May 17 2017

Tribeca Film Institute Brings Film Class to NY State Prison

I was asked to be a speaker yesterday at the Tribeca Film Institute’s Community Screening Program at Otisville Correctional Institute. The program brings a series of films into the NY State medium-security facility in Orange County, NY and then has a group of incarcerated facilitators lead a discussion among the participants about the film. Its stated purpose is to bring the power and impact of film to all reaches of the community at large including the incarcerated. But really the program is engaging in restorative justice by bringing in the outside world into the confines of the stark facility and by giving the men within its walls an opportunity to have a voice; to learn from art; to gain perspective; and yes to help themselves heal and help them heal others whether they get paroled or spend the rest of their lives inside. About 75 men came to see the film and participate in the event.

The film being screened was a 2013 HBO documentary, “Gideon’s Army”, that follows three young public defenders in Clayton County, Georgia as they handle massive caseloads and their own personal and financial struggles. It also focuses on the Southern Public Defender Training Center which not only helps train these young men and women, but also tries to shed light on the plight of the poor in this country who are accused of crimes. The film brings attention to how the indigent are forced into plea bargains that leave them marked for life as felons and criminals, even when they have a viable defense and even when they are in fact innocent of the crimes with which they are charged.

I want to focus less on the film (which was excellent and disturbing) and more on the impact it had on the men watching it with me last night. The session began at 5pm and ended at 9pm which is itself a big deal for the participants since night in a prison usually means you are back in lockdown in your cell. It opened with a discussion about the men thought about when they hear the word “lawyer.” Their one-word answers were written down on a large pad in the front of the room: “Weasel” – “Shyster” – “Crook” – “Jaded” – “Snake” – “Thief” – were some of the first words put down on paper then a few nicer ones were added “Educated” – “Compassionate” – “Dedicated” – which were greeted by some boos and laughs. The film was then played and for around two hours, we saw these young folks fight as hard as they could under ridiculously difficult circumstances for their clients. They each managed a caseload of around 150 cases, including serious felonies even though they were just one or two years out of law school. So after the movie, the facilitators asked the men what they thought of lawyers having seen the film. Most agreed that they were overly judgmental and reliant on stereotypes in their first list and added a lot more complimentary words to their list of lawyer adjectives. I was then asked to come up front to address the group and engage in them in a Q and A.

I was able to connect with these men not just because I have been a practicing lawyer for over 30 years but because I had been to Otisville fairly regularly during my ten years working on overturning David McCallum’s wrongful conviction and lots of them were aware of that. I broke the ice by telling them not to worry because I had been called a lot worse than the slurs they had put up on the pad, and that was just by judges. We then talked about the attorney-client relationship and why some of them felt that way about their own lawyers – most of which were court-appointed. We talked about the need for an open dialogue between attorney and client. We came to an agreement that the most important thing was the need for regular, meaningful communication. A lawyer has an obligation to provide not just zealous representation but to also hear the client out; help the client understand what are the obstacles to a favorable result; manage a client’s expectations; and make sure that the client’s concerns are addressed properly. Several of the viewers said the film and the discussion made them come to an understanding that they didn’t help their cause by their overly negative attitude towards their lawyer and by refusing to view their case objectively. Their views (and the film) made me more aware of the importance of what it means to “represent” someone in court. You stand in their place; you are their voice; you are in fact the embodiment of their case – the good the bad and the ugly. If you don’t have an understanding of their perspective; if you don’t have empathy for their situation; if you don’t have an appreciation for the many obstacles the justice system puts in their way; and if you cannot communicate effectively with them so that they can see what their case represents to the system, then you will fail miserably as their lawyer.

I want to thank Virgilio Bravo of the Tribeca Film Institute for the opportunity to attend this event and participate in the Community Screening Program. Thanks also to my friend Baz Dresinger of John Jay College and its Prison to College Pipeline Program for recommending me to Virgilio for this event. You can learn more about the Institute at this link .

Follow me on Twitter @oscarmichelen

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