Every year, the Carey Institute for Global Good in rural Albany County serves as a refuge for journalists and documentarians from around the globe through its Logan Nonfiction Program. Its latest residencies wrapped in March, just before the pandemic took hold. WAMC’s Jesse King stopped by the campus in Rensselaerville, New York to speak with filmaker Zara Katz and investigative reporter Lisa Riordan Seville about their upcoming documentary, "Women on the Outside."
Katz and Riordan Seville have been observing the U.S. prison system for a long time. Starting with the collaborative Instagram feed “@everydayincarceration” in 2014, the pair amassed a nearly 40-year archive of photography centered on inmates and prisons throughout the country. Riordan Seville says that’s how their newest project was born.
“One piece of the puzzle that was really missing was the way in which women support loved ones inside, and the rippling effect of incarceration," says Riordan Seville. "And so we spoke to women across the country about their experience of supporting a loved one, and then ended up connecting with a number of them - including Kristal Bush, who at the time was running a van service called ‘Bridging the Gap.’ She picked up women around Philadelphia and drove them to visit their loved ones in prison.”
Kristal Bush of Philadelphia ended up becoming the main focus of “Women on the Outside.” When Katz and Riordan Seville met Bush four years ago she was 27, and had seen nearly all the men in her life locked up — including her father, brother, ex-boyfriend, and several cousins. Bush’s experience wasn’t necessarily uncommon in her urban, mostly black neighborhood — in 2015, the New York Times estimated more than 30,000 black men between the ages of 25 and 54 were “missing” from everyday life in the city, with many behind bars.
Driving hours across the state as “Bridging the Gap” was her way of not only supporting others in her position, but of making ends meet. Riordan Seville says caring for a loved one in prison is more expensive than you might think.
“For many years phone calls were extremely expensive, so people were paying a lot of money to keep in touch with their loved ones. They put money on their commissary for their loved ones to eat, and buy underwear, and buy socks, and buy deodorant, and buy toothpaste — and that could amount to anything between $20 to several hundred dollars a month depending on how much you had to give and how many people in prison you were supporting," she explains. "The trips are very long — they can be hundreds of miles to go visit someone, which means a day off work...And then people talk about the difficulty of walking out the door and leaving their loved one behind.”
Riordan Seville says Bush’s father and brother were both released from prison shortly after they started filming, with almost 40 collective years behind bars. Other documentaries have depicted the obstacles faced by parolees upon reentry — many struggle to find jobs, make ends meet, and avoid breaking the strict rules of their parole.
The subject is also increasingly relevant: New York became the latest state to eliminate cash bail for most nonviolent offenses earlier this year (a move that has since received its fair share of backlash). Pennsylvania hasn’t followed suit on the legislative level, but Philadelphia’s courts recently agreed to small changes that could result in more people being released pre-trial. Lately, in an effort to decongest prisons during the coronavirus pandemic, the state moved to temporarily release potentially thousands of nonviolent offenders.
While this wasn’t the specific case in Bush’s family, Riordan Seville and Katz say inmates still rely on the women in their lives once they get out of prison — and the complexities of that experience are typically overlooked.
“Kristal for instance, she grew up in the time that her father was in prison, she was a small child when he went away. She’s an adult, she owns a home, she has a job, she has a business," says Riordan Seville. "And so figuring out how to balance that can be really challenging — and, again, stigmatized, because the last thing you want to say is ‘I’m tired of helping.’”
“With our film, you see that Kristal is helping her father pay rent, she finds an apartment for him while he’s even still in [prison], but hopeful with a release date that she’s paying rent for an apartment for several months," says Katz. "She actually became the guardian of her brother’s son while he was still incarcerated because there was a potential of the son going into foster care. And then when her brother came home, [she was] really hopeful that they would build a relationship, but it just wasn’t a reality that his father was going to be able to take him full time. So then actually moving forward for a full adoption...even though she doesn’t have any kids of her own, she became a parent because of prison.”
Katz says both Bush’s father and brother ended up violating their parole and returning to prison. After years of taking weekend trips to Philadelphia to speak with her family and van patrons, Katz and Riordan Seville are done filming. Their stay at the Carey Institute involved hours in the campus’ basement editing rooms, stitching the story together clip by clip. They say much of the film will center on Bush’s van rides with “Bridge the Gap,” featuring conversations with some of her regular riders and depicting the many ways in which “women on the outside” support one another.
"There's a real heavy stigma around being connected to somebody in prison. Something that is not talked about," Katz says. "And so in focusing on Kristal and her van service, there was this really incredible element of community, where most of her riders were women and families — and occasionally men would ride the van as well — but majority women, and they'd get on the van, and they really started building community in this way where they could talk about some of these things."
“I think we want to build a film that allows women who have had this experience and who are in this experience to feel less alone and to talk about it — and that allows people who have never considered this experience to sit with it and understand that this is a story about incarceration, but also about love and friendship," Riordan Seville adds.
“Women on the Outside” does not yet have a release date, but you can learn more about the project at its website. The Carey Institute’s Logan Nonfiction Program has supported over 150 journalists and documentarians since it began in 2015.