How I Became a Prison Film Producer in Retirement

You may have seen this warning sign: “Retired Person on Premises. Knows Everything and Has Plenty of Time to Tell It.” Well, it could have been posted on my door. Although I don’t remember many names, I know the answers to most of Life’s Larger Questions and am more than willing to share them. This affliction doesn’t foster lively communication with my wife, daughters, grandchildren, friends, or neighbors so I set out to fix it by undertaking a major task for which I was totally unprepared: producing a documentary

In this quest for aged humility I began working within areas of well-established incompetence. Despite recent improvements in user-friendly cameras, I take terrible still photos and have never even attempted to film anything in motion. My efforts to record interviews turn out so badly I prefer to take notes. The subject I’ve chosen is a single prison injustice, and though I’ve visited a few prisons and corresponded with inmates, my contributions to “Invisible Chess Match: The Jason Goudlock Story,” our working title, have not, so far, provided many flashes of insight regarding the failures of mass incarceration in the United States.

But the fact that it’s our working title explains why my pursuit of humility is unlikely to lead to humiliation. The film’s director, Sam Crow, won prizes with his most recent documentary, “The Twelve-Foot Tall Rabbits of Rokeby Farm” (see twelvefootrabbits.com). He is a skillful director who lives in New York City and has filmed before in prisons. I can’t explain why Sam agreed to work with me. He earlier volunteered to play bass and harmonica in a band put together by my grandson and then consented to record grandson Nate and me playing and singing folk and country songs we’d been practicing for years. My hesitant performance may well have inspired deep sympathy.

When I mentioned the film idea to Sam, he explained how a producer on this project would need to coordinate financing arrangements and script writing. Sam’s tasks include filming and editing interviews in Ohio with a judge, the Ohio Public Defender, ex-convicts, and inmates, including Jason Goudlock, a man of 42 who entered prison in 1993 as a teenager on a first conviction with a six-to-25 year sentence for assault and robbery with a firearm.

Goudlock has spent many of his 24 years in solitary confinement, a part of the story that turns out to be more important than we expected. When he first contacted me in 2008, Goudlock was isolated in Ohio’s “supermax,” the Ohio State Penitentiary. He had read an essay of mine about how extended isolation is a form of torture, but he wrote to seek help in making a documentary about the challenges he expected to face when he was paroled—soon, he thought. I was no help with his filmmaking plans back in the days before I became an inexperienced retiree producer, but when I discovered he was trying to write a novel, I volunteered to assist. By 2012 he had finished and published Brother of the Struggle.

Halfway through the production of “Old-Law Con,” Sam Crow has filmed and edited several powerful interviews, weaving them into revealing conversations. Just two or three interviews remain to be done, one of them a follow-up with Jason Goudlock, who is unavailable once more in isolation.

Sam and I have come to understand why Goudlock seeks solitary confinement, as dangerous as he knows it to be psychologically. His reason has everything to do with the injustice we seek to expose. In 1996 the Ohio legislature passed a “truth in sentencing” law that gives most inmates convicted since 1996 fixed sentences. They don’t need to go before the Parole Board. But the law doesn’t apply to people sentenced before 1996, and the result is that if a young inmate picks a fight with an “old-law” prisoner, he is unlikely to have his sentence extended while the “old-law con” probably will. Jason Goudlock has been denied parole four times. Inmates in his predicament keep the Parole Board in business.

Because our nation’s new Attorney General has set out to ramp up the “war on drugs” and to make room for more mass incarceration by encouraging expansion of the private prison industry, one state’s “old-law” problem might seem insignificant. But while the Trump administration seeks to strengthen the “prison-industrial complex,” reacting perhaps to the growth of bi-partisan concern about mass incarceration in the Obama years, it is important to work for prison reforms at the state and local level, where most of our incarcerated people are held.

We have our challenges in the Upper Valley as well. Vermont, officially committed to the commendable ideals of restorative justice, has nevertheless been sending many of it inmates to a private prison in Michigan. New Hampshire, which has so far resisted the corporate call for private prisons, recently elected a governor who has accepted campaign donations from two private prison companies. It may soon be time for this more experienced retiree to produce a second prison film.