For director Roger Ross Williams, prison was not a distant possibility when he was growing up, but a daily threat. ‘As a young black man in a chaotic environment, I always felt there was a chance that, whether or not I committed a crime, I could end up behind bars.’ Determined to avoid this fate, Roger left his hometown of Easton, Pennsylvania as a teenager to pursue his dreams of being a film-maker. Overcoming the odds, he became the first black director to win an Academy Award. As his success grew, he thought about Easton less and less, until the day he heard about the suicide of his old friend Tommy Alvin.
Now, after 30 years, Roger returns home to pay his respects and reconnect with close childhood friends. He is shocked and distressed to learn virtually all of the men in the Alvin family are, have been, or currently are, in prison. Haunted by how easily this could have happened to him, Roger embarks on a deeply personal journey into the heart of the American prison system to try and understand how this is possible. He starts in his own hometown but soon finds himself navigating a Byzantine maze of powerful institutions: police precincts, courtrooms, local jails, maximum security prisons and corporate empires. As he begins to explore a massive and dysfunctional system, he encounters complicit politicians and prison profiteers, each with their own self-serving motivations to maintain the status quo.
Roger discovers prison administrators who recognise that most of their inmates should be free, yet are helpless to release them. He seeks counsel and knowledge from frustrated community leaders and activists, including the tireless Adam Foss. Foss’s mission is to personally reeducate America’s 31,000 prosecutors to ‘cut off the supply’ of people flowing into the system, and also try and save lives in his own neighbourhood, one young man at a time.
Roger comes face to face with the endless hoard of Americans trapped behind the walls of the prison industrial complex and the families struggling to survive on the outside. He searches for solutions within the tangled web of political, social, and economic forces that drive the biased system, which has ensnared so many of his friends.
The film is a reckoning with America’s conscience and a rebuke, not just of power and greed, but of silence – the stain of comfort, wilful ignorance of real costs. Roger’s pursuit of an answer propels the film to examine all strata of the American society – from the free market ideals that America is founded upon to the savage ways in which the country has manifested those ideals. In Roger’s view, there is no single villain and no obvious solution. Real change requires a new philosophy across a spectrum of industries. Not just the reining in of corporate influence but reform in political, financial, legal, educational and mental health care spheres as well. What can Roger offer? To return home and take a long hard look at the human toll. Will viewers look away as he once did? At what price?