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Three views of incarceration, one filmmaker

  •  A day or two before Christmas last year, I was approached to do a video about Bishop Gene Robinson’s ministry at the New Hampshire State Prison for Women. Since becoming New Hampshire’s Episcopal bishop in 2003, Bishop Robinson has spent time every Ch

    A day or two before Christmas last year, I was approached to do a video about Bishop Gene Robinson’s ministry at the New Hampshire State Prison for Women. Since becoming New Hampshire’s Episcopal bishop in 2003, Bishop Robinson has spent time every Ch

  •  A day or two before Christmas last year, I was approached to do a video about Bishop Gene Robinson’s ministry at the New Hampshire State Prison for Women. Since becoming New Hampshire’s Episcopal bishop in 2003, Bishop Robinson has spent time every Ch

    A day or two before Christmas last year, I was approached to do a video about Bishop Gene Robinson’s ministry at the New Hampshire State Prison for Women. Since becoming New Hampshire’s Episcopal bishop in 2003, Bishop Robinson has spent time every Ch

  •  A day or two before Christmas last year, I was approached to do a video about Bishop Gene Robinson’s ministry at the New Hampshire State Prison for Women. Since becoming New Hampshire’s Episcopal bishop in 2003, Bishop Robinson has spent time every Ch

    A day or two before Christmas last year, I was approached to do a video about Bishop Gene Robinson’s ministry at the New Hampshire State Prison for Women. Since becoming New Hampshire’s Episcopal bishop in 2003, Bishop Robinson has spent time every Ch

  •  A day or two before Christmas last year, I was approached to do a video about Bishop Gene Robinson’s ministry at the New Hampshire State Prison for Women. Since becoming New Hampshire’s Episcopal bishop in 2003, Bishop Robinson has spent time every Ch
  •  A day or two before Christmas last year, I was approached to do a video about Bishop Gene Robinson’s ministry at the New Hampshire State Prison for Women. Since becoming New Hampshire’s Episcopal bishop in 2003, Bishop Robinson has spent time every Ch
  •  A day or two before Christmas last year, I was approached to do a video about Bishop Gene Robinson’s ministry at the New Hampshire State Prison for Women. Since becoming New Hampshire’s Episcopal bishop in 2003, Bishop Robinson has spent time every Ch

A day or two before Christmas last year, I was approached to do a video about Bishop Gene Robinson’s ministry at the State Prison for Women. Since becoming New Hampshire’s Episcopal bishop in 2003, Bishop Robinson has spent time every Christmas Eve in prayer with the inmates there. It is not an easy place to be during the holiday season. And as he looked to retirement, he wanted to ensure his ministry there would continue.

For me, the inquiry came at an interesting moment in my work life. I was in the middle of production on a video about Mikhail Khodorkovsky for the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, based here in Concord. Khodorkovsky is in a Russian prison because he spoke out for democracy in his country. I was also finishing up a short documentary about former residents of the Laconia State School for People First of New Hampshire. Were videos about incarceration going to become my signature?

All three videos are now finished and being used to spread their particular message. Each is a different story, but they are tied by a central reality – the denial of freedom.

The story of Khodorkovsky is perhaps the most outrageous. A billionaire, the richest man in Russia, Mikhail Khodorkovsky had everything. Somewhere in his rise to wealth he was touched by democracy.

He began advocating for more freedoms in his country and questioning the dictatorial tendencies of its president, Vladimir Putin. In 2003, Putin had enough. Khodorkovsky was arrested, charged with evading taxes and various other crimes. His company was seized by the state, broken up and sold off to Putin’s friends. Khodorkovsky has been imprisoned ever since.

A few weeks before his arrest Khodorkovsky was in Boston, visiting his son Pavel. On the way to Logan Airport he said he would probably be arrested upon returning to Russia. Pavel asked, “Then why are you going back?”

“Because I don’t have any other choice,” was the response.

In fact, he did have other choices, but they all violated his belief in what was right. For Khodorkovsky, principle and love of country were more important than his freedom. He has been imprisoned since his arrest in 2003. Two years ago a second trial added 14 more years to his sentence.

Choice wasn’t an option for those placed in the Laconia State School. In nearly every case it had been a decision made by a parent over which the victims had no control. They were children, pronounced “feeble minded,” and put away. In every interview done for this project there were tears remembering the moment and the experiences that followed. It was called a school, but for those who lived there, there was only one word to describe it: prison.

No crime was ever committed by this group of inmates. They were simply deemed incapable of functioning in society. Yet today, they all do function. They live on their own, buy hot dogs from Puppy Love, ride the rides at Canobie Lake Park, lobby the Legislature, and they helped get Annie Kuster elected to Congress. What they treasure most now is freedom to do what they want, when they want.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky and those confined at the Laconia State School are both stories that on the face speak to injustice. Less clear are the stories of those who have made mistakes and are paying the price in prison. In the United States, that is a good chunk of the population. Our country has the distinction of having a higher percentage of its population behind bars than any other country in the world – 2.3 million. Add to that figure an additional 4.5 million who are on probation and you have to wonder about the criminal justice system under which we live.

Of course, the next number to think about is the victims. That statistic is a bit harder to quantify. There are victims on both sides. There are the people who were harmed by the crime.

But there are also the families of the people who perpetrated the crime. There is a lot of territory for ministry here, and too few people taking on the challenge.

Bishop Robinson makes the point that it is not our role to judge the actions that put someone in prison. Once the trial is over and the sentence begins, we need to look beyond crime and punishment. Condemn the crime, not the person.

I would agree.

But I would also take another step.

Perhaps we should also take a moment to judge our own actions in response to those who have been imprisoned. Do we turn away, adopt the mantra that they got what they deserved, and go on about preparing for the holidays coming our way?

Or can we allow a few minutes to search within ourselves and consider a bigger possibility? Humanity exists, no matter which side of the bars you call home for the moment.

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