Helen Ubinas: Getting out of prison isn't always a release

Posted: January 29, 2013

PHILLY, LET'S TALK. There are a lot of conversations we should be having as a city, but aren't.

Let's begin with a conversation about what happens when a guy gets out of jail. And let's start with a compelling movie about trying to make it in a world that doesn't welcome ex-cons.

The film, "Pull of Gravity," follows several Philadelphia ex-cons. It was shot over a year in North Philly and features three men in different stages of re-entry:

There's Andy, 44, in and out of prison for 25 years, and home for six after serving 10 years behind bars.

Of the streets and old friends and habits, he says, "It pulls you" - just like gravity.

There's Kev, 19, who served three years and was home for just a week when filming began.

"What happens in a month from now if I have no job?" He doesn't blink. "Streets is where I go. That's what I'm forced to do. I got a kid to feed. Mom to feed. Gotta hustle hard, man."

And then there's El Sawyer, who learned how to shoot video while in Graterford Prison.

Sawyer is one of the movie's co-creators, with filmmaker Jon Kaufman. Sawyer served eight years for aggravated assault and has been home for 10. He works for the Village of Arts and Humanities. But freedom is still something he's coming to terms with.

"It's hard to be out here, and hard to stay out here," he says. "It doesn't get any easier."

The film, funded by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Philadelphia, is one of the office's many outreach efforts, which also includes a Re-entry Court.

Why is an office that's in the business of convicting criminals doing all this outreach? It didn't go soft. It got smart. And we better do the same.

"We can't arrest our way out of the crime problem," said U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger.

We can't incarcerate our way out of it, either. We have 200,000 Philadelphians with criminal records that keep them from getting jobs or housing and making it on the outside.

The last time I spoke with Colwin Williams, the ex-con I've been writing about since March, he was waiting to hear if he'd be allowed to leave a Philadelphia halfway house. He planned to move in with his mother. But the senior-housing complex where she lives doesn't allow ex-cons. Now he isn't sure what to do.

"I feel trapped," he said.

And that's the position in which many ex-cons find themselves. Stuck. Trapped. At a crossroads that too often leads down the same path that put them behind bars to begin with. That makes them our problem over and over again.

The film, to be screened Tuesday night at the National Constitution Center, will be followed by a panel discussion.

It's playing to a capacity crowd. But the filmmakers aren't sure when or where it will be shown again.

When we spoke Monday, Sawyer shared something that fellow Graterford Prison inmate and mentor Harun Fox often said.

Fox was a lifer who advised younger inmates to take advantage of their second chance, something he would never get. He said that his efforts felt like writing a note, tying it to a rock and throwing it over the prison walls in hopes that someone would pick it up and read it.

"In a lot of ways, this movie is like throwing a rock over a wall and hoping someone will come by to read the message," Sawyer said.

It's a beautiful sentiment. But the message in this film is too important to hope that people will come to it on their own.

Everyone in Philadelphia needs to watch this movie.

Let's show it in schools and churches and every Philly neighborhood. Then let's talk about all the issues it raises about race and class and crime and poverty.

Like I said, we have a lot to talk about.

This would be a good start.


Email: ubinas@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5943

On Twitter: @NotesFromHel

On Facebook: Helen.Ubinas

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