Passing the Mic: Formerly Incarcerated Women — On Telling Their Own Stories

A still from "Comfort Food" a short film by Carmilla Ligons. (Courtesy of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition)

Carmilla Ligons was initially hesitant about sharing her story. “It was personal, and very, very emotional,” Ligons said. Her film, "Comfort Food" is a reenactment of when she found her daughter living on Skid Row and looks at motherhood through generations and the power of cooking for one another.

“It was hard to see your real life shit like that,” Ligons said.

Carmilla Ligons (left) and her daughter. (Courtesy of Carmilla Ligons)

Family and friends helped fill in the roles to play each of the parts, but Ligons plays herself. “In the process of doing it, it was painful and very emotional because I didn't know where my daughter was at the time,” she said.

Ligons created the film through a program run by the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC). The organization takes a holistic approach to ending mass incarceration in California. “Walking with people, and working for people through every stage of their incarceration,” said Nicholas Reiner, the director of communications for ARC.

Now, looking back, Ligons is happy she made the film. She wants to continue to tell stories based on her experiences — specifically she says she would want to share how she was tased over five times by the Long Beach Police Department, and the abuse she suffered at the hands of the police.

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A majority of the staff at ARC, 70%, is formerly incarcerated. Their work includes everything from housing, to counseling and job training. Last year they started an initiative called ARC Creatives to allow space for artists to tell their own stories — in their own voices. The concept, and the program as a whole, is increasingly important in the current moment of racial reckoning and defunding the police.

“These things are all connected,” Reiner said of the systems connecting police violence and incarceration.

“It's good to learn about anti-racism or racism or whatnot, but it's also important to just hear the stories of Black women,” he added. “Carceral control and restricting people's liberty is a random Tuesday for us — we’re always thinking about it.”

The ARC Creatives program allows those at various stages of reentry to express themselves creatively. After working to write monologues with Ligons, and two other women in the program — Liz Campbell and Michelle Fennell — ARC hired a director to bring the writing to life.

L.A.-based producer and director Jing Niu worked collaboratively with each of the women in the program. Instead of passing the mic, Niu said those in positions of power are often taking the mic and speaking for others, “The process of passing the mic over is something that we need to welcome into our lives.”

For Niu, the intention was to find a way to work with each of the women to tell their own stories. Before starting, Niu watched several videos on issues of incarceration. She noticed many of the films were somber and shot in black and white.

“There's this general stereotype of the way that we talk about incarceration. For me, it was really important to flip that stereotype,” Niu said. The women had written stories about love and family.

Ligons film provides a peek into her relationship with her daughter and a home cooked meal as a source of nourishment. Campbell's piece combines animation and her own acting to recount the story of when she ran away and Fennell's film explores what it means to run from danger.

They are all produced in full color, which differs from how many of the visual stories produced about incarceration are done, according to Niu. “We don't really see a lot of media talking about incarceration that centers joy — centers love,” Niu said. “The center of the story is not their incarceration, it's their resilience through incarceration,” she added.

Campbell describes her short film as being “about me running away from it all at 10-years-old and hopping a freight train. And when I get on that freight train, I experienced more trauma as a result.”

In an effort to express the idea, without triggering the trauma, Niu and Campbell pitched ideas back and forth and ultimately settled on using a visual metaphor of the perpetrators shadow to suggest the assault without explicitly stating what happened.

“I had to really get to the core of everything that made me be who I am today,” Campbell said. She was initially given a life sentence at age 36, and ended up spending over 16 years locked up.

Liz Campbell performing a stand-up comedy set. (Courtesy of Liz Campbell)

“To just write and write, and then go over it and determine what I wanted to keep and what I didn't want to keep. It was very empowering to be able to do that,” Campbell said.

The final videos were presented at an event in L.A. last year, as well as a screening inside California Institute of Women (CIW).

For Campbell, the process was like a dream come true. She screened her film at CIW — the same place where she used to be a lifer.

At the CIW event, both women inside and outside shared monologues of their experiences. “It was just a really rewarding experience for me, it just made me open up wider and have more compassion for people," Campbell said.

Campbell now does standup comedy and is an entertainer in her free time, and drug and alcohol counselor during the day. "I'm a successful substance abuse counselor, free from drugs. And I'm making it. I'm doing everything that I never thought I would do," she said.

Ligons said she still wants to continue acting and telling stories, “No matter what your situation … or how people feel about you, tell your story.”

She added: "people who have been traumatized mentally, emotionally and physically need to open up and just let people know that this is what really goes on.”

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Michelle Fennell produced the final film. She was not available for an interview. Her film can be seen above.