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The Return

In 2012, California amended its 'Three Strikes' law--one of the harshest criminal sentencing policies in the country. The passage of Prop. 36 marked the first time in U.S. history that citizens voted to shorten sentences of those currently incarcerated. Within days the reintegration of thousands of 'lifers' was underway.

THE RETURN examines this unprecedented reform through the eyes of those on the front lines--prisoners suddenly freed, families turned upside down, reentry providers helping navigate complex transitions, and attorneys and judges wrestling with an untested law. At a moment of reckoning on mass incarceration, what can California's experiment teach the nation?

'The Return is a true exploration of men returning home after spending decades behind bars under draconian charges. The film is a powerful window into the American criminal justice system and the impact of severe sentences not only on convicted people themselves, but also their families and their communities. It also reminds us why second chances are important.' Elizabeth Hinton, Assistant Professor of History and African American Studies, Harvard University, Author, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America

'Naturally compelling...Potent stuff, as it vividly captures the psychological as well as logistical difficulties of re-adjusting to civilian life...The Return underlines that at least as much care should be put into the process of de-institutionalizing offenders as goes into institutionalizing them in the first place.' Dennis Harvey, Variety

'The Return should be required viewing for all politicians who wonder why our recidivism rates are so high. This documentary very insightfully and comprehensively tells of the many obstacles confronting returning citizens despite their best efforts...There is bipartisan support for criminal justice reforms; making these changes in reentry is cost effective and would contribute to community and family stability.' Dr. Julia Hall, Professor of Criminology and Justice Studies, Drexel University

'Offering a compelling study of the deleterious effects of a bad law, this is recommended.' P. Hall, Video Librarian

'A quiet look at a subject few people in a country with a bulging prison population want to think about: how best to reintroduce former inmates into society...The Return...helps open up a world that most of society doesn't want to think about but should.' Neil Genzlinger, The New York Times

'A standing ovation for The Return for putting a human face on the ordeal faced by hundreds of thousands of formerly incarcerated men and women...As the film shows, the journey from prison back to freedom is anything but easy. The decency of the men and their families shown here and their compelling stories tells us in a powerful way why as a society we must end mass incarceration and why we must assist those harmed by it.' Michael B. Mushlin, Professor of Law, Pace University, Author, Rights of Prisoners

'This documentary reminds us that the path to redemption is both intimate and shared, and that the struggle for forgiveness always begins with healing the self. Best used for classroom discussion purposes about prison re-entry.' Bruce Arrigo, Professor of Criminology, Law, and Society, Professor of Public Policy, University of North Carolina-Charlotte, Co-author of Revolution in Penology: Rethinking the Society of Captives

'The Return gets to the heart of the current issue of mass incarceration in our nation. This is a well-articulated examination of culture, race, substance abuse, trauma, and mental health and how these intersect with the experience and impact of incarceration. The Return gives a human face to reentry issues and highlights the need for attention to equality in justice.' Dr. Danielle Rousseau, Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice, Director of Prison Education Program, Boston University

'An important and skillful account of the difficulties faced by individuals upon release from prison after many years and a testament to their strength and that of their families. Students and community members across the nation would benefit from the screening of this film.' Madeline deLone, Executive Director, The Innocence Project

'An epic documentary...A critical in-depth look at how the transition from prison to home is stacked with obstacles, often making reentry impossible. It begs the question we all need to address: When is the punishment enough?' Ann Schwartzman, Executive Director, Pennsylvania Prison Society

'Duane de la Vega and Galloway excel at maneuvering around complicated stories and finding the humanity underneath.' Kate Erbland, IndieWire

'Changes lives, breaks barriers, and betters this chaotic world of ours...I often say in my writing that cinema changes the world, and I believe it wholeheartedly. But it's seldom that one watches lives being changed, for the better, throughout a film.' E. Nina Rothe, The Huffington Post

'The Return digs deep...It makes the abstract concepts of long prison sentences, petitions for re-sentencing, parole, and re-entry concrete through capturing intensely personal and surprisingly honest interactions between former prisoners, their families, and their lawyers. It poignantly reveals the underbelly of sentencing reform and the post-incarceration challenges individuals and their communities face trying to build a life after prison.' Keramet Reiter, Assistant Professor of Criminology, Law and Society and Law at University of California-Irvine

'Bilal Chatman's...story of redemption is possibly the most heartwarming thing I've seen all year...The Return will take you on a roller coaster of emotion.' Clara Jeffery, Mother Jones

'Honest and emotional in its focus: it neither makes excuses nor judges...A quiet, measured film...They're telling a story here about people, about how they failed themselves and how the system failed them, and about the pains taken to make things right again.' Chris Evangelista, Cut Print Film

'The Return illuminates the pain that ripples out from imprisonment, capturing the countless ways in which families also serve the sentence.' Andrew Gilbert, California Magazine

'The Return draws a portrait of hope and hard work, not desperation or despair.' Lou Fancher, East Bay Express

'What sets The Return apart from typical issue documentaries is the directors' focus on individual prisoners.' Daniel Eagan, Film Journal International

'A brilliant display of what happens when paranoia takes over...An eye opener, The Return is an educational, straight-forward, in-your-face documentary that needs more eyes, support, and push!' Lee Romero,

'One said, 'I am ready to go ahead and live.' What can this teach us? This is a good question and study for all those involved in release and support of these folks in their new lives.' C. Richard Cothem, Science Books and films


Main credits

Duane de la Vega, Kelly (film director)
Duane de la Vega, Kelly (film producer)
Duane de la Vega, Kelly (screenwriter)
Galloway, Katie (film director)
Galloway, Katie (film producer)
Galloway, Katie (screenwriter)
Ben-Dov, Ariella J. (film producer)
O'Toole, Greg (screenwriter)
O'Toole, Greg (editor of moving image work)

Other credits

Editor, Greg O'Toole; director of photography, Mario Furloni; music, Tyler Strickland.

Docuseek subjects

Distributor subjects

African-American Studies
American Studies
Criminal Justice
Human Rights
Mass Incarceration
Mental Health
Prison System
Public Health
Race and Racism
Social Justice
Social Psychology
Social Work


California, three strikes law, lifers freed, problems, families, communities, Prop 36, unprecedented reform, prisoners, reentry providers, attorneys, judges, untested law. mass incarceration, California's experiment, Three Strikes Project, Stanford Justice Advocacy Project, Bilal Chatman, Kenneth Anderson,; Mike Romano,; Susan Champion,; Kaylica Anderson, Monica Grier, Salinas Valley State Prison, Judge Ryan, Amity Reentry Center, Amity Foundation, Home of Devotation, Home of the Loving Father Reentry Facility; ; "The Return"; Bullfrog Films,doc; sociss