As much as I’ve written about the concept of “home” through my own experience, and what this place means to me, the space seems to have pervaded the entirety of my experience this year, including an infiltration into other projects.
For three years, fellow JHU student Michael Nakan and I have been working on a documentary based in Baltimore, which has served as our home during our education here; Mike is from London and I’m from Minnesota.
Originally the project was research-heavy, focusing on the juvenile system in Baltimore and Maryland as a whole. As it developed, we met two young men with experience in the juvenile system: Vernon Crowffey and Justin Felder. The film and project shifted focus to provide insight through their personal experiences, and their stories are now at the forefront of the piece.
As we wrapped up the project this year, most of our time was spent on editing (a very long process for documentaries, especially those with observational elements), and I spent most of my time in editing with Justin, pictured above, and his family. We’ve been in contact with Justin’s mother for several years, but I was only able to meet Justin once, in July of 2013.
Justin was on house arrest when I met him, after being shuffled through the juvenile justice system for nearly a year due to fights and other conflicts he had while in detention. In the juvenile system, sentences restart with each move to a new facility. Justin’s sentence was therefore much longer than expected, and as a result, he spent his 18th birthday, along with several holidays, in detention.
I’ve had a very close relative face the sentence of house arrest, and I know that this experience can be a strange one; you are home, but your home becomes a place of confinement, only a place of comfort in that it is not jail or detention. Facing mental health issues simultaneously, it was clear that the transition was not an easy one for Justin. Only a few months after getting his ankle bracelet removed, he was arrested as an adult and convicted of first-degree assault over an incident involving a gifted tattoo gun, and is currently serving a ten-year sentence in the Baltimore County Detention Center. He’s due out on parole later this year.
My limited experience with Justin face-to-face serves to note how briefly he’s actually been out of detention and incarceration in the past few years; it has only been a few months over the past summer, which makes me wonder about how he thinks about his own home and family. Justin is an 18 year-old incarcerated in BCDC. When I was 18 I was also away from home, but for college, halfway across the country. He and I represent two very different experiences of what it means to come home, a strange thing to consider given that Justin is a subject of our documentary; being so close in age to him, seeing him as a subject has sometimes been difficult, and I connect with his story more than I might have thought. The connection may sprout from my experience with my relative, or from an idea as abstract (yet common) as coming home. My relationship with his story brings a whole slew of other questions to the forefront, but what I can take away from the experience of making both films is that coming home is oftentimes far from smooth, a displacement, even, but one that we might long for regardless, if for no other reason than as an escape from confinement into a more comfortable form of it.