“My name is Kenneth Williams, I am 67 years old and I am about to vote for the very first time in my entire life. And I’m looking forward to it.”
Kenneth Williams is one of 53 people interviewed for the Richmond Justice Project who have been touched by the criminal justice system in a significant way. At the time of his interview, Williams had his right to vote restored after being barred from doing because of a felony robbery conviction 30 years ago.
Hear Kenneth’s story below:
Co-directed by documentary filmmakers Lance Warren and Hannah Ayers, Richmond Justice was a year-long project that captured the state of the criminal justice system here in Virginia’s capital city.
Warren and Ayers have spent most of their careers focusing on criminal justice in the U.S.- in everywhere from Kentucky, California, New York, and now in our beloved hometown. The two specialize in producing media that offers a critical view of incarceration today, the state of our criminal justice system, and how those institutions intersect with race and class.
Richmond has been on the up and up for quite sometime now. We’ve been appearing in top 20 lists of the best places to dine and live, we’re recognized for our vibrant art and music scene, and we can’t stop talking about all of our glorious breweries.
While these are things to take pride in, we all know that our city faces many challenges – the state of our criminal justice system being one of them. Ayers and Warren wanted to get to know Richmond beyond the superlative level. That’s why, after moving here in 2014, they started their program to further explore both our city’s history and present character.
“I had volunteered with OAR (Opportunity Alliance Re-entry) and I had gone into the Richmond City Justice Center and was just starting to get familiar with some of the players,” said Ayers. They came into contact with people who had experience with the criminal justice system through these organizations and according to Ayer, it snowballed from there.
Every week in 2016, they would post a new portrait of someone they had met and interviewed. All the subjects that had some kind of relationship with the city justice system. Among them people were artists, small business owners, social workers, and even the Commonwealth’s Attorney.
All had a unique story to tell.
“While the stories are unique to each individual, they do represent challenges that are faced across the United States because they intersect with poverty, with race, with generations of inequality,” said Warren. “And often, with federal laws and state inaction, the lack of legislation as well as the presence of damaging legislation, those are national stories.”
The project was a way for them to draw attention this larger, national issue through an individual, human lens.
“Through meeting all these people we were meeting Richmond, we were discovering Richmond in a deeper way. And I think that gets back to our initial urge which is, we’re reading all these media with a really positive and somewhat monotonous description of [Richmond]. It’s got to be more complicated, interesting, and critical than that. I think we discovered that through the criminal justice system,” said Warren.
The project evolved. By the end of last year they hosted a mayoral debate with a special focus on justice. Mayoral candidates gathered at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church to discuss everything from the school to prison pipeline to how to best remedy the connections between mental health and incarceration. Many interviewees from the project were able to ask the candidates questions themselves.
Warren and Ayers interviewed the then-Mayoral candidate Levar Stoney for their project, and noted that he had said “very promising things” at the debate. The documentarians hope that he follows through with these promises- and are still working with the public to ensure that happens. At the gallery, postcards are available for viewers to fill out that request that Mayor Stoney appoint a Policy Advisor for Justice, to be hand-delivered to him once the exhibit has finished.
Stoney recently committed https://rvamag.com/articles/full/27030/mayor-stoney-makes-rva-a-sanctuary… to protecting all residents of the City of Richmond with a Mayoral Directive, regardless of immigration or refugee status, which has an affect on the way the city’s criminal justice system operates.
Directing that the RPD need not consent to cooperation with ICE could be seen as a small step forward among more to come in changing the way justice works in the our city – especially concerning race and class.
“We’re a more second-chance sort of people,” said Stoney in the interview with Richmond Justice. “We think that once you’ve paid your debt to society by doing your time, you should not be punished for the remainder of your life….And if I ever have the opportunity to serve as mayor, I’m going to work day in and day out to close the door on the cycle of poverty and recidivism. We have to see what more we can do.”
You can view the Richmond Justice Project’s gallery in the Wilton Companies Gallery at UR Downtown, located at 626 West Broad Street, Monday through Friday, 8:30 AM to 5PM. The gallery will be on display from now until March 17th.
And you can head over to the Richmond Justice websites here to hear and read more stories from locals impacts by the city’s justice system.
Words by Kathy Mendes, images via Richmond Justice