The Prison Within

The Prison Within, a new documentary featuring former Brother in Pen Troy Williams, was released on August 25, and it’s a beautiful film. Troy’s rumination on his journey into the heart of restorative justice works to weave and bookend the elements of the film together. Here’s a quote from a great review in The Guardian:

In an astonishing feat of empathy, the Victim Offender Education Group (VOEG) program pairs an offender with a “surrogate victim”, who is a person hurt by a similar crime, whether it be rape, robbery or murder. In tearful conversations, the offender and victim share their experiences and find common ground. In that way, restorative justice serves victims as well as the offenders, helping both heal from trauma to better reintegrate into society. Emotionally, victims are in a prison too.

I found this film to be such a compelling exploration of the nature of trauma, and even more rare, the nature of healing and restoration, both personal and collective. Throughout the film in various ways, it was apparent that deep healing is not a solo path, but something that requires role models and companions, and that the willingness to allow oneself to enter those emotionally complex and excruciating places in the presence of others is part of the redemption. One of the taglines for the movie is “Everyone has a story,” which resonates richly for me in the experience of the creative writing workshop at San Quentin–and this documentary highlighted that it’s not only that everyone has a story but that we need to hear each other’s stories, we need to tell our stories. It is rare in our individualistic culture to find a message so deeply rooted in the ways that our healing is bound up with each other.

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny…” –MLK

Restorative justice shines bright in this film as the path that intersects compassion, justice, accountability, and mercy. It stirs a longing in me to live in a world where this is practiced. What would the world be like if children were steeped in how to process pain, be accountable for wrongs, give and receive forgiveness, and be reconciled with one another? And not just taught it but had it modeled, over and over, all around them? As this film streamed into my living room during a time of pervasive and dangerous division in our country, I felt the urgency of being a part of the trajectory it described: where a woman’s experience of brutal torture as a child makes her uniquely equipped to make profound connection with men who have committed tragic crimes… where a man who committed a heartless murder finds himself uniquely equipped to bring healing and a release from bitterness to a woman whose husband was murdered mercilessly. Such counter-intuitive and paradoxical movements feel like the very kind of thing that is most needed at this moment in the life of our world. As one who seeks to follow the teachings of Jesus, I would describe these movements as very Jesus-y in the way that life surprisingly, unexpectedly, comes out of death, and things that were done in the grip of evil end up being put to the service of good.

This movie is rentable or purchase-able on Youtube, iTunes, and Amazon (but we should all permanently boycott Amazon as much as possible so don’t get it there 🙂 ).

A bonus tidbit is that Troy got to meet Jordan Peele and Lupita Nyong’o at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (where The Prison Within won the Social Justice Award for Documentary Film).


About Brothers In Pen

Brothers in Pen is the collective name of the Wednesday Night Creative Writing Class at San Quentin State Prison facilitated by Zoe Mullery.
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