Staying afloat in the middle of the ocean is hard enough. It’s learning to swim that can make or break a person, and in Ciara Lacy’s Out of State, her subjects struggle in the face of an anchorless future. They are inmates from the Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona, one of several for-profit prisons in the continental United States that solely incarcerates native Hawaiians. Built due to on-island overcrowding, these facilities are a window into the American prison industrial complex and how a “re-entrance” into society too often feels like drowning.
The documentary follows two men, David and Hale, chronicling their difficult transitions from incarceration to conditional freedom. They attempt to regain independence and resume their lives. But how can someone press play after such a tremendously arduous pause? “I think I had to go to the ends of the earth and hit bottom to find out who I really was,” David says, the vast ocean stretching out before him. For those imprisoned at the Saguaro facility, their time behind bars is in unison with a discovery of identity: they regularly practice native Hawaiian traditions, and a cultural camaraderie emerges from their dire circumstances.
It’s a compelling direction for the documentary; there is something quite powerful seeing these individuals reclaim their culture in a space built on white supremacist ideals. “I never would have learned [my culture] outside of prison,” Hale says. “That’s messed up.” He’s been locked up for 15 years but is being transferred to a medium security prison back in Hawaii, where he’ll have to complete a work furlough before release. David, meanwhile, returns to O’ahu with a job at a local community center, his daughter and grandkids waiting to reconnect with him. Their familial bonds and friendships keep them somewhat grounded as they venture out into the unknown.
The decision to follow two men on divergent paths makes for a striking polarity: Hale is steadily successful in his post-prison life, whereas David finds himself struggling to hold a job and stay clean. If prison is supposed to lead to betterment, then why does it breed a terrible cycle of displacement and depression for so many? “Freedom is where the real test begins,” Hale remarks, and this is indeed part of the problem. Prison forces the mind into habits of institutionalization and rigidity that simply aren’t sustainable upon returning home, and when that rigidity can’t be maintained, it’s interpreted as a personal failure rather than a systemic one. Thus, some former inmates turn to self-destructive behavior, causing relapses and setbacks that land them back behind bars.
Out of State observes these men without judgment, and the film’s empathetic portrayal is resonant. It gives the subjects a space to be introspective and vulnerable; and there is a lot of vulnerability in this film, a standout moment being David’s interaction with his father, who apologizes for pressuring his son with high expectations. I briefly wondered how the filmmaker could have further explored life in the Saguaro prison, but the decision to venture outward is indubitably where the heart and conflict of the film live. And in some ways, the ramifications of imprisonment loom throughout the film, weighing on the subjects as they contend with their new lives outside of the facility.
What happens beyond prison when one finally returns home? What is home after so much time spent elsewhere? David and Hale are haunted by feelings of outsider status and unworthiness of life beyond prison, and their relationships are sometimes their only source of strength. “This was my mistake growing up; thinking that I’d rather be respected or feared than loved,” Hale remarks. “Today, it’s totally the opposite.” In the unchartered waters of life after imprisonment, Out of State contends that love might be the only thing keeping them from sinking.