Building on the success of their award-winning documentary The Dhamma Brothers, filmmakers Bestor Cram, Jenny Phillips and Andrew Kukura have teamed up once again to highlight one of the most critical issues in the national debate over criminal justice reform: the flood of prisoners returning to our communities without the guidance and support needed for a successful transition back to society. Too often, prison reentry becomes a setup for failure and eventual reincarceration.
In the United States, 11 million people are released from jail each year.
75% have a history of substance abuse.
Beyond the Wall follows five formerly incarcerated men who are attempting to rebuild their lives on the outside with little support from our criminal justice system. Their stories revolve around one central figure, a former prisoner named Louie Diaz, who works with each man to help him maintain his sobriety and his freedom. Through compelling and intimate scenes, the film vividly captures the struggle for survival outside prison walls.
Much of the filming takes place on the streets of Lowell and Lawrence, Massachusetts, cities built along the banks of the Merrimack River to power once thriving textile mills. Those mills are now shuttered and the cities laden with poverty, crime and drug addiction. The winding river, never far from the eye of the camera, reminds us that amidst the ongoing crises in the lives of these men, time is always in motion and even if they experience a fall it’s not the end…the river flows on.
The film opens with Substance Abuse Counselor/Reentry Specialist Louie Diaz entering Middlesex County House of Correction. We watch as he speaks to a group of prisoners, preparing them for life after release. In his youth, drawn in by the money and excitement, Louie sold drugs and stolen jewelry and became involved in a car theft ring. We learn that during his struggles with addiction, he received a ten-year prison sentence for stabbing a police officer while trying to flee a crime scene.
He ended up serving nearly three years in the state penitentiary.
This film bears witness to the profound difficulty of rebuilding a life after imprisonment. While Louie tends to the emotional and physical needs of others, we witness the strain this work places on him. Because he was formerly incarcerated, he finds obstacles that, at times, prevent him from doing his job. He is never far from his CORI, the criminal record listing his crimes and sometimes he feels as though he is “condemned by the past.”
Louie knows drugs and crime from both a criminal and a treatment perspective. Through his work in the streets of Lowell and Lawrence, we witness a fledgling team of former prisoners forming under his leadership. These men are at various stages of recovery, and Louie closely follows them. He knows all the signs and symptoms of relapse, and when and how to intervene. If anyone falters, he is there to help.
“No reentry program is going to go under the bridges and into the tent cities of the homeless looking for the guys who come out of jail and fall between the cracks. But if you are not willing to go to their places, they will end up back in jail.”
— Louie Diaz
Billy Cabrera is a former prisoner and drug addict. Billy’s dream of becoming a Master Barber and opening his own barbershop came true with the help of his recovery network. Using the barber shop as a gathering place, Billy and Louie began assisting others on their path to reentry and recovery. Billy’s Barber Shop offers free hair cuts, cups of coffee and a resource center for returning citizens. It has become a vital link in the chain of reentry supports, and even the local prisons and jails send returning citizens there.
“You go into prison, you get a handbook on how to conduct yourself within that prison system. So here you are 2 years later — 3 years later — you get released. But you don’t get a handbook on how to live life."
— Billy Cabrera
One man who receives a haircut from Billy is Jesus Ruiz. We first meet Jesus as he is preparing for his release from the local House of Correction. At 29 years old, Jesus has spent most of his adult life behind bars. Despite a long history of incarceration and 98 charges on his criminal record, Jesus will leave prison this time without any parole, supervision, or support services. He has “wrapped up” his sentence. As we follow Jesus through his final days in prison, he expresses confidence that this time will be different. He is not coming back.
With six children to support and mounting bills, Jesus walks a narrow line between living a sober and crime-free life and reverting to dealing and fast money. His story is a visceral reminder of the chaos that surrounds the formerly incarcerated when they return to their communities. Louie meets Jesus on the street and tries to help him, always repeating his favorite saying – “If you continue doing what you have always done, you will continue getting what you have always gotten.”
“If you continue doing what you’ve always done, you’ll continue getting what you’ve always gotten.”
— Louie Diaz
Over four years, each of the characters in Louie’s orbit must navigate through profound challenges. The heart-wrenching crises they face powerfully demonstrate that human connections with those who share past experiences of crime and incarceration are a critical link to successful reentry. On a deep level, the formerly incarcerated give and receive the wrap-around care that it takes to stay out of prison. No state reentry program can replicate this kind of support.
Production Format, Structure and Style
This is an observational documentary, achieved by trust between the filmmakers and the subjects who have allowed the camera to capture moments of vulnerability. The narrative arc of the film is focused on Louie Diaz, who lives in the eye of the storm. Louie becomes the storyteller of lives laid bare as individuals and families struggle to escape the cycle of relapse and recidivism.
The structure of the film follows lives in transition and in crisis, with outcomes that are fluid and uncertain. Like the Merrimack River at the heart of Lowell and Lawrence, these scenes are representative of life unfolding. There is no interruptive direction to guide characters in their exchange of ideas or frustrations; we watch as they make their choices.
Beyond the Wall reveals a reality that runs against the grain of conventional wisdom and established public policies governing reentry. We can see that Louie and Billy are able to negotiate and operate within the formal reentry programs and institutions while also working at the informal and often chaotic level of the streets. Ironically, they seem to be knitting together those very services and supports that the state reentry system starkly lacks.
To remain crime free and drug free after release, prisoners must relinquish their old lives and build new ones. In this process they need to account for and make sense of their past and construct a meaningful narrative for their future. But this turnaround cannot be accomplished alone. Fragmented and inadequate reentry programs cannot provide the needed support and re-education that former prisoners need to succeed.
Through personal stories of reentry, relapse, recovery and redemption, Beyond the Wall puts a human face on the social, economic and emotional barriers encountered by returning citizens. In bearing witness to their struggles, we are offered insights and hope for ways prison reentry can be more successful.