Notes from Susan: A Visit to Otisville Detention Center

By Susan MacLaury
Executive Director, Shine Global
Inocente-SmileOn July 29 of this year I was privileged to see our film, Inocente, under unusual circumstances. I traveled with Vee Bravo, Flonia Telegraphia, and Karla Rodriguez from the Tribeca Film Institute and Baz Dreisinger, a Professor of English at John Jay College, to the Otisville Detention Center about 90 minutes north of NYC. Inocente was shown as part of the Prison to College Pipeline program.

Here’s what stays with me from this experience.

I was absolutely blown away by the quality of the program that the inmates created and facilitated for themselves. I was a college professor for 19 years, have shown my share of films, and facilitated hundreds of discussions to process them, and what I participated in that day was as good or better than any one of them.

The facilitator did a wonderful job, which was especially notable since he had appeared before the parole board only hours before. He was calm and engaged and gave 100% effort and told us after it ended that he was hopeful that his hearing had gone well and would know in a few days whether or not he’d be released.

The men watched the film in absolute silence, then moved into two small groups to talk about their reactions and to go through a series of exercises based on names: how they’d been named; what their names meant; whether they’d rename themselves if they could and if so, why; and finally the topic of homelessness. We’d done an exercise to help us remember one another’s names … you know the one…. everyone thinks of an alliterative adjective and uses it in giving their names: Dashing Don, Exuberant Evelyn, etc.

For days after when I’d think of the men, I’d recall Lonely Larry, who talked about having been in prison for 37 years and had no idea where he’d live if released, as opposed to Devoted Don, who said he knew he wouldn’t be homeless because after 27 years in prison he still had family who loved him and would take him in. By the way, Don has earned two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s since the program started.

The men were very open, surprisingly articulate, and very accepting of us. Though most were serving life sentences none of us felt uncomfortable for a moment. There were two guards with dogs but given that these were both 5-month yellow lab puppies no one was taking them seriously!

I left feeling very touched and very impressed with the program. My belief in the need for programs that genuinely make an effort to rehabilitate prisoners was heightened. I’ll remember these men and am grateful for programs like (P2CP) making a difference in their lives.

Vee Bravo is Director, Education at Tribeca Film Institute. In this capacity he and his staff have developed and presented film programs for 18,000 NYC public school students and their families. For the past 20 years, Vee has also created arts programs for inmates at Rikers Island in NYC and now in additional facilities in upstate NY. One of these is Otisville.

Baz Dreisinger is a professor of English at John Jay who makes the trip to Otisville twice a week to work with the 26 members of the John Jay Prison to College Pipeline (P2CP) program that has partnered John Jay with Hostos Community College and the NYS Dept. of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) since its inception in 2011, providing college instruction to several dozen students to date. The program is seemingly very successful in helping inmates reenter society, find employment, enrollment in training programs, internships, and college and boasts enviably low recidivism rates.

Our film Inocente is an inspiring coming-of-age story of a 15-year old girl in California. Though homeless and undocumented, she refuses to give up on her dream of being an artist, proving that the hand she has been dealt does not define her – her dreams do. It won the Academy Award® for Best Documentary Short Subject in 2013 and continues to be shown around to world to students, activists, and dreamers of all types.

Notes From Susan: 76 years is long enough

12-year old American migrant worker cuts onions instead of going to school. (Photo Credit: U. Roberto Romano for The Harvest)

12-year old American migrant worker Zulema cuts onions instead of going to school. (Photo Credit: U. Roberto Romano for The Harvest)

By Susan MacLaury
Co-Founder & Executive Director, Shine Global

The September 7th front page of the New York Times features an article titled: “Just 13, and Working Risky 12-Hour Shifts in the Tobacco Fields.” It profiles a young teen named Saray Alvarez who’s spent the last few months working 12 hour shifts in North Carolina tobacco fields. She and other workers poke holes in black garbage bags for their arms and wear these all day in stultifying heat and humidity to protect themselves from nicotine poisoning. As it is, many workers become sickened, experiencing dizziness, nausea, vomiting and irregular heartbeats. These symptoms are undoubtedly exacerbated by the fact that Saray and others can get water only once an hour at most, when her crew traverses a broad field to the side where there are water containers.

Such appalling circumstances are not uncommon and their effects can be lethal as was true for 17-year old Maria Jimenez, two months pregnant, who died one day in August 2008 after picking grapes in the San Joaquin Valley in triple digit temperatures with no water. Despite the efforts of activists such as US Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard, who has tried repeatedly to get the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment out of committee to be voted on by the House of Representatives, and former US Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis, whose efforts to protect children working in the fields were nullified by the Obama administration in 2012, child farm workers are still unprotected.

It was personally terribly distressing to be reminded how little progress we’ve made in protecting our youngest who risk their health, academics, and futures to feed America. As executive director of Shine Global, I also joined activist Eva Longoria in 2010 to executive produce our documentary, The Harvest (La Cosecha), directed by U. Roberto Romano, that followed three American teen migrant farm workers through the 2009 harvest as they traveled across the US picking crops. It was Shine’s hope that through educational outreach and use of the film by social advocates, this injustice might be addressed.

I am angry – very angry – that hundreds of thousands of American children continue to be discounted and unprotected. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 excludes children working in agriculture from the legal protections afforded to US children in all other spheres. It is perfectly legal in the US today for children as young as 12 to work 12-14 hour days, 7 days a week, under any and all weather conditions. If the farm employs 11 or fewer workers, even these protections are lacking and a child of any age can be forced to work.

I am angry – very angry – that hundreds of thousands of American children – OUR children -are discounted and unprotected. I believe in the power of film to promote change and hopefully films like ours will help make this happen. But it must be now. 76 years to change an inadequate law is long enough. We can and must do much better for our young.