Video Visitation in Corrections

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Leonard: From the Nation’s capital this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host, Leonard Sipes. Ladies and Gentlemen the topic for today, ‘Video visiting in corrections’.It’s an extraordinarily important topic. We have two experts by our microphones from the National Institute of Corrections, Maureen Beull. She joined the National Institute of Correction in 2001 as one of the correctional programme specialist and leads the NCI Justice Involved Women Initiative, assisting jails, prisons, and community correction in the development and implementation of evidence based gender informed policy. By our microphones from Brooklyn, Brooklyn is represented in the house today by Allison Holliham .She is a licensed mental health counselor and holds a masters degree in Urban policy analysis as a programme manager for New York initiative for children and incarcerated parents at the Osborne Association. She advocates for policies and practices that support children of incarcerated parents. She has a background in this issue of video visitation.

I am going to read from a report, a rather comprehensive report done by the national institute of correction and we going to talk about that report today. Research confirms that incarcerated individuals, corrections families, and communities all benefit when incarcerated individuals can communicate and receive visits, from family and supportive community members. Video visitation is an additional form of communication that can build and strengthen social support system for those incarcerated.To Allison and to Maureen welcome back to DC public safety.

MAUREEN: Thank you Leonard.

ALLISON: Thank you.

Leonard: Allison, I going to start off with you after that long introduction. What is video visitation?

ALLISON: Video visits very simply put, is very similar to Skype, it helps families remain connected to their incarcerated loved ones. It first was seen in the correctional setting in the 1990s and with technological advances it really resulted in a lot more user-friendly and affordable equipment. As a result its really expanded at a rapid pace in a correction setting, in fact recently there was a prison policy report that stated that the video visiting is being in over 500 facility across the Nation and we expect that it’s going to continue to expand .

Leonard: Maureen what is the interest in corrections in terms of video visiting?

MAUREEN: Pretty simply our role is working with our constituency, which is the jails, prisons and community corrections across the country. To improve outcomes and to reduce recidivism  and some intermediate outcomes and certainly for those folks that are incarcerated maintaining contact with family, family broadly defined, community members, community services it’s really fundamental for people to get back on their feet.

Leonard: The bottom line question goes to either one of you. The bottom line is more contact people have with their families and significant others, important people in the community ,at least important to them. The more contact they have while in prison or in jail, the better off they are going to do upon release? Can I say that?

MAUREEN: I think you can say that, and I think one of the things we trying to achieve is well,for folks to … So we can really separate them from the criminals justice system and have them become part of the community.

Leonard: Part of the community means a lot of contact?… When I was in correction one of the thing that really amazed me is that whenever we had an opportunity, in the State of Merlin in the correctional system for people coming in visiting, complains went down in fractions, went down … It was a  very peaceful prison people would do anything on the face of the earth not to interfere with that in-person contact. Does video visitation have the same impact?

ALLISON: You know Leonard, that a really good question because we don’t know, its such a new practice. There’s has been very limited research on whether or not video visiting or a combination with in-person visits would actually lead to or build upon a positive outcome.

Leonard: The name of document is called ‘Video Visiting in Correction, benefits, limitations, and implementations considerations’ from the National institute of Corrections. An extraordinary document, I mean anywhere from questionnaires to implementational policies to anything that you ever wanted about video visitation is in this document. I will put the link on the show notes in terms of the document. We have according to the document, 13 States that are doing video visitations? Is that correct?

ALLISON: Oh yes, I anticipate that at this point it’s probably more than that, because this document, the research was done approximately year and a half ago at this point so its surely more.

Leonard: Now 2.7 million people are in prisons and jails on any given day? That’s a huge number 2.7 lets think about that for a second. 2.7 million people in prisons and jails in any given day?

MAUREEN: That’s true.

Leonard: We have  just as one example according  to the report 14,000 children in foster care as a result of incarceration. That’s 14,000 people totally without any contact with their mom or with their dad at all. That is just one example of the potential of video visitations?

MAUREEN: Yes and  I want to add to that, that on any given day their are 2.7 million children alone that have an incarcerated parent and when you add those that have are under some type of community supervision, it goes up to 10 million. This is a huge issue not only for an incarcerated individual and budgets but for children and for the next generation of children who are being cut off from their parents.

Leonard: But you did mention a study in a reported self, talking about reduction in recidivism based upon on the amount of contact that they had with in prison. Correct?

MAUREEN: Oh yes, absolutely. There was a recent study done by the Minnesota department of correction. It looked at 16,000 incarcerated individuals and looked at how visiting impacted their success and recidivism rates. They found that even one visit alone reduced recidivism  rates. It really underscored and added to what we know about visiting, that it is important for incarcerated individuals to receive visits throughout the incarceration and not just right prior to reentry. To be able to support their success.

Leonard: Now with running institutions correctional facilities, and the 14 years that I was with Merlin Department of public safety in correctional services, we had three correctional systems. Those visits, contact with the outside world meant peaceful institutions. We not just talking about video visitation, we not talking about necessarily doing the right thing, we also talking about reducing cost, we also talking about improving security, we also talking about the possibility of reentry, we also talking about the possibility, even if this is not the focus of this report, Video based instruction. This is meaningful to many people for many reasons and that why I wanted to expand conceptually what it is we talking about.

MAUREEN: I think one of the things for NIC to have jumped into grading this document with Osborne Association, was that one of the things we are aware of is that we know how important in-persons visits are .We also know that there are some challenges for families to be able to travel to facilities, for getting there and finding out that a visit has been cancelled. I think that video visiting has come on the forefront but I think the thing that we really want folks to be aware of that are thinking of either adopting video visiting or enhancing what they have is to really know: what it offers, What it entails, what they are getting into, what the cost are, what the benefits are? Its not a panacea but I think that these guide really provides a lot of thoughtful questions and opportunities to really take a look at this. Does this fit for your system?

Leonard: It sure does, I mean the document is amazingly comprehensive; right down to the questionnaire down to the surveys, right down to the implementation policy. Its not just a discussion document on video visitation, if you want to consider doing this, if you want to do this, its all encapsulated within one document.

MAUREEN: Nicely said, thank you

Leonard: Do you like that?

MAUREEN: I do, thank you,

ALLISON: Thank you.

Leonard: Alright W.W.W …

ALLISON: And Leonard …

Leonard: Go ahead. let me get the website as long as I have intrigued people. is the website for the National Institute of Correction and you can find the document there it will be in our show note. Allison go ahead.

ALLISON: I wanted to add certainly there are a lot of benefits of using video visiting to kind of bridge the gap for families that are so far away that they cannot travel to the facility or maybe they are elderly and they can’t get to the facility. So they are a lot  benefits, but there is also challenges for families. Some families do not have the money to have their own computer, they don’t have the technological savvy to be able to navigate signing up for an account. You know, I am just thinking about my grandmother who has trouble navigating how to turn the computer on, let alone using it to schedule time. There is the challenge with some video visits when they are home based there is  a cost  attached to that. So any money or savings that may have been incurred from not travelling to the facility maybe outweighed by the expensive cost and all the service fee that are attached to the home based video visiting. There is a lot of considerations that need to be looked at before moving forward.

Leonard: Well that’s the sole point because I have seen newspaper articles from throughout the country and here within Washington DC. That video visitation was put on by a private company that charged fees that people thought were to high. The person cannot afford to make the 300 mile trip between gas and tolls and spending the nights and taking all the family it’s a 200-300 dollar proposition but still video visitation maybe, 1/10 of that but it still something that they cannot afford. Isn’t that part of this discussion?

ALLISON: Yeah absolutely, to also consider that most of the places where video visiting is being implemented currently are at the county jail. When you looking at those families they are not travelling nearly as far as those that are gonna go visit a loved one in a prison in the State.

Leonard: Good point.

ALLISON: So their travel cost are significantly lower and in some cases the challenge is that the jails are actually requiring people to come to the jail. Visits at the facility in almost every case there is no charge for that. There is only a few jails that are still charging but still the family is going through the burden of getting to the facility. They get there and then they don’t actually see their loved one and that really matters for family and it matters a lot for children.

Leonard: Because we do want in-person wherever possible. In the District of Columbia if you commit a violation and your sent to prison even if though it’s a DC code violation where a federal agency. Those offenders are sent to federal prison they could be all through out the country if there is not video visitation then they are not going to get visits at all. So this issue,… I understand Allison your point about it it could be the local jail, but also at the same time that person could be 1000-3000 miles away.

MAUREEN: I think that’s one of the considerations in putting the guide together so that there’s so many different permutations. You may have folks that are more immediate to the facility, you may have the example you just gave Leonard but I think that a site that is thinking about adapting this really need to weigh those considerations. I think one of the things that is in the guide very interesting even talking to the folks that will be using a system  like this whether or not video visiting actually is gonna be something that they use I think one of the other things that we are well aware of that is in the guide is  there is a number of different of video visitings and I think Allison alluded to that earlier.

Leonard: Well Allison go ahead give me those types one more time cause I don’t remember.

ALLISON: Sure, there three basic models the one that was really kind of best practiced and can address a lot of challenges is the higher breed model. So you have in-person visiting and video visiting. It gives families the opportunities to choose what is best for them. Then there is the three actual different ways to use the equipment: You can have the facility based, which is where the video at the facility at some outside area so the family don’t have to go through the security and there set up in rows and [inaudible 00:13:30] and the family goes there and visit. They are usually free visits or at the very least one or two free visits per week and then additional visits they will need to pay for.

Then you have the model where the corrections will partner with a community based organisation, and there is a lot of advantages to that partnership because you then having families come to the community based organisation video visits from there. If you partnering with the organisation that provides services to the incarcerated while they are on the inside and upon their return and support to the families, then you are really able to get the families in early and do that continuum of holistic services and start working with that organisation to support the incarcerated individual reentry process.

Leonard: But the bottom line…


Leonard: Good … Am sorry go ahead

ALLISON: And the final model would be the home based, that is where people can video visit from their home based computers and in some cases their cell phones, or tablets, and those are most exclusively paid for a fee.

Leonard: But I mean that would be the holy grail? Would it not? the idea of having  that level of contact. Because you have to have a security provision, am assuming in all this because abstentively the whole idea is to sit down a child and mother reuniting over the course of 5 or 600 miles through a home based system inevitably, there is gonna be somebody who is going to,… Instead of the child they substitute that child for a gang member, so there’s  gonna be a some security component to this correct?

ALLISON: Well, there is a software that can monitor the visits. You can do live monitoring which certainly labor intensive. We have had concerns about there being, people being inappropriate during visits.  for example in Oregon they have been using video visiting in their state for a length of couple of years now I believe. They found they have 0.15% incident rate so that in the grand scheme of things is so nominal that we are not really seeing that be a big concern.

Leonard: I do want to talk more about that in the experience of other states,but before we get into the second half: Maureen Buell form the National Institute of Correction. We  have Alison Hollihan and she is with the Osborne Association. Let me give out the web address for the Osborne association, have it up close to see if I can read it correctly For the National Institute of correction The document itself its called ‘Video Visiting in corrections, benefits limitations and implementation considerations. It’s a completely comprehensive document NIC should be congratulated for doing it. So where do we take the conversation from here? You just mentioned one state and it was only 1.5% incidence of security violation Allison?

ALISON: It was Oregon Department of Correction then and it was actually 0.15 %.

Leonard: 0.15,okay so that’s pretty then going good?

ALISON: Yes, and you know with the software they can flag certain words, if certain words are said, they can automatically stop the feed. There is always [inaudible 00:16:58] concern that the person who supposed to be the visitor isn’t truly the visitor but in most cases its grandmas, and moms and children that want to have this visits with their loved ones so we really need to look the larger picture before jumping to the fear that these is going to just increase communication with the wrong people.

Leonard: Let me throw out a hypothetical that is not on anybody’s question sheet. If we handle level of contact… Work s philosophical for me a little bit Allison … If we had the level of contact instead of now a mother ,father, or a brother or a significant community member, instead of the once a year trip to a prison two or three hundred miles away. If they were in touch with this individual almost everyday from say the comfort of their own home  through a computer where that information can be exchanged about: When you coming back ,what are you bringing something to wear, where you going to live and having this discussions flashed out before hand. Where are you looking for work? are you gonna go back to school? What difference would that make Allison?

ALISON: A tremendous difference ,I want to speak to the importance of children, just because that is my area of specialty. When we run a programme here at the Osborne association to come to our office they come to a child friendly setting. Its setup like a living-room, they connect with their parents, who are in an Upstate prison 10 hours away so just had to use this as an example. This children may visit maybe once a year, cause its a 10 hour trip and now that they come in for monthly, sometime s a couple of times a month visits they do tele-visits. They are able to do their home-works in the visits, they are able to show their mom their spelling words, their math problems on a chalk boards ,they have the same books here as the moms have in the facility so they can read together. And these are experiences that you can’t have on the phone. The parent can’t see the child stand in front of a measuring stick and see how they growing from visit to visit.

We find it so critical, because then the children are able to make sense of their world. They are able to have the additional support that is so valuable for them. They are able to physically see that the parent is safe and doing well. Then they are able to go and visit once twice and hopefully more to have the important in person visits. so that’s very critical for children.

Leonard: Maureen…

ALISON: You know Alison as you talking I was just thinking of an example you were telling me about. That is when a child a small child 3-4 yr old child, gets on a telephone and is just holding a telephone and really doesn’t have any kind of a face in front of that child. There is really no conversation. The beauty I think of systems who do have video visiting is that they see the person, they see the parent. I think that something we don’t think about in the current systems we have.

MAUREEN: Yeah absolutely.

Leonard: I do want to put to our listeners that my agency, the court services, and the offender supervision agency is a pioneer in-terms of video visitations. We do quarterly ,and it’s an all day affair and we have a network of prisons throughout the federal Bureau of prisons. That participate in this a community of resources day where we bring in people from all through out the community in terms of alcohol, substance abuse, housing, jobs you do name it. We do this all day seminar, and that’s recorded.  We have been involved in the issue of video and communication within correctional facilities for a long time. We also are piloting an experimental programme where we do hookup female offenders in prison with their children from the District of Columbia but that is in its earlier stages but that is what we are doing. What is the future either one of you in terms of video visitation?

MAUREEN: You know one thing that just occurs to me is, … I have been doing criminal justice work for sometime, one of the things that I think am well aware of is that, historically our focus has been just on the individual, the individual that is incarcerated. I think with the emerging research and the best practices one of the things we’ve realized is that for people to be successful, they have got to have these connections. I mean it works for us  in the free world why should it be any different for an offender that is within the criminal justice system . I think that if folks become pretty knowledgeable about how critical it is to maintain and build those healthy connection, I think that pairing in person visitation with technology such as video visitation I think the opportunities I think its unlimited.

Leonard: They are unlimited. I did a television show on family reunification, I hosted the show and one of the things that is really profound is all the kids that are left behind, they feel abandoned. We know from research that they have higher degrees of problems in terms of substance abuse, in terms of involvement with the criminal justice systems. But they are 8,9,10 years old. They didn’t ask for this? So they feel completely abandoned, completely separated, from their incarcerated parent. At least in this case not looking at security, not looking at safety, not looking at recidivism, not looking at the benefits to the criminal justice systems but in terms of looking at the benefits to the kids it would probably be enormous.

ALLISON: Absolutely, we do know from some research, and definitely from observation that we have here through our programmes that connect children with their incarcerated parents. Visiting really minimizes the trauma, while increasing the support for children. It allows children to have very important conversations about, why are you there? when are you coming home? It helps through healing and we find that the children that are able to maintain the connection with their incarcerated parents. Children who have appropriate support in the community they go on to thrive and do wonderful its only a small percentage of these children with incarcerated parents do go on to have these challenges that you mention and its a really real concern but we have an opportunity here to support this children so that they can go on to have bright and healthy futures.

Leonard: But its interesting that the conversation that nobody has. The kids caught up in all of this nobody seems to focus on them at all. They do feel completely left alone, they feel completely ignored and this would be a way of looking at that. Where do we go to for the future? For video visiting? I mean is this going to be something that you would want to expand through out the entire country? Are we going to start using tablets? Start using home computers? Are the correctional systems going to be more accepting of this? Map out the next five years either one of you?

ALLISON: Yeah I believe that it is inevitably going to be in every facility at some point. The question is it going to be implemented in a thoughtful way that balances the need for correction and families or is it going to be driven by companies out there that are trying to make money by charging for the visits and putting big service fees on the families which will be in the end counter productive right? Because we going to have families that used to be able to go for free visits at the county jail, that now are not able to visit as often because of the fees.

I think that if its done in a thoughtful way, it could increase the connections for family and I think its going to be a great benefit to the re-entry planning process. We didn’t speak much about that, but to think about being able to bring families into a case management conference with the incarcerated conference with the incarcerated individual prior to release to determine how they can be of support. Think about the transitional housing director who can come to a facility or community organisation and have an interview with someone who is incarcerated 5 hrs away from the area to where they are returning to, and the have that with the housing resource ready for them before they are released. You can have job interviews, you could have interviews with treatment providers.I mean the possibilities are endless.

Leonard: Well that is just it the possibilities are endless and we just barely scratching the surface in terms of the possibilities. Everything you have just mentioned could be, should be on the table. Now my question is and anybody listening to the program is going to be … If that degree of importance, if it’s at that level of importance we have not even discussed the medical angle, to this and where these could really cut costs through states by millions of dollars in terms of video consultations on medical issues. Then why do we have to rely upon private providers at all? Why doesn’t government simply pick this up if it’s so important to so many people for so many reasons?

ALLISON: Well thinking from the importance of in-persons vist’s just for visits. Think about the importance of a doctor or a nurse doing triage to be able to physically see and touch that person. I think that there’s definitely room for having consultations or simple follow ups but it can never replace the importance of the medical community to be able to interact with a person.

Leonard: But my question is more along the lines of the fees that are being charged the fees of private company’s’,or some people who are objecting to the fees. They say that they are too high if it is as important as we making it to be, why wouldn’t the government pick up the cost,[inaudible 00:27:06] eliminate the fees entirely? That sounds unrealistic in today’s  budget cutting era?

MAUREEN: That’s a hard question, I mean it’s hard because you know, am just looking at sort of the environment that we are living in today in terms of politics and budgets and all sorts of things. I think what we really were interested in is having both criminal justice systems and users of systems like this, just to be thoughtful of consumers and to really know what the potential and the possibilities are but really know the right questions and the right things to consider.

Leonard: And that’s exactly what the document does?

MAUREEN: That’s what we hoped for?

Leonard: (Laughs)… Very comprehensive. Alison did you want to have a quick followup we just about out of time.

ALLISON: I think that the main take away here, is that we should never look at video replacing in-person activity, no matter what it maybe from visiting to tele-medicine. We need to be thoughtful about making sure that the fees associated are not counterproductive and just reducing the ability for the incarcerated to maintain their connection with their family.

Leonard: Some people are exuberant about this possibility. They suggest that it could really fix a lot of the problem within correction so they would be even more enthusiastic than you. Maureen final comments?

MAUREEN: Well I think that’s why we called the document Benefits ,limitations and implementations considerations.

Leonard: Just to cover all bases…

MAUREEN: You got it.

Leonard: (Laughs)Ladies and gentlemen, we are doing a show today…we doing a show today on Video visitation in the correction setting. Our guest today has been Maureen Buell from the National Institute of Correction and Allison Hollihan. She is with the Osborne association. The document itself as Maureen just said ‘Video Visiting in corrections, benefits, limitations, implementations considerations, programme was produced today by [inaudible 00:29:16] and we always appreciate her production assistance in-terms of putting this together. The inner website for the Osborne Association Allison Hollihan organisation

Ladies and gentlemen this is DC Public Safety. We appreciate your comments and we even appreciate your criticism and we want everybody to have themselves a very pleasant day.


Film and Video Artists and Offender Reentry


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Len Sipes:  From the nation’s capital this is DC Public Safety.  I’m your host Leonard Sipes.  Today’s topic, ladies and gentlemen, is film and video on offender reentry.  We have three people in the studio today, three experts, in terms of doing videos on the topic of offender reentry.  We have Gabriela Bulisova.  We have Greg Upwall, and Yavar Moghimi.  Gabriela is an independent photographer and instructor in Corcoran College of Art and Design.  Her website is And Greg and Yavar, they’re graduates of the George Washington University Institute of Documentary Filmmaking.  They produced a film called Released to Life that’s gotten a lot of acclaim.  It’s currently under and you can also go to  And to Gabriela, Greg and Yavar, welcome to DC Public Safety.

Greg Upwall:  All right.  Thanks for having us.

Gabriela Bulisova:  Thank you.  Pleasure.

Len Sipes:  All Gabriele, how badly did I screw up the name?

Gabriela Bulisova:  You did great.

Len Sipes:  Did I get it?  Was I in the ballpark even?

Gabriela Bulisova:  Absolutely right.

Len Sipes:  All three of you … I’ve had a lot of fun with talking with all three of you over the course of the last couple months.  And Greg and Yavar, we put together Released a Life.  I had a small part in terms of advising you.  That video won a slew of awards.  It won number one in the first place award in the Washington, DC Film Festival.  It’s won first place awards for a lot of film festivals.  That’s an interesting concept, Released to Life.  Tell me a little bit about the film.

Greg Upwall:  Well the film is basically a short documentary that we produced as students in the Documentary Filmmaking Center.  And it’s a composite character of different folks, basically, going through the reentry process in different stages and having served a different amount of time.  And kind of looking at the challenges that they’re facing coming back into society.  And having some experts kind of also weighing in on what the challenges that they see are.

Len Sipes:  Gabriela, you’ve done video, you’ve done still photography, you’ve worked this concept in a variety of mediums.  Why did you chose offender reentries?  I can think of puppies, I can think of children, I can think of older people, I can think of veterans coming home from war, I can think of a lot of other topics that are probably easier to do than people coming out of the prison system.  Why did you choose that topic?

Gabriela Bulisova:  I actually was introduced to the topic indirectly.  I was in process seeking to work on incarceration and reentry.  I was invited to speak at a [PH] colloquium at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.  And the topic was Women and War.  And I worked with refugees, primarily Iraqi refugees for quite some time.  I worked with them in Syria, in Middle East, and in Washington, DC.  So my first thought was I have to go to Iraq and document women in the war zone.  And then because I teach, my schedule, especially travel schedule, is quite limited.  I thought I might look the word war through a deeper or wider prism.  And I looked at war as conflict, as injustice, as violence.  And connected then conflict and women.  And did some research locally and found an organization called Our Place DC.

Len Sipes:  Oh yes.  A fabulous, fabulous place.

Gabriela Bulisova:  Absolutely.  Wonderful, small, underfunded organization –

Len Sipes:  Yes.

Gabriela Bulisova:  – that deals with gender-specific issues and does tremendous work helping women who are coming out of prison to readjust to society.

Len Sipes:  Okay.  So you like the easy topics of life.

Gabriela Bulisova:  Yes.

Len Sipes:  War in Iraq, women returning from the prison system.  Greg, let me go over to you.  You were involved; you and I have been talking more than anybody within this room about this concept of offenders coming out of the prison system.  Look, you guys are filmmakers, I’m part of government.  I’m stodgy, I’ve been around for a long time, I’m jaded, the system gets on my nerves.  You’re filmmakers, you’re artists, you have a fresh perspective, you have that artist soul.  You’re taking a look at the concept of people coming out of the prison system, why?  Greg, I’m going to start with you.

Greg Upwall:  Well it’s a good question, Len.  The group that made the film at GW, none of us really had a strong, personal history with the subject except for one student who was a DC native.  The others of us had a lot to learn.  We chose the topic because we felt that it was an important one, clearly.  But I don’t think any of us really understood what we were getting into.  We quickly realized that the situation is quite bleak when you look at the numbers coming out and the statistics of recidivism, and the lack of funding that exists.  And so as we began to conceptualize what this salient message of our film should be, we realized that our interest was to make a personal story out of the film. And we realized that many people can quickly get desensitized when you look at statistics and numbers, but sort of reflecting our own personal discovery was that these are human beings.  And I remember coming to this realization.  And a lot of the listeners out there might think well of course that’s the case, but we really connected with people.  We met people with real lives that clearly we could empathize with, that clearly had gotten on the wrong side of a situation.  And that was really where our passion and our interests kind of grounded itself.

Len Sipes:  And that was apparent in the film.  If you look at Released to Life and SnagFilms, or if you go to, you see that.  You can see the power of the filmmaking.  You can see the power of the stories. But Gabriela, I’ve seen your photography.  The question is more this, you’re bringing a fresh perspective to it.  You’re bringing the artist soul to it.  What you’ve just said all of us within the correctional or criminological community we know.  What is it that the artist sees that we’re not seeing, in terms of telling that story, anybody.  Gabriela, go ahead.

Gabriela Bulisova:  Exactly right.  As I said, I was new to the issue of incarceration and reentry.  And working with the women, I produced a combination of audio and still images.  I produced a project called Convictions where the women directly tell their own stories in their own voices.  And then I moved on to … then I started doing more research and I learned, as Greg said, the overwhelming statistics of the number of people just in DC, ten percent of DC population being incarcerated or having a criminal record and so on.  But still those are numbers, statistics.

Len Sipes:  What did you feel in your heart?

Gabriela Bulisova:  Right.

Len Sipes:  What was going through your heart, your mind, your soul when you were dealing with this topic?  That’s what I’m interested in.

Gabriela Bulisova:  Right.  As a documentary photographer, as a photo journalist, you want to learn more.  You ask questions why.  And when I … I moved from working with women to working with men.  And when I started working on a new project called Inside Outside, I was reminded of what an Iraqi friend of mine told me when the War on Iraq began.  He said, “I wish I can tattoo faces onto Iraqi people.”  And what he really meant was I wish that people here can see the real people, the real faces of the Iraqis, and thus we can connect with real people, so we can turn them from mass numbers or from news headlines into real people.

Len Sipes:  So you felt that the people that you were dealing with were rather anonymous, they lived anonymous lives.  And somehow, some way through your artistry you would try to capture who they are as human beings.

Gabriela Bulisova:  Absolutely right.

Len Sipes:  Yavar, you have to weigh in on this subject.

Yavar Moghimi:  Yeah.  I think the whole process of documentary filmmaking is about storytelling in the end.  And so especially making social documentaries, you want to tell the story that most people don’t know.  Or if they know, they don’t know why they should care about it.  So that’s … it doesn’t take much to listen to these people’s stories and realize the struggles that they’re facing and the limitations in a lot of the services that are out there to really help people transition back into society.  And then when you sort of look at it from even a financial perspective, too, you kind of wonder what are we doing in terms of all the money that’s being poured into this, and people are being sent back.  So it’s not only affecting the people themselves, but the tax payers as well.  And so we try to craft the message that was geared towards this is an issue that you should care about whether you know somebody who’s gone through the criminal system or not.

Len Sipes:  So why … and from a filmmaker’s perspective, from a creative perspective … what are we doing, what are we not doing to spread that message?  Because when I sit and talk … in the past with my dearly departed mother about the subject of reentry, she said, “Leonard, for the love of heavens we’ve got the elderly to take care of, we’ve got … ”  I’ve told this story a dozen times.  The listeners of this radio program have heard this story a dozen times.  “We’ve got the elderly to take care of, we’ve got school kids to take care of.”  My wife who was Vice President of PTA said, “Leonard, the money needs to go to the kids not to the people who have done harm to other human beings.  We’ve got to start with the kids, that’s where the great bulk of the money needs to go.”  We have a society that basically goes, “Ah, they’re not my favorite people.  I’m not quite sure I’m interested in this topic.”  And I’ll throw out a statistic just to consider.  That 80% of people caught up in the criminal justice system have substance abuse histories.  Approximately ten percent when they’re in the prison system get treatment.  So basically what we’re doing is not helping them transform, to cross that bridge from a tax burden to a tax payer.  We’re not doing that.  Why, is the question.  And I want to ask you guys.  Not as criminologists, but as artists.  Why are we not doing that?

Greg Upwall:  Maybe I can jump in there, Len.

Len Sipes:  Yeah, Greg.

Greg Upwall:  I think what we sort of … like I said before … what we really recognized is that a lot of people see the issue as an us and them situation.  It doesn’t affect them.  It’s a situation you can read about in the news; you hear statistics and so forth.  But quickly we were sort of impacted emotionally by the idea that it’s certainly not us and them.  And that families are involved.  And our whole justice system, we’re all … we take our civics classes growing up and we’re led to believe that our constitution provides fair justice and that once you’ve paid the due for your crime that you’re able to move on with your life.  And we realize it’s just not that easy.  Our goal quickly became … as I know myself and several others in our crew … we’re not the type to quickly give the benefit of the doubt to a criminal.  I came at it with my own biases.  But we realized that our goal ought to be to show that you can’t treat it as a black and white situation.  And it’s also become an issue that’s being done a disservice by reality TV programs have tend to portray prisons as violent places, and all criminals as violent people, and it just wasn’t the case.  We couldn’t avoid that fact.

Len Sipes:  Right.  I talked to an employer who watched Hard Time on one of the cable stations.  And basically said, “You want me to hire somebody from there?”  And I said, “Look, I’ve been in and out of prisons hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times.  It’s not like that.”  I said, “You have that that goes on in prisons on a periodic basis, but the overwhelming majority of prisons you go into, they’re some of the safest places on the face of the earth, believe it or not.  I’ve walked through dozens and dozens of prisons totally unescorted, totally without an ounce of fear.”  But that’s what they see.  So if that’s what they see on the six o’clock news, if that’s what they see in Hard Time, if that’s what they read about in the morning paper, that doesn’t create a lot of sympathy for what they call “ex-cons”.

Greg Upwall:  Yeah.

Len Sipes:  Gabriela, you want to … the question becomes how do you reach an audience?  How do you … these are extraordinarily powerful stories that all three of you have documented.  How do you convince people to take those very powerful stories seriously?

Gabriela Bulisova:  These are really good questions.  And I think their answers are very … questions are complex and the answers would be complex as well.  So I think you can dissect it to so many different aspects.  But if I may, I agree with what your mother was saying.  I think money should be put towards kids.  I think money should be put towards ward seven and ward eight and should be put towards education and treatment and prevention.  Because I think that’s how we can eliminate the later large rates of incarceration.  And unfortunately majority of the people in Washington, DC who are incarcerated, come from the poorest socially, economically deprived wards. So I certainly agree that that’s –

Len Sipes:  But remember this show goes out all throughout the country and all throughout the world.  And that applies to any city not only in the United States, but any city in the world.

Gabriela Bulisova:  Absolutely right.  But also again, just to use some numbers, we now … we’re so lucky to live in this country, we have so many advantages.  But then you look around the world, and this is the country that has the highest incarceration in the world.

Len Sipes:  Yes, it is.

Gabriela Bulisova:  Why do we incarcerate, what is it, 740 people per 100,000 people?  In Finland, I believe it’s 60 people per 100,000.

Len Sipes:  Huge difference.

Gabriela Bulisova:  So I think we have some homework to do here.

Len Sipes:  Want to reintroduce our guests, ladies and gentlemen.  We’re doing a, as you well know, a piece on film and video on the subject of offender reentry.  We have three experts in the studio with us today.  Gabriela Bulisova, Greg Upwall, and Yavar Moghimi.  Gabriela is an independent photographer instructor with the Corcoran College of Art and Design.  The website is  Greg and Yavar are graduates of the George Washington University, the Institute of Documentary Filmmaking.  They did an extraordinary film called Released to Life.  It’s won three first place awards.  You can see it on, go to the website and search Released to Life.  Or you can go directly to their website, Gabriela, so we have the energy behind audio.  We have the energy behind video.  We have the energy behind stills.  These are very powerful stories.  Are they reaching the larger population, or are they just reaching the already converted to the topic?

Gabriela Bulisova:  We are independent filmmakers, photographers, so we can certainly use some help in terms of promoting our work.  But that is my hope.  If we … as you mentioned before, why should a population care about somebody who just came out of prison and is unemployed or homeless and so on?  And to me feel like if I can just engage, even if it’s a small number of people into a dialogue about that people need second chance, that it’s going to actually … that if we give somebody a job or ability to go to school and better their life, we’re going to improve public safety, community safety, create stronger families and so on. So is it reaching all the people?  I would like it, not yet.  I’m hopeful that it’s going to communicate to more people.  But for example just this past Friday an exhibition opened in Anacostia at the Gallery at Vivid Solutions called Inside Outside, where people can come and see photographs, see the video, and hear the stories of the people that I worked with.

Len Sipes:  Greg and Yavar, you and I have sat and talked on a couple different occasions about reaching this mass audience.  It is the contention of some people that unless we reach that mass audience, unless we move way beyond the already converted, the already convinced, unless we reach that audience we’re not going to make much difference.  Again, the idea that 80% of offenders caught up in the prison system have histories of substance abuse, ten percent are getting drug treatment.  There’s a gap that needs to be addressed.  The only way that that’s going to be addressed is through political will and money.  These sort of things cost money.  To do that you’ve got to convince the larger audience.  We’ve talked about public service announcements in terms of reaching a larger audience.  Is that possible, is that doable?  Do you think that we can appeal through art to the unconverted, to the general public, and convince them that this is a topic that they want to take on?

Greg Upwall:  Well I’ll jump in there.  I think that again, the answer would be yes.  And I think it is it in the way that that message, as Yavar said, it’s a question of storytelling.  The real message is not, “Hey, you should care about criminals, and that should be something you think about when you wake up in the morning.”  The message is more that I experienced individuals that were some of the most inspirational and driven individuals I’ve ever met in my life, that I’ve never met just in the general population.  That told me something about the power of rehabilitation and truly … one of the guys in our film says, “I was in the news once for doing something wrong.  I intend to be in the news again for doing something great.”

Len Sipes:  And that’s powerful.

Greg Upwall:  It’s powerful.

Len Sipes:  These stories are powerful, powerful stories.  When you sit … I’ve sat in prisons amongst 20, 30 offenders and we’ve had hour-long conversations about their lives, about their hopes, their dreams and what it is they want to do.  Now statistically speaking, 50% are back in prison within three years.  That’s a real problem.  There’s not enough being done.  So again, the outreach to the average person to convince them that this is something that is in their best interest.  Is it from a standpoint of morality, Yavar?  Is it from the standpoint of political correctness?  Is it the standpoint of religion?  Or is it from the standpoint of just it’s in your self-interest, it’s in your best interest from the standpoint of tax-paid dollars and your own safety, to support these sort of programs?  What’s the message?

Yavar Moghimi:  Right.  Each audience is going to have a different way that you can target them.  But I do think to get the broadest appeal in terms of the message, I think a big part of it does have to come down to you feeling safe in your community.  In one of our … Dwayne Betts, who’s one of the folks in our movie and he’s a Soros Justice Fellow, a previous ex-con who then is a poet and writer now.  In our movie he talks about we know that we lock people away, but we don’t know what the product is that’s coming out of that.  And I think that’s an important piece.  We’re putting people away for crimes that they committed, and the assumption is that somehow they are being rehabilitated in the process.  And if they’re coming out and they’re coming out safe for our communities.

Len Sipes:  Does anybody really believe they’re being rehabilitated in prison?  The surveys that I’ve seen is that most people don’t know and most people don’t care.  That’s part of the problem in terms of communicating.  And we have three communicators who specialize in this topic.  So tell me, is it that the public doesn’t care?  Not that they’re callous human beings, but they have so many other things on their plates.  Greg.

Greg Upwall:  I was going to say I think most people will sort of respond to the issue of their own safety and their family’s safety within their communities.  And also the issue that this is something that their tax-payer dollars are paying for, the prison system.  And we, time and time again, found individuals who had had access to educational training programs, books in prison.  This isn’t to say they were on some sort of a holiday, or being served at luxuries.  But the basic, you’re there, you’re serving time, what are you going to do while you’re there.  And it became for us pretty clear that those who had had access to those things, certainly did better by them.  And so it became a question of how do you use those incarceration dollars most effectively.

Yavar Moghimi:  Or even those that … and one of the centerpieces of our movie is the DC Central Kitchen which is a culinary job training program in the DC area.  A lot of the folks they work with are ex-offenders.  And to just see what they do, not only in terms of job training skills, but life skills, group therapy, substance abuse, they tackle a lot of the issues.  And they have a very high success rate in terms of getting folks employed, keeping folks out of jail, keeping folks out of drug treatments.

Len Sipes:  So all three of us agree they’re very, very powerful stories.  All three of us agree to the ones who are successful, they are very interesting from a human interest point of view.  All of us know that there are certain programs out there that can dramatically cut recidivism.  I’ve got the three of you here.  I’m going to keep hammering away.  Gabriela, what’s the theme?  Okay, now if we all know this, and we all understand this, and we all think wow, what a great topic from a journalistic point of view, from a human interest point of view, from a public safety point of view, from an effectiveness for your tax paid dollars point of view.  What are we missing in terms of communicating that to the larger audience?  There’s got to be a way.  There’s got to be a way.

Greg Upwall:  Yeah.  I will say that while we’ve gotten a lot of awards for our films, they tend to be student film festivals.  I would quickly say that we haven’t reached a mainstream audience.

Len Sipes:  How do you reach the mainstream audience?

Greg Upwall:  And I’m not sure we have the answer for that.  But I do know that the messages that are being portrayed about the violence of prisons and things, that it is important, I think, to find ways to show the other side of that.

Len Sipes:  How do we do that?

Greg Upwall:  And so maybe it is a public service announcement.  Maybe a series of campaigns.  I think it’s finding engaged people, like ourselves, that want to take on these topics in a sensitive manner with … that are looking at more than just the sort of sensationalized way of portraying things.

Len Sipes:  But we all get together and talk to the converted.  That’s my only problem with this issue.  It’s not going out and talking to the person who lives 20 miles outside of the city.  Look, this is an issue that has a profound impact on any city in the United States.  It’s an issue that has a profound impact on any city in the world.  The crime and justice issue.  If we can take 50% of these individuals and provide them with the services and they stay out of the prison system, you’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars saved.  You’re talking about tens of thousands of crimes going uncommitted.  You’re talking about something that is clearly what all of us want, yet … if I say cancer, people go, “How can I help?”  If I say child abuse, people say, “How can I help?”

Gabriela Bulisova:  Right.

Len Sipes:  If I say offender reentry, they go, “Well, what about the children?”

Yavar Moghimi:  This isn’t a problem that’s unique to criminal justice.  I feel like there’s a tendency in general to put money in … and you think about healthcare.  Spending money when people are already sick.  Spending money when people need the emergency room as opposed to putting it up front for their preventative public health visits, you know, those types … this is a common sort of short-sightedness of a lot of bureaucratic processes where the money just isn’t put up front and it’s sort of an out of sight, out of mind mentality until all the people who are coming out of prison from the war on drugs are suddenly all back in society again.  And what do we do with all these folks?  I think there’s just a common problem of short-sightedness in general with a lot of these issues.

Len Sipes:  Well here’s a work assignment for six months from now.  Because [Ph] we’re redo this show six months from now by the way.  Because you guys are my guinea pigs.  What is the theme?  What is the central message that we can communicate to citizens in general to really say, “Hey, you know what, it’s probably in my best interest to support these sort of programs for people coming out of the prison system”?  That’s going to be your homework assignment.  So when we reconvene, you’re going to say, “Hey, I came up with successful themes.  This is what we need to say.”  Right?

Greg Upwall:  Sounds good.

Gabriela Bulisova:  Sure.

Yavar Moghimi:  Yeah.

Gabriela Bulisova:  If I may, I would just say that again the topic is so massive, so abstract.  And I think all of us grew up with that notion of incarceration bad, prisoners bad, felons bad.  So I think the topic is so stigmatized and the people are so stigmatized that it’s going to take some time to actually remove that stigma of incarceration.  And I think that’s where we can come in as filmmakers, as artists.  We might not have the answers, but perhaps we can at least start to engage people in a dialogue.

Len Sipes:  People ask me why I was doing this radio show today.  And I said, “Because we in the bureaucracy aren’t going to convince anybody.”  I said, “That’s either going to come from the offenders themselves, or it’s going to come from the artist community.”  They’re the ones who are going to figure this out.  We’re not.  We’re bureaucrats.  We’re government bureaucrats.  We’re not terribly creative, we’re overly cautious, we’re going to be pressed.  And the answers going to come from the offender community itself or from the artist community, because they’re the ones who are going to tell us, “Hey, this is the direction we need to go in.”  Am I being patronizing, or does that have a thread of truth to it?

Yavar Moghimi:  Well as you were talking about what are ways we can have this message heard, I think TV is so powerful in that way.  And whether it is through a public service announcement … or I wonder how we could affect these shows that are sensationalizing being incarcerated.  And realize that they’re having a damaging affect in society.  Because I … there are –

Len Sipes:  But they’re not going to go away.

Yavar Moghimi:  They’re not going away, but there’s got to be a way to at least consult or have some sort of role in having a different message being told, too.  And part of the internet and social media and things like that are also new, powerful tools to really spread that message too.

Len Sipes:  Thirty seconds.  Is it powerful to counteract the cable news shows?  Is social media powerful enough to counteract the bad news that comes out from the morning newspapers or from television coverage or from the cable shows?

Greg Upwall:  Well, whether it is or not, Leonard, my answer would be that that doesn’t mean we don’t keep pushing those messages.  And I think that people do like positive messages at the end of the day.  And we found some positive stories among these individuals.  And those success stories need to be told.

Len Sipes:  Well we’re going to bring you all back at a certain point.  We’re going to talk about those success stories.  Because we’re going to come up with some sort of PSA and it’s going to go national and you’re all going to get awards and it’s going to be powerful and it’s going to be influential.  I know that in my heart.  In any event, ladies and gentlemen, our show today has been on film and video on offender reentry.  We’ve had three guests with us today.  And one I’m going to try for … wants to get her name correctly, Gabriela Bulisova.  Greg Upwall, Yavar Moghimi.  Gabriela is studying portrait photography, journalistic photography the Institute of Documentary … oh, I’m sorry, that’s Greg and Yavar.  She’s an instructor to Corcoran College of Art and Design., it will be in the show notes.  Greg and Yavar, they are graduates of the George Washington University Institute of Documentary Filmmaking.  Again, they did the award-winning film Released to Life, which you can see on  You’d go to SnagFilm and just search Released to Life, or go to  Ladies and gentlemen, this is DC Public Safety.  We appreciate your interest and comments.  And please have yourselves a very, very pleasant day.