New Documentary, ‘Broken on All Sides,’ Calls Mass Incarceration of Blacks the ‘New Jim Crow’
Thirty years into the so-called War on Drugs, there are neighborhoods in Philadelphia where more people graduate from the prison system than from high school. According to theories put forth in Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book, The New Jim Crow, it’s not a coincidence that most of these prisoners are black males. Alexander proposes that by using the drug war as a primary tool to discriminate within the criminal justice system, more and more blacks become trapped in second-class status. Broken on All Sides, a new documentary by local filmmaker and lawyer Matthew Pillischer, looks at Philadelphia prisons through the prism of this theory—and finds it fits.
PW: Tell us the genesis of the movie.
Matthew Pillischer: When I was at law school at Temple University in my third year, I started out looking at the Philadelphia jail system and overcrowding. I had been interning for different law organizations that had been involved in prisoners’ rights. I worked on collecting some prisoner interviews inside the jail system, and that’s how I became intimately aware of the problem. I audited a class through Penn Law … on how lawyers can use video as an advocacy tool.
I basically started the film through that [class]. It began as a short documentary looking at the overcrowding of Philly jails … I decided I wanted to turn it into a longer expose on the criminal justice system in the U.S.
I had been reading Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, and I wanted to interview her. That sort of changed the direction of the film, to parallel her book using Philadelphia jails as an example of a nationwide problem.
PW: How well do Philadelphia jails illustrate Alexander’s theories?
Pillischer: There’s a graphic in the movie that shows that the targeting of criminal justice has really been on young black males, and Philly jails are a good example of that. [Black males make up] 60 percent of the jail population at any given time, and black males are only about 20 percent of the Philadelphia population, so they’re way over-represented. So in that sense, it does line up. And then talking to people in Philly, I worked as a lawyer at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia after I graduated. So as I was working on the movie, my main position there was to help people having problems with getting their records expunged.
PW: What were some of the problems people with records face?
Pillischer: Employers are legally allowed to discriminate against people based on most convictions in Pennsylvania, and there’s very little you can do as a lawyer to actually help. … I helped where I could with cleaning up arrest records. In some cases, you can get rid of summary offenses, and with other people with more serious offenses, I would help them apply for pardon from the governor, which is the only [thing you can do about it].
The effects on the criminal record go all the way across the board for citizenship: applying for a license, being on jury duty, [dealing with] private landlords, public housing, all kinds of things that people don’t really think about as a consequence of being in prison or convicted. That’s a main point of the movie.
PW: Tell us more about the theories of “the new Jim Crow.”
Pillischer: There are really are a lot of similarities between Jim Crow-era laws designed specifically for African-Americans and laws today designed for convicts. The way discretion works within the system, it allows law enforcement to target any communities they want without any kind of checks or balance. They’ve been able to focus on [specific] communities of color, which brings a result similar to that of Jim Crow. So I would agree with Michelle Alexander’s general thesis on that.
PW: John Street had a pretty big role in the film. How’d that happen?
Pillischer: I contacted the city and the Philadelphia prison system to try to get their side of the story for the movie and they … were trying to figure out whether or not they want to participate.
They ended up not wanting to be part of it … So I thought the closest I could get to that would be a former mayor. I just asked him … could you comment on this, and he said yes and he actually took us out to Holmesburg, and we did the interview at the entrance to Holmesburg prison.
PW: Reporters talk about how hard it is to get inside Pennsylvania prisons.
Pillischer: It is hard to get access into the prison system. You have to apply to get in there actually. I didn’t even apply because I knew the process would be so long and lengthy so I decided to just go ahead and do it. I had a prisoner contact who gave me those drawings, all the drawings in the movie are done by Leonard C. Jefferson at SCI-Albion in Albion, Pennsylvania.
PW: How did you fund the film?
Pillischer: It’s very DIY, guerilla filmmaking. The biggest amount of money raised was on Kickstarter. Like I said, I started it through this Penn Law program which had access to some cameras and editing equipment … We all graduated and some of [us] went on to other places. All the people that were listed as associate producers are no longer in Pennsylvania now but they were all Penn law people who helped me. And I pushed to keep going and do this racial justice twist to the movie. They had moved on and I ended up doing the main bulk of the movie myself. Some of it was self-funded, and then I raised about $11,000 on Kickstarter, so that was the bulk of it. And some support from family, friends and my wife, and we felt the project was really important and so I went into some credit card debt and basically funded it myself.
PW: So what’s the plan? What kind of impact do you hope to have?
Pillischer: This Philadelphia screening is a good example of what I’m trying to do across the country. I’ve been trying to tour the movie and I’ve now gone to over 20 cities across the country and done about 30 different screenings. What I try to do is get several organizations within a locality involved, organizations that are working around these issues of criminal justice reform. They’ll sponsor basically a tour stop with the movie and if I can, I’ll travel out, present the movie and do a discussion afterwards.
The best screening presentations are when I’m able t get several local people involved as advocates on the issue, and we’ll have a discussion with the audience about how issues in the movie [play out] locally, what the policies look like on the ground in that city and what people are doing locally to try to organize for change. So it’s really a public education campaign.
It’s had great reception from various organizers across the country. From lawyers and from formerly incarcerated people themselves. I’m still [at the point where] this is mostly funded through DVD sales and speaker fees, so I’m hoping to get some kind of grant or funding so I can continue to do this full time but that’s where it’s at and what I want to do in the next six months or year.
Broken on All Sides screens Fri., Nov. 17. 3:30–6pm. Free. Panel discussion to follow. International House, 3701 Chestnut St., 215.387.5125. ihousephilly.org