By Annelise Wunderlich
High school can be a stressful time for many people -- but imagine if you were in high school while in jail, either serving time or awaiting trial. Or, imagine if you were a teacher and managing a room full of adult students in that environment. Or, a correctional officer in charge of keeping students and teachers safe in that school, when many of the students are affiliated with over 22 different gangs, detoxing from drugs or dealing with mental health issues.
My co-director, Richard O’Connell, and I spent a lot of time in just such a school in 2013. We were filming our documentary The Corridor, a portrait of Five Keys Charter School, the nation’s first high school for adults inside the San Francisco county jail system.
When we first went inside the school with our cameras, we met resistance -- from school staff, correctional officers, and the students themselves. We wanted to be quiet observers, documenting the day-to-day life inside the school. But of course we were disruptive: entering classrooms as outsiders, stirring up curiosity and discomfort. Teachers and deputies were concerned that we would be a distraction, and some students were worried we might somehow exploit them.
But the more time we spent in the jail, the more we began to see real moments unfold. Students and teachers alike revealed the challenges they were going through. We developed close connections with a few people who we followed on their path to graduation, who shared intimate reflections about the harm they’d caused their families, their communities, and themselves. They also shared stories of the harm they experienced, as children often abandoned or abused by parents who were addicted to drugs.