Before Prison

Directors : Emily Harger & Olivia Merrion

Oklahoma state imprisons more women per capita than anywhere else in the US, double the national average. Robyn Allen is just one of these women. She is serving a twenty year sentence for the trafficking of illegal drugs, but the life that led to this conviction, a life that is marred with varying strains of abuse, mirrors that of countless other incarcerated women across the state and the country. Running at seven and a half minutes, Before Prison can only scratch at the surface of an issue that is so deeply ingrained in the American social and legal system, that its roots reach across generations in an unbroken cycle of crime and punishment. The scratch is small, impossible to penetrate to the point of resolution, and, although seemingly visible, it is also divisive and buried beneath layers bureaucracy. It’s a scratch though, that leaves its mark. Through interviews with Robyn and her mother, Marrian, we learn about their lives before the sentencing, about Robyn as a child, well rounded and “into everything.” About the abuse she endured throughout her adolescence, unbeknown or incomprehensible to Marrian, and the wheels those events set in motion, dictating the rest of her life, driving her first to addiction and eventually to prison. It isn’t an easy watch, it comes with an early warning to viewers that some of the content is disturbing and potentially triggering, which should be observed. But it is an important and provocative watch, about cause, effect and retribution. Olivia Merrion and Emily Harger handle this all with a careful responsibility to their subjects and to us, asking not that we overlook Robyn’s transgression because of past trauma, but that we employ a level of compassion and consider the consequences to what is becoming a very serious epidemic. As Oklahoma’s female prison population is set to grow by 60 percent by 2026, the film poses a valuable question about what can be done before prison, to catch the catalyst before it becomes a crime and close the cycle before it turns into a life sentence.

Ami Guest