N.H. documentary film brings Dartmouth students and inmates together

  • Former inmate Charlotte Rankin, left, and Dartmouth College professor Pati Hernandez at a showing of It’s Criminal, a documentary film featuring incarcerated women at the Sullivan County jail and college students who worked together as part of a course to produce a play. The film showed at University New Hampshire Law School in Concord on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018. ALYSSA DANDREA / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 11/14/2018 4:44:55 PM

Charlotte Rankin ran away from home when she was 11. She ran away from an alcoholic father who’d broken her foot with a bat. She ran in search of a safe place, terrified to remain under her father’s control.

But on her own, Rankin’s life continued to spiral out of control. She entered into an abusive relationship and then used drugs to hide her pain. She said she needed treatment but instead found herself beyond the barbed wire fence, inside the Sullivan County jail.

Rankin’s story is just one of several highlighted in the New Hampshire documentary film It’s Criminal: A Tale of Prison and Privilege, which showed to roughly 70 people at the University of New Hampshire Law School in Concord on Tuesday night. The 80-minute feature documentary, directed by award-winning filmmaker Signe Taylor, takes viewers on the inside of the county jail in Unity where incarcerated women and Dartmouth College students come together to write and perform an original play that delves into issues of social and economic injustice.

The documentary was filmed in 2010, but the college course that inspired the film continues to draw students from all corners of the Dartmouth campus. The course, titled “Inside Out: Prison, Women and Performance,” has helped form unlikely bonds between Ivy League students and incarcerated women, who must build trust and overcome prejudices to succeed in creating a theatrical production that draws on, although dramatizes, first-hand experiences of inmates.

“As a child, I never thought I was worth something. Then, a college professor came into the jail and said, ‘You are important,’ ” Rankin, who has since been released, said during a post-screening interview. “When you start to believe in yourself it opens doors. I found my self-esteem and my voice.”

Created by professors Ivy Schweitzer and Pati Hernandez, the course pushes students outside their comfort zones and requires them to open up in ways that they may have never done, even with their closest friends. For inmates, the same is true as they take responsibility for past mistakes, come face-to-face with years of trauma and make commitments to do better by their children when they get out.

All too often, incarcerated women feel silenced and powerless, Taylor said. The camera captured that lonely and painful journey for so many women, but it also chronicled much more: women who gained the confidence to use their voices and who felt validated.

During one of their first sessions, the students and women were each asked to write a list of four positive and four negative words. From those words, the women chose four that would serve as the foundation of their skits and the final play: betrayal, hope, judgment and isolation.

“I didn’t realize how close we were to these women until we started performing,” a former Dartmouth student says in the film.

Most of the women are incarcerated for non-violent and drug-related crimes, so, she asks, why are we locking them up instead of helping them?

Viewers get a glimpse of the opening of the first-ever community corrections center at the Sullivan County jail, which is home to the Transitional Reentry and Inmate Life Skills (TRAILS) program. The rehabilitation program for sentenced offenders provides treatment, monitoring, work release and aftercare support. When TRAILS launched it was a novel concept, spearheaded by jail superintendent Ross Cunningham, who has since developed a similar program at the Merrimack County jail in Boscawen where he now leads.

Women featured in the film said they benefited from TRAILS, but wish there were more options for addicts to get help before they find themselves in a jail cell.

“I don’t feel I should have to be a convict and commit a crime to get help,” Rankin said during the film’s post-screening Tuesday. “Myself, I didn’t have insurance or money for private rehab. I had to have a record to obtain my sobriety.”

It’s Criminal has been shown in high schools in Claremont and Dover, at Proctor Academy, at Plymouth State University, as well as dozens of other locations from California to Maine. The film is scheduled to debut at Colby-Sawyer College in New London on March 5 at 7 p.m.

(Alyssa Dandrea can be reached at 369-3319 or at adandrea@cmonitor.com.)

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