PIFF 2021: The Prison Within – Review

Release Date – TBC, Cert – N/A, Run-time – 1 hour 25 minutes, Director – Katherin Hervey

Convicted criminals sit down to openly discuss the root of their crimes with victims present.

“We can’t rewind the clock for ourselves, but we can surely remove the obstacles for other people”. This is one of the many thoughtful, incisive quotes that can be pulled out from director Katherin Hervey’s The Prison Within. A film looking at the restorative justice programme in place at San Quentin State Prison, where convicted criminals meet up in a group to discuss their crimes and what may have been the root for them. These are open, often emotional, conversations, looking into previous traumas and hard pasts. It’s interesting to see the almost instant development that these figures go through – some of whom have life sentences for murder – and the perspectives that they provide, knowing that they’ve done wrong.

Hervey simply observes the conversations and allows them to naturally occur. There’s respect within the group as each person realises something about themselves and what they did, and why. One of the most affecting things said over the course of the film is simply “thank you for honouring me with that question”. Even when victims are introduced and are welcomed into the conversation – there’s heart-wrenching tension as a woman is 50 feet away from death row, where an inmate who murdered her boyfriend is – things remain insightful and civil; really having an impact on the viewer. It adds to the punches that the film naturally pulls as the discussions develop and become increasingly personal – those taking part breaking down into tears as they relieve their pasts and get to the root of what might have led them to commit the crimes they did years later.


This isn’t just a film that looks at how to tackle prisoners after crimes, it looks at how people can be helped from a young age, those in similar scenarios to those in the prison. Points relating to educating children before the crime are shown taking effect in the outside world, alongside the continuing development of those who have been let back into the world. There’s a sense of uplift and joy as you see those involved in the programme using what they have learned to better their communities by educating those around them, and themselves. People begin to teach each other, “teaching me about love, they’re teaching me about pain”.

There are plenty of perspectives shown throughout the film, and not just tackling elements inside of the prison walls. Questions are effectively asked to both the viewer and the inmates, and even those who have faced the consequences and harsh impacts of other people’s crimes. And there are a handful of thoughtful and open insights and comments of regret and revelation. Summing up finely the well-connected themes and ideas that the film puts across thanks to its observations and interviews. All of which are pieced together to create an emotional, engaging and interesting view into a seemingly effective form of restorative justice that brings the viewer in to connect with the personal thoughts and experiences of the members of the group at the heart of the film.

There’s plenty of emotion, thoughtful openness and consideration on display in The Prison Within, it makes for a personal connection with the film’s themes and the affecting thoughts and ideas that they have.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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