• innocent until proven poor (film 1)

    The struggle to re-sensitize the legal system to the injustice and brutality that characterize the contemporary American criminal system.

    Alec Karakatsanis

    $5000 bail for a traffic stop. $3500 for trespassing. Lives upended. Now, a young civil rights attorney takes on a municipal Goliath, Harris County Texas, in a battle to end misdemeanor bail practices that victimize the poor.


    Can a radical legal strategy end decades of injustice?

  • Gladiator: Glenn E. martin's just leadership (Film 2)

    A case for closing Riker's Island, and the activists making it.

    Glenn E. Martin

    Incarcerated at 16, Glenn E. Martin learned about Rikers Island the hard way. Thirty years later, he's leading the battle to close New York City's notorious jail while training an army of formerly incarcerated activists nationwide to fight mass incarceration.

  • Sisterhood rising (film 3)

    A young civil rights activist with a Harvard law degree digs in where she sees she's most needed: with the families of the incarcerated.

    Gina Clayton

    During her first year at Harvard Law School, Gina Clayton's world was shattered when someone she loved was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Today, she's a champion for women with incarcerated loved ones, building a sisterhood that heals lives and transforms pain into advocacy.

  • Participants

    About the subjects of the films:

    Civil Rights Corps

    Alec Karakatsanis, Elizabeth Rossi and their clients

    Fresh out of law school with a clerkship and a few years as a DC public defender on his resume, Alec Karaktsanis set off on a mission. He visited courtroom after courtroom in small towns and cities across America, researching ways to apply a new legal strategy to fight the criminalization of the poor. The premise was simple: there is Supreme Court precedent that says it is illegal to hold someone in jail simply because they cannot make a monetary payment. That outlook led him to a series of groundbreaking civil rights cases challenging systemic abuses against the poor. Alec and his team quickly filed more than 20 lawsuits, challenging local municipalities in federal court, and the wins are starting to roll in. They have won eight cases so far, mostly in midsize cities such as Montgomery, Alabama and Jackson, Mississippi. Cases are currently underway in major cities such as Chicago and Houston, as well as smaller towns in the media spotlight such as Ferguson, Missouri.


    Above all, Alec Karakatsanis and Civil Rights Corps seek to force stakeholders in the criminal legal system to realize the inhumanity and cruelty in which they are engaged. As he says in Innocent Until Proven Poor, "Anyone who is not horrified at what they’re doing to people is completely and utterly desensitized to human pain.”


    Learn more about the extensive work of Alec Karakatsanis and the Washington, DC-based nonprofit Civil Rights Corps at: http://www.civilrightscorps.org



    Glenn E. Martin and his movement to close Rikers

    With more and more media attention on Rikers Island, New Yorkers are learning about the deadly culture of brutality pervading the island, and the irreparable physical and emotional trauma experienced by the men, women and adolescents housed there.


    Glenn Martin knows this culture firsthand. In 1987, he was detained on Rikers, where he was stabbed several times while guards watched as he refused to give up his coat. "Nearly 27 years later, I carried the memory and scars of that experience with me when I attended Bill de Blasio’s Mayoral Inauguration on January 1, 2014," Glenn writes. "I joined hundreds of other New Yorkers braving unbelievably frigid temperatures to watch the City usher in a new era.


    The Mayor’s words brought hope to the audience as he spoke about the Tale of Two Cities in NYC: 'We are called to put an end to economic and social inequalities that threaten to unravel the city we love.' The more he mentioned the Tale of Two Cities, the more I wondered whether he understood that there was a third city: Rikers Island, a place where human beings, including children like Kalief Browder, are robbed of their sanity, their dignity, their families, their communities and sometimes, their lives.


    After the ceremony, I stood on line to meet the new mayor. When it was my turn to shake hands with de Blasio and get a photograph, with my heart racing, I turned to the Mayor and said, 'Mr. Mayor, with all due respect, I trust that you and I will have many opportunities to take a picture together. I am here to ask you to CLOSE RIKERS.'


    The Mayor tilted his head, looked down at me quizzically and said, 'Why do you believe that?' I responded, 'It’s an insidious place, a place that breeds violence and crime, a factory of despair, and corrupt beyond reform. Please close that place!' Mayor de Blasio thanked me, turned for a picture, then asked for my card and said his Chief of Staff would be in touch.


    That call never came."


    In addition to the campaign to close Rikers, Glenn E. Martin’s JustLeadershipUSA was founded to cut mass incarceration in half by 2030. The organization developed a model training program to enable formerly incarcerated leaders across the country to help reach that goal.


    The Essie Justice Group

    Gina Clayton empowering the loved ones of the incarcerated

    An unprecedented 2+ million people are living behind bars in the United States - 90% of them men - which means millions of women with incarcerated loved ones are left behind. Today 1 in 4 women and nearly 1 in 2 Black women has a family member in prison. These women face stigma and isolation and are regularly left to care for kids and finances alone. As Gina says, “Mass incarceration is a human rights issue, it’s a race justice issue, it’s an economic issue, and it’s a woman’s issue.”


    Gina Clayton learned about this first hand while at Harvard Law School, when a loved one of hers was sentenced to 20 years behind bars. Gina, who had considerable experience as a youth organizer, launched Essie (named after her great grandmother, Essie Baily) to harness the collective power of women with incarcerated loved ones to empower each other and to advocate to end mass incarceration.


    To become an Essie Sister Circle Cohort, a woman must be nominated to participate, sometimes by their incarcerated loved one, sometimes by a friend or colleague. They then come together in intimate groups, attending 9 sessions that focus on healing from trauma and strengthening their voices as advocates. The transformative power is stunning.


    To learn more about Essie Justice Group: http://www.essiejusticegroup.org

    photo credit essie justice group

  • We have failed to do what lawyers are taught to do: take fundamental shared values and help society translate those principles into results through rigorous argument based on evidence and logic.


    Alec Karakatsanis, 128 Harv. L. Rev. F. 253

  • Engagement strategy

    Target Audiences

    Legal Minds

    Our target audience includes future prosecutors, judges, policymakers, sheriffs, public defenders, law students, law professors, and all those who work in the legal community. The Justice Project will seek funding to make these films available to law schools and universities across the country. We will pursue grants to tour the films and connect local public interest lawyers, lawyers who have been part of our research and lawyers who are part of the film.

    Active Minds

    These films are intended to be tools for activism, both in their entireties and in excerpted segments. For people who know the field and aim to reform it, these films will be available to disseminate to their networks and amplify their reach. The full films will be available for screenings and events, and portions will be offered for online constituent building.

    Closed Minds

    In court, the assumption is that you're innocent until proven guilty. Regardless, many Americans have no idea just how many people are in jail pre-trial because they can't make bail. They don't know how many people are held in jail on petty misdemeanor charges. If you're behind bars you must have done something pretty bad, right? If you commit a crime in New York City, then you deserve to be sent to Rikers. If we shutter the place, won't the crime rate increase? And if you have a son or a daughter in prison and life is hard, well that's your problem. The information we have learned from Alec, Glenn and Gina is shocking. It moved us to want to tell these stories, so a general audience can hear them. There is nothing like truth on film to shock a viewer into considering another point of view.

  • A good film, artfully told, can be a “platform for a more complicated strategy for bringing about social change.”

    Diana Barrett, The Fledgling Fund


    Innocent Until Proven Poor


    Alec Karakatsanis, Elizabeth Rossi and their colleagues and clients


    We started shooting material with Alec almost a year ago, gathering footage as he waged war against different forms of poverty caging: modern day debtors’ prisons, private probation companies and illegal bail practices.


    We were struck not only by what Alec does, but by who he is – kind of a 21st-century ascetic with a great sense of humor. We filmed him working in Michigan and in Tennessee, and watched while he met with client after client, each with gut wrenching stories.


    By late Spring Alec let us know that he was assembling a team “to file our biggest bail case ever. Can you come to Houston?” he wondered. We’ve followed Alec and his scrappy legal team step by step on this case, as they enact a strategy to end the use of money bail. As the case has progressed, the team has uncovered new injustices in Harris County’s jail practices, and filed additional lawsuits.


    Alec says one of his goals is to put a human face on the practice of money bail in Harris County. 23- year-old Loetha Magruder was stopped for speeding one hot day last spring. When she failed to produce identification, she was arrested and held on $5000 bond. While in jail, Loetha discovered she was pregnant. Little did she know in a law office a half a mile away, Alec and his associate Elizabeth Rossi were combing the county clerk’s website, looking for people in the jail who might be a good fit for the class action lawsuit they planned to file.


    Elizabeth was able to find and meet with Loetha in the jail, and Loetha became one of three named plaintiffs in the Harris County lawsuit. These months have been very difficult ones for Loetha, as she and her fiancé were evicted from their home and have struggled to keep up with payments to the bail bondsman. She also gave birth to their daughter, but worries what kind of parent she can be if she is always struggling to pay the fines and fees she owes Harris County.


    NEXT STEPS: Alec has a couple of very different cases brewing that we want to cover from the research stage forward. Additionally, we will follow the Harris County case and the cases it has led to until the end, with planned side trips to Chicago to follow their bail case in Cook County.



    Gladiator: Glenn Martin's Just Leadership


    Glenn E. Martin came to our attention in late 2015, when he appeared on a panel at the New School in New York City entitled Rikers Island: Reform it — or Shut It Down? Not only was his own story of being a teenager at Rikers harrowing, but his perspective was singular, and we wanted to know more.


    Glenn had recently started JustLeadershipUSA, and didn’t yet have an office, so we met him at a coffee bar and were immediately drawn in by his intelligence and the vastness of his vision. In addition to leading the movement to close Rikers, Glenn has a plan to cut mass incarceration in half by 2030. His philosophy grew out of lengthy and meticulous research; he concluded the people closest to the problem are closest to the solution, but farthest from resources and power. So it is Glenn’s goal to build a nationwide network of advocates, all of whom have been formerly incarcerated, and provide the power and resources to enable them to drive forward to the solution. Every day Glenn’s work advances, and you can feel a movement developing.


    Well-known in his field, Glenn is receiving high-level recognition. Most recently, he was honored with the 2016 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award. We followed him to Washington DC to receive the prize. Hearing Glenn give an impassioned and polished speech in a marble hall was a stark contrast to filming him staging a protest on the steps of City Hall or shouting through a bullhorn as he led a thousand people on a march through the streets to the bridge to Rikers Islands. Glenn is a man of many dimensions.


    NEXT STEPS: We plan to continue to film Glenn’s fight to close Rikers. Alongside that, we plan to film Leading with Conviction over its 12-month course. As JLUSA describes it, “Leading with Conviction (LwC) is an advanced leadership training for formerly incarcerated, mid-senior level leaders with a specific and proven track record in advocacy and community organizing.” This year there were more than 140 applications for 36 spots. It’s a dynamic group of leaders, with a personal stake in advancing the cause, and we want to get to know some of them intimately on film.

    Sisterhood Rising


    We first learned about Gina Clayton from Alec Karakatsanis. Although they were at Harvard Law at different times, they both started organizations with grants from their law school. Gina had been an activist working with the NAACP while an undergrad at U.S.C. She practiced law in Harlem but eventually combined her skills as an activist with her law degree and used it to address a problem she could see quite clearly -- a need to empower the voiceless women whose lives have been upended by the incarceration of their husbands, sons, fathers and other loved ones.


    Filmmaker Molly Fowler lived at Angola prison off and on for a year to make Serving Life, a documentary about a hospice staffed by incarcerated men in the prison. Molly found herself interacting with the families of the men who participated in her film. She could see the shame and and mounting frustration that falls on the families of the incarcerated. She could also see that these women have been schooled in how to navigate the prison industrial complex. Gina is teaching women to use their knowledge and abilities to take on the system, to mentor other families and to find their voices in the political struggle.


    Of our three subjects, Gina’s work is the newest, and she and her team are incredibly compelling. Gina is opening a window onto the experience of millions of women in our country, which is a story that until now has been largely untold.


    NEXT STEPS: We plan to spend a full cycle with Essie’s next group of cohorts, following them not only with the group, but in their individual lives.


    click on icons to read the research

    Supreme Court Decision:

    Bearden v. Georgia,

    461 U.S. 660 (1983)

    Money Bail

    The State may not use as the sole justification for imprisonment the poverty or inability of the probationer to pay the fine and to make restitution if he has demonstrated sufficient bona fide efforts to do so.

    Among the worst municipal jails in the U.S.


    Shut it Down

    Rikers Island has been the scene of constant human tragedy over the years, and those stories affect us personally.

    However, New Yorkers should also know the awful statistics behind this jail complex.

    1 in 5 American women

    knows someone behind bars

    Strip Searched

    "By the time the guards had finished processing her, Amy was confused, humiliated and made to feel as though she were being punished for her son’s crime. Her 10-hour wait yielded two hours with her son."

    Congress outlawed them. The Supreme Court ruled them un-constitutional.

    They Live On

    In 2011, Robin Sanders was driving home when she saw the blue and red lights flashing behind her. She knew she had not fixed her muffler, and believed that was why she was being pulled over. She thought she might get a ticket.

    In Fight Over Bail Fairness

    Sheriff testifies against himself

    HOUSTON — It was an awkward scene for officials of Harris County, Texas, who are defending themselves in federal court against a claim that they keep poor defendants locked up just because they cannot afford bail.

    On Wednesday a judge and the county sheriff testified for the other side.

    You don't need a passport to work on human rights.

    Not-so Progressive Mayor

    “What are we doing?” Kennedy said. “We shouldn’t be trying to change Rikers. We should be shutting it down and building the facilities to do the job we need done.”


    One in two Black women in the US has a family member in prison.

    small 'd' democracy

    Gina Clayton has been fighting for social justice her entire adult life, starting when she was a youth organizer for the NAACP as an undergraduate student at USC. Now she is running her own nonprofit, Essie Justice Group in Oakland, California.

    Targeting people of color, from policing to sentencing practices.

    Disproportionately devastated

    While African Americans make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, they are 40 percent of those behind bars. This is the result not of criminality, but of policies that target communities of color. African Americans use drugs at roughly the same rate as whites, for instance, but they make up 31% of those arrested for drug law violations, and nearly 40% of those in prison for them.

    Mayor back plan to close Rikers

    A very serious, sober, forever decision

    Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed on Friday to close the troubled jail complex on Rikers Island, which has spawned federal investigations, brought waves of protests and became a byword for brutality, in a move he said was intended to end an era of mass incarceration in New York City.

    Alec Karakatsanis puts “human caging” and “wealth-based detention” in America on trial.

    Against “Human Caging”

    IN EARLY 2014, Alec Karakatsanis, J.D. ’08, used some of the money that he and a law-school classmate had recently received from the school’s Public Service Venture Fund seed grant to buy a plane ticket to Birmingham, Alabama, and rent a car. He planned to visit the judge he had clerked for in Montgomery after graduating, as well as other people he’d met during his time as a clerk and federal defender. Along the way, he was stopping in at local courts to see what was going on. “I would just go places with my hooded sweatshirt on,” he recalls, “and sit there and watch and interview people.”

  • The Filmmakers

    Lianne McNally

    Executive Producer-Director-Writer

    Lianne McNally is an award-winning writer, director and producer whose credits include the 2002 Academy Award nominee for Documentary Short Subject -- Artists and Orphans: A True Drama. That film follows an American theater troupe who visited the Republic of Georgia for an arts festival, and ended up saving an orphanage. Lianne McNally was the top producer for two seasons of The Best Of Us, a "good news" magazine show from CBS News Productions. She has made numerous promotional and advocacy videos for nonprofits including The Doe Fund, New York Restoration Project and SKIP of New York. Other notable work includes development of a project based on the life of 18th-century female pirate Ann Bonny for Showtime, a short retrospective of veteran newsman Mike Wallace and a cross-country video tour of CBS News affiliates. Lianne McNally’s work has been seen on HBO, National Geographic, USA Network, The History Channel and Discovery. A graduate of Stanford University, McNally is committed to projects that can illuminate pressing social issues and inspire change.

    Molly M. Fowler

    Executive Producer-Director-Writer

    Molly Fowler is an award-winning producer, director and writer for television, film and drama. Her documentary work has been seen on PBS, Discovery, National Geographic, Lifetime, OWN and A&E. She lived in a men’s maximum security prison in Louisiana to make "Serving Life" for Oprah’s Doc Club which she executive produced with Forest Whitaker and which earned, among others, Christopher and Humanitas Awards. She was a Producer for ABC News PrimeTime Live, and Senior Producer for ABC News Nightline’s Beyond Belief on OWN where she began her collaboration with New York Times best selling author Wes Moore. She and Mr. Moore then produced the PBS series “Coming Back with Wes Moore,” which examines re-entry issues for American war veterans. She produced 3 feature length docs for the New York Times, and two projects through the Tribeca All Access program, one of which premiered at the Tribeca Festival to an audience of 10,000.

    Lynn A. Harden

    Executive Producer: Engagement Strategies

    A “creative pragmatist”—is often used to describe Lynn's unique ability to uncover hidden program assets, creatively align them with philanthropic interests, and create systems, processes and partnerships to ensure meaningful impact. Since 1983, Lynn has contributed to nonprofit growth and sustainability, and corporate community investment and sponsorship opportunities. While at Odyssey Networks in New York, she creatively aligned the documentary Serving Life, with Academy Award winning actor Forest Whitaker who executive produced, narrated the film and leveraged major support from Oprah Winfrey to produce the film for the OWN Documentary Club.

  • Fiscal Sponsorship

    You can make a tax-deductible contribution to these films through The Filmmaker's Collaborative.

  • Contact Us!

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    New York, NY 10024
    212 634-4382