,” said Judge Rodgers. “Those problems aren’t unique to Philadelphia. They are embedded in every community, including Pensacola and Tallahassee and points in between.”

She wanted her community to get the message that punishment and incarceration alone are not going to solve the problem.

“We can’t incarcerate away the problem,” she said. “The best approach is a measured approach that incorporates punishment and retribution with rehabilitation and second chances.”

Reed agreed. “I hope that people who see the film will step back and be much more humble about our judgments about some of these people who end up in jail. It may be the kid next door or your neighbor round the corner or someone across town, but we have to remember that old saying:  ‘But for the grace of God, go I.’”

PULL OF GRAVITY
Both film showings are free of cost and are followed by a panel discussion with the filmmakers. For more details visit pullofgravityfilm.com.

1 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 18
UWF Commons Auditorium, Bldg. 22, 11000 University Pkwy.

6 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 18
Saenger Theatre, 118 S. Palafox

PENSACOLA LECTURE SERIES
WHAT: “The Great American Incarceration Experiment: What Has It Cost Us?”
WHEN: 6 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 17
WHERE: Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, 40 S. Alcaniz St.
COST: Free
DETAILS: ihmc.us/pensacola_lecture_series.php