Film reveals challenges of prisoners `Coming Home'

Bess O'Brien, maker of the nationally renowned drug-abuse documentary 'The Hungry Heart,' turns her focus to the hurdles Vermonters face leaving life behind bars

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Mark from St. Johnsbury is explaining why he punched his wife in the face.

"Growing up, I watched these men come out of bars and fight every Friday and Saturday night," he says. "That's what I equated alcohol with: Go to the bars, pick up women, have fun, get into fights, drunk driving, stealing cars, six months here, 18 months there "

Soon charges of domestic assault and armed robbery led to more prison time — and a longer road to travel once he was scheduled for release.

"Mark understood that in order to heal all of the important relationships in his life he was going to have a lot of work to do, and he really wanted help," community reentry coordinator Susan Teske says.

Enter Circles of Support and Accountability, or COSA, that links high-risk offenders with volunteers ready to assist them in reacclimating. Vermont filmmaker Bess O'Brien had never heard of the program when the head of the state's community justice centers, seeing how her work has won national awards and press attention, approached her with the subject.

"The more he told me about it," she says, "the more it peaked my interest."

So much so, O'Brien is touring the state for a series of free screenings of her new documentary, "Coming Home," with a showing set for Nov. 8 at 7 p.m. at Bennington's Vermont Veterans' Home.

"If you look at the numbers of people that are coming out of prison," University of Vermont sociology professor Kathryn Fox says at the start of the film, "between 65 and 68 percent will reoffend and be reconvicted and reincarcerated within five years. What a lot of people would say is, `Well, that's just proof that they're bad people.' And really, I think if you look systemically, it's clearly something about what we do to people when they're inside and the way we treat them when they get out."

O'Brien — whose drug-abuse documentary "The Hungry Heart" made national news after it inspired Gov. Peter Shumlin's 2014 State of the State address — fashions her newest work from the personal stories of five recently released prisoners.

There's Mark, who, like all the offenders in the film, is identified only by first name.

"To come out of prison and just be put back on the street, what do you have?" he says on camera. "Most of us have burned every bridge that there is, and we've been told that we're no good and are going to do it all over again anyway."

And Tara from White River Junction, arrested for heroin possession and prostitution.

"It didn't start off as me selling my body to support my habit," she says, "but that's what it ended up."

And Jake from Barre, who smoked and sold the same crack cocaine that killed his mother.

"I've done probably about two years incarcerated —13 months my first stretch, three months the second and then 10 months the third," he says. "You just keep sinking and sinking and sinking day by day and either you're going to go under or somebody's going to throw out that lasso and you're going to grab on."

And Deb from St. Johnsbury, who was separated from her children after selling drugs.

"My family are addicts," she says. "Coming out of jail, I didn't have support. I'd come out to the same family using, the chaos, just everything being a whirlwind spiraling out of control."

And Travis from Montpelier, an Eagle Scout who police snagged in an online child sex sting.

"I am a registered sex offender," he says. "I don't know if I had a computer that I wouldn't look at porn."

That's why the state Corrections Department and local community justice centers increasingly are pairing high-risk departing prisoners with citizen COSA teams that meet weekly to offer structure and support.

"The research shows that isolation is a key factor in making someone vulnerable to reoffending," Fox says in the film, which cites a study that found the COSA program can reduce reincarceration by nearly 30 percent. "If they don't have some sort of support or social interaction, then they're at much higher risk."

"Leaving them in jail is expensive, helping them get on their own feet so they can pay their own way, have a job, pay taxes it's in society's best interest," reentry specialist Alfred Mills adds. "The whole essence of COSA is no more victims."

Based in the Northeast Kingdom town of Barnet, O'Brien has spent two years working to raise production money, film and edit nearly 70 hours of interview footage into a 90-minute feature. She empathizes with the "overwhelmingness" prisoners feel trying to simultaneously find a job, housing and transportation.

"You're expected to get all your ducks in a row, but it can be extremely difficult," she says. "This is such a beautiful, simple example about how connecting community can move people forward in a healthy way."

That said, O'Brien knows the program isn't perfect.

"Not to be a spoiler," she says of the documentary, "but there are some twists and turns."

Just as O'Brien thought she was finished filming, for example, two of her subjects found themselves back in prison.

"It was like a slap to the face, but I think it makes the film stronger because it shows the reality," she says. "It's the same story with addiction and recovery. Many times people relapse. To break those old habits, that's part of getting clean."

The search for healing is a running theme in O'Brien's six other documentaries, from 1998's "Where Is Stephanie?" about the life and murder of a 17-year-old Rutlander to 2016's "All of Me" about Vermonters with eating disorders. She'll travel with her latest film and several of its subjects on a statewide fall tour, with specific days, times and places listed at the website kingdomcounty.org.

"I would say I'm making the same movie over and over again, just through different lens," O'Brien says. "So many of these films are about embracing people that we judge, isolate from and shame. And none of that works. The point is there are people who are turning their lives around — with help — every day."

Kevin O'Connor is a Reformer and VTDigger.org correspondent who can be contacted at kevinoconnorvt@gmail.com.


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