KCRA Common Ground — Getting people back on track & back to work
This is probably the biggest story that I’ve ever tackled as a one-person reporter-photographer. I like doing stories that have weight and serious meat to them, but this is the first time I’ve ever done a story dealing with the criminal justice system, talking with people who are on parole or probation, who are legally under house arrest, with probation officers, or a people just a few weeks or months clean after essentially a lifetime of drug use.
All that said & out of the way — this is a positive story.
After most of one-day of filming, and then an hour-and-a-half of another day, I had 2 1/2-hours of footage. By the time I’d finished transcribing I had 9-pages of interview quotes. And I only transcribe what is good.
This was the biggest story–both in content, subject matter, and material–that I have ever attempted.
In California we have learned that incarceration is not the solution. It simply turns the prisons into an advanced system for turning out lifelong lawbreakers. Costly and counter-productive.
NOTE: I am not writing here about violent sociopaths. No. I am writing about the vast, vast majority of people–men and women of all ages and ethnicities–who have found themselves in trouble with the legal system. The vast majority of whom did not complete high school. I believe that of the people doing time in California’s prison system over 80% dropped out of high school.
Most people are in trouble with the law because they have problems–mental, emotional, drugs, alcohol, etc. The current view in the State of California is that it is more efficient to get these problems addressed, get them the help they need, get them into job training–where possible, for jobs that really can earn them a living–and get them to work, re-joining their families and society—-and paying taxes.
People are always happier and more productive when they’re working at something that they like. That is what this story is all about.
S.C.O.E. — The Sacramento County Office of Education’s Re-Entry Program
I knew absolutely nothing about this until former KCRA reporter Tim Herrera, one of my personal best friends, who left the station a while ago and now works with the S.C.O.E., e-mailed me to tell me about this program and if I would be interested in doing a story on it.
Tim was one of the best reporters I ever worked with, and we worked together as often as we could. Tim has put me in touch with other projects that the S.C.O.E. has put on and I’ve enjoyed trying to get the word out.
This story was a much, much bigger fish and had to be done right. Which meant that it had to be a longer than normal news story in order try to tell it. Tim knew of my longer stories on Common Ground, KCRA’s once-a-month news magazine program, and reached out to me.
This was the first time the S.C.O.E.’s Adult Re-Entry Program has had any stories on it broadcast or published.
This project started in 2007 and has so far helped 3,000 parolees and 750 probationers get their lives back together and get to work making real money.
I was flattered that Tim reached out to me to do this story. I also felt incredibly very excited–and challenged–to tackle it as a reporter.
Doing any kind of story with people who are in the justice system–as parolees or on probation–is very delicate work. Usually they don’t want to–or aren’t allowed to–talk on camera and we have to promise not to show their faces.
In the case of this story, however, everybody on every level of this project was on board and I had free access to film and talk to anybody I wanted who was willing to talk to me, which–to my absolute amazement–almost everybody was!
The filming and writing of this story:
This was essentially filmed over the better part of one day. One long, exhausting, draining day.
It’s Sacramento in the summer and it was hot.
I talked with lots of people. More people than made it into the finished story.
The first story about the Re-Entry program in overview, could have easily run minutes longer. But I felt that for the audience retention, four minutes was as long as I could take it.
There is another program which is an adjunct to what is presented in the story which I couldn’t fit in at all. Instead, I am going to go back and devote an entire story just to them.
My thanks to everyone on both sides of the justice fence for giving me their time and telling me their work and their stories.
James is a story that it was decided should be totally separate from the Re-Entry story. In the first story there were lots of faces. I wanted to conclude with a separate story that just profiled one person. A face of the S.C.O.E. Adult Re-Entry program in microcosm.
I was put in touch with James Perez. He called me on a Monday morning to say that he had cleared it with his boss for me to come to his job site to film.
Monday is a day off for me, but I wanted to get James’ story, so I dashed to KCRA, got my gear & got over to the job site–re-habbing old buildings on K Street in Downtown Sacramento–part of the rebuilding & revitalization of the city.
I was introduced to the owner of the building who was having the work done who shook my hand and said simply, “James is a good guy. Do whatever you want to do. Go where ever you want to go.”
James ia an apprentice ironworker. I was given a yellow safety vest and hard hat and climbed down into the construction area and was given total freedom to film and talk with James on-the-job.
He started telling me his story and it was amazing, as you can see in the story that has been posted here.
James Perez is a brave man for being so totally honest with me about his life. I respect him for what he has done. In eight months he has completely changed who he is–and nobody could make him do that, he had to choose to make that change himself.
James is just one face out of hundred and thousands who have gone through this program. And, it must be noted, the program’s percentage of failures is in the low single digits. Quite a success story.
My sincerest thanks to James for giving me his time and for also for entrusting me with his story.
Filming people who’ve had a troubled past:
I need to say this: I respect all the the people who are in this program trying to turn their lives around.
When I spoke with some of the people in the program in on-camera interviews, some of the questions I had to ask were delicate, but everyone answered me openly and honestly. And I must say I was both surprised and extremely impressed.
After each interview I made it a point of putting the camera down, shaking their hand in thanks and wishing them luck. And I meant it.
You can’t do a story like this an fake sincerity.
My regular work at KCRA is as a news cameraman. When I am given the time to do a story as an on-air reporter, I accept that added responsibility. And you have to be absolutely 100% honest, straight, sincere when you do a story like this. People can see phoniness as clearly as looking through glass. You just can’t do a story like this that way.
The people who are in the programs are not necessarily proud of their past lives that got them to this point, but they are proud that they are turning their lives around and doing something with them. And this is something that they SHOULD be proud of.