"The Corridor" is a film about the nation's first high school inside an adult jail. Five Keys Charter School enrolls anyone arrested in San Francisco who doesn't have a high school diploma. Most of the students, in county jails for men and women, are awaiting sentencing or haven’t yet been convicted. The documentary follows teachers, students and correctional officers as they navigate how to run a school, or go to school, in a jail.
The film kicks off a new season of Truly CA, KQED's showcase for independently produced documentaries, on June 22 at 8 p.m. on KQED 9.
Sasha Khokha, host of The California Report Magazine, talked with the film’s co-producer/director, Annelise Wunderlich, and Tyson Amir, a teacher at the school who’s also a writer, musician and activist. These are excerpts from that conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.
On why the film is called “The Corridor”:
Wunderlich: The whole jail facility is actually built around the educational corridor. It’s the spine of the whole building. Everyone always talks about going down to the corridor, going from their pods [cells] into schools. But for me, it was more about a passage, a path towards freedom, intellectual freedom.
On teaching inside a jail, instead of a regular high school:
Amir: One of the things that the school provides is a sense of community, where students can develop self-esteem or just see themselves in a different light. Jail can be a place where dignity and humanity is stripped, so you can go into a classroom space and somebody can say, "How are you doing today? What do you need? How are you? What are you interested in?" It breaks up the monotony and the normalized routine of not seeing the humanity in a person.
We’re not saviors for anybody. But you develop these intense relationships, because you spend time with people, you see the good in people.
On what it’s like to teach when correctional officers can come in and use force on your students when they act out in class:
Amir: You have conflicts that arise, and law enforcement agents come in to deal with it. I think there could be another way to deal with that. The violence which happens in spaces like that [when students get violent] is not something that's naturally going to come out of people. But when you put people in a situation that's not suitable for them to survive, where they're denied their humanity, denied access to anything that's really important to them, they’re going to respond to those conditions in ways that they normally wouldn't respond. Sometimes we get this stereotype that people in [jail] are animals that are barbaric. These are just people who are trying to figure out how to survive in a place that is not fit for humans to be.
On seeing your students (some in their 50s and 60s) finally graduate, and get a high school diploma in prison:
Close to 2,500 people have graduated from Five Keys. And now [the idea has spread] to [17 county jails] across California. Each one of those areas is producing more graduates.
On filming students like Bethany Vollmer, a 31-year-old mom of six who struggles with addiction: Annelise: When we sat down initially, she was much more guarded, and very nervous about sharing her story. I just took that extra time with her, because the more we talked, the more I could see this opening up. She just was very honest, very raw. I think she was clinging to [going to the high school] because it was a time when she could feel self-worth. One of her biggest struggles is self-esteem, just not liking herself, feeling that she’s letting her children and life mentors down. But in school she's very smart. At school, she was having all these teachers validate her intelligence. That became a rock for her. She felt intelligent and smart.
On critics of the idea of a high school within a jail:
Wunderlich: One thing people don’t realize is that on a financial level, there’s huge cost savings for investing in education for folks instead of just keeping them trapped in this revolving door of incarceration, and getting out and recidivism. Nearly 70 percent of people in jail nationally don't have a high school diploma. If you invest upfront in their education, you're greatly reducing their chances of coming back there and increasing their chances of getting a good job. And all of that has a big cost savings for the whole community, not to mention empowering people, repairing families, and helping people make those connections that they need and find the support that they need to thrive.
What they hope people will take away from the film:
Wunderlich: I just hope people understand that the folks going through these experiences are not the sum of their mistakes. They’re people. They’re mothers, fathers, grandchildren, grandparents. They’re really like all of us, and they have so many cards stacked against them. Also, I’m really hoping people will understand how childhood trauma has this huge ripple effect. The vast majority of folks we interviewed in the jail had been abused as children, or had grown up in the foster care system, or had parents who are addicts. Recovering from that trauma is a huge lifelong process. It does require all of us to invest in supporting them. If we can’t do it in our public schools, then this is what is going to happen: It’s going to come later on down the line.
Amir: I actually tried to not be included in the film for the first year and a half of the shooting. I didn't ask for any of the cameras to be in my class. But now, I feel that what the film does extremely well is that it dignifies the experience of the men and women instead. Instead of having that stereotype [of] a violent person, a beast, an inmate, you get a chance to see more of who they are and understand how someone can end up in a space like that. And I think that's extremely important. The idea of empathy in our society. I think we need to tap into it a little bit more. This is a film that does that in a very beautiful way. It’s not preachy, it’s not cliche. This is who people are.