A broken system needs fixing

A new documentary takes on the crisis of racism in the criminal justice system


By: Randi Hensley

A REPORT issued in early April told the horrifying truth of a war being waged within the U.S.: 29 African Americans had been killed by police or security personnel since January, 18 of them definitely unarmed. 

Trayvon Martin’s murder and the conspiracy by police to keep racist vigilante George Zimmerman free have brought tens of thousands of people into the streets. These people are seeking justice for Trayvon, but also for Rekia Boyd, Troy Davis and all of the other people murdered and terrorized because of racism. The need to channel that anger into a new civil rights movement is an absolutely urgent undertaking, as people’s lives are literally at stake.

But there are no shortcuts to rebuilding a new civil rights movement. And one of the key pieces in that puzzle is providing education about what’s behind these racist murders—the criminal justice system that has purposefully whipped up stereotypes of Black people as criminals in order to maintain social control.

The recent documentary Broken on All Sides: Race, Mass Incarceration, and New Visions for the Criminal Justice System provides a political framework that’s necessary to go from being outraged about Trayvon’s death to understanding the system the perpetuates racism. Director Matthew Pillischer looks at these social ills in a holistic way and traces the lineage of the prison system all the way back to its roots in slavery.

In under an hour and a half, Broken on All Sides offers a wealth of information on a range of issues—the stigma of being incarcerated, the unbridled discretion that judges and prosecutors have, overcrowding in prisons, the huge industry that the prison system has become, the war on drugs, recidivism rates, the obstacles people face when they are released, mandatory sentencing, resistance from behind bars and much more.

The documentary pulls together an impressive group of experts to talk about the issue of mass incarceration, with a wide variety of relevant experience. Most importantly, it centers around those who know firsthand the brutality of the system—former prisoners. The system wants nothing more than to strip these individuals of their dignity and humanity. Broken on All Sides does the opposite—it gives people a chance to share their experience and tell their stories.

And those experiences are shocking—former Pennsylvania prisoner Nathaniel Gravely Hayes recalls the conditions that he faced—his cell amounted to little more than a cage, where three prisoners were forced to reside, one on a temporary bed. It’s even more disturbing when he reveals that he endured those conditions for months before even being found guilty of a crime. 

For people who already aware of the cruelty behind bars, Broken on All Sides arms you with the statistics and information to prepare you to bring along more people into the fight for equality.

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, is interviewed at length to explain how the criminal justice system today is an extension of Jim Crow segregation and discrimination. Alexander clearly asserts that the “get tough on crime” rhetoric that politicians have used for the last few decades can be traced back to segregationists who, because of the civil rights movement, were no longer able to use outwardly racist language.

Using graphical representations, Broken on All Sides lays out the staggering facts about our prison system, which expose its brutality and racism. It’s worth listing a few here, as they really do boggle the mind:

-- The shear numbers of people the U.S. locks up—we make up 5 percent of the world population, but incarcerate 25 percent of the world’s prisoners 

-- The skyrocketing rates of incarceration in the past 30 years—we would have to release four out of five of today’s prisoners to go back to the incarceration rates of the 1970s.

-- Who is most affected by mass incarceration—one in four African American men in their 20s are subject to supervision by the criminal justice system.

Broken on All Sides doesn’t duck the question of how our society could handle crime. Many times throughout the 68-minute film, conversations about what people actually need are brought up—jobs, treatment for drug addictions, access to mental health care, housing and so on.

Importantly, Michelle Alexander points out that more law enforcement—which leads to more police brutality, more people going into prison and so on—is the only thing that people of color can ask for and get, rather than the services that could actually make communities better.

Campaign to End the Death Penalty activist Marlene Martin explains that politicians who claim to be “tough on crime” are not ever tough on the causes of crime. On the contrary, the first cuts they make to budgets are social services that could help people stay out of prison. 

In one of the striking art pieces by Pennsylvania prisoner Leonard C. Jefferson—whose artwork is shown throughout the film—he asks the question, “Piecemeal reform to the system or a new vision?”

And the documentary clearly points to the economics behind all of this—poor people are the ones who get incarcerated. It also points out the backwards priorities of the system. Protesters are shown with signs reading, “Prisons are growing while schools are closing.”  

Former prison guard Carlton Young raises an important question: “If you put that much time in rehabilitation instead of the money you put in jails, you know—what difference would that make?” Former prisoner Khalid Abdul Rasheed points out, “Most prisoners are in prison because of economic crimes or crimes related to economics.”

Although the picture of our prison system shown in Broken on All Sides is a bleak reality to face, the movie doesn’t leave you hopeless or disarmed. The opposite is true—you walk away inspired to fight back. This is not just a documentary that provides incredibly important and useful information—it is a call to action.

As former Black Panther Party leader Elaine Brown says of Broken on All Sides, “Every conscious person in the world needs to see this film.” I completely agree that it is a must-see, and it is also a movie that needs to be shared with friends and family, and shown at community centers, churches and schools.

The documentary contains footage of a march in Philadelphia protesting the shooting of Albert Purnell, an unarmed Black man killed by police. The recent Occupy movement, coupled with the outpouring of a new generation into the streets outraged by the murders of Troy Davis and Trayvon Martin illustrate that people will not remain silent in the face of such grave injustices.

As Marlene Martin points out, “We’re going to need to see a new civil rights movement. We’re going to need to see more and more people joining together to challenge these institutions.” Michelle Alexander continues along the same lines: “Nothing short of a major social movement has any hope of ending the system.”

We are in the process of rebuilding a movement that will confront brutality and inequality, and need to use every resource at our disposal to do so. In a rousing speech, Greg Brinkley says, “Enough is enough. We know it’s going to be hard, but power concedes nothing without a struggle. We’ve never gotten anything in this country without a fight!”

Fight we will, and Broken on All Sides is a perfect weapon for our battle.

For more information on how to view this film please visit the website for Broken on All Sides.