How California’s Broken Prison System Exacts Punishment on Families of the Incarcerated

Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky—who poured blood, sweat and tears into the pages of Crime and Punishment—would feel at home in John Beck’s searing new documentary, Invisible Bars, which runs just under an hour and packs a wallop every step of the way.

“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons,” Dostoevsky exclaimed. Jailed by Czar Nicolas I for reading “dangerous” literature, he was lined up before a firing squad and pardoned at the last minute. Dostoevsky served six-years in a Siberian prison, a grim yet redemptive experience that fueled Crime and Punishment.

Beck’s Invisible Bars, which he worked on intermittently for five years, suggests that a society ought to be judged not only by what goes on inside prisons, but also by what happens on the outside to kids who suffer the loss of an incarcerated parent.

As Invisible Bars makes abundantly clear, those kids grow up with the stigma of a mom or a dad locked up in places like San Quentin. Invisible Bars spits out facts as hard and as cold as the walls of that prison. The United States has a little less than 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s inmates. In California alone, half a million kids in a given year have a parent in prison. Nationwide, that number is 5 million.

Those stunning figures come near the start of Beck’s movie, along with the trenchant comment that America is the most “incarcerated country in the world.” More men and women are in prison here than in Vladimir Putin’s Russia or in any dictatorship in Africa, Asia and South America.

Invisible Bars doesn’t analyze why this country has the world’s most highly developed “prison-industrial complex,” as critics of the penal system call it. That’s the responsibility of students of crime and punishment, not filmmakers like Beck who want to raise awareness about the epidemic of mass incarceration.

What Beck does exceeding well is to put inmates and their children in front of the camera and provide a space for them to talk about their pain, their suffering, their sense of shame and their enduring love that isn’t snuffed out by prison bars. Beck also showcases two San Francisco public defenders, Jeff Adachi, who died last February, and Chesa Boudin. At the start of Invisible Bars, Adachi explains, “When it comes to children, the California criminal justice system is cold-hearted.”

Boudin takes over from there. The child of parents who belonged to the Weather Underground, he was raised by Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers after his biological mother and father, Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, were arrested and jailed following a botched robbery of a Brinks vehicle in 1981 in which three men died, two of them cops.

Gilbert is still in prison. Kathy was released after 22 years behind bars.

Looking back at his traumatic childhood, Chesa says that he blamed himself for his parents’ incarceration. Now he’s running for San Francisco district attorney to inject justice into the criminal justice system.

Invisible Bars shows how punishing prisons can be on kids like Chesa, but it doesn’t punish viewers. Rather, it uplifts and inspires by showing families as they break down barriers, tell stories and focus their hurt and anger. Because of kid protesters, Marin County now boasts a Children of Incarcerated Parents Bill of Rights.

Filmmaker Beck walked away from his job at Santa Rosa’s Press Democrat in 2009, after 12 years as a staff writer. Since then, he’s made documentaries, including one about ugly-dog contests and another about a Trappist monastery near Chico. Filming Invisible Bars took him to places he had never been before.

Surprisingly, San Quentin wasn’t the prison where Beck heard what he calls the most “honest, heartfelt stories.” That was Solano State Prison in Vacaville where he witnessed the workings of the Long Term Offender Program, which aims to rehabilitate and not punish, a rare thing these days.

“When I went to Solano, I never felt unsafe,” Beck says. “Rather, I knew I was getting a rare opportunity to go behind the curtain and hear real dialogue.”

Last year, Beck joined Fred Stillman’s seven children when they traveled by van from Santa Rosa to Solano—a 90-minute drive—to meet and greet their father, who was released after serving 23 years in prison.

Stillman, now 60, and his daughter, Jessica, 32, saw Invisible Bars behind bars at Solano, where Beck arranged for the film to have its world premiere. “That was heavy, watching the film on the inside with my dad and other prisoners,” Jessica says.

For much of her childhood, Jessica rarely saw her father. When she did, it was through a glass partition. Stillman’s mother raised her. Now, she has a bachelor’s degree from the University of San Diego and masters from the University of San Francisco.

On a rainy Saturday morning, Stillman—who lives in San Francisco in “transitional housing”— visited Jessica in Santa Rosa, where she works at the Rape, Crisis Trauma and Healing Center. She’s trying to persuade Sonoma County to adopt a Children of Incarcerated Parents Bill of Rights similar to Marin’s.

Stillman explains that, over the course of more than two decades, prison authorities moved him from Pelican Bay, where he was in solitary, to Susanville and then to New Folsom, followed by a string of penal institutions in Salinas Valley, Jamestown and Soledad, which was, he says, “a picnic compared to the other places.”

“Once, I got lost in the hole and my mother thought I was dead,” he adds. It wasn’t until he was housed at Soledad that he was allowed to touch his children and they were allowed to touch him. “For a long time, I was a monster in prison,” Stillman says. He figures it cost the state of California $1,150,000 to “warehouse” him for 23 years. As he points out, the prison industrial complex is big business.

One of Stillman’s biggest challenges was juggling gang membership. To survive, he had to join a gang while, at the same time, denying gang affiliation when authorities accused him of membership in one. To guards, who insisted he belonged to a white gang, he said, “That’s not possible. My mother was Mexican and no white gang would want a Mexican.”

On Aug. 6, 2018, the day Stillman was released from prison, he walked around Fisherman’s Wharf, admired the Golden Gate Bridge and enjoyed the view of the bay from Sausalito. When he looks back at the prisons where he was incarcerated, he calls them “evil places.”

Despite its heavy topic, Invisible Bars has an upbeat soundtrack that includes music by the rap group E-Dub and the Grateful Dead, who performed at San Quentin in 1968, shortly before Johnny Cash sang there.

Invisible Bars was about as DIY as you can get,” Beck says. “The only way I could make the film was to wear a lot of different hats as cinematographer, editor and sound recorder, as well as writer, producer and director. They all add up to storyteller.”

In the last scene, Stillman faces the camera and says he would still be in prison “if it wasn’t for my kids.” He adds: “It took decades, but the Stillmans got past the stigma, the shame and the guilt, and rebuilt their family.”

KQED will air Invisible Bars at 11am March 19, 5am March 20 and 10am March 21.


  1. > In the last scene, Stillman faces the camera and says he would still be in prison “if it wasn’t for my kids.” He adds: “It took decades, but the Stillmans got past the stigma, the shame and the guilt, and rebuilt their family.”

    Jonah Beck should answer the question:

    “Why didn’t he think about his kids and family BEFORE he committed the dirty deeds that sent him to prison?”

    I suspect he got a lot of bad advice and bad examples during his life. He needs to name the names of the individuals who took him away from the “straight and narrow”.

  2. The CA prison incarceration cost of ~$136/ day seems low. No mention that the most recent study shows recidivism increased after realignment and reform. CA’s average: 65% return to jail/prisons within 3 years of release.

    While sympathetically portraying SF public defender Chesa Boudin, no mention of his culpability in SF’s soaring crime rate by his clients.

  3. How come it’s OK to release and illegal alien criminal with a kid, but not OK to release an American with a kid?
    Double standard?

  4. The criminal justice system must take into consideration violent and non-violent crimes. It would not make sense to give equal jail time to someone for stealing non-violently three times and to someone for raping three times. Yet, we see it again and again that sexual aggressors and those engaged in domestic violence receive lighter sentences than those that engaged in non-violence crimes. This is the case for most privileged aggressors.

    • There has always been differences between violent and non-violent crimes in California. Not only in the Penal Code, but I’m charging and sentencing. Prop 47 even expanded it in the Penal Code in 2015. Non-violent misdemeanants get a ticket, not jail from police and at sentencing rarely serve time unless there’s priors or mitigating circumstances. I’ve seen people with 8 counts of probation for non-violent offenses who never served a day in jail.

      There is no 3rd strike for non-violent felonies… you’re misinformed. Even if charged, defendants can always get a hearing to “strike the strike”.

      There’s no definition for a “sexual aggressor” in the Penal Code. A convicted sex offender, however, must serve 80% of their sentence and proscribed offenses also require lifetime registration with Megan’s Law. Even domestic violence doesn’t come close to those punishments.

      Domestic Violence, a mandatory reporter crime like sexual assault, is *always* considered a violent crime regardless of misdemeanor or felony. In Santa Clara County the offender is required to be booked and in most cases is not afforded bail until appearance before a magistrate. Again, non-violent theft suspects get a ticket. Now, sentencing can be tricky to compare because victims become uncooperative with DV and there’s always family considerations. So I won’t say there isn’t disparity in the sentence… But based on the rest of your post being absolutely wrong, I’m skeptical of your assertion. Besides, it’s a silly comparison.

      Regarding “privilege”, considerations for SORP/OR (or bail, by the companies) is absolutely whether the defendant is employed, for how long, education, ability to pay, family support, mental health, prior convictions, etc. Life isn’t fair. Neither is justice. A huge factor in not getting arrested or convicted is not committing crime, violently or otherwise.

  5. If you are concerned about what deleterious effects your incarceration will have on your kids, don’t commit a crime.
    Problem solved.

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