The College of Liberal Arts class “Reforming Criminal Justice” will be featured in an upcoming documentary directed by Lydia B. Smith. Smith’s last film, titled “Walking the Camino,” aired on PBS and had more than a million views.
The class, taught by Professor Melissa Buis Michaux, is unique in that it is taught in the Oregon State Penitentiary, with about half of its students being incarcerated men. The class, which has been offered since 2016, focuses on issues of mass incarceration, the U.S. criminal justice system and the lives that are affected by it. Additionally, the class challenges its students to offer ways they believe the justice system should be reformed.
According to Michaux, the film’s main focus will be on the incarcerated men. However, the class itself will also be a major focus of the film. The extent that individual Willamette students will be featured is unclear.
The film crew has and will continue to be present during each class in the spring semester, and will conduct individual interviews with the incarcerated as well as with Willamette students.
Currently, the film is still in very early stages of development and has neither a release date nor a working title. While the film will be braodly about the U.S. prison system, it does not yet have a narrowed, central idea or subject.
“The main meat of the documentary will be following the class as it goes into a prison and the experiences that these students and prisoners have,“ said Ben Burton (‘21), who is currently working as an intern for the film’s producer.
“With documentaries, the main goal is to just capture everything that you can and to just shoot as much footage as possible. Then post production is when you decide what will be left in, and what the big ideas are.”
One thing Michaux said she considered when she was initially approached by the filmmakers about filming her classes during the fall was whether the presence of camera operators would affect the dynamics of the classroom—an environment where personal and difficult discussions often take place. She said that she agreed to the presence of the filmmakers when the incarcerated men voiced their opinion that they wanted their stories to be heard.
When referring to the presence of the camera crew, she said, “In that way, it can be intrusive. But I think that the students, both the inside students and outside students, are supportive of what it is that Lydia and her crew are trying to do. Yeah, because they're really trying to bring the story of transformation and what it means to be incarcerated and what it’s really like to grow up in prison to the public.”
Michaux believes that for her Willamette students looking to understand criminal justice, as well as for future viewers of the film, humanizing incarcerated people is crucial to fix a criminal justice system that many people of many different ideologies see as broken.
“I think we have a lot of demonization of people that are incarcerated and, you know, it's somewhat understandable when the only thing you know about a person is a terrible crime that they committed... Of course, people are more than just their worst possible act, and they do change. I think more and more society is accepting that idea in theory, but then, in practice, we still have to do it.”
Jordan Schott (‘21), one of the Willamette students enrolled in the class, said: “It’s been really impactful to sit in a room with convicted felons, but they’re so much more than that. We all have preconceived notions about what it means to be in jail, especially in a maximum security prison, especially for people convicted of a violent crime... It’s so important that we recognize these guys have faced extreme obstacles in their lives that have influenced what brought them to where they are right now. Being able to recognize that these are amazing, multifaceted, three-dimensional people has really affected me. They have so much more to share then then the limits of what their crime was.”