Corrections or additions?
This article was prepared by Euna Kwon Brossman for the May 11,
2005 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Unlocking the Prison Within
‘Illiteracy is a prison. Education is my way of tearing down the
walls, my liberation, a journey to other worlds." These words,
strongly metaphoric in their imagery, are spoken softly by a man named
Sammi in a place where you would least expect poetry: the New Jersey
State Prison in Trenton. Sammi is, in fact, serving a 98-year sentence
for first degree murder. And yet, behind the walls of the oldest
continuously operating prison in America, Sammi has achieved a sense
of personal freedom he has never experienced before – by learning how
to read and sharing that gift with other inmates.
Sammi and Nathaniel, another convicted murderer he is tutoring, are
two of the central subjects in "How Do You Spell Murder," produced by
Academy-Award winning filmmakers Susan and Alan Raymond. The
documentary – one of 15 films that will be presented at the First
Princeton Human Rights Film Festival, Thursday through Sunday, May 12
to 15, at the Princeton Public Library – explores the relationship
between illiteracy and crime.
"These films, by courageous filmmakers, take us around the world, and
address a variety of human rights issues," says librarian Pamela
Groves, organizer of the festival. "We created the festival because we
recognized the power of film to educate and stimulate a broad
cross-section of concerned citizens. We’re hoping it will provide an
opportunity to come together in new ways and inspire us to take action
to work toward positive change, locally and in the world."
While these films cover difficult issues, they can actually be very
ispiring in the way they show the capacity of human beings to meet
adversity with grace and determination. The screenings will be
followed by discussions with the filmmakers themselves as well as
other newsmakers who are shaking things up in the world of
Other featured films include "Thirst," a look at the global corporate
drive to control and profit from water; "Every Mother’s Son," the
story of three victims of police brutality told through their mothers;
and "Bombies," the story of the secret air war conducted by the United
States over the tiny country of Laos and the millions of bombs that
still remain unexploded across the Laotian countryside.
"How Do You Spell Murder?" was chosen to open the festival for a
variety of reasons, according to Groves. "The challenge of addressing
literacy in prisons, the relationship between literacy and crime, and
the fact that this film was made right here in Trenton, all seemed
like good reasons to open our festival with this documentary." The
documentary will be screened on Thursday, May 12, at 7:30 p.m.
The festival committee includes a representative from ABC Literacy, a
non-profit volunteer organization based in Princeton that specializes
in helping adults with learning disabilities. One of its programs is
the L.I.F.E. program – Learning Is For Everyone – where one-on-one
tutoring is used to teach inmates how to read and write at the New
Jersey State Prison. "It was through her participation that we became
aware of the Raymonds and their impressive body of work, which
includes ‘Children in War,’" Groves says. That film, which won both a
Prime Time Emmy Award for Outstanding Information Special in 2000 and
a United Nations UNESCO Award, will be screened at the festival on
Thursday, May 12, at 3 p.m.
The Raymonds’ work has taken them to four war zones around the world,
from Belfast to Bosnia, and into the worst inner city neighborhoods
around the United States. "I used to look back and say to myself, what
were we thinking," says Susan Raymond. "We had a young child but we
were both young, and we wanted to chase our careers and have the life
experience. But to have both parents in a helicopter, both parents
covering a bomb scene. I just say thank God we made it."
Susan is the narrator, producer, writer, and director half of the
husband-wife team, based outside Philadelphia, who rank among the most
influential and distinguished independent documentary producers and
directors. Their "young child," a son, is now 16 years old. Susan and
Alan Raymond have been working together for more than 30 years. They
made their mark in the documentary field with the 1973 PBS cinema
verite series "An American Family," which captures the daily life of
the Loud family, foreshadowing America’s rising divorce rate and the
emergence of the gay liberation movement.
In 1994 they won the Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary for
"Am a Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School," a film that
depicts the life of an inner-city elementary school and in the process
chronicles the deterioration of the nation’s public school system.
"Once you’ve won an Academy Award," says Alan Raymond, who does the
producing and the shooting, "you realize you don’t have to spend your
life dreaming of getting one. It’s wonderful. It gives you a certain
imprimatur. We live in a very competitive field now in television
where editors are inundated with shows. It’s hard to get a major
review or feature article, so the award gives you a certain
The couple worked as staff producers for ABC News in the network news
division, traveling from Belfast to Beverly Hills, but they found the
format confining for the kind of storytelling they wanted to do.
"Network news was great," Alan says, "but there was a lot outside our
ability to control." The Raymonds got in at HBO on the ground level in
the late 1980s. Now most of their work is produced for HBO and PBS.
They specialize in long-form storytelling, focusing on social issue
documentaries an hour or more in length. "Our basic hope is that our
work will affect public opinion," says Susan. Telling the story of the
link between crime and the numbers of prisoners who are functionally
illiterate, often because of a learning disability, was a natural
choice for a couple committed to social change. Making "How Do You
Spell Murder?" became especially pressing for the Raymonds when they
discovered the L.I.F.E. program at the New Jersey State Prison in
Trenton and found out that as many as 75 percent of the prisoners
there are considered illiterate.
"A film like this is a reference for prison groups," says Susan. "The
tape is being used by educators and researchers. We know it’s being
passed around to people who write legislation. Of course on the other
side there are the victims’ rights groups who have aligned themselves
with the conservatives. These days there’s a lot more sympathy out
there for the victim than the criminal who doesn’t know how to read."
Her husband concurs. "The link between illiteracy and crime is an
important societal issue that no one wants to address. Our film first
aired on Cinemax Reel Life on September 24, 2002. When we went to do
the publicity and press, very few writers wanted to touch the subject.
It was very chilling to see that there was no sympathy for that
population." He points out that it’s a very conservative time in the
state and federal prison system, when less than one percent of state
and federal prison budgets is used for prisoner education. "And yet
this is while every study shows that education is the best way to
rehabilitate, the best way to prevent recidivism."
"Learning to read is a basic human right," says Susan. "It borders on
criminal behavior on the part of society to deny that right to some,
and that’s why we believe it’s a human rights violation. Prisons don’t
put effort into rehabilitation. None of that prison time has been used
productively to prepare the inmates for real life."
There were some difficult logistics in making the film, and one of the
first hurdles was winning the trust of the inmates. The Raymonds spent
over a year making the film. Their shooting ratio was 100 to 1, which
means that of every 100 frames of film shot, 99 landed on the cutting
room floor. They started with a tacit understanding that not everybody
had to be in the film. "The prisoners were guarded and distrustful,"
says Susan. "Part of it was because they’d already had a whole group
of people not giving them a fair shake. Lawyers, courtrooms, they’d
already had enough of that. The other part of it was that their pride
was on the line. They had to go to public and say they couldn’t read.
That was a big moment for them. It took patience and perseverance to
get them to come forward, and they did, but it was tricky."
Alan says the prisoners were willing to relinquish their trust when
they realized the Raymonds were in it for the long haul and were
willing to invest their time and goodwill. "They understood that we
weren’t just coming in for the nightly news. We were going to hang
around long enough to show their progress."
The challenge was to show the process of someone learning over a long
period of time, not easily captured in video form. Sammi, the tutor,
is serving time for murder. The Raymonds were lucky to be at the
prison on the first night he met with another inmate, Nathaniel, 37, a
convicted murderer, to begin the process of learning how to read.
(Nathaniel was held back in the second grade five times.) Since
Nathaniel has learned how to read, his case has been appealed on the
basis that his confession was inadmissible partly because of his
illiteracy. He has been moved to the Camden Courthouse Jail, and he is
supposed to be getting a new trial. "When you go to court and you
can’t read, the lawyer can tell you anything," says another inmate,
Susan reveals that another one of their challenges in shooting the
film was the attitude of the corrections officers. "It made us
unpopular when they saw that we were connecting with the inmates. They
would try to frustrate us, little things like delays in getting us
into the prison." That attitude, says the couple, is a small
reflection of a systemic distaste for the subject of prisoners’ rights
in today’s political climate.
"Most of the reviews were strong, but what has happened is that
there’s been such a swing to the right, it’s a difficult process to
pull that swing back," says Alan. "There’s so much more than one story
here. It’s also the story of our failure to educate everyone, a giant
red flag about the failure of the public school system. And no one
wants to admit how badly it has failed certain populations. But people
have the attitude, why should we care about a murderer? Prisoners
rights issues are largely absent from the media. It’s a part of
society that’s hidden."
The Raymonds discovered that the inmates liked to read religious
books, especially the Bible and the Koran. They discovered a link
between spiritual growth and becoming literate. Alan points out that
the civil rights leader, Malcolm X, learned how to read in prison.
Susan says: "Living in prison is a crushing and brutal experience.
It’s us versus them. Illiteracy is a prison within a prison. Being
able to read is liberating."
They say they didn’t set out to try to change the world through their
documentaries; they sort of fell into it. And they won’t reveal how
long they’ve been married. "Since the flood, is what our friends
believe," says Susan. She grew up in Chicago, went to DePaul
University to study sociology and came of age in the 1960s. "I was on
a mission to be Margaret Meade," Susan says. "I was working in a
settlement house in Chicago. I have a great power to empathize with
people, and I was drawn to their stories." She describes her parents
as "regular folks," her father "a good union man," her mother a
homemaker and aspiring artist. A larger influence on her life,
however, was her older sister, a filmmaker she describes as extremely
radical, who was the sound recorder on the Bob Dylan documentary
"Don’t Look Back" and also made a film about the Black Panthers.
Alan grew up in Queens, went to high school in Manhattan. His mother
was an opera singer and his father taught international relations and
politics at NYU so it was assumed he would go there. He ended up at
NYU Film School as an undergraduate, where one of his classmates was
director Martin Scorcese. He graduated into the Vietnam War and,
heavily influenced by the relatively new cinema verite technique of
the time, decided he wanted to work in documentaries.
The couple met in Chicago when Alan sublet Susan’s sister’s apartment
and have been working together ever since. Their next project is under
wraps. The only details they will reveal is that it is for HBO and it
has to do with education. "We’re in a golden era of documentary,
driven by the technological revolution," says Susan. "With the digital
equipment out there, anybody can make a film. I’m just really pleased
that at this point in our career we’re still working, making serious
Alan says: "You have a higher purpose, you’re not doing stupid reality
shows, and you’re doing something that has some meaning."
Sunday, May 12 through 15, Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon
Street, Princeton. For more information on the festival or for a
complete schedule of screenings, call 609-924-9529, ext. 241, or visit
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