On May 18, 2017, Lawrence Bartley was released from prison after a class-action lawsuit against the New York State Parole Board had been filed on his behalf. I was there at Sing Sing that morning as a video journalist filming his first moments of liberation. Stunned by his sincerity and optimism, I soon began production on what would have been a short profile documentary about institutional injustice done unto a man who deserved freedom. My argument for the film was simple and in line with past films on prison reform I’d worked on: Lawrence is a hero, and the prison system is corrupt and must be abolished.
However, my perspective changed when I spoke to Chad Hall, the elder brother of the boy who Lawrence was convicted of killing. Chad’s belief was the opposite: the perpetrator of his brother’s murder should never be free, no matter how much he’d changed or how many accomplishments he had. After interviewing Chad, I could see that Lawrence wasn’t denied his freedom because of some opaque institutional injustice, but rather because there was a real, wounded person advocating for his continued incarceration.
By incorporating both sides of the story into the film, my moral instincts around prison reform grew into something more nuanced: we must have compassion both for the incarcerated and for those who’ve experienced the trauma of violent crime. Bolstered by experts on both sides, my film expanded into a portrayal of the dilemma we find ourselves in when dealing with incarceration: when punishment is the only form of currency to repay the debt of violent crime, an endless cycle of violence is inevitable.
I couldn’t sit idly and blame a system. I had to consider all sides, delve into the complexity, and envision a new way of coping with violence. My hope is that Second Shot can help to expand the moral imagination of viewers in the way that making it did for me.
— Andrew Michael Ellis, Director