FIRSTHAND: Life After Prison illuminates the challenges of reentry for five Chicagoans

Life after prison is frequently an untold story, hidden behind the stigma of a criminal record. For thousands of people recently released from prison, this stigma dismisses their experiences and the challenges that accompany their reacclimatization to society. On the first day beyond the prison gates, they enter a world that’s changed around them and suddenly must assume responsibility for finding housing, health care, and a job with little to no help. This year, WTTW’s FIRSTHAND initiative showcases how real Chicagoans confront this uphill battle.

FIRSTHAND: Life After Prison offers audiences an intimate, compassionate look into the experiences of people attempting to restart their lives after incarceration. The documentary series—directed by Mario Tharpe, Resita Cox, Pat Odom, Teresa White, and Donna Wilson—illuminates the difficulties that obstruct rehabilitation while providing inspiring glimpses of the opportunities that can exist for ex-offenders. The Life After Prison project is the latest installment from the award-winning FIRSTHAND initiative. FIRSTHAND’s past projects addressed issues concerning poverty, gun violence, segregation, and coronavirus, focusing on perspectives from Chicago residents. 

The five episodes in the docuseries expose the fact that for people with criminal records, especially people of color and LGBTQ+ people, community support is rare and access to jobs is minimal, leading to higher recidivism rates and societal exclusion. Every year, more than 650,000 ex-offenders leave prison, but according to the Department of Justice, approximately two-thirds will likely be rearrested within three years’ time. This cyclical trajectory for ex-offenders is what inspired Tharpe to help produce the docuseries. 

“For me personally, signing on to produce and direct FIRSTHAND: Life After Prison was personal,” says Tharpe. “As a kid, I saw two of my four uncles struggle with drugs and occasional incarceration. Being young, I didn’t understand why they weren’t able to kick their drug habits. Their lifestyles were emotionally draining to my grandmother and other family members, all of whom loved my two uncles. Spending hours pre-interviewing and talking to our five documentary subjects was therapeutic for me and answered some questions I had about why people relapse and why so many use jail and prison as an unintended revolving door.”

The five Chicagoans featured in the documentary series include Nicholas Crayton, Paul S., Kyle Hilbert, Tawana Pope, and Marcelo de Jesus Velazquez. It shows them at different stages of their lives in and after prison, providing audiences an opportunity to understand reentry at every stage through firsthand accounts. For Tharpe, the up-close documentary series compels the audience to “walk in the shoes of the subject.” He anticipates that after watching, many will begin to believe that rehabilitation upon reentry can work if we help reduce the challenges faced by formerly incarcerated people.

“A large number of people return to prison because they can’t find a job,” Tharpe emphasizes. “Not having a job means you’re not in a position to support yourself or your family. Ultimately, returning to the streets to engage in illegal activities leads people back into the prison system. More employers have to give returning citizens an opportunity to succeed.”

Tharpe hopes that the docuseries will encourage more reentry programs to offer beneficial, sustainable assistance for those transitioning back into society. Tharpe believes that recidivism rates can be reduced with adjusted, individualized reentry programs and greater awareness of the struggles of life after prison. FIRSTHAND’s intimate perspective provides audiences with an accessible entry point. 

Alongside the film series, the FIRSTHAND project will also host community discussions, expert talks, and journalistic spotlights on PBS and Chicago Tonight. WTTW will host five Firsthand Talks that will begin streaming on February 13. The talks provide local insight and solutions concerning reentry, adding another personal level to the entire project. The initiative plans to become directly involved in the communities, working with leaders in Chicago neighborhoods and providing discussion guides for schools, libraries, and other community organizations. 

The speeches include: “The Hurt, the Harm, and the Healing” by Orlando Mayorga, the McCormick reentry policy coordinator for the Office of the Lieutenant Governor’s Justice, Equity, and Opportunity Initiative; “Untangling the Path to Erasing Criminal Records” by Regina Hernandez, supervising attorney for Legal Aid Chicago; “No Place to Call Home” by Ahmadou Dramé, program director for the Illinois Justice Project; “The Humanity We Deserve” by Dr. Nneka Jones Tapia, managing director of justice initiatives for Chicago Beyond; and “Prison After Prison” by Marlon Chamberlain, manager for the Fully Free Campaign.

At 7 PM on February 13, WTTW’s news program Chicago Tonight will feature a WTTW News special episode dedicated to the topic of reentry. The project will continue for the rest of 2023, shedding light on life after prison and providing assistance to communities around Chicago.

“As a public media organization, it’s our role and responsibility to shine a light on vital issues that impact the people and communities in our city and region with trusted, essential content,” says president and CEO of WTTW Sandra Cordova Micek. “Each year, through the FIRSTHAND initiative, we identify a problem or issue that people in our city and region, and people around the country, are facing. Through personal stories and lived experiences, we share firsthand accounts from Chicagoans who are directly impacted.”

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