We Are Witnesses

Employing the highest standards of video production, “We Are Witnesses” captures the enormity of the jail-court-prison complex, while keeping an intense focus on the individual lives affected and provoking dialogue around criminal justice reform. Judges praised its “innovative” approach to storytelling, exploring “multifaceted trauma” from “many different angles,” and “refusing cliché at every level.” The series was created by The Marshall Project in partnership with Participant Media, The New Yorker, and Condé Nast Entertainment, and ran on both The Marshall Project and The New Yorker websites.

The impact of America’s punishment policies is often measured in numbers: there are now 2.2 million people in our jails and prisons; one in a hundred and fifteen adults is confined behind bars; our inmate population is 4 times larger than it was in 1980. We Are Witnesses, a collection of short videos, offers a very different sort of calculation: the human cost of locking up so many citizens for so many years. The project comprises 19 videos, each between two and six minutes long. Taken together, they present a rare 360-degree portrait of the state of crime and punishment in the United States.

We Are Witnesses eschews politicians and professors in favor of other kinds of experts: people who have had firsthand experience with the criminal justice system. Two police officers, a prison guard, two judges, two parents of a murder victim, four ex-prisoners—each one stares straight at the camera, recounting his or her story. Created and produced by The Marshall Project, a newsroom covering the criminal justice system, We Are Witnesses delivers first-person testimonials that are intimate, honest, and revelatory.

Erica Garner remembers arriving at the scene of the death of her father, Eric, seeing police tape and news trucks. Later, she saw cell-phone-video footage of police officers pinning her father to a sidewalk. “I was just yelling at the screen, like, ‘Get off of him! Stop it!’ ” she says. “My head was spinning. I was hot. Throwing up. That’s how we found out.” Tyrrell Muhammad recounts how he spent so many days in solitary confinement, staring at the walls of his cell, that, eventually, he began to see “figurines” in the paint patterns that “look like Abraham Lincoln.” “Then you’re saying to yourself, ‘That’s not Abraham Lincoln. Stop it. Cut it out,’” he says. “You’re battling yourself for your sanity. And it’s a hell of a battle."

In other videos, insiders detail how the system works—and how it doesn’t. A veteran judge describes a day in his courtroom: “You hear the district attorney make their pitch; you hear the defense attorney make their pitch; and then, within literally a minute, you basically have to make up your mind so that you can move on to the next case.” A sense of complacency has long infected our justice system, and We Are Witnesses strives to extinguish it by injecting new insights into the public debate. Among them is the one suggested by the project’s name. These testimonials inevitably prompt questions of culpability—as well as the uncomfortable realization that the “we” in We Are Witnesses may apply not only to the individuals speaking here but to us all.

- Jennifer Gonnerman

A judge humbly speaks of the deep pride he took from putting on his robe every morning. Parents of a slain young man lament the light sentence handed to their son's killer. A stabbing victim speaks compassionately about his attackers. An incarcerated mother relives saying goodbye to her young daughter.

We Are Witnesses is a video series about the millions of Americans whose lives are entwined in our criminal justice system. It is about the soul-destroying court bureaucracy, the unending trauma of being a crime victim, the pain of a parent (whether the child is criminal or crime victim), the misunderstood and the mistreated mentally ill. We Are Witnesses reveals a system that takes a toll on everyone it touches — guards, police, the incarcerated, crime victims, dads, moms, prosecutors, defenders, judges and kids — but also demonstrates the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity.

The stories of the witnesses do not fit into a neat ideological framework. We watch the video of Eric Garner being manhandled by police, nightstick against his throat, and share the pain of his daughter Erica as she recounts his death. But then we hear retired Officer Steve Osborne, who watches the same video, and sees a different story. The trauma of being an incarcerated juvenile on Riker’s Island is described by Ismael Nazario and Venida Browder, whose son Kalief was beaten by both guards and juveniles. And we also hear from Corrections Officer Tareaphe Richards, who reflects on the terrors and dangers of being a guard at Rikers and his belief that he needs to defend himself constantly. Who is right? Whose reality fits more neatly into our world-view?

We Are Witnesses was filmed in a Manhattan studio under the direction of Jenny Carchman, and is being distributed by The Marshall Project, Participant Media, and Conde Nast Entertainment. The witnesses sat against a plain backdrop and were asked to look into the camera and simply tell their stories. Their answers touch on some of the most elemental questions about the human psyche. How do people recover from trauma? How do they endure pain — of violence, injustice or loss of a loved one — and not succumb to anger and despair? How do they rebuild their lives?

In creating We Are Witnesses, I wanted to expose the profound injustices and inefficiencies in our system of crime and punishment. As the witnesses reveal themselves, the films become more a celebration of the strength of everyday men and women. My hope is that We Are Witnesses will make us reexamine the toll of mass incarceration, while also honoring how those who encounter the system retain their dignity.

- Neil Barsky