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By Amy R. Handler | August 24, 2011

Of the 41 former-inmates of the Sing Sing Correctional Facility at Ossining, NY that graduated from Hudson Link/Mercy College’s degree-granting program, zero have returned to prison. In comparison to the 60% recidivism rate of former prison inmates nationwide, this is very impressive. Equally astounding are the tax dollars saved by the citizens of New York State as a result.

Filmmaker Tim Skousen has created a very unique documentary about prison-life that moves as swiftly and fluidly as the finest of narratives. What makes “Zero Percent” so accessible on a multitude of levels, is its ability to grasp the human side of those locked inside one of the oldest and toughest prisons in the United States. With compelling candor, Skousen shows us the great strides being made in rehabilitation, through Hudson Link—and that education really can unlock the most tightly barred doors, and save lives.

I caught up with Tim Skousen to discuss his fascinating documentary in the interview that follows:

How are people reacting to ‘Zero Percent?’
I was at a Las Vegas Film Festival and a guy came up to me and said, ‘I’m a big-time conservative, and believe in being tough on criminals— but this film totally changed my opinion about the criminal justice system.’

What’s interesting is that this documentary profiles a program in New York State. But when we showed the film in Dallas, and won the Silver Heart Award (sponsored by the Embrey Family Foundation), people at Embrey were so taken by what we had done, that they hooked up with Hudson Link and are now starting college programs at some of the correctional facilities in the Dallas area, through SMU.

What type of degree can the inmates earn, and what jobs will be open to them when they’re released?
Hudson Link offers a bachelor’s degree in Behavioral Sciences. So when the inmates are released, they are able to be social-service workers. Many of them become social workers and take on cases working with youth.

You shot an earlier film that dealt with criminal justice issues, right?
Right. That was one that I produced, shot and edited. It was called ‘Awful Normal,” and it was my first foray into feature-length documentaries. It all began when a woman approached some people that I knew, who didn’t have time to take on a project. They told her to call me. She said she’d been molested by a family friend, when she was four and five-years-old. I began going around with the woman—filming her—when she went back and confronted the man who did that to her. So the man who perpetrated the crime ended up being on camera, and fully admitted what he did. He also told us that he was molested as a child.

What was so heartbreaking— was afterward, the woman broke down and cried for about 45-minutes. It was just such an emotional thing for her.

I think about ‘Awful Normal’ all the time—and how I would do that film now. I was so young, and feel like I didn’t do a very good job as a DP and as a filmmaker. But the story was very strong.

‘Awful Normal’ won some awards, if I remember correctly.
Yes. At the Cinequest San Jose Film Festival, we won Best Documentary. At the Florida Film Festival, we won a Special Jury Award for bravery in filmmaking.

What other types of movies do you shoot?
Strangely, I do a lot of comedy. I did one comedy-feature called ‘The Sasquatch Gang,’ and I’m a comedy-commercial director. The only other documentary I did was a 12-episode TV-documentary series called, ‘Head to Head,’ which I directed with Dan Levinson.

Did you study filmmaking at school?
Actually, I studied Economics, and had about eighteen months left to get my degree when I took a film class. I was so taken by the opportunity to do something in film that I dropped the major in Economics. After that, I transferred to film. What I liked about Economics was that it was a mixture of mathematics, politics, and science. In filmmaking, I could study the same [subjects], and add a few more. In filmmaking, you can study and be involved in so many different issues—and go anywhere with them.

Do you seem to need the creative balance of narrative and documentary in your filmmaking?
I do. In fact the next thing I’m doing is a comedy series with Justin Long, and the other is a semi-drama, but more of a ghost story, adapted from a book called ‘Lost Boys,’ by sci-fi writer, Orson Scott Card.

In making ‘Zero Percent,’ were you ever in fear for your life?
Absolutely not! And I think mainly because I was going into a program where I knew my mother taught, and she told me about the guys all the time. I never worried that it wasn’t going to be safe. But I think if I didn’t have that contact, I probably would have been scared. [Besides,] I had already interviewed people who had graduated from the program and gone home, and they were just so normal and grateful for their education, that I expected more of the same when I got there.

So you weren’t the slightest bit nervous entering Sing Sing?
I wasn’t nervous. However, we did not enter into the more dangerous parts of the prison. We were shuttled into the school building.

Did you go through security?
Yeah, we still had to go through security and have everything checked. The school is in the middle of the prison so we did go through a couple of hallways, but we weren’t allowed into the yard.

Did you have to pass by inmates who weren’t involved in the program?
Just a little bit. They were actually held back behind a line, as we were going down this hallway. But we really didn’t have a whole lot of interaction with them.

What was the reaction of those inmates not involved in the program to you?
Nobody yelled out anything at us.

Did you have any women in your crew?
No. That would have made things a little more nerve-wracking.

Did you ever experience anything of a criminal nature that led you into making this type of film?

How did you feel as you were filming, and what did you learn?
I felt like I was that normal viewer watching a movie, [discovering] who these people were. I think that helped me stay effective. I learned that if you don’t have a family member who’s been incarcerated, or if you’re not working in the criminal justice system, then you don’t really have any contact with people who are incarcerated. And that’s important by design. They’re behind the wall for a reason—because of the choices they’ve made. I liken them to homeless people. A lot of times you don’t know much about homeless people, but at least you’re presented with them from time to time, and you make the decision [whether or not] to give money. With incarcerated men and women, you’re really never presented with them unless they tell you they used to be in prison.

Who is the man who runs the program?
Sean Pica. In the media, his nickname is ‘the homeroom hit man.’ When he was 16-years-old, living on Long Island, a schoolmate told him that her father was sexually abusing her. This was a year or two after her mother had passed away.

Was what she said, true?
Apparently it was true, and came out in the trial. The girl and Sean were in the same homeroom and were casual acquaintances. I asked Sean if he had a crush on her, and he told me that he did not. But I’ve seen interviews where he was asked that question and he said that he kind of thought she was cute—so you can take it for what it’s worth. But he did kill her father for her, for $1,000. After he did it, he said that was the plan—for the money—but that he was really trying to help a friend. He said that after it happened, he didn’t go back to school, but just waited like a zombie, for the cops to come and arrest him.

How many years did the girl serve for instigating the crime?
She got 6 months.

And Sean?
He got 8-24 years—and ended up serving 16. During that time he grew up, taking college classes and then when college was removed from the system, [a new program was created.] Because Sean had so many credits, he was instantly a candidate to be part of the first round—and graduated in 2001. I believe he was released from prison in 2002, and earned a second master’s degree.

Where did Sean serve time?
He was in nine [different] facilities, and ended up in Sing Sing.

Why do they move inmates to different facilities?
Sometimes it has to do with overcrowding. Other times it has to do with whether someone has a violation, and gets transferred. There are only a certain number of maximum-security prisons, and if one of your accomplices is in one, then you have to go to another.

I think it’s the Asian man in your movie, who’s forced to leave school and the prison because there was an infraction in his cellblock, which he took no part in.
Right. Raymond Yu is the name of that man. He was in the maintenance department, and another inmate in the maintenance department, had a cellphone. So they [the guards] assume that if you’re side-by-side in a cell, then you surely knew about this, and you’re transferred. So they transferred all the guys in the maintenance department.

That’s tough.
They’re pretty brutal about it. In the film, the first time Joelle tried to get married to his wife, he got transferred the day before the wedding. I mean… it’s understandable. They’re running a prison, and not just a place for people to get married. Once someone’s transferred, it doesn’t matter what the situations are. Also, once you’re transferred, you can’t go back. So Raymond Yu got transferred and will never be able to go back. But Sean did make some personal calls to a program at Bard College, so Raymond could take classes. However, it’s not a degree-granting program. So he won’t be able to get a degree until he gets out, and can hopefully, get a scholarship. It’s a pretty sad story.

How do weapons and drugs get through prison security?
Some are smuggled in by guards, and some by people coming to visit. It’s very lucrative to smuggle stuff in because you get paid very well. With the cell phone case, they think a guard gave the cell phone over and some guard got fired. It’s just one of those things where the money is corrupting people—and they’re willing to do it.

It makes you wonder about the lawyers, too.
Once you’re in and out of the prison every day, and nobody’s checking the bags, or just leafing through them real easily, that’s when the temptation [strikes]. Sean told me that everyone knew after a certain day (I think visitations were on Thursdays), that whoever the supplier was, would be in on a visit— and that Thursday night everyone at the prison would be high.

Does anybody do anything to stop it?
I’m sure they do. I think when they find stuff they tend to do something about it. But I think they feel like it’s a battle they can’t entirely win. So they do raids and transfer people, and try to keep it to a minimum. But it doesn’t seem to work because it’s so pervasive.

Are there any physicians at the prison?
There are actually pretty decent medical facilities at almost all the prisons. So when people are sick, or more often, injured from fights, they go to the infirmary and get patched up. They can also be taken to a hospital.

Would anyone care if an inmate was a drug addict—and try to help?
They actually have substance abuse classes there. There are also substance abuse programs throughout the prison system. That’s because people come into the prison as addicts. But also because they know that there are drugs [circulating within the prison] so rehabilitation should be offered. Sing Sing is such an old prison that through the years they developed a lot of programs for substance abuse, anger management, and a scared straight-type program where inmates talk to troubled kids. A couple of our guys were involved in programs like those.

In terms of Hudson Link’s lengthy waiting list: How is it determined who’s really interested in furthering their education, and who might be faking it, to perhaps get an earlier release?
The only people who are eligible are those who have not had a ticket in two years.

What’s a ticket?
A ticket is any infraction that you commit within the prison. These can be insubordination, fighting, contraband—anything for which you get written-up. So in a sense, it’s self-selecting— where if guys want to be involved in the program, they can’t be fighting with, or stabbing people. So out of the 2,000 inmates at the prison, a certain number are eligible—and those people apply for entrance into the program. I suppose there could be people who are faking it, but if they’re faking it so well that they haven’t done anything wrong, then what might seem like faking at the time— becomes more and more real. The college program is rigorous, and by enrolling you only get 6 months off your sentence. So if a guy’s in for 20 years, going through such a rigorous program, and having to be a saint for that long, then faking it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.

Has anyone been removed from the program once they were in?
There have been one or two people that have done something inappropriate. Apparently one inmate who was an accepted student, started passing flattering, love notes to one of the teachers. That’s a big no-no. Because of that, he was removed, and will never have the chance to get back into the program.

Did any of the inmates have any college education prior to entering the program?
Yes. A number of them did. For example: Juan— the man who leaves prison after twenty-five years. There was also another man in the program—a boxer named Dewey Bozella —who recently won the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage.

In the film, the Valedictorian passed the honor to the first runner up, because he was too upset after seeing a friend on his cellblock get murdered. He was unusually bright. Did he have a college background?
Joel Jimenez—and no, he didn’t have a college background. All of his college work was done inside. He was a young man hanging out on the street with his brother one night and thought someone was going to pull a gun on his brother, and shot the person. He was a very remorseful man.

So many of the men in the program seemed so nice. Did their lawyers ever succeed in getting any of them appeals, and new trials?
Sure, a lot of them did. I mentioned Dewey earlier. He was in for twenty-six years for a crime he didn’t commit, and finally got released. He never would have gotten out even though his lawyers were trying, because the parole board didn’t want to hear that he didn’t do it. The only way they approve you for parole is if you’re remorseful, and he always maintained his innocence. Oddly, the arresting officer who originally had it out for Dewey, was the same one who got him exonerated.
Dewey has over fifty certificates, including a college degree and a master’s degree.

Are the former students who have been released, doing well?
I think that many of them are doing better than people who have never been to prison. One of the graduates became a teacher and actually went back and started teaching at Sing Sing. Dewey Bozella is helping young kids at Newburgh learn how to box.

Speaking of Dewey’s wrongful imprisonment, were there any others who graduated from the program who were wrongfully incarcerated?
There was another person who graduated from the program named Fernando Bermudez. He had been transferred by the time I started filming [and was finally exonerated after 18 years].

When was DNA first used to exonerate people?
It was in the ‘90s. ‘The Innocence Project’ is the premiere place that exonerates through DNA. They ended up taking Dewey’s case. But the preserved DNA evidence from his case was destroyed in a routine purge, one year before they became involved in his case. Once the DNA evidence was destroyed, they felt so strongly that Dewey was wrongfully convicted that they sought out the law firm, Wilmer Hale to work on the case pro bono.

And justice was finally served.

Thank you for making such a thought-provoking film, Tim.
I appreciate your taking the time to talk to me about it.

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  1. John Murphy says:

    Thanks Film Threat for publishing this very interesting interview. It opened an ongoing discussion between my fellow attorneys and myself, about the need for prison reform in this country. I saw the film at a festival and thought the filmmaker presented his case fairly and objectively. That’s pretty rare in documentaries of this type. Do you know if Tim Skousen is shooting anything new?

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