In 2013, I graduated from Georgia Southern University and began my career as a video maker and “swiss army knife” style cinematic story-teller. Since then, I’ve filmed stories in Cambodia, of displaced people living in complete destitution. People who had built make-shift homes at the edge of a field on top of sewer lines that had since broken exposing them and their children to raw sewage. People who were now sleeping, living, and eating in absolute squalor. I’ve worked in Palestine, in the shadow of the walls surrounding Israel, listening to the people that live in that shadow. People who were caught in the middle of the Palestinian and Israeli conflict, and under the constant threat of Israeli military reprisal in the form of tear gas canisters and bullets fired into their homes, and places of worship, and sometimes, into their children.
Among the many things these experiences did to my perspective, and the lens through which I see the world, they did one thing above all. They gave me a healthy skepticism of my own life experience, of my own assumptions of what being alive on planet Earth, is like, and what those experiences taught me about creating the life that I wanted for myself. I grew up in rural Georgia, the son of a doctor, with little to no want for anything. From birth to college, the anthem “If you really want something, and you really work for it, you can have it.” was constantly drummed into my brain. For me, these words meant lettering in varsity soccer, or getting into college, or finding a good job after. It never occurred to me until I started filming stories around the world that the “something(s)” people were wanting for could be more basic, could be more primal. It also never occurred to me that for many people, even basic primal needs were unattainable.
So when in 2016, I met David Windecher on a video shoot and heard him tell his story into the camera I was operating, I was already primed for yet another assumption that I had to be flipped upside down: That the American Criminal Justice system worked for everyone the way that I had seen it work in my life and the lives of people I was connected to personally. It did not take long working with David and RED to realize that this belief that I had held was not only wrong, it was dangerous, and leaving me complicit in the destruction of thousands of people’s lives.
About a year later, David introduced me to Andre Jones who, a few years prior, had pled guilty burglary and criminal trespass under Georgia’s First Offender Act. As a result, he had been placed into RED’s mentorship program and was at the time of our meeting nearing his graduation from the program. What struck me almost immediately about Andre was the way he looked directly at you when he was talking to you, as if he were trying to remember everything you said to him, every part of the conversation between the two of you. This stuck out to me because one of the other things I had learned in my years working with disenfranchised people around the world was how that disenfranchisement was often reflected in their eyes. That, in part because of the difficulty of their lives, but also (I suspect) from being told by countless people that look like me that their situation would change, the way they looked at you betrayed a kind of protective passiveness. One of the first things I realized about Andre was that he was present, and fully bought into RED and what completing the program could mean for his life.
Over the next year or so Andre would graduate RED and become one the program’s most recognizable success stories. He got a job, kept raising his kids, and began to build the life that he wanted for himself. In that time, WSB-TV, Atlanta NPR, and multiple other online publications all produced a myriad of stories on Andre. Why wouldn’t they? He had become a premier example of how alternative forms of rehabilitation worked. A person that people could point to and say that not only was the criminal justice system broken but that there were alternatives and they were better.
Fast forward to the last quarter of 2018, and I get a call from David, “Get your camera, we’re about to blow the top off of this.”
Andre had been arrested for violating his probation. He was currently sitting in jail awaiting his court date that would determine what the repercussions would be. The issue was, Andre had not violated his probation. Probation alleged that Andre had failed to show up to a meeting in June 2018 (a full 4 months earlier), and that he had no record of attempting to obtain his GED or to fulfill his community service hours (both are requirements of RED’s program). Eventually, probation would go on to drop the charges and admit that he hadn’t done the things they were alleging, but this did not happen until 10 minutes before the case was going to be heard in front of his family, the team at RED, and our film crew there to document the proceedings. More importantly, the false charges were not dropped before Andre spent over 40 days in jail not before he lost the job that had taken an untold amount of time and effort to get in the first place, and not before his children had to go over a month without their father in their home.
Maybe all that transpired because of a clerical error or honest mistake. It’s possible that at one point the probation officer really did believe that Andre had not completed his community service. It’s possible that the sign in sheet got lost the day Andre “missed” his probation meeting. These things are possible, but they are not the point. The point is that regardless of why all this happened, it still happened. Looking back, it matters less why the probation office initially decided to arrest Andre, than the fact that they were willing to continue to ruin his life and the lives of his children just to save face. Instead of realizing the mistake, dropping the charges, and releasing him, Andre’s probation officer, their boss, and the rest of the office took the case as far as they possibly could. They waited until he had spent over 40 days in jail, his lawyer and a film crew got involved, and they were about to be exposed before they dropped the charges. If they knew 10 minutes before Andre’s hearing that they were wrong, then they knew 10 days before. Or 20 days. Or 40 days. At some point, they knew but were unwilling or unmotivated to right their wrong. They were able to do this because there was either no oversight or the ones who should have provided oversight were complicit in covering it up. Nobody came along in the entire time Andre sat unjustly in jail to review the facts and say“This is wrong.” Nobody.
In the end, things worked out for Andre. David (who is also his attorney) was able to get him released, completely end his probation, and help him find a new job. These things don’t change the fact, though, that the criminal justice system failed Andre. They don’t change the fact that Andre will now have to go through civil court to see any kind of repercussions carried out on the people who imprisoned him wrongly. They don’t change the fact that even though Andre’s story had a positive conclusion, there are thousands of other Andres all over America who don’t have a David or a RED. That is what haunts me as we conclude the last phases of capturing, editing, and telling Andre’s story.
When I began writing this piece, it was initially just going to be a more in-depth version of this Instagram post, and then it became a companion piece to the documentary we’re producing, but I think really what it finally has become is a recounting of my change of perspective as a result of knowing Andre. Some of you reading, like me, are products of where and how you grew up, and because of this, you assume that the criminal justice system works for everyone the way it works for you. This is both empirically and anecdotally not the case. What Andre taught me is that in his case (and thousands of other people’s across the country), you can do exactly what you are supposed to do. You can go above and beyond what is expected of you in navigating life after incarceration, and still get trapped by the system.
It’s embarrassing to me that this is my experience. It is embarrassing that my own life has been so privileged that I was 26 years old before my eyes were opened to the state of the criminal justice system in America. It’s not with any measure of pride that I write this piece or the bigger documentary project we are working on. I do hope, though, that somebody might read this or watch that film who grew up like I did. That they might see themselves in my change of perception, and realize that there really isn’t actually Justice For All in America. And that we all have a part to play in seeking it.