I was honored and excited to be invited to participate in a panel discussion following the New York screening of Chesa Boudin’s powerful documentary film Beyond Bars.

Beyond BarsThis was my first time seeing the movie, and it proved to be an incredibly moving and emotional experience for me.

The film chronicles Chesa’s life growing up, visiting his parents in prison – one of whom was my dear friend, mentor, and confidante, Kathy Boudin. Watching the years go by on screen, seeing Chesa make those regular trips to Bedford Hills, hit me viscerally. I was transported back to my own experience of being incarcerated and the time I spent with my daughter and Kathy.

Sitting on the panel alongside Chesa and Eric González, the Brooklyn District Attorney responsible for my release from prison, was a profound moment. Eric’s role in my story is deeply intertwined with Chesa’s. It was humbling to be able to share this experience with them, to discuss the themes of the film, and to connect over our shared histories.

The screening was an opportunity to reflect on the impact of mass incarceration, the resilience of families affected, and the importance of criminal justice reform. But on a personal level, it was a chance for me to honor my relationship with Kathy and to celebrate the triumphs we’ve witnessed, even amidst the struggles.

I’m grateful to have been included in this event, to have had the chance to see Chesa’s film and to connect with these individuals who have played such pivotal roles, both in the movie and in my own life. It was an emotional, meaningful, and powerful experience that I will not soon forget.

I believe the film and this event have the potential to make important contributions to the ongoing efforts for criminal justice reform in several key ways:

First, by humanizing the experiences of those impacted by mass incarceration, the film gives a powerful, first-hand perspective that can help shift public narratives and perceptions. Seeing Chesa’s journey as a child visiting his parents in prison puts a real face to the collateral consequences that families face. This emotional resonance can be a powerful motivator for reform.

Additionally, the film highlights the resilience and strength of these families, demonstrating how they persevere through immense challenges. Stories like Kathy’s and Chesa’s defy simplistic stereotypes and show the complex humanity of those ensnared in the criminal justice system. This nuanced portrayal can help chip away at stigma and dehumanization.

Furthermore, by connecting the personal narratives to broader systemic issues, the film and this event provide an opportunity to educate and engage the public on critical reform efforts. Discussions around prosecutorial discretion, sentencing policies, and reentry support can gain greater visibility and momentum when grounded in relatable human experiences.

Finally, the collaboration between individuals like myself, Chesa, and Eric González models the kinds of coalitions and allyships that are essential for driving meaningful change. Showcasing these cross-cutting relationships and commitment to justice demonstrates what is possible when we work together across different roles and backgrounds.

In these ways, I’m hopeful that the film and this event will amplify the urgent need for criminal justice reform, humanize the people at the heart of it, and inspire continued activism and policy change. The personal has the power to catalyze the political, and that is the transformative potential I see in this work.

-Roslyn Smith

More info about the film:

The United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, with over 2.3 million people behind bars. The impact of America’s mass incarceration reverberates across children, families, and communities.

BEYOND BARS’ shines a bright light on the human cost of the carceral system in America. It forces us to confront the visceral realities through the eyes of those who’ve been most affected.

Chesa Boudin’s story is a prime example of how lived experience can fuel the fight for justice. Separated from his parents at a mere 14 months old due to incarceration, his life was irrevocably altered. Yet, that experience became the fire that empowered him to change the system, leading him to become San Francisco’s District Attorney.

View the trailer visit https://www.bravenewfilms.org/beyondbars for additional information.

The Panel was in Collaboration with Brave New Films, Galaxy Gives, Media Impact Funders and Justice Reform Working Group and featured Chesa Boudin, Executive Director of the Criminal Law & Justice Center, UC Berkeley School of Law, Melanie Dominguez, Organizing Director, Katal Center for Equity, Health & Justice, Eric Gonzalez, District Attorney, The Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, Roslyn “Roz” Smith, Beyond Incarceration Program Manager, V-Day and Guisela Marroquín (Moderator), Interim Executive Partner, Pretrial Justice Institute.

READ more in Dispatches From Beyond Incarceration