For a long time, there has been a growing push towards a discussion about serious criminal justice reform. From the drug war to the recent incidents of police brutality it has been beginning to look like that ideal time needs to be sooner rather than later. ‘Fixing the System’, Vice’s new HBO documentary, hits upon the prescience of the moment and ignites the conversation by juxtaposing history lessons, first person inmate interviews, and a historical moment (President Obama visit to El Reno Prison in Oklahoma; a first for any sitting president).
In terms of population ratio, the United States leads the way in having the most of its citizens imprisoned. Large numbers of people are locked away behind the steel and rock of the US prison system. Nearly one third of these individuals are in prison for non-violent crimes. Some of these face prison sentences longer than those who committed even murder and rape.
Almost nobody is arguing that there is not a problem with the current system, but the big question is what to do about it. This is a complex multi-dimensional issue, made all the more real in this documentary by gripping interviews with those affected by the system. Many of the laws that have ensnared these individuals have proven failures in their original purpose (often to deter drug sales/usage). Draconian sentences for such crimes have led to an exponential increase in the number of prisoners in the US. This notion, combined with the privatization of the prison system, have turned prisoners into a commodity, sources of income rather than individuals.
The big impact of this documentary comes from its candid interviews with inmates, their families, as well as prison experts and politicians (including Former Attorney General Eric Holder, Mike Lee (R), Rand Paul (R), Cory Booker (D), and, of course, President Barack Obama). While it is emotional to see the interplay of President Obama and the inmates at El Reno this is oddly the weakest part of the documentary. It is good that such a historical moment was documented, but at the end of the day those meetings were just talk.
The film’s bread and butter comes from the interviews with the inmates and their families. They are the only ones able to give firsthand accounts of what the system is like and what it has taken away from them. It is one thing to talk about the problems (pleading guilty rather than fighting because it’s a safer bet, difficulty in keeping up with parole, the inability to get a job post jail, and how prison affects the families), but it is quite another to put a human face on it.
‘Fixing the System’ is a good introduction to a complicated issue as well as a vital step in a conversation that needs to happen. The next step is getting people to watch it, and they should because it is well worth a watch.