Limbo, directed by Razan Ghalayini, focuses on three men awaiting trial in a jail in Maryland. Unable to raise bail, they are in effect condemned to incarceration for an indefinite period even before they have been judged innocent or guilty of the offence for which they were charged–a situation which affects thousands of poor Americans each year.
TCR staff writer Isidoro Rodriguez spoke with Ghalayini about the making of this film, the role documentaries can play in the movement to reform the criminal justice system, and what it was like to meet some of the people who make up 60 percent of today’s jail populations.
The Crime Report: What prompted you to make this film?
Razan Ghalayini: I read Tina Rosenberg’s article in The New York Times about Kaleif Browder [a young New Yorker who committed suicide after spending three years imprisoned on Rikers Island without trial] I was super-moved by that. It got me interested in bail reform because it was such a big [issue] with a seemingly simple solution. I felt that we should do a story from the viewpoint of people who currently cannot make [bail].
TCR: How much familiarity did you have with the issue before covering it?
RG: To be honest, I didn’t know that much about it. I come from more of a national security/Arab Spring Revolution background. So, [my previous two films] looked at foreign policy and counterterrorism. With Limbo I was actually looking to change and focus more on the country that I live in. I learned so much researching the film and talking to experts and the inmates themselves.
TCR: What were some of the major hurdles you faced, both in your investigation and in the production of this film?
RG: Getting inside the jail was the hardest part. We really needed to go inside a jail because that’s the thing we don’t see. If you Google “bail-story videos or short films,” they’re always about a guy or a lady who has come out of jail and is telling their story from their apartment. It’s sad, but they’re also out, so your emotional involvement is limited. It’s easy to assume once they are out that “the problem is solved.” So, we wanted to film someone who was telling a story from the inside, so that the people watching the film could be faced with the harsh reality. We filmed three days before closing production. We got access very late.
The second hurdle was how to visualize something that can’t be filmed. They would tell us their stories but we can’t film anything outside of their jails, with their families, or talk about what they did. So, that’s how we introduced animation into the film: to fill in the gaps and hint a little bit more about what they were accused of.
TCR: How did you go about finding jails to film in? And what made you decide on your three subjects?
GR: We worked with the Pretrial Justice Institute to help us get in touch with jails that were friendly to bail reform. Originally the plan was to film at Rikers, but that was not possible to do in the time that we needed. The Brooklyn Defence Fund put me in touch with people they thought would be friendly. We did a host of interviews, about seven or eight, with people inside and ended up with three unnamed men. One had a great personality, and the others tugged on people’s heartstrings. Between the three of them we were able to lay out the core issues of bail.
TCR: You managed to get an interview with Captain M.R. Merican, the warden of the jail where you filmed. How did you find a corrections officer willing to speak with so much candor?
GR: Merican works with the Pre-Trial Justice institute and a handful of other organizations to combat unnecessary holding of defendants. He said that we can’t expect judges to carry all the burden; we have to handle some of it ourselves. He didn’t approach us, we actually went to go film at his jail and he saw us and came over and started talking to us. So, after we did the interview with him, we just knew it had to go in. He’s one of the biggest proponents of [reform]. He’s the one who knows the most, that a lot of the people who are put into jails repeatedly and can’t make bail are low-level offenders with low income. When you put someone in jail and they can’t make bail, you are removing them from the pattern of their life which they need to remain in to be an active member of society.We’re talking about someone who works in McDonald’s or construction. Such people don’t have the luxury of saying “I’m not going to make it to work tomorrow.” They’ll be replaced. A lot of the guys in his jail had problems with alcohol; they’d drink and drive and get pulled over and get put in and they didn’t have the money to make bail.You’re not solving their alcohol problem and you’re keeping the jails full when they don’t need to be. The guys that work at the jail see it the most, so it’s quite powerful when they say this isn’t pragmatic.
TCR: What motivated you to pursue stories about justice?
GR: I worked on an HBO film called Homegrown and I did a movie called “We Are The Giants.” [The first film is concerned with the use of detention counterterrorism and the second is about the Arab Spring]. They address how government’s overreach in the name of security. I think what is so crazy about bail is that [the prisoners held in detention] aren’t threatening anyone. It literally just seems like a way to target the poor. Such targeting [of poor people] is a byproduct of a bad system. One person we interviewed had spent a lot of time in solitary confinement. [It seems to me] the system is ineffective and unfair when someone who hasn’t even been found guilty of something should have to suffer [a period of solitary that rivals the punishment meted out to people accused of terrorism].
TCR: What were your impressions of the jail environment?
RG: It was actually my first time in a jail. I was struck by how sterile it all was; it felt like such an inhumane place that I was sad just off the bat. The jails we visited were on the smaller side and in smaller towns. It wasn’t like going to a mega-complex like Rikers. It was amazing to see the [close] relationship between the guards and the inmates. But it upset me to look at the guys we interviewed and know they are going to miss Christmas and Thanksgiving, and it’s costing taxpayers money.
One sad story that we didn’t use in the film involved a 15-year-old girl who had been sitting in jail for two and half months [because she couldn’t pay] a $50 bond. It costs more to keep her in there per day, an average of $200 per day, than it would to pay the bond. This young girl’s freedom to grow and become a human was being denied for nothing worthwhile.
TCR: How is bail determined?
RG: I thought there was definitely a system, but there isn’t. The judges generally go on precedent on how they set bail. But the judge can do whatever he wants. [In my research for the film, I found] a judge that even assigns essays [in place of] bail. One factor in determining the level of bail is if you missed a previous court date. So, if you’ve missed your court date eight times then your bail will be higher, in theory.
The truth is they can do it any way they want. As far as what we could determine during our research, the factors that go into decision to set bail amounts are: whether you’ve been arrested before; the severity of your priors; and whether you’ve missed court dates. The interesting thing is that judges can be creative, but [many] fear challenging the status quo.
TCR: What made you decide on animation to tell part of this story?
RG: I think it’s hard to see someone in an orange jumpsuit as a person, but they have a family, they have a job, they have people that love them , and you have to find a way to show that. So the point of the animation was to take make them more human…to take us to the person they were before they were in this orange jumpsuit.
TCR: Can documentary films bring about change in like this one effect change in the criminal justice system—compared to other media?
RG: Just putting these stories in front of everyday America plants a seed. It’s very hard to be upset about something that you don’t know about. We [need to] find creative runways to inform people about important things, without preaching to them. I think anybody who watches Limbo will think, “Those guys seem really nice, this seems like a terrible idea.” I think of documentary films as a gateway drug to an issue. They’re not going to give you everything but they’ll at least spike your interest.
Isidoro Rodriguez is a journalism intern with The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.