Guild Lawyer-Filmmaker Turns Lens on Mass Incarceration

1850: 3.2 million African Americans were slaves (U.S. Census) 2007: 3.4 million African Americans are under correctional control of some kind (Pew Center on the States)
Traci Yoder

Broken on All Sides is a powerful new documentary examining the intersections of race and poverty within the criminal justice system in the United States. Drawing on interviews with NLG attorneys, New Jim Crow author Michele Alexander, and numerous activists, legal practitioners, and formerly incarcerated people, the film lays bare the causes and impacts of mass incarceration. In addition to being an important contribution to conversations about the prison industrial complex, Broken on All Sides is an illustration of what is possible when NLG members—lawyers, legal workers, law students, and jailhouse lawyers—collaborate.

Matthew Pillischer, the lawyer and filmmaker behind Broken on All Sides. Photo by Ryan Bran­den­berg ©2010 Tem­ple Uni­ver­sity Beasley School of Law
Matthew Pillischer, the lawyer and filmmaker behind Broken on All Sides.

“Progressive law organizations must be involved with advocacy outside of the courts and traditional lobbying,” Matthew Pillischer said in a recent phone interview. A filmmaker, lawyer, and Guild member, Pillischer combined his talents to create Broken on All Sides. He continued:

Lawyers, law students, and legal workers must take every possible measure to point out the racial injustices and statistics of disparities at every level of criminal justice. We must highlight the human stories and faces of our clients caught up in the system and continually name the collateral consequences of criminal records. Though they may be small and though they may not produce the immediate results we want in the courtroom, acts of protest like this are of grave importance.

Pillischer has been an active NLG member since he joined the chapter at his law school, Temple University’s Beasley School of Law. While there, he interned with the Guild law firm Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing and Feinberg, which put him to work on a lawsuit challenging overcrowding at Philadelphia prisons. The job required interviewing inmates and investigating prison conditions. Those experiences, in turn, served as the inspiration for the project that would become Broken on All Sides. Pillischer worked on the film even as he graduated and took the position of staff attorney at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia. Through collaborations with law students at the University of Pennsylvania, he eventually expanded the film from a short video to a feature documentary.

Since the film’s completion, Pillischer has been touring the United States to publicize it. In addition to touring film festivals, Matt has also been working with local NLG chapters to set up screenings at universities, union halls, and churches. Wherever possible, he organizes panel discussions after the screenings, striving to include local formerly incarcerated people as well as criminal justice reform advocates.

According to Pillischer, the NLG played a pivotal role in the making of the documentary. He says he received crucial guidance from Angus Love, David Kairys, and others about how to capture the injustice of mass incarceration and offer meaningful visions for reform. The Philadelphia NLG chapter assisted with organizing screenings of earlier cuts of the film, showing versions at the 2012 NLG Mid-Atlantic regional convention in Camden as well as the 2011 national convention in Philadelphia. Today, NLG members continue to support Pillischer with his ongoing educational tour as well as his fundraising efforts. In turn, Pillischer has offered his filmmaking skills to the Philly chapter for its Oral History Project.

Broken on All Sides has received several awards, including Best Social Issue Documentary at the Bare Bones International Film and Music Festival and Audience Choice Award for Best Mid-Atlantic Film at the New Hope Film Festival. The documentary has also been nominated for the Media for a Just Society award from the National Council on Crime & Delinquency.

Pillischer is planning more events for 2013, including a screening at the Riverside Church in New York City on March 9 organized by the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow and the recently formed NLG Mass Incarceration Committee.

Those interested in booking Pillischer for film screenings or speaking engagements can contact him at brokenonallsides@gmail.com.