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“The Worst of the Worst” film premiere visits Stanford

Vargas Martin
Nov 6 2013
ALEXIS GARDUNO

When the package was opened, out came a solitary confinement cell: a sink, toilet, metal bed, and a food trap. In this scene from the documentary film, “The Worst of the Worst,” a prison cell was mailed to a state committee that was hearing the issue of solitary confinement.

“It’s possible to make law education more loving,” said Director Valerie Kaur during the discussion of the film. “Stories are coming through the law.”

“The Worst of the Worst” makes a strong case against solitary confinement. The film answers questions about how imprisonment dehumanizes inmates from a Connecticut prison called Northern. Filmakers Valerie Kaur and Sharat Raju show how Northern imprisons man and his spirit, while pointing out the $100,000, per-capita expense of each Northern prisoner, and the 360 degree circle of harm inflicted by this Connecticut prison on correctional workers, inmates, and their families. The filmmakers illustrate the almost unimaginable experiences of inmates, who find themselves taken into custody, or picked out of the general prison population, and forced into small metal cells.

“The first time I was there I thought about suicide," said one Northern prisoner.  Another inmate, who began biting and cutting himself, spoke of the walls and voices that spoke louder in the absence of human contact.

Even while the camera flipped from these chilling accounts, it was powerful to see the life of former inmates after serving their time in solitary confinement. “Some days you look out the window and see things,” said one former inmate. “You got to be strong enough to know it’s you.”

THE OFFICER’S PERSPECTIVE

Early on, Raju and Kaur realized that the correctional officer’s side of the story was an important one. The film digs deep into the issue of solitary confinement by considering the experiences of correctional officers like Mike Lawler, who worked for over a decade at the Northern correctional facility.

Family life, guaranteed income, and working with a team, motivated Connecticut correctional officers to take a job at Northern. Their work environment had the correctional administration board considering the adoption of a three-year-rule, protecting Northern workers from long-term affects of working at the facility.

Lawler noted that his work takes time away from his family life. Lawler said he found it strange that at work, talking about some guy eating his own feces, did not seem out-of-place, while having that conversation at a family picnic would be unimaginable.  

“It's not about rehabilitation,” Lawler said. “It’s about punishment.”

FILMAKERS BEHIND THE LENS

Valerie Kaur and Sharat Raju are co-founders for of the Yale Visual Law Project, which produced the documentary.  The filmmakers bring together professional experience in film, law, and political activism.

Valerie Kaur is a 2012 Yale Law graduate, who graduated nine years ago from Stanford where she double majored in International Relations and Religious Studies. It was at Stanford where she began to realize her passion for political activism. Her partner in film and in life, Sharat Raju, is a graduate of the American Film Institute and a prizewinning film director.

A message about wrongful practices at home was motivated by her travels abroad, Kaur said. Kaur was asked to work as a reporter at Guantanamo Bay, a place infamous for holding the accused without trial indefinitely.

It was not until she went to trial that the timeliness of the question hit her. Sitting there as a reporter, she turned to look at a 23-year-old defendant. He had been in holding since the age of 15.

At that point, she realized how pressing the question of solitary confinement is to this generation — a generation she contends is capable of stopping the perpetuation of this type of institutionally inherent mess.

So began the solitary confinement project, and the year-and-a-half surge of research, shooting, and film editing to produce the documentary on the Connecticut super prison.

Since they began filming, Kaur and Raju reported that Northern has since emptied its prison from 400 plus inmates to a few dozen, due to budgetary constraints. “It just doesn’t make sense,” former Director of the International Rights Clinic, Hope Metcalf said of Northern’s $100,000 per-capita yearly price tag.


Alexis Garduno is a junior, and is in the process of declaring Bioengineering. Alexis is interested in the issues of ethics espoused by religious dogmas, work professionals, and social justice missions; Alexis has written for numerous publications, such as the Tahoe newspaper Moonshine Ink and the Stanford Daily.