Apr 8, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Van Jones documentary on prison reform on Amazon Prime

Brandon Kramer, Lance Kramer and Van Jones attend a panel discussion of "The First Step" at Laemmle Royal on February 25, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.

Brandon Kramer, Lance Kramer and Van Jones attend a panel discussion of "The First Step" at Laemmle Royal on Feb. 25 in Los Angeles. Photo: Michael Tullberg/Getty Images

A documentary following CNN commentator Van Jones' journey to see prison reform passed under President Trump (and the backlash he faced) is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

Why it matters: "The First Step" has been screening at film festivals and organized events surrounding prison reform but hasn't been available to the broader public until now.

Details: Directed by Brandon Kramer, the film shows Jones bringing Black activists from South Central Los Angeles together with white people in West Virginia as they discuss ways to battle the opioid crisis.

  • It highlights the progressive-leaning commentator's attempts to get a compromise bill on prison reform through a divided Congress and to Trump's desk.
  • During his fight, Jones endured harsh criticism from some Black advocates for agreeing to work with Trump officials on a bill, while conservative activists labeled Jones a Communist.

Quick update: Since the passage of the First Step Act in 2018, 25,000 incarcerated people have been released early from federal prison, Jones told Axios.

  • The bill gave judges more discretion in giving less than the mandatory minimum for certain low-level crimes.
  • It also reduced the mandatory penalty from life to 25 years for a third conviction of certain drug offenses, and from 25 to 15 years for a second conviction.

The intrigue: Kramer and Jones screened the film at the American Film Institute Docs Film Festival in 2021 and have promoted it at forums focusing on prison reform.

  • Jones, a former Obama administration official, still faces criticism from liberal advocates for working with Trump.
  • The 45th president has said he regretted following some of son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner's political advice on criminal justice reform.

What they're saying: "We live in a very turbulent kind of policy and political environment where you really can't tie yourself to that weathervane," Jones said.

  • "I'm at peace for the 25,000 people who got home earlier. I'm still concerned about the 2 million who are being brutalized and suffering right now."

Kramer told Axios the film tells an evergreen story that's just as important now as it was then.

  • "We had an opportunity to witness bridge-building action in this era. There are so few people that attempt to work across the divide for good reason."

Don't forget: Barriers to employment for former prisoners caused a loss of at least $78 billion in annual GDP in 2014. Yet ex-convicts usually either cannot find work or are paid low wages, according to a Brookings report.

Go deeper