There is no way to sugarcoat the history behind musician Reggie Austin's conviction and tough prison sentence. He had committed second degree murder while intoxicated on heroin, and by his own admission he deserved to do serious time. When the door slammed shut behind him at San Quentin prison, his life could have been by and large over, but he had more to give and more to live. As the sands of time passed through the hourglass, he became an older and wiser man—a senior citizen. That is where this thought-provoking documentary by writer/director/producer NC Heikin picks up his story.
Austin himself does not believe in light sentencing for violent crime. In fact, he argues for a robust criminal justice system that keeps public streets safe, with parole decisions tied to personal change, accountability and redemption. Many viewers watching this documentary will have unsettled, mixed feelings about offering parole to someone who took another person's life—the damage to the victim is irreversible—but the criminal justice professionals interviewed in this film echo Austin's sentiments by offering arguments in favor of mercy.
Heikin acknowledges the need for a criminal justice system by interviewing people within it, and with due respect. At the same time, she highlights the humanity of her subject Reggie Austin, and the net good that can arise when prison is employed as a path to a better society. This film is clear in its position on a need for reform, portraying incarceration as it often can be: a hell on Earth of society's own making...a harsh, vengeful and inhumane structure that fails to consider the goodness in people who have done bad, even horrible things.
This is heavy material, but the film handles it with care. The debate about sentencing and prison reform won't end with an award-winning documentary, but the issue of aging in prison has gained currency as harsh sentencing in the late 20th century grays the U.S. prison population. No question, changes are underway. This film offers the perspective of a former prisoner, and citizens who are striving for a nuanced opinion could benefit from listening to someone who has firsthand experience with the very people who might be offered clemency.
You can watch the trailer here: Life & Life