Echoes of Incarceration x KidsMates
By Ava Martoma, Age 14
Happy Fourth of July to everyone! As we know, freedom is a key theme for children with incarcerated parents. Today KidsMates is joined by Jeremy Robins, founder and Project Director at Echoes of Incarceration, to discuss his goals. Echoes is a 12-year-old initiative based in Brooklyn, New York that helps children impacted by the criminal justice system share their voice through filmmaking. Jeremy started as a school teacher with a passion for video production before realizing he could have a broader impact through the Echoes project.
Over the years, Echoes has given young people the chance to make award-winning films and documentaries about the criminal justice system and its impact on everyday people. Participants in the Echoes initiative go through three levels of training. Initially, students attend a summer camp and/or school workshops to learn about filmmaking. Later, these students become junior crew members on video projects for criminal justice stakeholders and work year-round to make relevant documentaries. Finally, junior crew members become senior crew members on projects with broader appeal. Graduates of the program can remain with Echoes or pursue a career in filmmaking elsewhere.
Echoes’ first documentary was a ten-minute film made by children of incarcerated parents about their experiences. Rave reviews lead to additional projects, including films for Sesame Street, the White House, Carnegie Hall, the Lincoln Center, and much more. In 2017, the Echoes incarceration project was awarded a Robert Rauschenberg Artist-As-Activist Fellow, and, more recently, they became a 501(c)(3) public charity. We are honored to have Jeremy Robins as our guest and can’t wait to hear what he has to share!
Ava: Thank you, Jeremy, for being here today, and congratulations on hosting your 7th Annual Liberation Summer Camp starting next week. I’m sure your participants will love it. Why don’t we step back in time and talk about how it all began. Can you tell us your story as it relates to the criminal justice system and your work with children of incarcerated parents?
Jeremy: My work and the Echoes of Incarceration project go back about 20 years. I started as a teacher and worked in afterschool programs. In these programs, I taught video production to high school students and fell in love with that. I also fell in love with filmmaking and ended up starting a video production company. Early on, I began working with criminal justice reform organizations in New York City. I had a family member who taught college in prisons, and they were able to connect me. At the same time, I continued to teach video in high schools throughout New York City.
In 2008, I was asked to work with a research study about the impact of mass incarceration on communities -- the impact on the individual and how it impacts the wider community. I was hired specifically to create a short film about the impact of incarceration on children and I thought it would be a pretty interesting project coming from the youth media perspective. Rather than me making the film, I gathered a group of directly impacted young people and had them go through the process of video production training. Folks were very receptive to see what we did. We titled the first film “Echoes of Incarceration.” It was a ten-minute film that this group of eight young people made over a year.
Initially, we thought this would be a one-time project and that would be it, but it went so well that a few partners including the National Resource Center for Children and families of the Incarcerated saw the potential for a lot more stories, a lot more voices, and a lot more attention on the issue. They encouraged me to continue so that shaped the idea into a series, leading to today’s Echoes of Incarceration.
Ava: Wow. That is a fantastic beginning, especially how you decided to focus on the perspectives of justice-impacted youths. What about more recently? What is Echoes doing right now?
Jeremy: That’s a good question. The scope of Echoes isn’t exclusively about parental incarceration anymore. We spent about 8 years making films just about that issue, and for several reasons, we decided to expand the scope. I think the group wanted to look at other issues and expand their filmmaking horizons, but we also had more young people who wanted to be involved in the project. With the limitation of parental incarceration, a lot of them wouldn’t have been eligible for the project, so we expanded. Now, our focus is all the ways the justice system and young people interact, including policing, school safety, corrections, and also alternatives and experimental approaches. The series that we are doing right now is a collaboration with Columbia University’s Justice Lab about the field of Emerging Adult Justice - or the criminal justice experience for eighteen to twenty-five-year-olds. We discuss how these people are still growing, developing, and evolving, even though the justice system treats them as adults.
One of the things that we have found through Echoes is the fact that to do public advocacy videos about parental incarceration, we need a mix of research, good political strategy, and a lot of personal stories. You need to find the right people and have them on camera. It's a lot of hard work, and I think our crew has developed great work. It's extremely difficult for people to go out and share personal stories with an audience that they don’t know, and it is hard to find the right people to shoot that narrative.
Echoes has been able to find so many empowering stories that were really deep, and we have told the narrative of young people who had been through a difficult time. I think that was a big part of why people liked our films. Our crew had training and experience, so they were able to make some great videos.
Pre-covid, we participated in many different events, and the majority of our group had experienced parental incarceration. After covid, the whole process changed. Without a space to gather and get peer support, this has been a difficult year. Being able to stay connected and working on project issues has been empowering.
Ava: Yes, absolutely. COVID threw us a curveball last year, and staying connected is a real challenge. Part of our goal with the KidsMates Chronicle is to share all the great work you, Echoes and so many other wonderful organizations are doing, so we can all stay connected. With all your experiences, what do you think most impacts children or families dealing with incarceration?
Jeremy: I think this has become a phrase that I’ve heard pop up more and more: “When one parent goes to prison, the whole family goes to prison.” I think once you connect the dots, and look at the bigger picture of all the different ways a criminal sentence plays out, I think it is so vastly different than what the general public thinks in terms of retribution, in terms of the sentence, and in terms of the impact on families. There are so many parts that are not considered. If people had that whole picture, they would be able to see how dumb our system is right now. It’s just very blunt, very cruel, very short-sighted, very expensive, and causes so much unnecessary harm. Even if you had public safety in mind as your primary goal, the justice system is doing a pretty terrible job. Along with that, it causes so much harm. I think a big part of that is the impact of incarceration on children. If we just looked at that, it would change the calculations of what we think in terms of sentencing, in terms of conditions of confinement, in terms of opportunities in facilities, and in terms of parole and probation. I think even if you just look at the impact on children, it would require us to rethink our strategy on how we do things.
Ava: You’re right about that. The criminal justice system has a much bigger impact on the lives of families than most realize or accept. How do you think children can best deal with that adversity?
Jeremy: I would usually say something about how we should set up programs for children to join, but I also think that children shouldn’t necessarily just be taking my advice. Instead, they should have a peer group because that is probably the most valuable thing. Having a healthy community and having good activities around you can help you learn, grow, and take ownership to change your life. I think that is probably the most healing and powerful thing.
Ava: Yes, having a supportive community and supportive caregivers that you can trust and rely on can help you in so many ways. You have a lot of well-thought-out philosophies. What or who has most influenced your thoughts on incarceration and why?
Jeremy: I feel like this is something that is always evolving. Before our talk, I listened to this great podcast and thought about how systems are created and how many layers there are. When I look at the stories and piece together how these things work and how they got to be the way they are, it is crazy. I am always learning about criminal justice. It is so complex, but it is rooted in how we think. The short version is that my understanding of the justice system is always evolving and growing, and I’m always trying to understand different levels.
I respond more to people - both from their work as journalists and also their work as advocates - more so than ideas and statistics. Vinny Schiraldi was just appointed commissioner of corrections in New York City. It’s just a great example of someone having great ideas but also knowing how to put them into practice in a way that helps people’s lives. I’m inspired by people like Liz Gaynes from Osborne who just does the work, day in and day out, people like Tanya Krupat who work year in and year out advocating for these issues. I just finished a great book by a journalist-scholar named