On a May night in 1997, in Tacoma, Wash., Kimonti Carter strafed a car he believed was carrying rival gang members. It wasn’t — not that that should matter. One of the car’s five passengers, a college student, Corey Pittman, 19, was killed. Carter, who had recently turned 18, was sentenced to life in prison.
In the director Gilda Sheppard’s sympathetic documentary “Since I Been Down,” the punishment is also a crime.
Rife with archival visuals of Tacoma in the late 1980s and ’90s, when crack cocaine and gang violence were claiming lives, the documentary’s greatest strength is as a listening tour, with Carter as its chief guide.
Because Carter shot from a car, he was charged with aggravated first-degree murder, which carried an automatic mandatory life sentence. (His resentencing hearing is scheduled for July 8.) He is not the only subject of harsh prison time. Washington State’s three-strikes sentencing (it abolished parole in 1984) can land especially hard on young offenders.
Over the decades, Carter has expressed remorse, but it is his role as a beneficiary of and leader in the inmate-led initiatives the Black Prisoners’ Collective and T.E.A.C.H., or Taking Education and Changing History, that suggests transformation.
Other inmates here share insights, as do two former detectives, some ex-gang members, and the mothers of victims and perpetrators. One former inmate, Tonya Wilson, who served 17 years, is especially astute about the personal as well as societal forces that led to her incarceration.
Another inmate says, “We say a lot of the answers that people in society are seeking will be found in prison.”
“We’ve caused pain,” that inmate says, “primarily ’cause we were in pain.”
Far from seeming like an excuse, in “Since I Been Down,” this observation sounds like a way toward reckoning and change.