Tribeca film screenings cast restorative light behind prison walls

By Christopher Zoukis

When you hear Tribeca, you probably think of the glamorous New York film festival started by actor Robert De Niro in 2002. Recently, though, the Tribeca Film Institute – which “champions storytellers to be catalysts for change in their communities” – also brings screenings to prisoners through the Community Screenings Series, in partnership with the Prison to College Pipeline (PCP) program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

The program helps prisoners connect to the world outside, each other, and offers new educational opportunities. Given its mission statement, above, perhaps that’s not such a surprise. The institute and its namesake festival have also screened many films, including documentaries related to prisons, inmates and the justice system, to detail the reality of incarcerated life.

The institute also runs a collaborative screen-writing program at Otisville medium-security prison, the notorious Rikers Island correctional centre and at Hour Children, a community group that aims to end the cycle of intergenerational incarceration.

The film screenings are an important part of a move to restorative justice and preparing inmates for re-entry into society, by encouraging socializing through discussion. The films often have a poignant and meaningful theme, and the discussions can be serious, leading people to really look at themselves and how they see the world around them and their place in it. This in turn helps them to process their feelings, needs, behaviours and relationships.

The program is led by inmates who have undergone training in prison to become facilitators, which allows them to curate film selections and lead discussions. It offers inmates a wide range of educational opportunities to learn from the films and discussions and to become a facilitator themselves and deliver relevant, tailored programming. These are all skills that will be essential to them upon re-entry.

Former Otisville Prison inmate Devon Simmons, who was incarcerated for 16 years, regularly attended the film screenings and discussions. He says the PCP screenings stood out among ordinary films, allowing inmates to think critically, develop hope, and think outside the box to understand others and solutions to problems. After leaving prison, he immediately started going to school, and is now co-writing a screenplay with a friend who is still behind bars.

Vee Bravo, VP of Education at Tribeca, who leads the program jointly with Baz Dreisinger of the PCP program, previously worked at Rikers, and realized the social impact of bringing opportunities like this to prisoners. He would bring in artists for private concerts, screen documentaries, and teach media literacy workshops. He wanted to connect prisoners to the outside world, and advocated prison education. Bravo also oversees film-related programs for more than 18,000 public school students and teachers. Community screenings also take place at a variety of other community and civic spaces.

This is another example of a great program to spread education, and provide some of the tools necessary for re-entry such as critical thinking, empathy, discussion, planning, facilitating, and addressing complex issues. Since the screenings began at Otisville, more than 500 men have participated. It can only be hoped that this program will spread to other institutions, providing a creative and mental outlet that prepares those who are incarcerated for the future. The Tribeca Film Institute has created guidelines and curriculum for its three prison programs to help others establish similar programs, and three of the facilitators at Otisville have completed study guides for a PBS broadcast film. The resources are there for the taking.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com