Last Wednesday, the Champaign-Urbana community welcomed prison reform activists from around the state to a screening of the documentary “Stateville Calling” directed by Ben Kolak, and participate in a panel discussion and question and answer session following the film.
The event was hosted by the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center. The film was released with the aim of spreading awareness about Illinois prisons’ aging prisoner population due to a lack of parole and tell the story of a man actively working for change.
The event was sponsored by various organizations within the community including Education Justice Project, Urbana-Champaign Books to Prisoners, FirstFollowers Champaign-Urbana, Ripple Effect, TIMES Scholars at the University of Illinois, and the Champaign County Bailout Coalition.
“Stateville Calling,” tells the story of Bill Ryan, an 82-year-old prisoners’ rights activist from rural Kentucky lobbying to reestablish parole in the Illinois prison system. It follows Ryan through his interactions with former prisoners in order to prove that rehabilitation is more important than punishment. Throughout the course of the film, Ryan works to help to abolish the death penalty in Illinois, publishes a newspaper written by prisoners and negotiates with legislators on behalf of incarcerated people.
Illinois state representative for Illinois’ 103rd district Carol Ammons and her associates were also in attendance at the screening. Ammons spoke briefly before the film on her work to end electronic monitoring for those who have completed their prison sentence.
James Kilgore, a member of the Independent Media Center and an outspoken advocate working to end electronic monitoring also spoke during the discussion.
“There’s no legislature that’s even had a single subject matter hearing about electronic monitoring, other than to try to make it work better,” he said. “So we’re trying to get rid of it because we see it as the next wave of incarceration.”
After the screening, the floor was open for audience members to ask questions of community members and activists Annette Taylor, James Corben, and Cedric Mitchell who are working to support prisoners from the Champaign-Urbana area.
The question and answer portion of the event took on a life of its own and displayed the controversial nature of the film’s topic. Community members generally expressed that they appreciated the film, but firmly believed that the concept of parole was another form of incarceration.
Community member Annette Taylor is the mother of two incarcerated men. She’s also a member of the prisoner support group Ripple Effect and represented their work during the discussion.
“I do get letters from people that are on the inside that’s worried about coming out and still being on parole and feeling like they’re incarcerated,” she said to the audience.
James Corben and Cedric Mitchell also participated in the panel discussion as representatives from the organization First Followers. The group works to employ people who were previously incarcerated and helps put them on better life paths.
Corben was also vocal on his opinions of the parole system.
“You did your time, so why should have to come back out here in society and have to an extra year or two on parole?” he said. “That doesn’t make sense to me, especially since you paid your debt to society.”
He went on to discuss his personal thoughts on the importance of rehabilitation in prison.
“When you commit those crimes you think individually, you don’t think community-wise. You don’t see yourself as a part of the community, you see only you as an individual,” he said. “But as you get older you understand that this is a community effort.”