Mental Health & Incarceration: Filmmakers on Repairing the Broken Criminal Justice System

By Brigitte McIndoe for WORLD

This Mental Health Awareness Month, comprehending the toll of incarceration on individuals and their community of loved ones.

In April, WORLD premiered four documentaries to launch Liberated Lives, a collection bringing to the forefront unheard stories of people who have experienced incarceration firsthand or through a family member or friend. These films serve to provide an awareness of the unjust systems at play in the United States that contribute to the high rate of incarceration, but also to give a platform to those often misrepresented and spotlight their stories of resilience, healing and redemption.

Within the four films (A Woman on the Outside, Commuted, What These Walls Won't Hold and Hundreds of Thousands), mental health emerges as a theme; this common thread shows how devastating the carceral system is on the mental health and well-being of everyone impacted by incarceration.

Stevie Walker-Webb, the filmmaker and participant of Hundreds of Thousands, understands the damage all too well: His brother Waday was arrested following a mental health crisis and subsequently spent 122 days in solitary confinement. Walker-Webb’s film, co-directed and co-produced by Christian Vasquez, chronicles how he mobilized his family and community to advocate for Waday’s release.

“The mentally ill are some of the most vulnerable people in our communities. Having a brother who has mental illness, I see how brilliant, unique and special he is,” he said. “All the studies show that when you incarcerate someone, you are messing with their mental wealth. And if you're already mentally ill, and you're incarcerated for being mentally ill, and then you're placed in solitary confinement, we know that we're exacerbating the problem.”

Walker-Webb’s brother is just one example of the many individuals who find themselves incarcerated while battling mental health crises, an injustice that he wanted to make very clear to audiences through sharing Waday’s story.

“If you are mentally ill in this country, the chance of you being arrested is high. I realized that it wasn't just my brother – there were other people where he was being held that also were there just because of their mental illness,” Walker-Webb said. “Being diagnosed with a mental illness should not guarantee that you will one day be handcuffed, brutalized and spend time in solitary confinement.”

Filmmaker Adamu Chan, once incarcerated himself, focused his film What These Walls Won’t Hold on the idea that incarceration can chip away at one’s mental health if a sense of community is lost. Chan explores how crucial human relationships are to those who are serving, so that they may one day be able to successfully reintegrate into society.

“Isolation, violence – these things are not helping anyone's mental health, and, in many ways, are making it much worse. And then we expect people to come home and function when they've been traumatized more than they originally were and carry the shame and stigma of having a criminal record,” he said. “I wanted to tell a story about what we can do when we build community wherever we're at.”

Danielle Metz, who was handed three life sentences plus 20 years, also personally knows the impact of incarceration on mental health and the ensuing difficulties of returning home. In Commuted, we witness how Danielle navigates her reintegration after her commutation by President Barack Obama. Director Nailah Jefferson noted that there was much for Metz to unburden in order to move forward for herself and her two children.

“The hardest thing about telling Danielle's story was unpacking the trauma,” she said. “I imagine there were so many days that went by that she thought she would never leave prison, and the same for her family. Through unpacking that trauma, they talk about how it's now helping them heal as a family.”

On the flip side of this conversation are the avenues of healing that these films represent – through stories like Chan’s dedication to his community both on the inside and outside and Metz’s motivation to be present for her children and grandchild, we can begin to recognize the long journey to mental wellness that formerly incarcerated individuals must grapple with.

“Glenisha, Danielle's daughter, mentions that she just started talking to a therapist because she understands the importance of it. And I think she's coming to a realization that the story that she lived was a story that's been lived by so many other Black and Brown children throughout this country,” said Jefferson.

But the mental toll on those who are left behind is not to be overlooked. Kiara C. Jones, producer and writer of A Woman on the Outside, said she wanted to make the film to highlight how family and friends bear heavy emotional burdens.

“When someone is sentenced to 25 years to life, it's not just them that goes to prison – their whole family goes with them,” Jones said. “There are a lot of people who…are innocent bystanders of the situation; they're simply the loved ones of someone who has been entangled or committed some crime, and then their lives are absolutely uprooted in the process.”

A primary example is Kristal Bush, the main participant of A Woman on the Outside. The daughter, sister, aunt, entrepreneur and advocate works tirelessly to ensure that families – hers and others in similar situations – stay connected despite the physical and emotional barriers of incarceration.

“The story that we felt was missing was that of the women who had loved ones in prison. They were the ones who were paying for phone calls, taking care of kids, and doing all the work on the outside that people can't do while incarcerated,” said co-director and co-producer Lisa Riordan Seville.

With carceral and mental healthcare systems in the U.S. that Jones called “absolutely unaligned” and Walker-Webb deemed “broken” and “nefarious,” what’s to be done? It’s a question that each filmmaker hopes their audience begins to think purposefully about.

“The fact that Danielle was able to survive a triple life sentence plus 20 years and, through the love and support of her family, friends, and advocacy groups, was able to make it home is a testament to the enduring human spirit and what we can overcome,” Jefferson said.

For Chan, it’s tuning into our humanity and leaning on connection with others.

“Sometimes I feel like the focus is on the political work, the advocacy. Those things are really important, but I don't want to understate the importance of people's connections with their communities and their loved ones,” he explained. “I hope the film will play some small role in bridging gaps and getting people to believe in solidarity. It's something that's transformed my life. So much seems hopeless, but we can't overcome it unless we're together.”

Watch an extended interview with the filmmakers now on YouTube:

The four films in our Liberated Lives collection are now streaming online, on YouTube and on the PBS app.

Discuss and engage with us on Facebook, InstagramTwitter and TikTok by using the hashtag #LiberatedLivesPBS and tagging us @worldchannel. Subscribe to our newsletter and YouTube for more features including events and interviews.

Enjoy our content? Consider donating to keep important storytelling like this going, and find more on PBS Passport.

Related Content

The Filmmakers of 'Commuted' on Supporting Returning Citizens & Criminal Justice Reform

Directed by Nailah Jefferson and produced by Darcy McKinnon, “Commuted” tenderly explores the story of Danielle Metz and the innumerable challenges faced by not only individuals re-entering society after decades of incarceration, but their family members as well. In this exclusive interview, read first-hand about Metz’s return home after her triple-life sentence was commuted, how the film represents America’s unjust criminal justice system, and what the filmmakers hope audiences learn from this story.

Liberated Lives

Liberated Lives, a compelling curated collection from WORLD, showcases stories of individuals transitioning from incarceration to reintegration. Highlighting resilience, transformation, and the journey toward redemption, it's more than a series of documentaries – it's a movement that amplifies the voices of those often marginalized and encourages viewers to recognize their role in our democracy.

Well-Being: BIPOC Mental Health

In July, BIPOC Mental Health Awareness Month brings forth a necessary consciousness of what is being done and what more can be done for all communities of color who have historically been left out of the mental healthcare system. WORLD Channel showcases stories of mental health with last year’s digital series Decolonizing Mental Health and the new America ReFramed film Any Given Day.