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‘The Corridor’ chronicles a high school behind bars

Bethany, a Five Keys Charter School student, is one of the inmates profiled in “The Corridor.”
Bethany, a Five Keys Charter School student, is one of the inmates profiled in “The Corridor.”Annelise Wunderlich

“This handout is about hopelessness.”

Not the kind of pronouncement you’d expect from educators, but this is Five Keys Charter School, a high school behind bars at San Francisco County Jail.

Five Keys is the subject of Annelise Wunderlich and Richard O’Connell’s brisk, cogent, and moving documentary “The Corridor.” Like other recent films such as Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous’s “The Work” and local filmmaker Julie Mallozzi’s “Circle Up,” the film focuses not just on the rehabilitation of those incarcerated, but the lessons in self-rehabilitation that they can teach us all.

The corridor of the title is the hall leading from the prison to the teaching area. There the prisoners are searched, released from shackles, and warned about misbehavior before they enter classes ranging from art to bicycle repair.

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The teachers, meanwhile, are instructed not to trust anyone because they will be dealing with murderers, rapists, and con artists. “Always make sure you have a clear path to the ‘duress button,’ ” they are told, referring to the alarm to be pushed if they are in danger. And the sheriffs have their hands full protecting the teachers and making sure that members of the facility’s 22 gangs don’t end up together in the same room.

“The Corridor” does not offer a rosy picture of the program or make sweeping claims of success. It does offer compelling profiles of those involved — teachers and corrections officers as well as students.

Bethany has been on drugs for 20 years. She is 31. She also has six children, two of whom she hasn’t seen since they were born. The others she communicates with by Facebook. She never finished high school, but she has learned a lot about being a criminal. Nothing violent, but “just don’t let me near a computer,” she says. Now she realizes she has one more chance to take advantage of her intelligence, regain her self-esteem, fulfill her potential, and become a good mother.

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Captain Kevin Paulson, in charge of prison security, recalls being assaulted as a young man in Jersey City. It was a gay-bashing attack, and when he reported it to the police, an officer told him that “if he had a nickel for every gay beaten up in this city he’d be a rich man.” “I decided a peace officer should stand for something better than that,” Paulson says. “And the only way to enable that change was to be part of it.”

Tyson Amir came from a background where he could easily have ended up like the students in his world history class. Instead, he teaches those less fortunate than himself about their constitutional rights, the philosophy of Gandhi, and the mechanisms of authority and power. He has no illusions about the impact of his work. “My job is to teach,” he says. “But I can’t save anybody.”

The inmates must learn to save themselves. Near the end of “The Corridor” is a metaphorical shot — prisoners in orange jumpsuits separated by bars from the black graduation gowns they are about to don. Their lessons in overcoming hopelessness have paid off.

“The Corridor” airs on PBS World Channel at 8 p.m. on Tuesday. It is available Wednesday online at worldchannel.org; on all station-branded PBS platforms, including PBS.org; and on PBS apps.


Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.

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