A lot of us live in these worlds that we don’t want change. We feel we need to be strong, and we need strong people around us. It goes back to that only the strong survive.
— John Piccirillo, Soledad Inmate

The Project

An intimate and stirring portrait of three men on the frontlines of crime and punishment in America, IN AN IDEAL WORLD goes deep inside a California prison to explore — and honor — the human drama at its core. 

Shot over seven years with unlimited access, the film is an immersive story told firsthand, without outside experts or narration. A white warden at ease with authority, a separatist murderer and a black ex-gang member, all three men come from different worlds. Yet all have spent their entire adult lives in prison, sharing a culture that has, in just that time, institutionalized the American racial landscape in ways that we are only beginning to understand, and that may prove very difficult to undo. Each came into the system very young, learned the convict/cop “codes” from their groups, and over three decades gained power and influence in prison. At the same time, crime control in the U.S. came to rely almost exclusively on locking people up, increasingly and disproportionately people of color.

John, Sam and the warden learned how to navigate prison’s complex, violent and deeply entrenched, racially divided culture, but now they find themselves on the cusp of potentially radical change. 

outside looking in

For the average American, exposure to prison life comes through stereotypes in popular media or political advertising. Even the families of the incarcerated and staff - and most justice professionals - have never been inside.    

on the inside

What happens inside matters, to men and women on both sides of the bars, and to the rest of us who not only foot the bill, but whose values are built into the structure. As Restorative Justice advocate Howard Zehr has said, "Justice is a legal process, but it is also an experience." 


capacity for change

See how change takes place at the broad systems level as policy and legal changes filter down to the mainline, and at the level of the individual through programs like the "Alternatives to Violence Project" (AVP) workshop.

But we’re all prisoners, we all done broke the law! You know, this guy over here is no different than me. When the man says, ‘Stand up!,’ for the five o’clock count, he means him just like me. I don’t care if you’re black, white, Mexican, whatever.
— Ernest Kirkwood, Inmate