New documentary gives glimpse into inhumane prison system


(Courtesy of PBS WORLD Channel)
(Courtesy of PBS WORLD Channel)

Criminal justice reform starts “with the idea of human beings deprived of freedom. That is so profound,” said San Francisco-based independent filmmaker Noel Schwerin. “We can talk about sentencing reform, police brutality and parole reform, but if you want to really address justice, you have to talk about values. We[‘ve] got to start at a very human level to talk about dignity, values and justice. That’s what informs the other decisions.”

Schwerin’s In an Ideal World documentary, which premiered nationally April 26 as part of the fourth season of America Reframed on PBS’ WORLD Channel, follows three men in Soledad Prison in California: Sam Lewis, a Black ex-gang member, Warden Ben Curry and John Piccirillo, a White separatist murderer. “Each entered the system young and learned its codes of conduct not only to maintain order and safety, but also for their personal survival,” states the film’s press release.

Schwerin, who had “unprecedented access” inside the prison for over seven years discussed the film in a recent MSR phone interview.

“He already had a personal transformation the first time we meet him,” she says on Sam Lewis, who was sentenced to 15 years to life for a gang-related murder. “He has been trying to change his life for some time.”

Warden Ben Curry “was working on… a host of other things” including unlocked doors inside the prison and incorporating a new cell integration program, adds the filmmaker.

John Piccirillo “probably changed the most during the course of the film,” continues Schwerin.  He also was the most resistant to change because his power base was threatened as a result, she notes.

Prison life “is a culture” based on power, which Schwerin points out is both “explicit and unapologetic,” and also based around race as well.

The White House Council of Economic Advisors last month released a report that found U.S. incarceration has grown rapidly over the last three-and-a-half decades, and the criminal justice system “are disproportionately concentrated among Blacks and Hispanics, poor individuals, and individuals with high rates of mental illness and substance abuse.”

Upon entering, new inmates get an “orientation” from those who are already there, as well as from the officials. “They are getting schooled on both sides of the bars,” she notes. “The [prison] system isn’t broken.  It is not a humane system. They all are perpetuating a system that is…inherited.”

Everybody “is schooled” inside Soledad Prison, including guards, explains Schwerin.  Many guards work there because of few job opportunities for them for a variety of reasons, she notes.  “They are marginalized in their own way,” she points out.

“I felt honored and privileged that they shared that stuff with me,” says Schwerin of the many inmates she encountered during her filming. “It was a commitment …there is very little for the people to gain to talk to me. There were times when I was really worried, like having another child, because there were people who were counting on me. None of these stories are complete.”

Schwerin, who lives in San Francisco with her husband and two children, has been making documentary films for over 20 years, also wanted the audience to see that she didn’t take advantage of the prisoners or set them up in a “got ya’” fashion in order to do her film. “It was a privilege to be in people’s lives that aren’t normally shown. To have someone be vulnerable in front of the camera and share things, that is dangerous. That’s pretty powerful stuff.  I felt I needed to match that kind of [commitment].”

The inmates “were among the first people to see it,” reports the filmmaker. “They were all very positive, and I was worried” of their reactions or that their fear of retribution from other inmates might be realized as a result. But “they liked it and want it to be part of their resumes,” notes Schwerin.

Having In an Ideal World on PBS allows her film to be seen by a larger audience, says Schwerin.  “It was very, very important for me to be on public television.” She also gave PBS “more streaming rights than I normally would because I want to make sure it is accessible to people” as a result, she adds.

The film became available for free streaming starting April 27 at

The White House report’s recommendations include better investments in early childhood, including limiting out-of-school suspensions, and working with both Congress and the states “to rationalize the ways we impose sentences, and reduce high rates of incarceration” as well as “fixing the conditions” inside prisons, including offering more job training for inmates to help them re-enter society and reduce recidivism.

“When I started this film, there was so little interest in criminal justice reform,” concludes Schwerin, who hopes In an Ideal World will lead to “a meaningful discussion…to make justice and create institutions that are just…conversations about value and human dignity.”

Watch In an Ideal World free of charge here.

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