Penitentiary JustUs

Iowa State Penitentiary, a still from the feature-length documentary "JustUs."

While Maya Ben-Shahar was an undergraduate at Carleton College, a small liberal arts school about 45 minutes south of Minneapolis, she struck up a correspondence with Cedric Theus, an incarcerated man serving a life sentence at Iowa State Penitentiary. 

Theus and Ben-Shahar, who graduated from the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools in 2015, became close through their letters. 

“At some point, we started to think of ourselves as friends,” she said. “Sort of just sharing ideas with each other and talking about important things in our lives.” 

One of Theus’s letters outlined an idea for a documentary he wanted to make about racial disparities in the Iowan prison system. He asked Ben-Shahar if she had any filmmaker friends, and she began emailing his pitch around. 

“Everyone was like, ‘If you want to make this, you should make it yourself because for something like this, having a personal reason for it to get done is really important.’” 

In 2018, Ben-Shahar and some friends from Carleton “who could hold a camera” decided to travel to Iowa and shoot the first footage. 

The first weekend trip turned into a three-year production that became “JustUs,” an hour-long documentary co-directed by Ben-Shahar and Theus that examines racial disparities in the state’s prison system, following the work that current and former incarcerees are doing to push policy reforms and engage in community activism. 

The doc begins with a piece of narration from Theus, who may be one of the first prison inmates ever to direct a feature documentary film. He outlines the idea at the core of the work: “While the state’s population is about 4% African American, the prison population is about 25 percent African American. This racial disparity is the result of many factors, including a long history of tough-on-crime laws.” 

Theus himself appears in an animated sequence — a workaround to the difficulties of filming in prison. He returns throughout the documentary in hand-drawn form, sequestered inside a cell containing a cot, desk, bookshelf, toilet and narrow window. 

As he looks out from behind bars, Theus narrates: “This is the story of my community, and what we’re doing to help solve Iowa’s incarceration problem.” 

This incarceration problem isn’t just about what puts people into prison; it’s also about what happens once they’re released. One of the other subjects of “JustUs” is Donta Mckenzie, who was paroled after serving 23 years in prison for second-degree murder. Out from prison, he’s heavily at risk of recidivism: a 2016 study from the United States Sentencing Commission found that over an eight-year period, nearly half of those released after a federal prison term were rearrested for either a new crime or violation of probation. 

But recidivism rates decrease significantly with age — Mckenzie and his peers, many of them out after decades in prison, are less likely to face rearrest than to struggle with finding a job, buying a home or maintaining a support system. 

Many of them throw themselves into activism. At the time the documentary was filmed, Iowa was one of the last states in the country to bar anyone with a prior felony conviction from voting, even after they had completed their sentence. 

“People like Chuck, who lost their right to vote at age 18, have been educating the public at rallies, hosting voter registration drives, and petitioning the governor to restore voting rights to felons,” notes Theus. 

Chuck is Charles Brewton, who spent a dozen years in prison for an armed robbery he committed when he was 18. “It was devastating to everybody — coaches, my friends, you know, everybody was looking,” he recalls, standing outside of his old high school. “I didn’t get a senior year. I cheated myself out of a senior year.” 

Brewton and his fellow ex-incarcerees ultimately had their rights restored: In August 2020, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) signed a bill allowing convicted felons who have served out their sentences to vote. (According to Iowa Public Radio, that’s between 35,000 and 45,000 people.) 

Brewton also served as a kind of early fixer for “JustUs,” introducing Ben-Shahar and the crew to many of the people they’d end up interviewing. In one scene, he speaks to a group of young Black men, warning them about the lost life experiences that come along with a prison sentence — “when my class was graduating, I was in Anamosa,” a penitentiary prison near Cedar Rapids. 

The documentary wrapped production in 2021. “We thought it was going to be one year, tops. We really thought we were going to whip this out in time for the national elections,” said Ben-Shahar. 

She moved back to Chicago after graduating from Carleton in 2019. She’s now enrolled in a social work master’s program at Northwestern, but supported herself with a job at Café 53, 1369 E. 53rd St., while completing the film. 

As first-time filmmakers, Ben-Shahar said that the crew were often told the documentary’s feature-length runtime was “too ambitious” and that they’d “have more of an audience for shorter things.” But Ben-Shahar was committed to preserving the film’s length: “There's so much content that we thought deserved a feature and the gravity of doing a feature felt important given our mission.”

The film ends with a reflection from Theus, who is still incarcerated, on the well-known quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” For Theus, the sentiment serves as a spur to action. 

“Dr. King was right about the arc of justice being long. From my prison cell, I’ve watched many states, both red and blue, enact positive justice reforms,” he says.” But here in Iowa, things largely remain the same and some policies are actually getting worse.” 

“The power to create change comes from ordinary people like Donta and Chuck,” Theus continues. “And as the saying goes in my community, when there’s no justice, there’s just us.” 

“JustUs” is available to watch for free on Tubi, an online streaming service.

Editor

Christian Belanger graduated from the University of Chicago in 2017. He has previously written for South Side Weekly, Chicago magazine and the Chicago Reader.

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