Inside prison: From Black history to Women’s history

In the room 77 people await the film screening. I know this because we’re in prison and counting matters. Tonight the Tribeca Film Institute’s Community Screening Series at Otisville Correctional Facility kicks off 2017. The theme for the series is “Profiles in Resiliency and Courage” and on this night we are also celebrating Black History Month with a screening of The Black Power Mixtape, a very interesting film about the movers and shakers of the Black power movement in the early 70s.

My job is to help facilitate discussion and group dynamics following the film. I am white, born in 1976 and have spent the last 21 years in prison. Will it be an easy task in engaging the brothers in a conversation about race, class and repression? Prison is a strange place, as you might imagine. At it’s worst it offers a nest to prejudice and bias. Fear can do unnatural things to a person, add a Draconian environment and you have a potent mix for divisiveness. Yet prison offers opportunity to grow and learn, become more than you were, that is if you’re willing. In this sense, counting your experiences matter.

So sitting on the perimeter of the audience with the other facilitators I can see how the contents of this film are uplifting the men, inspiring them to grow and learn. The film features Stokely Carmichael, a well and soft-spoken man with a message about owning your history and becoming your own agent of change. I hadn’t been aware of his place in history.

It was interesting to then see and hear Carmichael’s mother being interviewed by her son. She seemed shy at first, but after careful reflection, reserved is a better way to describe her presence. Still waters run deep and one can feel her strength that allows her son to be an exceptional leader in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.

I now meet Angela Davis on screen. Hear her speak once and you’ll identify her colloquialisms. The southern roots bleed into how she empowers the pronunciation of words. I’m learning her language is honest and straight to the point. Ms. Davis’ history with the judicial system speaks volumes to the men in the room. “When you get tired enough you don’t fear change” resonates with men in the room who have already taken that courageous step.

There are many words that are meant to hurt. They have the banners of racism, sexism and classism to uphold them. Then there are words that are meant to heal. Erykah Badu who is also featured in the film reminds us: “if we don’t tell our own story, we will be written out of history.” While I may not be Black or a woman, I am in prison and share history with the people around me. I took her words with the understanding that she is speaking to the leader in all of us. “Tell your story.”

Hearing such powerful women gives us reason to reflect with appreciation the role that women have in our lives. As we transition to honoring international women’s history month, I think about how every single voice has value and are all part of individually important stories. I count them all because counting matters.


Chris Werner is one of six facilitators that are part of Tribeca Film Institute's Community Screening Series at Otisville Correctional Facility, located in Orange County, New York.  Mr. Werner co-curates a series of film screenings and educational workshops for the inmate population. This blog post was submitted as part of the "Profiles in Courage & Resiliency" series which features the films The Black Power Mixtape, Southwest of Salem, Gideon's Army, and The Crash Reel. Mr. Werner is serving a life sentence and has been imprisoned since the mid 90s.