The Return: Faces of Overly Punitive Punishment

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The United States serves as the country with the worlds largest incarcerated population.  Triggered by a plethora of laws and policies enforced between the 1960s and 1980s we saw an even steeper increase of incarcerations during the 1990s after the implementation of even more policies.  “The Return” is a documentary directed by Kelly Duane De La Vega and Katie Galloway that visits the journey of individuals who have been released back into the community after serving long prison terms.

Originally given life sentences under California’s “3 Strikes” rule, we’re introduced to Bilal and Kenneth who are both granted an early release under California’s 2012 Proposition 36.  A bill which reduced the length of prison terms for thousands of incarcerated citizens who had been given “25 to Life” sentences for small and moderate offenses like a 5 dollar crack cocaine transaction or purse snatching.

The Return sheds light on the many layers of the prison system and how there are long term effects that aren’t considered when many of the punitive laws in America are created.  A notable aspect of this film is the conversation of mental health.  Many of the inmates in the California State Prison system serving terms for drug related offenses suffer from mental and psychological issues.

Sadly, there isn’t really a judiciary program in place to treat drug users and addicts as health patients rather than criminals in many states.  The film helps to demonstrate what happens when an addict is locked away for 20 years and hasn’t been given any rehabilitation during the entire prison term.

We meet Kenneth, in the film we learn he’s served 20 years of a life sentence after a small drug infraction.  But was one of the lucky inmates to be released after Prop 36.  Once a married man with several kids we now see Kenneth as an older man roughly adjusting to life after prison.  After mentally accepting that he would be in prison for the rest of his life  he’s now back in the real world and facing many hurdles.

The film tackles so many of the post release issues that affect once imprisoned individuals.  How does a once imprisoned individual who disengaged from society overtime matriculate within society?  Where can they find a decent job that pays well?  What rehabilitation services are available for those with substance abuse problems?

The Return doesn’t just stop at the experience of the convicted felons but also takes a look at the emotional toll imprisonment takes on the family structure.  It expounds on the experience of spouses and how they adjust to life without their other half.  It covers the thoughts and feelings of children who have grown into adults without the presence of a parent to help mold and guide them into adulthood.

The film does a great job of capturing the emotional appeals of the audience.  There are many moments that call for a box of tissue.  Watching grown and physically strong men break down crying at the thought of letting down their loved ones in addition to the brilliant score playing in the background sets up a very engaging set of scenes.

Overall, The Return opens an even larger conversation about the well being of those who are being imprisoned in addition to the fact that many of those who are currently imprisoned have been given extremely harsh punishments that may not necessarily fit with the caliber of the crime committed.

The Return recently screened at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival and the San Fransicso International Film Festival.  It’s currently distributed through Loteria Films.



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