Still from Sentencing the Victim

It is my stated mission to discuss the unprecedented growth, size and activities of the American prison system. I believe that there are better solutions to solving transgressions in our society than warehousing people. I especially believe this with regards to people sentenced to non-violent crimes.

However, prisons should exist for people who are a threat to public safety. I worry that sometimes people may mistake me for an apologist for all criminals. This is not the case.

For heinous crimes – such as rape, kidnap, torture or pre-meditated murder – prison is a fitting punishment.


As part of Women’s History Month, PBS and Independent Lens – in a series named Women & Girls Lead – are making available (only during the month of March) online films that amplify the voices of women and girls acting as leaders, expand understanding of gender equity, and ‘focus, educate, and connect citizens worldwide in support of the issues facing women and girls.’

There is a vast array of films, some about criminal justice. Me Facing Life is about a 16-year-old sentenced to life for killing a man who picked her up for sex and Troop 1500 is a participatory documentary about, and made by, the daughters of mothers who are serving time for serious crimes, giving them a chance to rebuild their broken bonds.


Very different in tone and very difficult to watch, Sentencing the Victim tells the story of Joanna Katz who was gang-raped in 1988. Following the trial of her five attackers, she is required to appear before the North Carolina parole board for each and every parole hearing. The film fluctuates between her account of the ordeal and the repeated visits and legal mantra by parole board members. The inflexibility of a system means the parole hearings of her assailants are not heard at the same time. This difficult process is something Katz and her incredibly supportive and wise parents go through five times as many times as should be reasonably expected.

Katz is now an advocate for all victims of rape and it is a testament to her strength that she produced this film; it is for all our educations. The film was instrumental in streamlining the legal process and lessening the burden on victims.

What I expect of a prison system is that it makes possible for every individual sentenced the opportunity to take full account of their responsibilities. Joanna’s assailants don’t feature in the movie, nor should they given its purpose to roundly describe the victims experience. Violence is a learned behaviour and it can become a disease of communities. It is much easier to continue a life of violence than it is to educate oneself and see the destructive and unforgiving reach of violence for what it is.

Taking responsibility for ones actions is transformative and positive; prisons need to allow the space and the environment for remorse and accountability to surface. Some prison do that and others engender violence further.

To deny liberty to the most predatory of criminals is a reasonable expectation of prisons. But there is too much violence in the world and prisons shouldn’t be incubators of violence. Even for the worst of the worst – especially for the worst of the worst – prisons should be places of self-examination, apology and healing.


On June 17, 1988, Joanna Katz and another woman were abducted at gunpoint, taken to an abandoned house in Charleston, South Carolina, and brutally raped, beaten and tortured by five men for more than five hours. Sentencing the Victim is the story of how a blood-soaked 19-year-old was able to walk away from her attackers, save her friend from certain death, and continue fighting for the convictions of her assailants — and for the rights of crime victims everywhere.

Under South Carolina law, felons convicted prior to 1996 can eventually be considered for parole every two years. Despite their 30-to-35-year sentences, Katz’s attackers were eligible for parole after serving only a fraction of this time. And in a particularly cruel twist, criminals in South Carolina who participate in a group assault receive separate parole hearings on separate days. Victims who wish to oppose parole for their attackers must subject themselves to an emotionally agonizing experience that must be repeated year after year. In order to ensure that her attackers would remain behind bars, Joanna Katz had to travel more than 100 miles from her home numerous times every year to attend separate parole hearings for each of the men who assaulted her.

The hearings continue until the criminals are either paroled or complete their sentences and are released back into the community. Each hearing reopens old wounds. With each hearing, Katz wonders who was really sentenced: was it her attackers, up for parole after serving a minimal sentence, or was it her, forced to relive her trauma over and over again?

Through April 1st, view the WOMEN & GIRLS LEAD ONLINE FILM FESTIVAL and visit the website.