Aaron, 18 years old and dressed in an oversized, light grey sweatshirt, sits blankly across from Intake Officer Clayton in an Indiana detention center while she asks him questions, his face betraying little emotion and his voice barely above a whisper.
“I can’t hear you,” Clayton says, and Aaron repeats his answer, just loud enough for her to hear.
As Clayton tells Aaron of an impending charge, shock flickers across his otherwise still face – this was the first he’d heard anything about it.
Scenes such as this are common in the work of Calamari Productions. In an effort to continue bringing innovative, accurate insights on juvenile justice, The Juvenile Justice Information Exchange has formed a partnership with this award-winning production. Dubbed The Juvenile Justice Documentary Project, the partnership showcases documentary clips that give first-person accounts from teens and employees of the system on JJIE’s sister site, Bokeh.
Calamari, an independent digital media and television production company, is unique for its sole focus on juvenile justice and child welfare programming. With shows that have been featured on several major networks including MSNBC, A&E, Dateline NBC and MTV, Calamari goes beyond providing inside access to juvenile detention centers and court hearings and succeeds in showing the human side of the juvenile justice system.
“When you’re making films or projects about youth and especially youth who are at a crossroads in their life or in a state different place, it’s easy to get their stories wrong. So, there’s a heightened responsibility for filmmakers in this area,” said fellow documentarian Bernardo Ruiz of Quiet Pictures.
Founded in the spare bedroom of President and Executive Producer Karen Grau in 1995, Grau felt the push to focus on these issues when, for an unrelated matter, she sat in on an abuse and neglect hearing.
“And without any intent on altering her life course, she was so affected by what she saw in that courtroom and she just felt people had to know what goes on…she felt very strongly that the public needed to know,” said Chip Warren, Vice President of Production and New Media Development at Calamari.
Warren, who began working with Calamari on a part-time basis in 2005 and fully made the transition in 2008, also never intended to commit his life to this work. With extensive production and development experience, it was also Warren’s time spent around kids in crisis that lead him to commit to this cause.
“The really powerful experience is walking into a detention center or prison for the first time — those kids are scary,” said Warren. “Going from that to talking to them about their past and opening up to them and them opening up to me — that human connection, and feeling like you could make a real connection if you just treat them like normal,” said Warren.
As a teen, Warren also spent some time in a juvenile detention center, which he feels gave him a marginally better chance at being prepared to enter into this field of work.
“Coming from a well-to-do middle- to upper-class background, spending a weekend in juvie really impacted me,” said Warren. “It better equipment me to step outside my comfort zone and embrace that human connection in these environments.”
And, showcasing that human connection is just one of the things that has helped Calamari grow and bring these stories to life. In just over a decade, the company has flourished from a small bedroom office to headquarters in Indianapolis, Ind. with satellite offices in New York City and Austin, Texas.
Grau’s commitment to staying true to the topic as well as her hands-on, holds-no-barred attitude pushed her to petition the Indiana Supreme Court for camera access in the courts, a request to venues that – by law – are close to the media. Grau, along with Calamari Productions, made history by becoming the first director/producer and production company to have the state law waived and gain unrestricted access to Supreme Court hearings. And although others have been granted temporary access, Calamari’s remain the only cameras allowed inside several juvenile and child welfare courts and juvenile prisons with unrestricted access.
This access couple with Calamari’s commitment to educating the public on the inner workings of the juvenile justice and child welfare system has resulted in numerous award-winning network television series and documentary films.
Through growth and innovation, Calamari has managed to stick to its main goal: Sharing the stories of children, teens and officials who deal with the juvenile justice and child welfare systems.
“We want to de-stigmatize these families and courts, because they don’t get their story told,” said Warren. “And to help people realize what brings kids into trouble in the first place. And, that there’s a reason to care,” Warren explains. “And it’s not about being lenient. We’re showing that they are challenging cases. [There is] more of an opportunity to rehabilitate a 15-year-old than a 25-year-old.”
JJIE’s Bokeh will begin with an exclusive look at one teen’s process in the juvenile justice system. In a three-part series entitled “Aaron’s Story,” this young man shares his story on how he landed in the system, and what’s in store for his future. For the full feature, follow this link: The Juvenile Justice Documentary Project