A Conversation with Edgar Barens

Thomas K. Lowenstein has a conversation with Edgar Barens, the filmmaker of the documentary, A Sentence of Their Own. The documentary examines the life of Becky Raymond and her sons Donnie and Josh as they cope with the financial and emotional difficulties of having a family member -- Becky's husband Alan -- serving a seven-year prison sentence in a far-away state.

Lowenstein: How did you come to this subject?

Barens: I'm Media Projects Coordinator for the Center on Crime, Communities, & Culture at the Open Society Institute. We produce films about issues surrounding the criminal justice system. We're always trying to bring certain issues to light that people overlook. We decided last year that we wanted to humanize the families of inmates, present and highlight the unintended consequences of incarcerating people -- the financial difficulties, psychological effects on their families. The mission for this film was to increase the awareness and the concern for this population.

I went to film school at Southern Illinois University. I never really had the desire to be a Hollywood filmmaker. I always wanted to make films that would change something. I know that sounds kind of bleeding heart, but it's true. So my background is in documentaries, and I've also made some experimental narrative films, some music videos, some public service announcements against homophobia.

My last film was Angola Prison Hospice: Opening the Door, which was about creating a hospice for dying prisoners at Angola prison in Louisiana. The Angola film is being used a lot by groups trying to put hospices into prisons. The prison populations are aging, so it's a big, big deal. We hear sometimes, for example, that a certain facility, say in Virginia, has agreed to start a hospice and that our film had something to do with it.

Most of the time, as I found out, families of inmates feel they automatically get lumped into criminal populations themselves. Like if you want to maintain contact with inmates you must be bad, too. And they didn't realize the extent to which they were going to be plunged into the judicial system, so they have all this stuff to deal with. We basically just wanted to give the general public some information about these families, to humanize these families.

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Q: Tell me about the film.

I started my research here in New York City. I used to walk through Columbus Circle in the evening, and I noticed that every Friday and Saturday night, Columbus circle was filled with 20 buses, with all these people waiting to take buses. At first I thought these were tour buses, taking people to Atlantic City. It turns out these people are waiting to go visit prisons in upstate New York, waiting to go visit their family members. They ride 11, 12 hours on the bus to get up there.

So I started talking to these people, I did a lot of interviews. A lot of them didn't want to talk to me; they'd been burned by the media before. If a story in a paper mentioned them, that they had a family member in prison, they could have problems with neighbors, for example. On the other hand, if they think being in a film is going to get their loved ones out, they want to talk. So from the get go I'd have to be clear about what the film was about -- that it's about the family's experience, not about whether or not the inmate deserved to be in prison.

Ironically, I found the family in the film on the Internet. Initially this was going to be a film about three different families, but I decided to go with this one family -- this one woman named Becky Raymond who wrote me from Georgia. I sent her a sheet of about 30 questions, and she sent me back an eight-page email, giving me detail I wasn't even asking for. She was very open to answering my questions, and her family had so many of the common problems these families face, I thought this was it. She was so articulate.

So the film is about Becky and her sons, Josh and Donnie. Josh was nine when I was filming, and Donnie was 13. It's about their struggle to maintain a connection to their father, Alan, who, although he did commit a crime -- and Becky is upfront about it about admitting that he did something wrong -- was a good man who had a lot of positive influence in his family. And he gets ripped out of that setting. It's about their downward spiral -- Becky struggling to make it on her own, and she can't, not even with some help from the state.

Q: What is it like making such a film? Being with the family at such difficult moments?

Well, when I first met them down in Georgia I didn't bring the camera out right away, I waited a few days. When I first took it out, I didn't shoot, just showed the kids how it worked so they could get used to it. And they got used to me very quickly. Then I started filming. I didn't bring anyone else because I didn't want to jeopardize any closeness or trust I might have with the family. I did not live with them, I had my own hotel room.

I tried to keep certain rules -- in order to keep this film as true as possible, I had to be careful not to screw around with their reality. I took pride in being a fly on the wall. I asked them all these questions, but I never told them anything about me. But after a few days, I noticed they were getting put off by me, by my questions. Once I put my camera down and Becky turned to me and said, "Well you know so much about us, can we know about you?" So eventually we had a big rap session and I told them everything about myself. That helped a lot, in terms of having them be more natural.

And there were times when it was hard to be removed -- there were times where I clearly had like 40 bucks in my pocket and I knew that that amount of money could really change their situation, like if they didn't have any meat for their dinner. They were really scraping by. So I would throw in some money for groceries sometimes.

One of the main aspects of the film is the trip they made that summer from Georgia to New Hampshire to visit Alan. I drove with them. One time, during the drive, I was getting sick of eating hot dogs. We'd been on the road for two days and eating nothing but hot dogs, so I treated them to dinner at Denny's. For the kids, going into a Denny's was a big deal.

More generally, the boys definitely miss the male influence in their life. Men are brought into their lives pretty much only to discipline them; a friend of Becky's has an older brother, Joe, who Becky calls because he's one of the only men she knows in the trailer park where they live. She'll call Joe to come discipline the kids. So their only male influence is when they are being disciplined.

So I'm there, kind of a nice guy, so Josh latched on to me. They called me Mr. Ed; he'd say, "I'm going to marry Mr. Ed." Lots of times when he's not in the frame on the film he'd be on my shoulders or hugging me, and I'd have to say, "Josh, careful, you're moving the camera." Josh got pretty attached -- suddenly there's a male in their life who is paying attention to everything they do, climbing trees with them, going fishing. I'm very patient, but sometimes Becky had to tell Josh to back off and I felt bad but it was probably technically the best thing to do.

Becky told me Donnie wanted to blame someone, so Becky had to say you can't blame the police, they did their jobs, and you can't blame the court because they did their job. And he can't blame Becky because she'd have Alan there if she could, so who could he blame? He got very depressed, a little suicidal.

They need a balance of parenting and it's not there now, they're not getting it. They don't know why their father is gone, they don't understand entirely.

Q: One of the most powerful shots in your film, I thought, was a long shot of the family reuniting in the visiting room of the prison in New Hampshire.

A: Yeah. I still get chills when I remember that.

During that three-day drive to New Hampshire, the anticipation to see their dad and husband, it was palpable. The morning we were driving up to the prison, Becky was very up; she hadn't seen him for a year. She was very worried about how much she'd changed. He's in there -- he has a lot of worries, too, but he does the same thing everyday, he looks the same and all. But she's outside with her two kids, trying to make ends meet. They can't send him pictures, they can only send him letters, no photos. So there was this big moment -- how does she look? She was worried because her knee is screwed up; she has a degenerative knee problem. What would he think of that? I stayed at the campground in New Hampshire with them for 10 days, drove up with them to the prison every morning.

There was a lot of tension for Becky and the kids as we were walking into the prison that first morning. I wasn't allowed to go all the way in to the visiting room, but I filmed it from the entrance.

What freaked Alan out the most was the boys, how much they'd grown in a year. It's hard, you get three hours to see the person after you haven't seen them in however long. The visitors have to have their hands on the table at all times, they have to make eye contact when the guard comes to the table, there are cameras in there on every column with red lights, you're supposed to look up at the red light every so often. So you're sitting at a table with fixed chairs, you can't touch the inmate except to hold hands. And he's been doing the same thing every day so he's having a hard time saying things. It's a hard visit.

The family connection is so tied in to whether these people make it when they get out.
The sad thing about this situation is this year Becky couldn't afford to travel up to New Hampshire, so the next time the kids see Alan it will have been two years since they saw him. They talk on the phone, but telephone charges are exorbitant -- that's the financial killer for Becky, and now they can only afford to talk to Alan for half an hour a month, that's it. It's about $3.00 a minute. They write to each other.

Q: What conclusions have you reached? What kind of services should be available for children of inmates?

A: Services for these children need to be standardized. It's not that there aren't good programs out there, but it needs to be done nationwide. A lot of it is really inexpensive, simple things that can be done in the visiting room. More accessible visiting hours, special extended visits depending on the classification of the inmate. Have a children's visiting area.

Ira Meistrich, the film's editor, and I feel there should be more of a safety net out there for these children. If there is a positive bond with the father before the crimes, that bond should be maintained afterwards. Kids of inmates are five times more likely to go to prison. States should provide more counseling, so these kids can work through the really hard issues they face.

Edgar Barens can be reached at ebarens@sorosny.org.