In Perversion of Justice , director Rev. Melissa Mummert introduces us to Hamedah Hasan, a mother of three serving a mandatory life sentence for a drug crime she didn’t commit. I interviewed Rev. Mummert, whose film debuted at the San Francisco Women’s Film Festival.
AC: What inspired you to volunteer at the women’s prison and spend your time making a film that spreads the word about mandatory minimum sentencing?
MM: I’m a minister by training. Everyone had to do an internship to work as a chaplain. Most chose to do theirs in a hospital, but a prison sounded more interesting to me. My dad did a little time in prison when I was in elementary school, so it was something I felt strangely comfortable doing. I met many other women with stories like Hamadeh’s. I had talked about it [her story] with others and kept hearing about conspiracy. Then one of the other chaplains brought in a conspiracy article from Salon.com about how women are suffering in prisons. I was moved by my experience and wanted people to have the same experience—to see and hear prisoners in these situations. It was not an easy thing to do; it was hard to get into a prison. There aren’t many people who are going to take the initiative to bring their stories to a broader audience and humanize female prisoners and all prisoners who are affected by the drug war.
AC: How did you decide to focus on Hamedah and keep it a short film rather than tell all of the women’s stories that you met who had similar sentences?
MM: I worked with the media person from FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums) to interview all of the women who were in the documentary. It was originally going to be a feature, an hour at least, but it didn’t work out. [There were] many nuances about the laws that didn’t get in there, but I wanted it [the film] to be about the kids and Hamedah and not just about the legal issues. Jodie Israel [in the film] was pardoned on the day I was supposed to interview her, and Danielle Metz’s involved guns. Hamedah’s story was quite clean. I really connected with Hamedah; when I met her, it just felt like an instant heart-to-heart connection.
AC: Do you believe mandatory minimum sentencing for petty drug crimes is a case of gender and race inequality?
MM: The whole situation of this crack cocaine/powder cocaine discrepancy is big in politics right now and there have already been some reforms to that end. It’s the most blatant example of racism. It takes a hundred grams of powder cocaine to warrant the same sentence for one gram of crack cocaine. What many don’t know is that most users of crack cocaine are white, but it’s not enforced against them as much. I tend to think the best of people. I tend to think it [racial inequality] wasn’t conscious when they made these laws, but it still needs to be changed. is sending out information right now about having unwarranted black men in prison and that any person who is aware of this should take notice. I’ve heard people say that this is the civil rights issue of our time, this insane, overbuilt prison system. We have to stop the way this is going. It doesn’t make sense.
AC: How do you see your film helping prisoners like Hamedah?
MM: I’m hoping that my film is a grassroots, guerilla, hand-to-hand marketed film. PBS might broadcast it, but real change happens in church basements and real people’s houses. I’m working on putting a shorter piece up on the Web. It’s also with Media That Matters , who has a seven-minute version. I hope it will open some doors and give me some tools. Being my first documentary, my impetus was never, “I’m going to be this filmmaker.” It was, “No, I want to change laws.” It’s not about maintaining exclusive rights and making money. It’s how many legislative offices and churches and living rooms can I get this in as possible.
AC: What was the biggest challenge you faced making this film?
MM: I could say that fundraising and getting into the prisons was the biggest challenge, but doing social justice work, it’s the internal messages we give ourselves, the “who am I to do this” messages that shut us down and keep us from trying to change the world. “[We might say] this is too big, I’m just one person.” It’s still a struggle to really just be bold, and be as bold as we need to be when we see something wrong in the world. I think it may have been Parker Palmer who said, “That which you can’t not do.” I wanted to put this project down a million times, I didn’t know what I was doing, yet I had to keep doing it because it felt like I had to do it. Being a person of faith, [it pushed] something in the deepest part of me and [was something] more than me.
AC: What is the biggest challenge going forward for Hamedah and other prisoners like her?
MM: Her best chance is a presidential commutation. The pardon office has been essentially broken for the last few years. Hamedah and others, their cases have been on the pardon desk for two years and they [the office] say nothing, and the head of the office just left. There’s hope that there will be some reform and relief. Hamedah is the most resilient person I’ve ever met. She is grounded in her faith. She tries to make the best of her day. She doesn’t like it, but she accepts it. She takes ceramics and paralegal classes. She does whatever she can do.
AC: What kind of action could viewers of your documentary or the public do to help transform cases like Hamedah’s?
MM: A lot of people want to do something way out there. We all want to make this really hard. [The best thing to do is to] make your legislature your best friend. Just let our legislatures know that we want to be smart on crime and not just tough on crime. You probably aren’t going to be like me and stay up at night worrying about justice and fairness for alleged drug dealers. It might not be your top issue, but if you sign up for email alerts on FAMM , they’ll tell you when to contact your legislature and why and that’s just what you need to do.
Photo of Hamedah Hasan and Melissa Mummert, courtesy of FCI-Dublin