NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — The brutal effects of alcoholism are often most apparent within the walls of local jails.
Every day, correctional officers are tasked with housing soiled and disheveled drinkers who have been scraped off the sidewalk by police officers. In the worst cases, the arrestee stays behind bars long enough sober up before he is released back on to the streets, only to repeat the cycle within a matter of days, or sometimes even hours.
It is a commonplace ritual for correctional officers, but it is also a major part of the job that the public is not regularly exposed to. David J. Sperling, custody officer at the Newport Beach City Jail for the last 15 years, is changing that with a new documentary that examines the life of an alcoholic who has been arrested more than 400 times for being drunk in public over the last 12 years.
The film, “Drunk in Public,” was screened at the Newport Beach Film Festival last April and Sperling plans to distribute it to correctional facilities and other rehabilitative facilities, along with other film festivals, across the country.
The film chronicles the life of Mark David Allen, a Newport resident that was homeless and unable to escape the grips of alcoholism. A brain injury that causes Allen to have seizures if he doesn’t take his medication complicates his situation. Because the Newport jail does not administer medication to inmates, Allen’s aliment often prompts city officials to release him early, so he doesn’t have any seizures while in custody. The practice has avoided some liability issues and extra medical costs for the city, but it has also allowed for Allen’s arrest count to skyrocket.
Following the few showings that the documentary has had — including the Newport Film Festival showing that attracted a lunchtime crowd of 400 people, according to Sperling — the response to the film has been generally positive, Sperling says.
He says he is particularly surprised by the feedback from people who interact with alcoholics on a regular basis that he thought would not be as sympathetic as the general public.
“A lot of people, specifically police officers, jailers and people that work in drug and alcohol rehabilitation — the people that have seen all this stuff and it’s not really a new story to them — are ironically the crowd that is most impacted,” Sperling says.
He says other people that watched the film told him that it helped change their view of law enforcement officials by showing them that officers can have empathy for the people they are responsible for jailing.
From the Big House to the Big Screen
Sperling began working on the film shortly after he graduated from college and started working at the jail. He says he primarily likes to write, but filmmaking was always something he was interested in.
“Documentary came naturally,” Sperling says. “Part of it was because of my interest, but also because it is pretty inexpensive. You could do it all yourself.”
The topic was also an easy subject for Sperling to tackle, since Allen was a regular at the jail and he never seemed to be arrested in any other jurisdictions.
“It seemed fairly convenient because I was working there and he didn’t seem to go anywhere else,” Sperling says.
Finding Allen when he was out in the streets proved to be more difficult for Sperling. It was the oddest thing. Every time I’d go out on my own while I was off duty to go look for him, it was like he vanished,” Sperling says. “Other officers would help me, but he was completely missing in action.”
Sperling says it was easier to track down Allen while filming in Hawaii. Allen briefly relocated there after his half-brother gave him a plane ticket in an attempt to get him cleaned up in a new community.
“It was easier to find him in Hawaii than it was in my own city, which is ridiculous, but true,” Sperling says.
Another challenge for Sperling was filming on the job, which forced him to carefully juggle his responsibilities.
“I probably shot three-fourths of it while on duty, just carrying a camera tucked in my belt or held by my side, so I had to be very responsible with my time there,” Sperling says. “It made for some very interesting cinematic shots and moments, but I also lost a lot of footage because I had to go answer phones or deal with other things.”
He says cooperation from jail administrators allowed the project to be completed with few problems.
“They were very gracious,” Sperling says. “I think in some other places, some of the bureaucracy would have gotten in the way.”
Sperling says he plans to do more corrections-based film projects. He is also working on a book that will include his diaries which reveal glimpses of life working at the city jail.
“I think it’s a totally untapped area,” Sperling says. “It’s not scandalous, it just shows the everyday stories, some of the conflicts and some of the futility. Some of it’s very entertaining and some of it is educational. I just feel that there is really nothing out there that shows the jail side of things.”