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In new paper, Austin provides backstory to production of “Second Looks, Second Chances” documentary calling for reforms in parole eligibility for life sentences

December 03, 2018

Regina Austin, Penn Law’s William A. Schnader Professor of Law, has authored a new paper offering a behind-the-scenes account of producing “Second Looks, Second Chances for Pennsylvania Lifers: Commutation by the Numbers,” an advocacy video calling for expanded parole eligibility of Pennsylvanians sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. The paper, “‘Second Looks, Second Chances’: Collaborating with Lifers on a Video about Commutation of LWOP Sentences,” is forthcoming in the University of Pennsylvania Journal of Law and Social Change.

Released in 2017, the documentary video was the result of a joint effort between the Penn Program on Documentaries and the Law (“Docs&theLaw”), of which Professor Austin is the director, Lifers, Inc. at Graterford State Correctional Institution, and the Pennsylvania Prison Society. Lifers, Inc. is “an organization composed of persons serving life sentences at SCI Graterford, a Pennsylvania Department of Corrections … maximum security prison located about an hour from Philadelphia.” (SCI Graterford has since closed and its residents have moved to the nearby SCI Phoenix.)

Austin, who directed the film and co-produced it along with program facilitator Adam Brody, details in the paper the collaborative process of creating the video and describes its underlying methodology and theoretical support. In Pennsylvania, a life sentence carries no possibility of parole, and there are currently more than 5,000 people serving such sentences in the state, she explains. The documentary “calls for an expansion of parole eligibility through increased exercise of the Governor’s executive power of commutation,” and the paper provides the video’s backstory from the perspective of the Docs&theLaw program.

Detailing the logistical and ethical considerations involved in working with incarcerated persons, the paper emphasizes that Docs&theLaw strived to produce an inclusive, “non-extractive documentary” that did not exploit its subjects, but rather was a “genuine joint effort” in which Docs&theLaw would “defer to the members of Lifers Inc. as authorities regarding the culture of the prison in which they reside and as agents and activists attempting to exercise whatever powers of persuasion they could muster to effect a positive legal change in their lives.” Working within SCI Graterford was not without its challenges, however, as the rules of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections limited the ability of members of Lifers, Inc. to collaborate, including “prohibit[ing] them from personally appearing on camera to address their views on parole eligibility.”

In the paper, Austin also describes the strategic choices that went into making the video as the collaborators considered how best to make the case for increased commutations in light of the existing politics of sentencing reform. “There were two sets of arguments that support increased parole eligibility for those serving LWOP sentences,” she writes. “One emphasizes the immorality of imposing what amounts to death by incarceration on thousands of persons … [and] the other focuses on the fiscal responsibility of spending millions of dollars to house an aging population of low-risk lifers when the funds might be more efficiently used to meet pressing needs.” The video producers had to decide how to balance these different arguments.

Producing the video also required the collaborators to decided which lifers to focus on, and how to account for victims’ rights and lifers’ expressions of responsibility and remorse, Austin writes. She also details how the video accounted for the potential political consequences of commutation.

Finally, the paper contextualizes the video as a form of “visual criminology,” noting that it was imperative that the film be a “corrective” to negative images of “life-sentenced felons” in the mass media by “includ[ing] images that reflect the roles members of the Lifers Educational Committee occupy as social beings, political agents, and initiators and collaborators in the production of the video.”

“Second Looks, Second Chances”can be viewed on Penn Law’s YouTube channel, here.

Professor Austin’s paper can be downloaded from her SSRN page.