Rancho Santa Fe resident Christina Fink spends every Friday in jail. She is doing her time teaching a film studies class to men in a housing module for veterans at the Vista Detention Center. Her class, Inside-the-Reels is now entering its second year as part of the Veterans Moving Forward program, which offers the incarcerated men services such as counseling, anger management, art classes, yoga and writing, and art classes.
“It has been life-changing,” Fink said of her two, two-hour classes held every Friday since last January. “I’m delighted to have the privilege to be affiliated with this unbelievable program.”
Fink entered the prison world 20 years ago, when she was a volunteer with the San Diego Juvenile Court Book Club, serving as its president for five years. She served as a substitute teacher at the Kearny Mesa Juvenile Detention Facility for 10 years.
Five years ago she was looking for a change and applied to become a substitute for adults at the Vista Jail.
Fink said she has a soft spot in her heart for prisoners.
“I see them differently than I think a lot of people, although I certainly know that they are on the wrong side of the law,” Fink said. “In my experience, the majority of the people have had very, very tough lives and you have to understand that to know where they’re coming from. It doesn’t excuse the things that they do but a lot of them are survivors of very, very tough lives. They’ve had bad family lives and less opportunities than a lot of people”
Fink came up with the idea of the film studies class after one of her students told her about the veterans’ unit—it was a wake-up call, she had no idea there were so many veterans in the jail system.
“I have a great respect for veterans and I had been trying to find a way to thank them for their service and had never found the right one,” Fink said.
She admired the Veterans’ Module in the Vista Jail founded by program director Glendon Morales, and how it allows the inmates to get re-balanced and re-focused and fostered a strong sense of camaraderie and a brotherhood within the unit.
As Fink serves as the co-chair of the San Diego Jewish Film Festival, she is deeply involved in film, viewing about 360 movies a year. She pitched the idea of a film studies class to Morales and he gave her an enthusiastic two thumbs up to get started.
Fink’s hopes for the class are that not only could it give the men a reprieve and a chance to think critically, but also it would give them new and interesting things to talk about with others in their unit and with their family and friends.
Also, it lends them a tool for re-entry, so they have something in their pocket to discuss when they get out, a way to socialize and not feel awkward in conversations.
In the class, Fink uses a lot of foreign films, Sundance films and Oscar winners, documentaries and some art-oriented films that they might have never seen otherwise.
One of the first films her class watched was the French comedy, “Intouchables.” It is one of her favorite films and she was thrilled when an inmate thanked her for showing it to them.
“He said, ‘We haven’t laughed this much as a group in I don’t know how long,’” Fink said.
The class has watched and discussed films such as “Chef,” “Foxcatcher,” “American Sniper,” “Imitation Game”— the month of October last year was dedicated to Alfred Hitchcock, which had the men watching a documentary about the famed director, as well as screening his most notable features such as “North by Northwest.”
During one session they had a guest speaker from the movie “One Revolution”— paraplegic skier Chris Waddell, who became the first nearly unassisted paraplegic to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Through donations from friends and cleaning out her own DVD collections, she has also made a big contribution to the unit’s film collection, which has a better selection than the jail’s lending library. She has placed posters on the wall of the films they have viewed along with movie quotes.
“I have absolutely never felt threatened,” Fink said of her time in jail. “When people think of the criminals, their mind immediately goes to the dark side of who they are. What I see is the complete opposite. I see normal men who are inquisitive, polite and respectful. They are so well-mannered and courteous.”
She can’t take paper clips, pens or pencils into the jail, leaves her cell phone behind for the day and she doesn’t ask about the men’s personal information. She always dresses nicely for class, not shying away from wearing jewelry and Chanel No. 5. Fink said it’s important for her to dress up because it demonstrates the respect she has for the men, for the program and what she’s doing.
Fink said she thinks of herself as a bit of an ambassador for the men, speaking out for a population many do not know exists. She feels a strong calling to raise awareness for the plight of veterans, how many come home and face struggles with depression, substance abuse, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and “heartbreakingly,” many end up in jail.
According to 2013 statistics, there are approximately 700,000 incarcerated veterans in the U.S. jail and prison system, roughly 10 percent of the prison population.
“It’s a big calling and it’s a tough one because it’s not going to go away,” Fink said. “I want to raise a sympathetic flag of community awareness that these veterans need our help.”
She said she hopes everyone can find something in their world that they can do to help veterans, whether it’s a job slot or a way of supporting a veteran’s family. For Fink, she is doing her small part, spending her Fridays in jail watching films and helping to raise the bar of discussion and critical thinking.
“My hope is when they leave they’re not leaving as the same man when they entered. It’s a lofty goal but I hope it works,” Fink said. “As a nation, we have got to all come up with something to thank them. Think of something you can do to help our veterans coming home.”