A Q&A with ‘We Are Witnesses’ director Jenny Carchman

The 18-chapter short film series takes a deeper look at the faces behind the complex and highly-flawed criminal justice system.

Credit: We Are Witnesses, The New Yorker, The Marshall Project, Conde Nast Entertainment
Credit: We Are Witnesses, The New Yorker, The Marshall Project, Conde Nast Entertainment

At present, the U.S. prison population stands at 2.2 million — four times as large as what it was in 1980, according to Bureau of Justice statistics from 2013. The United States alone makes up about 5 percent of the world’s population, yet incarcerates 21 percent of its prisoners, according to the NAACP. But the problem isn’t just the numbers — at the heart of the issue are everyday Americans with stories that should force everyone to take a deeper look at the flawed U.S. prison complex and criminal justice system.

A new short film series directed and produced by New York-based filmmaker Jenny Carchman and produced in collaboration with the Marshall Project, The New Yorker, Participant Media, and Condé Nast Entertainment, We Are Witnesses, aims to do just that.

The 18 short films range from two to six minutes long. In them, Carchman delivers a poignant narrative and paints a 360-panorama depiction of our deeply flawed criminal justice system. Families, victims, law enforcement officials, and inmates share their tales; people like Eric Garner’s daughter and Kalief Browder’s mother, a judge, a correctional officer, a murderer, a father, and more all speak out. Each experience is nuanced and speaks to the same overarching idea: that none of us are as insulated from the system and its reach.

Ideas for change and suggestions for reform are also discussed. One of the people Carchman interviews — the victim of a violent crime — details the racial prejudices he holds as a result of the stabbing and how he’s working to dismantle them. A father, whose son lives with autism and was imprisoned in a traditional detention facility, opens up about the many mental health challenges plaguing those correctional facilities.


Overall, what Carchman hopes to accomplish with this series is to force the audience to realize the many perspectives and beliefs pervading discussions over criminal justice reform — because it’s time to bridge the gap.

ThinkProgress recently caught up with Carchman to discuss the series — which debuted Thursday — why she made it, and what she hopes happens for each of the 18 unique voices in her videos.

What is We Are Witnesses about?

Carchman: The series takes a look at individuals’ experiences with the criminal justice system from various perspectives. We called it We are Witnesses because this is testimony of a very individual, personal experience inside the system. It’s not looking so much at a point and a counterpoint. It’s looking at what [each] person experienced firsthand — emotionally, physically — and how they feel about the system. We wanted to look at people across the gamut. We talked to people in the system from all angles, so that it wouldn’t just be [from an inmate’s perspective].

Why did you take this approach?

Carchman: The idea of this series is really empathy. The system is bigger than one person, it’s bigger than one crime, it’s bigger than one judge, and it’s bigger than one prosecutor. It’s about, how does one feel going through this process, no matter what? And we didn’t want to judge that person. We wanted the words to speak for themselves.


One of the characters is a guy named Tommy Porr who had been incarcerated for murder. He murdered somebody by punching them and pummeling them to death. You see his transformation in prison and you see that he finally, at the end of his prison term, understands how his victim may have had feelings too. He describes a life of not feeling for other people and not giving a shit about other people’s experience. But by the end of the film, he has that awakening. He realizes he hasn’t just killed someone. He’s affected their whole life. I think that’s a moment where you realize, okay he’s not just a murderer, he’s a person that’s come to the system with a whole set of experiences that brought him there in the first place that we need to understand.

Can you elaborate on the series’ title, We Are Witnesses?

Carchman: I think there is not one person I know that hasn’t had experiences with the system. They have been brushed up against the law in some way, they have been asked to sit on the jury, they have been witness to a crime, or witness to a victim of a crime, or a friend of victim of a crime. And I think…if we can collectively look at ourselves, as all of us are united by this thing, we’re all a part of it.

It’s not just people who have been through very dramatic experiences. It affects who we are as a society. I think if we can look at it that way, it might allow us to treat the system in a different way. It might allow us to be a little bit more active. Less accepting of the ways in which it doesn’t work and more accepting of the ways in which it does work.

What are the larger issues plaguing the criminal justice system today?

Carchman: Before the election, there was a huge push for criminal justice reform and a huge push for trying to decriminalize some of the more minor offenses and stopping this idea of overpopulating prisons — this rotating door of justice where people have committed a minor offense and then they are sent to jail, and then when they get out they violate some sort of probation, and then so they’re sent back to jail. And it’s this system that doesn’t seem to end.  


I think, since the election, there’s now a real concern that that reform is not going to happen — in fact, that it’s going to go in the opposite direction. Where minor offenses are viewed as criminal. And now, I don’t know this to be true, it’s just that that’s what seems to be bubbling up from the Department of Justice.

I think some of the larger issues are really, what kind of society do we want to live in? How are we treating certain populations of people? Of course there are dangerous people who need to be put away, but there are also lots of people who are caught in the system and can’t get out.

I’m really glad you include Kalief Browder’s story.

Carchman: He got stuck for so many reasons. It was bureaucratic. It was financial. He got stuck because there’s just such a back-load of paperwork, or of even not being able to get him to the courtroom. There were days when [his mother] would go to the court for hearings and he wasn’t brought by Rikers [Island prison officials] because of a mess up, so then he stays for many more months.

That’s also why we featured Francis Greenburger. He’s a man of extraordinary wealth and his son is in Rikers as well. And he’s facing the same issues. It’s not like only the rich are immune to these issues. The system is bigger than any one thing.

How did you pick your subjects?

Carchman: We spent about two and half months calling as many people as we could, talking to as many people as we could who would know someone. Organizations that worked with people, either victim services and organizations trying to help [former inmates] get jobs. We were casting a very wide net.

Because I was working out of the Marshall Project they had this amazing link. I would go to their morning meetings every day. We got so much help that way. We called hundreds of people and then started to whittle it down. We interviewed about 32 people and then narrowed it down to 18. We interviewed all those people in four days. The crew and myself, we were emotionally exhausted at the end of each day. Everybody was in tears, everybody was incredibly moved by what we were hearing.

What inspired this project?

Carchman: Neil Barksy [the director of the Marshall Project] came to me and said that he wanted to do something like this. He wanted to do something where you had people talking about the system. Originally, he said it was going to be a small thing and it’s not going take too much of your time, and it wound up being huge.

It was really his big idea. Neil thinks big. He wants to create a space where everybody is talking their experiences.

Do you have a personal connection or experience with the system?

Carchman: My father is a judge. I’ve grown up in a world where there is this belief that the system works. Yet I’ve actually seen so many examples of it not working.

When you want it to work, and how it’s actually working, are two very different things. For me, the personal connection is that I have this inherent belief that the system should work and that it ought to work. But actually it’s not fair, and it’s not simple, and it’s all based on human experiences. That trickles down from the police, to the lawyers you have, to the judges that are hearing your cases, to the guards that are in charge of you, to your parole officer. It’s all about where that person is coming from. Nobody is a blank slate. Everybody brings their own background and history to the process.

What did you learn while working on this?

Carchman: I was fascinated by [the correctional officer’s story]. I felt like I had never thought about what it was like to have that job. It seems so basic. I had never thought about what it might be like to go to work and to have to handle these people, and it’s just you, and they don’t want to be there, and they are angry, and anxious, and scared, and violent. I had never thought about that. It was just eye-opening. You realize that it’s a job that has great benefits, but look at what he’s doing everyday: trying to keep order in a place that is complete chaos.

The fight between the inmates that he was involved in, which erupted over a phone call, really struck me.

Carchman: You realize that everybody is reduced to this base instinct which is territory, which is individualism, which is autonomy, and you can’t have it there. Because you’re a number and you’re a case. You’re not a person who comes in with a whole rich life you’re just a product to go through the system.

Were there any other revelations?

Carchman: Looking at the Van Zandts, whose son lit the fire in their neighbor’s house and committed suicide in jail, I think about them a lot. I think about how they tried to do everything right and they believed that they were going to get help for their son, and ultimately they couldn’t. I think about how even if you are not necessarily fighting the system, but you are working within the system and you are trying to do what you think you can do as a parent to help your child, but also a citizen… it’s still impossible. That story to me feels so devastating, it’s just a trap. It’s just this horrible trap. You don’t want to make a mistake and then some things are out of your control, and then everything is out of your control at that point.

What were your goals for this project?

Carchman: When I’m on the subway, and I look around and I wonder sometimes, even now, “What have these people’s experiences been inside the system?” or “Have they been inside the system?”, I feel a little bit more aware of where people are coming from and I hope that the series does that. That it broadens a view. The person you think is just a criminal is actually coming from a circumstance where things have so gone so wrong in their lives, they are not just a criminal, they are a person with a whole set of experiences that have informed their view.

There is something that Ed Gavagan says — Ed was the stabbing victim — and he says that, [following his attack] when he would be riding the subway and Puerto Rican kids would get on the train, even though he knew that they weren’t going to hurt him, he would get uncomfortable, because of his PTSD and his experience of being stabbed by [someone who’s] Puerto Rican, and I’m so glad that he says that. I think that’s a moment where I think we can all say, well, look where our own experiences are coming from, look what our own reactions and behaviors about anything are being based on. If we can do that, if we can take a moment and address some of our own preconceived notions because of what’s happened to us, I think that can change a lot of people’s behavior.    

What would effective criminal justice reform look like?

Carchman: I mean, one of the things that seems to be persistent in talking to so many people is how overloaded the system is. The amount of cases. The amount of people. There’s so many people in jail, there’s so many cases to be heard. There’s only so many hours in a day. If there were a way in which the system would allow for the many, many, many cases that aren’t serious, that aren’t dealing with very violent and, oftentimes mentally ill people, if there was a way for those cases to be handled where it wasn’t taken through the same process as all the other cases…. I’m trying to come up with a solution here and even that’s not accurate.

It just feels like reforming means dealing with the overload and dealing with the amount of people and recognizing that every person in there comes from somewhere and has a home somewhere and has people in their lives who care about them who don’t want them in the system. How do we take care of those people better so that they are not stuck?

And finally, can you talk about the structure of the series or share any final thoughts on what happens next?

These are designed for short consumption to watch on your phone or in between something else. And I hope that people over time watch all of them. And I hope that people share them.

We weren’t making 13th, [Ava DuVernay’s documentary on racial inequality in the prison system]. We weren’t making these long features that you have to dig in and settle in for. This is something that we hope resonates, because — for me — absolutely it was a very different process. I’m used to making features. I’ve never made shorts before. And I struggled with how to do it.

So, the whole point was to be able to share them and pass them around and relate to one or two, and have that one or two that live in somebody’s site. I just really hope people watch them. I hope they share them.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

This story has been updated to clarify Participant Media’s role in the series’ production.