By Kristina Valdez | Arts and Life Editor
Baylor alumna Erin Gaddis and her partner Mecca Amoni Michele Lewis won the NAACP criminal short documentary competition with “JustUs: Living with a Criminal Record” during the 108th NAACP Annual Convention July 21-26 in Baltimore.
“I have friends and family who have seen the hardships of how our criminal justice system works—or doesn’t work,” Gaddis said. “Living with a criminal record is something that really spoke to me and that goes back to basic human rights. As a black woman, when we talk about slavery and slavery by another name that is incarceration.”
In the six-minute documentary, Gaddis and Lewis present the ignored culture of “JustUs: Living with a Criminal Record” that plagues, specifically, young minority men as they reenter society. The documentary focuses on Akewi Barnes, a poet and yoga instructor, who was sent to prison at 16 years old for attempted murder.
“You are already at a disadvantage as a minority, but then when you are a minority without rights—it’s like you are losing your humanity,” Gaddis said.
Gaddis and Lewis were one of the three groups that had to create an authentic documentary in Baltimore during the NAACP convention. Through interviews and digital story-telling, Gaddis and Lewis give an intimate look into what living with a criminal record looks like.
“I really wanted to be sure that we showed the thoughts of the individual,” Gaddis said. “We see the statistics, we see what happens, we know what it looks like but we never get to talk to the criminal themselves. Their voices are lost.”
Barnes was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2009, but was released for time served. In the documentary, Barnes talks about the rehabilitation process and how he came back a community that did not expect to see him as the man he became.
“When I came home, they weren’t ready for Akwei, which is the name I earned through a process where I was educated, where I challenged all my old thoughts,” Barnes said. “They were still thinking that “Lil Ant” was going to come home.”
Barnes said in the film that because of his criminal record, he had to prove that he deserved the jobs he was applying to. His interviews and resumes had to fight against what his rap sheet said.
“When I got to explain that, I got to really tell you about my 16-year-old self and why you shouldn’t deny him or why you should forget about him and deal with this 23-year-old new me,” Barnes said.
Kisha Webster, president of Greenmount Community Association in Baltimore, said in the documentary that as a community it is our responsibility to make sure that formally incarcerated individuals have resources to rejoin society.
“I think the biggest issue facing formally incarcerated people is the ability to come back into their communities and thrive,” Webster said. “How do we bring people back in the healthiest way?”
The documentary ends with the camera pointing up toward Barnes as he reads his poem, “Letter to My Younger Self.” One line explains that there is no determined end to life and that only through will and vision will a future appear.
Because Gaddis and Lewis’ “JustUs: Living with a Criminal Record” won, they will be expanding the documentary with the $7,500 budget prize money.
Gaddis hopes to continue to create and contribute to society. Along with multiple personal projects, Gaddis is the film and digital media producer for several Christian artists like Fred Hammond.