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In ‘The 50,’ Incarcerated Men Become Mentors

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Prison bars in the foreground and shadows of men walking through a dark hallway in the background.
Brenton Gieser's documentary traces a new approach to trauma which helps incarcerated men guide the younger generation — and heal themselves. (Courtesy Brenton Gieser)

One of the most important parts of community healing is assisting individuals directly, one-on-one. And a key aspect for those looking to heal themselves? Helping others.

This is as true for the world at large as it is for people who are incarcerated.

Brenton Gieser’s documentary film, The 50, currently streaming on Apple TV and Amazon Prime and screening at the New Parkway Theatre in Oakland on April 19, hones in on this idea of mutual assistance by highlighting California’s Offender Mentor Certificate Program (OMPC) and a few of the men who’ve gone through it.

A scene from the film, 'The 50,' shows a room where men are dressed in state-issued prison clothing while sitting in a circle of chairs and holding a discussion.
A scene from ‘The 50’ shows men sitting in a circle, sharing thoughts about the healing process. (Via Brenton Grieser)

Within the film’s first 15 minutes, viewers are brought into the California State Prison in Solano, where the first OMCP program began in 2008. The mentorship program uses the “parallel process,” where men are encouraged to work through their own traumas while simultaneously assisting others. It’s exemplified by people like Anthony Hill, a mentor who is also incarcerated.

As he stands in front of a class, Hill illustrates a pyramid on a dry-erase board and identifies common roadblocks people face in addition to the “junk” that informs a person’s core beliefs.


“The way I was raised affects the way I think,” Hill says to a room of other men in blue shirts. “And the way I think is the way I behave, right?” Heads nod as he pinpoints the issues of maintaining a certain image and yearning for acceptance as the catalyst to many peoples’ misguided actions.

Hill believes that people are not inherently bad, but rather misled or misinformed by core beliefs gone awry due to childhood trauma. But there’s a solution: on the bottom of the pyramid, Hill adds a layer. “Up under here is some good stuff, because there’s good in everybody,” he says before going around the room, making eye contact and letting each individual know that he sees the good in them.

Anthony Hill, a mentor with California’s Offender Mentor Certificate Program, stands in front of a whiteboard discussing methods of personal healing.
Anthony Hill, a mentor with California’s Offender Mentor Certificate Program, stands in front of a whiteboard discussing methods of personal healing. (Via Brenton Gieser)

Pulling out this “good stuff” that hides beneath our learned behavior is a universal idea.

“We come into this world as — not to get too existential — but as beings that are steeped in goodness,” says filmmaker Brenton Gieser. “And so many people aren’t afforded opportunities to fully actualize that goodness.”

Gieser adds that being born into poverty, being of a certain race or inheriting generational family challenges are all obstacles that can make any person deviate from the “good stuff.”

“Any level of investigation into our own journeys,” says Gieser, will lead people to “understand moments where innocence was stripped away from us.”

At one point, the film’s three main characters Cameron Clark, Al Roensch, and Randy Carter sit down and discuss moments in their childhood where they changed for the worse, while viewers are shown reenactments and visual metaphors related to their stories. Gieser says the goal of these clips isn’t solely to illustrate the stories being told, but to bring audiences into the feeling of each experience.

A behind the scenes shot of filmmaker Brenton Gieser giving directions on the set of the film 'The 50'
A behind-the-scenes shot of filmmaker Brenton Gieser giving directions on the set of the film ‘The 50.’ (Via Brenton Gieser)

In one scene, Clark opens up about a time he was incarcerated and exchanged photo albums with a person in the cell adjacent to him. After flipping through the images, he soon realized that the person with whom he’d swapped photo albums was the nephew of the man Clark was incarcerated for murdering.

Clark recalls the following day, when the two had a meeting. “This dude walks up to me and kneels down on one knee,” says Clark, as the reenactment shows the two congregating in what’s described as a blindspot on the yard. “I’m looking at him, so I kneel down on one knee.”

The nephew of the slain man explained how his uncle used to take him to wrestling matches, illustrating the joy they had together — humanizing him. Clark couldn’t handle it, and abruptly excused himself. But even in leaving, the moment stuck with him, pushing him on his path to examine himself and find the “good stuff.”

Clark, no longer incarcerated, is now the Executive Director of D.O.V.E., a non-profit focused on preventing crime and helping those formerly incarcerated to successfully return to the larger society.

The film ends as Clark speaks to the graduating class of the 8th session of OMPC, on a day that happens to be the program’s 10th anniversary. Clark encourages the men in the audience by saying that the community needs and misses them, and reminds them that there’s a spot for them when they return.

As the film trails off from Clarks’ speech and visuals of graduates, images of others who’ve since transitioned out of prison are shown, as well as their professional titles. An interview with Clark plays as he continues his vocal encouragement to those who’ve been through what he’s been through.

“We are experts in the field when it comes to loneliness, hurt and pain,” says Clark, noting that with the right support these people who’ve been incarcerated, who are now mentors and non-profit workers, could go so much further. “We could ultimately become the greatest healers of our society.”

‘The 50’ screens on Friday, April 19, at 6 p.m., the New Parkway Theater in Oakland. Details here.

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