Life After a Life Sentence 

'The Return,' a new documentary from Berkeley filmmakers, follows California prisoners set free by Proposition 36.

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The Return, a compelling documentary by Berkeley filmmakers Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway, answers one question with poignant vividness: What happens when a person formerly sentenced to life in prison is suddenly liberated?

For "lifers" caught in California's prohibitive "Three Strikes" drug law — predominantly men and disproportionately people of color — the exit from society was fierce and abrupt. But after the passage of Proposition 36 amended the law in 2012, thousands of people sentenced to life in California prisons for nonviolent drug offenses qualified for release. Rentry, however, is anything but swift.

Instead, the grueling process involves judges and lawyers grappling with uncharted territory and families fractured — their infrastructure ruptured first by incarceration, then by a family member's return. Primarily, those released are cast into a world of tempting "triggers" and uncertain employment and housing.

Mike Romano, the co-author of Prop. 36, describes in the film the moment he was inspired to launch the Stanford Justice Advocacy Project, an organization that plays a leading role in the documentary. Romano witnessed a man with $5 worth of crack cocaine receive a life sentence that was decided in 30 seconds. Similar people released under Prop. 36 are expected to find their way back into society — sometimes with only a paper jumpsuit for clothing and no job or stable housing.

Both separately and as partners in the Bay Area production company Loteria Films, Berkeley High grads de la Vega and Galloway have produced award-winning documentaries, shortformat films, and numerous television series. The Return, an 83-minute film that they shot and produced, won the "Audience Award" at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival and "Best Bay Area Documentary Feature" at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival. The national broadcast of The Return airs May 23 at 10 p.m. on PBS's POV.

Remarkably, given the subject, Return draws a portrait of hope and hard work, not desperation or despair. Like their previous films, de la Vega and Galloway avoid digging wide, shallow trenches in the issues and instead drive a shaft to the humanity at the core of the criminal-justice story. Intensely personal, character-driven narratives provide pinpointed entry into a subject with broad, national implications. "Deep" is a word they used often in our interview.

"We're instinct driven, so it's diving deep into your creative well, going with the emotion, letting the narrative take its own direction," said de la Vega, about their work.

But achieving such depth and narrative intimacy presented some unanticipated challenges.

"We were looking for a story that was not a horror story," says Galloway. "Yet I didn't anticipate that people wouldn't want to be a part of it. This is a situation with the system correcting itself, recognizing a moral issue that's been wrong. People moving on with their lives didn't want to be reliving that they were formerly in prison."

Bilal Chatman, a native of San Jose and one of two men featured in Return, was initially one of those people. "I didn't want to do the film at all," he said in an interview while on the road to promote the film and speak during a nationwide tour about the effects of incarceration on communities, families and individuals in America. "I have 21 people under me in management. I don't want them to think I'm irresponsible because I've been where I've been."

Chatman was given a 150 years-to-life sentence for selling $200 worth of drugs to an undercover police officer. Released, he is a Logistics Supervisor for a large corporation, married, re-integrated into his family. And through promoting the film, he's able to tell his story to those for whom it matters most.

Speaking to inmates after a screening at Otisville Correctional Facility, a medium-security state prison in Orange County, N.Y., was particularly fulfilling, he said. "It gave guys hope. They were thinking it was never going to happen, then there I came. I showed them the bumps. I put my whole life out there."

Galloway said that making a film about lifers was a profound experience. "They'd gone through the depths of thinking about death and dying in there," he said. "The work they'd done on themselves, the beauty they saw in the world — it provides so many lessons for contemporary life."

The film doesn't truly end when the last scene is over. The Return Project will continue to spread the film's message: working to educate the public by bringing the film to prisons, schools, businesses and social justice groups; supporting federal reform initiatives, calling on employers to take the Fair Chance Business Pledge and more.

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