Producer/Prison Activist Scott Budnick On Dangers Of Pandemic Spread Behind Bars

Mike Fleming Jr.
March 24, 2020

After steering Joker director Todd Phillips’ company for years and producing Old School, Due Date and The Hangover, Scott Budnick temporarily left the business, shedding comedies for more a far more serious pursuit. He become an advocate for social justice and a fairer judicial system and founded the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, to provide formerly incarcerated men and women with direct services like housing, counseling, job training mentoring and education, and to lean in on direct policy advocacy on the state level. Budnick returned to our business as CEO of One Community, a film, television and new media co-financing company that uses the power of storytelling to encourage and inspire positive global change. Here, he expresses his concern for the explosive potential for pandemic spread in the prison system, and what ought to be done for elderly inmates whose lives are right now in danger.

DEADLINE: What were you doing when this pandemic overtook us all?

BUDNICK: A little over a year ago I had come back into the film space to launch One Community, a social impact co-finance company. I realized just how much storytelling positively impacted the success of philanthropic endeavors from spending the 10 years prior running Anti-Recidivism Coalition. I had initially left the film business to found ARC with the goal of changing policy and legislation that help those incarcerated and support them with jobs and opportunity when they get out. A good example of marrying both passions happened this past year when One Community co-financed Just Mercy with Warner Bros. We were busy with our impact work around that film and gearing up on two other upcoming projects when the pandemic hit. We sent everyone home.

DEADLINE: We’re already seeing layoffs and salary cuts at Hollywood agencies, whose revenues came to a screeching halt. Every company will be challenged with how to treat the payment of employees. Have you been able to keep paying the people you sent home?

BUDNICK: Yes. My team is everything to me, and we are fortunately much leaner. We’ve been supporting our team and working well from home. We’re on video conference multiple times a day. I actually found last week to be one of my most productive weeks. There are daily staff check-in calls, to check on people’s physical and mental health, see how people are feeling and how we can support them. We are a values-based company, and I’m always asking myself if we are staying true to our core values. Our operations team is working with me to develop a strategic plan into the future in this new world order. I’ve been spending time speaking with the department of corrections in California and other states’ departments of corrections, on how to prevent this virus from spreading in prisons. Sunday night, California’s corrections department announced the first CV-19 case inside a California prison

DEADLINE: We also saw that Harvey Weinstein tested positive for COVID-19 at Riker’s Island. Some might call that karma, but what’s it telling us about what might happen inside prisons?

BUDNICK: When you have any disease — sickness, flu, anything contagious in a prison — it just spreads like wildfire. We have 2.5 million incarcerated in this country. Many of whom are sick, elderly and infirm and for years have not been a danger to anyone because they’re in their 70s or 80s. We are in talks with multiple people in the country to release as many of the elderly and infirm people as possible, who are close to their release dates and have housing in the community to get them out of a prison before this happens, and to find housing for those that don’t. Prisons don’t have the medical care that we have out here. When someone does get sick, there will not be the necessary equipment to save their lives. It’s a very confined environment, obviously.

DEADLINE: Shouldn’t that work against a viral spread?

BUDNICK: Quite the opposite, anything contagious spreads like crazy because of overcrowding, people are stacked on top of each other. I visited a California prison last week, about two days before the prison closed down for all volunteers. I came wearing gloves and kept a six-foot distance from everybody and was just checking in on the general spirit of those who live there and those who work there. They were very scared. It was a little crazy because we in the community had taken so many precautions on this already, but they really didn’t seem to have gotten the memo in there. The officers and the incarcerated folks seemed be in very close quarters, interacting with each other and I was scared those officers who come in from the outside would be the transmitters, those people on the outside who bring the disease in.

I also worry about the officers and prison staff, because once this erupts inside the prison, the correctional officers aren’t safe either. I don’t like the idea of locking people down three months and having them stay in a cell the size of a closet, for that long. But I think to prevent the spread of this, it may be necessary. You let them out for medical, for phone calls with their families and any other way to keep them connected to humanity and family – and make sure to sterilize the phone between each use and maybe there is ways to get people out of their cells, separate from each other, but it’s time to tighten up a bit. Because it’s about to get really bad. I have taught hundreds of young people over the years that are now in the prison system, and I worry very much about them. They have all been on a path of major personal growth and change, and then this happens…

DEADLINE: I’m sure there’ll be some who read this and think, too bad. These people have done bad things and there are inherent risks in that. They aren’t as big a priority as others. You upended a career to lean in on convincing the incarcerated that a turn toward the wrong side of the law doesn’t have to be permanent. What do you say to those skeptics? And what needs to happen and how best to keep COVID-19 from ravaging an incarcerated population?

BUDNICK: Think about this. Obviously people are in prisons for all types of reasons, but imagine being there for a marijuana-related offense. And then seeing California and other states list marijuana dispensaries as an essential business? That’s crazy. Do you deserve to die in prison because they haven’t protected you from the coronavirus? We’re talking about humanity here. If we see each other as human and we believe in redemption and justice, fairness and mercy, aren’t these people as equally deserving of protection from a pandemic as any of us on the streets? When I go into prisons, I work with many who have committed crimes from 14-16 years old, but I always tell them what Bryan Stevenson has said, which is, your worst act does not define who you are as a human being. You are much more than that. Before you made this decision, you were a son, a brother, you had dreams and hopes. Let’s get back to who that person was, and deal with the issues that caused you to join a gang or commit a crime. We’ve had hundreds if not thousands of people who’ve gotten out and we’ve got probably 50 of the folks I’ve work with who are now in the film and television unions.

DEADLINE: People you worked with and steered toward these opportunities?

BUDNICK: I worked with them while they were incarcerated and now they’re grips, electric, camera, set dressers, prop assistants. About 40 from the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, a non-profit I started, are among those building the stadium for the Rams. We’ve gotten 200 of our members into union construction jobs. They’re some of the hardest workers on the planet. And because of how hard they had to work to get that job, that opportunity, they come with an enormous spirit of gratitude, in addition to being the hardest workers.

If we can’t see the human aspect of this, let’s quickly talk about the economic aspect. It costs about $60,000 to incarcerate an adult. It costs — wait for this number — $225,000 a year to incarcerate one juvenile for one year. That’s four or five times the cost of a year’s tuition to Harvard,; that’s what it takes to incarcerate a young person. The recidivism rate for those young people is about 70%. They come in, get out, and seven out of ten end up coming back. If I was the CEO of that business, I would be fired tomorrow. The business would be bankrupt. But that’s what we’ve been doing for 100 years. All the evidence is very clear on what it takes to change someone’s life, when they get out. Housing, mentoring, job training, college, therapy. We just don’t do it even though the evidence is clear. No one as taxpayers wants to be spending that, with that outcome. The alternative is to help people get their lives back on track, which is much less expensive. See them as human and treat them that way. Bring out their greatness, their goodness and get to that place of redemption.

DEADLINE: The people you’ve helped into meaningful employment, what’s the recidivism rate there?

BUDNICK: Under 10%. Compared to 50%-70%, normally.

DEADLINE: What are the things you are drilling down on during this crisis right now?

BUDNICK: Making sure my team at One Community, the team at Represent Justice and my family are safe and good during this crisis. And making sure that the thousands of people I know, in California prisons, understand what they need to do to stay healthy. And to work with my contacts at the state level and in the governor’s office, to make sure that we’re doing everything to protect those behind bars, the officers and staff that work every day in this tough environment, so we don’t have catastrophic loss of life for our elderly and infirm folks, and look at the possibility, for incarcerated individuals who are hand selected and shown to pose no danger to the community, whatsoever, of getting them released without creating any danger. Getting them out of there before this happens. And for God’s sake, if our elected officials are classifying marijuana dispensaries as “essential services,” than it is an absolute travesty that anyone is serving time in jail or prison for marijuana. Send them home to their families!