Removing the masks of mass incarceration

By Saybrook

A Saybrook Presidential Fellow and alumnus are teaming up to explore the collective traumas associated with mass incarceration, recidivism, and other issues.


The U.S. is “the land of the free,” while simultaneously incarcerating more people per capita than any country in the world.

According to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were more than 6.5 million people “under the supervision of U.S. adult correctional systems” and more than 2 million people behind bars at the end of 2016. And the issue is of particular concern among communities of color, with African-Americans and Hispanics comprising more than 50 percent of all incarcerated people in the U.S.

But these statistics only help to further motivate 2016 Saybrook University Presidential Fellowship recipient Shaka Jamal Redmond and 2017 alumnus O’Dell Johnson, Ph.D., who are teaming up to work on a documentary about these issues.

The impetus for this project was Dr. O’Dell’s work with Research Institute for Social Equity (RISE). The mission of RISE is to change how people think about criminal justice by developing a higher level of awareness surrounding the health and well-being of those experiencing incarceration and consider the mental health impact incarceration has on the individual psyche.

“Before it was RISE it was Midwest Diagnostics and Resource Institute, and I was providing biofeedback services to black youth in the foster care system to help them reduce the amount of medication they were taking,” Dr. Johnson says, adding that he needed to step away as his focus turned toward graduate school. “Being at Saybrook helped me fine-tune and really identify what I want to do with my degree. So I came back to it and changed the organization to RISE, which is more focused on criminal justice reform and research because we have a big issue and a problem with mass incarceration relates on as it to criminal justice.”

During one of Saybrook’s Residential Conferences, Dr. Johnson was introduced to Saybrook Presidential Fellow Shaka Jamal Redmond, a culturally innovative artist and filmmaker from Oakland whose work has been showcased both nationally and internationally, on television, and in numerous film festivals. As the two discussed Dr. Johnson’s mission with RISE, Shaka Jamal realized there may be some overlap with his own work—as a certified yoga instructor he was working in Oakland Community Center’s juvenile halls.

“He’s from San Francisco. I’m from Oakland. And he needed a way to tell the story of his work through media and film,” Redmond recalls. “I figured we can do a little 60-second thing to run on Instagram or Facebook. But then we went a little deeper and discussed doing a longer piece, more like a short documentary, so people could get to know not only what he does but more so what is the motivation behind doing it.”

Together, the pair is hoping to tell a story that will move and touch people across the U.S.

In addition to examining Dr. Johnson’s work with RISE, the documentary plans to explore the collective trauma associated with modern-day incarceration practices, specifically within the African-American community.

“I just want to be able to vocalize that the criminal justice system, as it is, has so much abuse that goes unnoticed and is not talked about,” Dr. Johnson says. “And there’s a lot of advocacy out here that’s only really more or less socializing incarcerated and formerly incarcerated citizens to accept what’s happening to them as a normality. But it’s not normal. It’s just dehumanization for a lifetime. So, our goal is to uncover the many reasons why masks of incarceration exist and all the entities and communities who benefit from them economically.”

As Dr. Johnson and Redmond’s work continues, there is already a glimmer of hope. While incarceration rates in the U.S. still lead the world, they have actually declined consistently over the past decade since their peak in 2008 and are currently at their lowest level in the past 20 years.

But there is still much work to be done, and Dr. Johnson and Redmond plan to do their part while hoping to inspire others to join the fight.

“I think that a lot of our people locked in prisons and jails, they don’t deserve to be there. They deserve to be somewhere else. I think we can provide services for them whereby we can get them to get back on track and effectively address whatever is causing them to commit crimes,” Dr. Johnson says. “I want this to become a national movement. Over the last decade, there have been an emergence of criminal justice reform organizations started to fight against social injustices. However, many are led by former lawyers whose primary focus centers on policy change, and rarely consider the mental health impact incarceration has on the mind, body, and spirit.  My goal is to start a collective movement based on lived experiences of the voided voices most impacted, which are people of color. On this platform, we can all march on Washington and shout out loud to our government officials, ‘Let our people go, because they deserve a chance to strive and live again.’”

The pair hopes to start on their documentary in early spring and will follow formerly incarcerated individuals who are positively impacting the community and living crime free. In addition. Additionally, Dr. Johnson is developing a film project showcasing the day-to-day life of formerly incarcerated individuals who are managing Porta Pottie’s in downtown San Francisco to keep their communities clean and safe, all while rebuilding their own lives.

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