Both infuriating and inspiring, Gilda Sheppard’s documentary Since I Been Down lays bare the fear and institutional racism that drive so much of the United States’ criminal justice system — but also shows how education and understanding can open minds and turn lives around. Focusing on the story of Kimonti Carter, a Black Tacoma, Wash., man who’s been incarcerated for murder since he was 18, it demands that viewers think critically about race, power, rehabilitation, and justice.
Neither the film nor Kimonti himself shy away from the truth of his actions: In 1997, in an act of gang-related violence, he shot and killed fellow teenager Corey Pittman, a crime that landed Kimonti in jail. And, thanks to Washington State’s severe approach to sentencing — there’s no parole system — that’s where he’s stayed ever since, despite the fact that all evidence suggests that he’s grown into a thoughtful, conscientious leader who takes responsibility for his actions and wants to help his fellow inmates improve themselves.
Some of the most compelling scenes in the film are those following Carter’s work founding and developing T.E.A.C.H. (Taking Education and Creating History), a prisoner-led program that encourages incarcerated people to take classes, taught by their fellow inmates, that are designed to foster a deeper understanding of history, culture, systemic inequity, and more. Hearing the T.E.A.C.H. participants talk about what they’ve learned and how it’s changed their perspective on themselves and one another is powerful, suggesting that not only is real change possible, but it’s probable in the right circumstances.
Scaling that change up to impact the system as a whole, however, seems next to impossible, given the ingrained bias inherent in the United States’ history as a “race-based country.” That phrase used by interviewee Mary Flowers, a dedicated anti-racism organizer in Washington, cuts to the heart of the issues Sheppard explores in Since I Been Down. The circumstances that led to Kimonti Carter’s act of violence, his incarceration, and his inability to rejoin society in a productive way are inextricably tied to the institution that underlies this country’s past: slavery. As long as we deny that truth, we perpetuate the countless injustices that stemmed from it. But there are glimmers of hope in stories like Kimonti’s, even if his own future is anything but assured. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Nell Minow: The tone, acknowledging injustice founded in bigotry based on race and poverty with more resignation than anger, is quietly devastating in this heartbreaking portrayal of people who recognize, in the words of the first Black mayor of Tacoma, that “the system is a son of a bitch.” The criminal justice reforms of the Clinton era, including the “three strikes” rule that gave hundred-year sentences without the possibility of parole to teenagers who might be “super-predators” has been consistently shown to be a failure as a matter of justice and as a matter of money. This film wisely goes back to the beginning, showing that children growing up with gangs and drug dealers as their only role models they never really have a choice.
Loren King Gilda Sheppard’s powerful and skillful documentary tracks her 12-year investigation into the systemic injustices toward youth in the prison system. Not surprisingly, it’s poor African-American youth that disproportionately suffer from mass incarceration. The film tells the stories of kids in Tacoma, Washington serving life sentences for gang violence in the 1980s and 1990s. The focus is largely on Kimonti Carter, serving a life sentence without parole because of the infamous 1990s three-strikes law. Carter has worked to educate himself and others and is an example of rehabilitation. But tragically this system of injustice runs on punishment, revenge and racism rather than redemption and change. Direct, incisive, angering and heartbreaking, Since I Been Down is an essential film that demands attention and action.
Marilyn Ferdinand Our current angry, divided nation didn’t come out of nowhere. When recreational drug use became widespread—and profitable—throughout the country, street gangs became more organized and competitive, often with tragic results. Law enforcement and legislators responded with extremely punitive measures for those they labeled super predators by trying kids as adults and creating sentencing guidelines that locked them up for good. Gilda Sheppard’s Since I Been Down begins by detailing the fatal crime that sent 18-year-old Kimonti Carter—one of those so-called super predators—to prison for life without parole. Sheppard shows how his remorse, thirst for knowledge, and interactions with the Black Prisoners’ Caucus helped him improve himself and assist other prisoners to make the most of their lives behind bars, including experiences of racially integrated learning and encounters with the public. Our society has thrown away so many people at the start of their lives without trying to find a way to stop this cycle of waste and abuse, but the incarcerated are the ultimate experts on how to change the system. As one speaker says, “We failed. In spite of that, they got the answer.”
Leslie Combemale Since I Been Down is a profoundly emotional experience for those with compassion and concern for where America is in this moment, in terms of the rampant racial inequality and systemic racism continuing to poison the country. Writer/director Gilda Sheppard focuses on Kimonti Carter, who is changing the incarcerated environment from the inside of the prison system. He is in prison for life through laws in Washington state that unfairly target members of the Black and Brown community. Though life inside could be a hopeless, bleak existence, he has risen up to create an innovative prisoner education program that is truly transformational and empowering, fostering self-esteem and accountability in fellow inmates. As one interviewee said, he has created more positive change than anyone else inside or outside the system. Read full review.
Jennifer Merin Filmmaker Gilda Sheppard’s very sobering and sometimes heartbreaking documentary, Since I Been Down, is about the criminal justice system in the United States, particularly as it raises awareness about the lasting impact of three-strikes laws that have mandated life-without-parole sentences for juveniles, particular children of color, who’ve been convicted of crimes three times. Read full review.
Sandie Angulo Chen: A piercing look at the way the mandatory minimums have had a seemingly irrevocable impact on the criminal justice system. The story of Tacoma, Washington-raised Kimonti Carter, who was sentenced in 1993 to life without parole as a barely 18-year-old, is a powerful reminder of the need for prison and sentence reforms. It’s not an easy documentary to watch, but Gilda Sheppard does a fine job of making audiences think and forcing them to unpack the often uncomfortable truths about how society treats incarcerated adults.
Liz Whittemore Filmmaker Gilda Sheppard’s new documentary Since I Been Down takes the three-strikes law to task through the chaos of Kimonti Carter’s lifelong incarceration. Unprecedented access to Kimonti’s friends and fellow gang members breaks down how gang recruitment was akin to being adopted into a family. These ten and twelve-year-olds received the affection and acceptance they lacked in their home lives. It’s a vicious cycle of poverty and racism, exacerbated by money and power. The film uses reenactment scenes side-by-side with footage from the era. News clips, sit-down interviews, lectures from classes taught within The Black Prisoners’ Caucus, and brief moments of powerful choreography keep you thoroughly engaged as you listen to story after story of tragic circumstances. The documentary’s social relevance glares off the screen. Stories of attempted redemption fall on deaf ears, but we feel compelled to listen. While this film focuses on Tacoma, Washington, this reality resides across the United States. Since You Been Down proves that you are not only the product of your environment but how racism perpetuates the prison industrial complex. Sheppard has a fine film on her hands. It’s one that never bends from the truth and challenges the audience to reconsider the definition of rehabilitation.
Cate Marquis What begins as a grim documentary exploring the rise of criminal gangs in Tacoma, WA in the ’70s and ’80s, and ’90s political backlash that led to the “3-strikes” law, no parole and mass incarceration, takes a sudden, more hopeful turn, when Since I Been Down focuses on one remarkable incarcerated man, who has both remade himself and changed the lives of those around him, while serving a life sentence with no parole after a convictions at 18 years old. Rising above a childhood spent in poverty in a drug and gang-dominated neighborhood, Kimonti Carter started a prison education program for those serving long sentences, who were excluding from education services, a program in which prisoners teach other prisoners. Kimonti’s T.E.A.C.H. program encourages exploring new areas of knowledge, self-discovery, and insights, while also building bridges between inmates, even across racial lines, something never before been accomplished in that prison. So the documentary raises the question: when is rehabilitation enough to consider parole? Hopeful and heartbreaking, if sometimes hard to watch, Since I Been Down offers solutions beyond anger, as it focuses on one inspiring black man bringing knowledge to others.
Title: Since I Been Down
Directors: Gilda Sheppard
Release Date: May 24, 2020
Running Time: 105 minutes
Screenwriter: Documentary, Gilda Sheppard
Distribution Company: Passion River
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna