[11:04 AM] Tracking ID UA-111875230-1
Bill Ryan can remember the first time he drove up to Pontiac Correctional Center. It was 1993, and his first time visiting a prison. He was going to meet a man scheduled to be executed in a few days. That visit set Ryan on a path to become a fervent prisoner rights activist.
Scrappers Film Group presents Stateville Calling, a documentary exploring one man’s fight to offer elderly prisoners facing life without parole a chance to walk free. At the center of the film is Bill Ryan, an 82-year-old prisoner's rights activist from rural Kentucky who has spent the last several decades befriending and advocating on behalf of a group of men and women incarcerated for life.
The elderly population in jails across the country has been growing at a higher rate than any other group of prisoners, and it's placed a financial and practical stress on a prison system already struggling to provide adequate care to the incarcerated. At the same time, this group of prisoners is the least likely to reoffend if released. Stateville Calling takes the viewer from the Illinois state capitol, to the tobacco fields of Kentucky and inside Logan Correctional Center, the all-women's prison in downstate Illinois, to profile activism efforts working to allow long-term prisoners the possibility of clemency or parole.
Ryan himself is a compelling example of the contradictions of punishment and forgiveness considered in the film. The only son in an Irish-Catholic family of six, Ryan was born to sharecropper parents on a tobacco farm in Maysville, Kentucky, and grew up in a segregated and hardscrabble working-class town. His brother-in-law was a police officer, and as he says, “if you throw a stone you hit a police officer” in my family. Despite coming from a law-and-order family, Ryan had a strong sense of justice, and we watch it guide him as he keeps up relationships with four prisoners and fights for their release through his wife’s Alzheimer’s, and in the twilight of his own life.
After that first visit to Pontiac, Ryan met two more prisoners on death row, named Renaldo Hudson and William Peeples, both convicted of murder. Ryan formed a close relationship with them and came to believe they were reformed. As he became closer to the two men, Ryan became a key activist in the movement that led to the abolition of the death penalty in Illinois, and expanded his friendship to Janet Jackson and Paula Sims, two other elderly prisoners featured in the documentary.
Stateville Calling uses the abolition of the death penalty to consider what strategies could be useful for activists seeking to make change in seemingly immovable systems. The parallels between the plight of many elderly prisoners and death row inmates is strong - a growing moral outcry at deteriorating conditions, an unsustainable financial cost borne by a state implementing austerity in many other areas.
The film doesn’t shy away from the complications or critiques surrounding a campaign for parole or early release for prisoners convicted of violent charges, but rather seeks to confront the complexity, in particular by weighing the perspectives of victims and their advocates.
Stateville Calling is a meditation on the power of activism and the criminal justice system, the vagaries of aging, but also at what cost, both real and moral, we must ask people to pay for their crimes.