The Correctional Training Facility in Soledad, California, commonly known as 'Soledad.' Photo: Michelle Gaudet
The Correctional Training Facility in Soledad, California, commonly known as 'Soledad.' (Photo: Michelle Gaudet)

Filmmaker Spends 7 Years Documenting Life Inside Soledad Prison

Filmmaker Spends 7 Years Documenting Life Inside Soledad Prison

Usually, when journalists try to get into a prison to talk to inmates, we’re lucky if we’re able to get a few minutes for an interview with a “model prisoner.”  But Noel Schwerin talked her way into spending seven years filming inside Soledad prison, with unprecedented access to both inmates and prison staff.

Schwerin’s documentary, “In An Ideal World," brings us an intimate portrait from inside inmates’ cells, meetings between the warden and prisoners, and the halls of the prison, even during lockdowns. Its first national broadcast debuts Tuesday, April 26, on the public television show "America Reframed."

Schwerin says getting access was all about building trust with both inmates and prison staff.

“Soledad is an old-school prison. It’s not used to the kind of coverage and attention that a place like San Quentin gets. Nobody goes inside, nobody listens to these people,” Schwerin says. “I think people on both sides of the prison bars are pretty marginalized, so having their voice really carefully listened to, they really appreciated that.”

The film focuses on three main characters: John Piccirillo, a leader for the white prisoners, who ends up participating in a mixed-race workshop on violence prevention; Sam Lewis, an African-American inmate who forges an unexpected friendship with Piccirillo; and Ben Curry, the warden, who’s surprisingly candid in his reflections on working in the prison system for decades.

Sponsored

"It’s impossible to spend time at a prison without getting an incredible sense of the enormous humanity behind bars,” says Schwerin. “That was a big part of what I was interested in. What does it take to maintain that balance of human beings on both sides of the bars? It was a way of bringing people past the fear and the stereotypes.”

Inmates including Sam Lewis (second from left) participate in an alternatives to violence workshop at Soledad Prison.
Inmates, including Sam Lewis, (second from left) participate in an alternatives to violence workshop at Soledad Prison. (Photo: Alison Raaum)

Schwerin says she didn't encounter many obstacles as a white woman filming in the prison, despite the fact that the setting was so male-dominated and racially charged.

“Particularly with the lifers, there’s a deep respect for women, maybe older women like me,” says Schwerin. “Women tend to be the last ones to leave them, their mothers, sisters, daughters, when everybody else falls away over the years.

"I think they were impressed that I could get in and keep coming in. I wasn’t just disappearing, I really wanted to know what they had to say, and what was not being said. There’s a deep respect for women who want to listen.”

The challenges of filming inside, says Schwerin, were more mundane: not being able to schedule interviews in advance or control the lighting for them.

Schwerin began filming soon after a U.S. Supreme Court settlement in 2005 ordered California to stop housing prisoners in racially segregated cells. The film shows how resistant both prison staff and inmates were to housing inmates of different races together.


“As soon as you walk into prison, you’re struck by the unapologetic display of power,” says Schwerin. "So how do you maintain power like that? In prison, it’s done along racial lines. We can all agree that separate is not equal, but when it’s been part of an institutional culture for 40 years, it’s become a tool of survival. It’s more complicated than ‘these are the good guys, these are the bad guys.’ ”

Tuesday’s broadcast marks the film’s national debut, but Schwerin has shown the film at festivals and community screenings attended by both former prisoners and prison staff.

“It has allowed for some remarkable conversations. One of the lieutenants in the film brought his family to a screening. They wanted to see what it looked like inside, because he’d been working there for 40 years. Within 10 minutes of watching the film, the entire family was crying,” recalls Schwerin.

“I had family members who said, ‘I wish I’d seen your film before my husband came home. I would have so much better understood the challenges he was facing when he got out.’ The film seems to allow for a conversation which otherwise could be extremely polarized.”

Volume
KQED Live
Live Stream
LATEST NEWSCAST
KQED
NPR
Live Stream information currently unavailable.
Share
LATEST NEWSCAST
KQED
NPR
KQED Live

Live Stream

Live Stream information currently unavailable.