What is justice?

That is the question at the heart of filmmaker and educator Gilda Sheppard’s deeply moving documentary “Since I Been Down.”

Twelve years in the making, the film explores some of the extraordinary people who are incarcerated in Washington state prisons, and the policies that keep some from ever seeing outside prison walls.

Sheppard, a professor at The Evergreen State College’s Tacoma campus, first conceived of the project as a sociology instructor in Washington state prisons. Through that work, she came to discover that “some of our most brilliant minds are incarcerated for life,” she said.

One of those brilliant minds, and what Sheppard calls the “spine” of her film, is Kimonti Carter, currently incarcerated in Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen. 

Carter received 777 years in prison for his role in a 1997 Tacoma drive-by shooting that killed college student Corey Pittman. Carter was 18 at the time of the shooting and was part of a gang since age 11.

Pittman’s killing left a huge hole in the community, with 800 mourners at the student leader’s funeral.

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In 1981, amid the tough-on-crime policies of the era, Washington state passed the Sentencing Reform Act, which removed the possibility of parole and judicial discretion, and mandated “determinate” or fixed sentences. In addition, certain crimes like drive-by shootings were given extraordinary sentences, like Carter’s, with no mitigating circumstances considered. Less than half of states still allow life sentences without parole.

Since 1980, the prison population in Washington state has more than doubled, with African American inmates bearing a vastly disproportionate toll. But the pandemic and accompanying budget crisis might set the stage for change, as the state Department of Corrections is now supporting reforms that would reduce prison populations previously sought mostly by activists.

Gilda Sheppard’s documentary “Since I Been Down” explores some of the extraordinary people who are incarcerated in Washington state prisons, and the policies that keep some from ever seeing outside prison walls. (Elliot Solomon / Courtesy of Gilda Sheppard)
Gilda Sheppard’s documentary “Since I Been Down” explores some of the extraordinary people who are incarcerated in Washington state prisons, and the policies that keep some from ever seeing outside prison walls. (Elliot Solomon / Courtesy of Gilda Sheppard)

Thoughtful and introspective, Carter became involved with the Black Prisoners’ Caucus (BPC), a now nearly 50-year-old group focused on the educational and cultural development of Black people incarcerated in 10 Washington state prisons. Over time, Carter said the denial and old way of thinking he came to prison with evolved into a deep understanding of the pain and destruction he had caused.

Upon learning that Washington barred the use of tax money for degree-earning higher educational opportunities in prison, in 2013, Carter started TEACH, or Taking Education and Creating History at Clallam Bay Corrections Center, so incarcerated people could fill that gap themselves. TEACH is a for-credit program that teaches college courses in liberal arts supported by donations and volunteers under the leadership of incarcerated people. It has now expanded to several prisons. 

While created and led by members of the Black Prisoners’ Caucus, TEACH is for everyone, Carter said over the phone from Stafford Creek. Prisons can be deeply segregated by race, but at TEACH, everyone learns together. 

Getting other ethnic groups to buy in and develop their own cultural curricula was pivotal to the success of the program, Carter said. “We wanted to make sure everybody had an opportunity to contribute to the learning environment we were trying to create.” 

EVENT

“Since I Been Down” film screening

Seattle Social Justice Film Festival, streaming online beginning Oct. 1. Filmmaker discussion at 7 p.m. on Oct. 10.

That opportunity extends even to those who might seem like strange bedfellows to the BPC: white supremacists. “As long as your values and your beliefs don’t impede anyone else from practicing or believing what they practice or believe, then at the end of the day, what you believe is your business,” Carter said.

Core to this philosophy is his belief that everyone behind prison walls is oppressed in one way or another. “Skin color wasn’t an issue that [BPC] had,” Carter said, “That was an issue that they had to overcome.”

This cross-cultural work – and the transformation that it generates – led to some of Carter’s most profound and humbling moments, like an encounter with the unexpected gratitude of an incarcerated Latino man and his mom.

“Those aren’t things that you plan to happen,” Carter said. “It’s just the residual effects of one thing changing. It reverberates through prison, whether you recognize it or not.”

Another brilliant mind featured in Sheppard’s film is Tonya Wilson, who was highlighted in a 2017 Seattle Times story about her graduation as valedictorian from the college program Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, or FEPPS, at the Washington State Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor.

Wilson first met Sheppard as an Evergreen student when she was a teenager, and then saw her again during Wilson’s incarceration, which began in 2002. Released in 2018, Wilson is back in Tacoma and now works at the Freedom Project as a reentry outreach coordinator. 

The dehumanization and trauma that accompany incarceration, Wilson said, is ultimately self-defeating for everyone. 

“When you have vast amounts of people who are citizens locked up and treated in a way that does not recognize their humanity, then it’s almost inevitable that you’re going to get wounded creatures when they return to society,” Wilson said. 

“People have to be willing to put in the effort, to see [incarcerated] people as human,” Wilson said, “which can be daunting. It can be frustrating. It can be scary. The ability and the willingness and the actual action of hearing and listening deeply. It means that you are willing to be changed in a fundamental way.”