When you imprison a person, you’re imprisoning more than just that person. This is the undercurrent of director Nicole Jones’s debut documentary The Third Strike, which follows The Decarceration Collective, a nonprofit group of female lawyers and advocates battling for the release of federal prisoners sent to prison for life under the “Three Strikes law.” The law, introduced at federal and some state levels in 1993, allows prosecutors to call for a life sentence without parole for repeat offenders. In interviews with Collective co-founder MiAngel Cody, her team of lawyers, and the prisoners and families they help, Jones crafts a stirring narrative of women fighting against an unjust justice system that punishes minorities for relatively minor offenses and creates a cascade of suffering for past and future generations.
The Third Strike details the malfeasances of the Three Strikes law, under which a number of men and women (primarily poor minorities) have been imprisoned following convictions for nonviolent drug offenses. The interviews spell out the actual details of their crimes, including minor drug possession, and the effect that the life sentence has not only on the convicted themselves, on their families, friends, and loved ones. The main focus here is on MiAngel Cody and The Decarceration Collective, and the stories of the people they help. These include Edward Douglas, the first man to be released under The First Step Act, and his mother and daughters, who contacted the Collective to help him. The lawyers that surround Cody have their own stories, detailing their family experiences with incarceration and their reasons for joining the Collective in the first place.
The Third Strike balances a call to action with the more emotional personal stories, avoiding becoming sentimental or maudlin or, most dangerous of all, exploitative. This is not a story about justice winning against all odds, but about the horrifying nature of a system that should not exist in the first place. Juxtaposed against the personal stories of the men and women involved are the arguments about the law, with interviews with criminologists and senators, including Cory Booker, Dick Durbin, and archival footage of Jeff Sessions’s Senate confirmation hearings. The narrative that there is not really a problem with the criminal justice system stands against the reality of many families and incarcerated people who are fighting to free their loved ones and preserve their humanity at the same time.
The Third Strike poignantly details not just the physical loss of freedom, but the real emotional and psychological damage it does, both to those imprisoned and to those outside. Douglas recounts his first meal outside of prison and not understanding how to order food at a KFC; another prisoner explains how difficult it is to find a job. His daughter Shanice thinks about the moments her father has missed, her dream about him getting to walk her down the aisle. Two of Cody’s most prominent lawyers both have fathers imprisoned under the same law, and they feel the pressure to rescue their fathers, their lives shaped by their fathers’ mistakes and the law’s viciousness. That pressure itself is an unjust one placed primarily on women, young and old, as the men are taken away.
Women drive the narrative of The Third Strike, even if many of those incarcerated are men. All of Cody’s lawyers are women, many of them with direct experience of three-strikes laws; many of those they communicate with are wives, mothers, and daughters. The undercurrent of this is the emotional and physical labor that primarily women of color undertake for their loved ones, shouldering burdens that stretch beyond the initial crimes. And the film does not shy away from showing how unfair, how vicious a system this is, not falling into an “inspirational” narrative, but showing very clearly how difficult and, sometimes, unrewarding their work can be.
The Third Strike is a tight, spare film, a powerful polemic against three-strikes laws, detailing the imbalance in the justice system and the way in which it targets and exploits people of color. It should be watched in combination with Ava DuVernay’s broader documentary 13th, which details so explicitly the undercurrent of contemporary slavery in the modern justice system and the prison-industrial complex. At base, The Third Strike is a story of hope, that the dedication and perseverence of powerful, capable women can bring about real change, in individual lives and in the laws of a nation.
The Third Strike will play at Cinequest, Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival, and The Black Harvest Film Festival.