For Will Avila, walking around the District’s Brightwood neighborhood brings back memories of crime and neglect. His mother abandoned him at a McDonald’s when he was small; his father struggled with alcohol; the only sense of family he found was in a gang. At 16 he ended up in prison, and was behind bars on and off for the next decade.
“In my heart I thought I was going to die in prison one day or die on the streets,” Avila, now 30, says in a new documentary that focuses on people returning to Washington as adults after being imprisoned for violent crimes as teenagers. “It really hurt me to see my life just go away after many people had told me that I was smart and I could be somebody. But I never thought about that myself: that I could be somebody.”
The 40-minute film, “Becoming Free,” premieres at the By The People festival, which runs at locations around the city June 21 to 24 and is put on by Halcyon, a Georgetown-based incubator for socially engaged artists and entrepreneurs. The filmmaker, attorney turned multimedia artist Kristin Adair, is a fellow this year at Halcyon. The festival also features a multimedia installation by Adair, “Cell 17,” which invites viewers to step into a cell-like space and hear the voices of young people who got life sentences. “Many were children of the crack epidemic and urban wars,” she said. “They were caught up in criminal activity of older guys, mothers, fathers, siblings. They got caught up in that and got these really long sentences.”
Adair had worked at a local juvenile detention center and had seen how incarceration at an early age set youths up to be in and out of prison for the rest of their adult lives.
“They would leave and in a few months they would be back, and it seemed there was no effort being made to break that cycle,” she said, adding, “The most predictive factor in adult incarceration is juvenile incarceration.”
The film, which started as a master’s thesis for Adair at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design at George Washington University, took three years to make and follows three people – Avila, Ronald Coles and Sakenia Hammond – as they emerge from prison and start living as adults on the outside, having skipped crucial formative years in which young people learn life skills.
“I didn’t get a chance to live life — like I’ve never had a job before I came to prison. I didn’t even have an ID with my own name on it,” Hammond says in the film. “And you’re coming home to a culture that’s totally different to what you left.” Hammond did hone a skill in prison – doing other inmates’ hair – and she hopes to start a mobile salon to attend to the hair of homeless people and others who may not be able to go to a barbershop.
But it’s not easy to get a start after coming of age in prison. Resumes are blank. Employers are reluctant. After Avila was released on parole in 2013, he submitted 22 job applications and was rejected at each one.
Adair thinks in many cases those employers are making a mistake. “Folks who have been in prison are some of the most innovative people. They’re good at problem-solving; you’ve got to make something out of nothing. You go to the commissary and find the canned things and turn that into a burrito that you can sell for $5 so you can make a call home.”
Growing up in the District’s Trinidad neighborhood, Coles saw his father, uncle, cousin and siblings shot before he was imprisoned as a teenager after being involved in a shootout with police. Since his release in 2012, Coles, now 30, has started a trucking and facilities management company.
Adair had run into initial resistance with some people she wanted to feature, but when Coles heard about the film, he asked to be part of it. “Black people, people in the inner cities, I just think we need to change the narrative that we tell about ourselves,” he said. “A lot of guys I know had plenty of potential, but they didn’t even know inside their heads that this was possible for them: just to do something different from what everyone around you is doing.”
Making the voices of such people public through the film and installation is a way to counter the “forced invisibility” imprisonment confers, Adair said, adding, “The system is set up so that being heard is challenging.”
One voice in the installation is that of 37-year-old Halim Flowers, a D.C. native who has served 21 years of a 40-years-to-life sentence after being convicted at age 17 of being an accessory to murder. In prison, he has written 11 books of self-help, memoir and poetry that include references to the streets of Northeast Washington where he grew up.
Because the District has no facilities for long-term imprisonment, most people with long sentences, including Flowers, serve their time out of state, which often makes visits prohibitive for their relatives. “Imagine being a kid going into the system at 15, 16, 17, and then going thousands of miles from home and then not seeing their families for 10, 20 years because [their families] can’t afford to travel all that way,” Adair said.
Flowers has served most of the past two decades in facilities around the country. Because of Supreme Court decisions and a subsequent change in D.C. law, juvenile lifers such as Flowers are now eligible to petition D.C. judges for release if they have served at least 20 years (he is back in his home town for such a petition).
In 2014, Avila started a cleaning company whose 17 employees are all people who have been incarcerated. In 2016, he was sent back to prison on a parole violation and served the remaining year of his sentence.
“We have made mistakes and we accept that, and we have spent time in prison but we’re not the worst people in the world, right?” he says in the film. “We’re just trying to change and make a positive impact in the community.”
He thinks about that impact every time he looks at his 3-year-old son, Dylan. The toddler’s round cheeks and dark ponytail are identical to his father’s, but his adult role models are worlds away from the ones Avila had growing up.
“My childhood was basically filled with sadness, chaos,” Avila said, recalling waking up on Saturday mornings with a feeling of dread because he knew his house contained nothing to eat. Now, on Saturdays, he makes pancakes for his son. And on weekdays, he sets another example he never had.
“We’re getting up at six in the morning and coming home dirty. They see that. For me, that’s the bigger picture. They see something different.”