Cynthia Farrar and her colleagues at the documentary production company Purple States knew that they wanted to make a movie about prison reentry.
What she and her colleagues did not know until they started putting the movie together was that any documentary about the challenges of leaving prison, reintegrating into society, and avoiding recidivism inevitably needed to focus on the day-to-day realities of life on parole.
“Most people leaving prison now are on parole,” Farrar said on the latest episode of WNHH FM’s “Criminal Justice Insider with Babz Rawls-Ivy and Jeff Grant.” “And the public doesn’t know anything about what happens on parole, and that story needed to be told. The single most frequent reason why people end up back in jail is parole violations.”
In 2014, Purple States collaborated with New York City filmmaker Matthew O’Neill, the PBS “Frontline” series and the New York Times to produce the hourlong documentary Life on Parole. The movie aired on PBS in 2017.
Life on Parole follows four Connecticut residents in the year after they are released from prison, documenting their struggle to abide by the various rules, regulations, and stringent oversight imposed by the conditions of their parole.
The entire series, which includes articles and videos produced specifically for the Times, follows a total of 12 Connecticut residents, including several New Haveners, in their journeys to rebuild their lives outside of prison but within the restrictions of parole.
Parole refers to the temporary, conditional release and adult supervision of a prisoner before the completion of a prison sentence. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, over 850,000 prisoners were out on parole nationwide in 2015.
In Life on Parole, the conditions for each prisoner’s release range widely from prohibitions on spending time with a girlfriend (and ex-robbery victim) to prohibitions on entering certain convenience stores.
The movie also focuses on the relationships between the parolees and their parole officers: men and women who are committed to helping their wards stay out of prison, but who are often overworked, frustrated, and simply unable to provide the complex array of mental healthcare, addiction support, and family counseling services necessary for a former prisoner’s complete rehabilitation.
Farrar said that she and her fellow producers for Life on Parole picked 12 former inmates who represented a typical cross section of America’s parolee population. They sought to avoid unusual, high-profile stories and instead focus in on what life is typically life for Americans immediately after they are released from prison.
“Connecticut, like every other prison system in the country, is keen to move people out of prison who are not deemed a danger to public safety,” Farrar said as she explained why her team chose the Nutmeg State as the location for this investigation of parole. “There is more supervised release [now] than there has been.”
(Update: According to Mike Lawlor, the state’s Under Secretary for Criminal Justice Policy and Planning, the state’s community supervised population has not increased dramatically in recent years. On Jan. 1, 2018, he said, the number of people on parole in this state was 3,880. That number was 3,845 on Jan. 1, 2017; 3,408 on Jan. 1, 2016; and 3,019 on Jan. 1, 2015. Going back to 2009, the number has been consistently in the mid-3,000s.
“One additional fact,” Lawlor wrote to the Independent after the initial publication of this article. “On January 1, 2007, the year of the Cheshire Murders, there were 4,770 people on DOC community supervision of different types.” That is almost 1,000 more people on parole than there are today.)
Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy has prioritized “Second Chance Society” initiatives and criminal justice reform throughout his two terms in office in an effort to reduce the state’s prison populations, especially for non-violent and drug-related offenders. According to the state Department of Corrections (DOC), those efforts have been pretty successful: the state’s incarcerated population has decreased from around 16,500 in Dec. 2012 to around 13,800 in Dec. 2017.
But with that decrease in the number of people behind bars has come an increase in people trying to navigate parole.
Farrar said that one of the revelations that she had while working on the movie was that the current system of parole asks parole officers to walk a difficult tightrope between being a correctional facility officer and a social worker.
She praised Connecticut’s DOC for allowing the filmmakers to attend parole meetings (with the parolees’ and parole officers’ consent), and recognized that it was in the DOC’s best interest to show the challenges that people on both sides of the table face in the days, months, and years following a prisoner’s release.
“The DOC decided to give us this access,” she said, “because they need the public to understand what array of supporting services have to be in place for people for whom the core issues contributed to their illegal behavior, but also underly it and have to be addressed separately.”
She said that many parolees suffer from drug addiction, and that, besides the methadone clinics at the New Haven Correctional Center and the Bridgeport Correctional Center, there are not many services available to inmates to help them overcome their addictions while behind bars. All too often, she said, addiction leads to new crimes that land the parolees right back in prison.
Farrar said that her goal, with this particular movie and with Purple States in general, is to change the public conversation around complex, abstract social issues like prison reentry. She wants people who actually experience the impact of public policies around criminal justice to share their stories, concerns, and ideas for how to make their lives, and their communities, safer and happier.
“We do documentary filmmaking that shows what it looks and feels like from the vantage point of the person going through it,” she said. “We always try to capture an authentic experience that people by and large have not had access to. We want viewers to both feel and reflect.”
Previous “Criminal Justice Insider” articles:
- Organizer Takes “Sawdust-On-Floor” Tack
- Female Ex-Offenders Band Together
- German-Inspired Reform Calms Prison
- Son’s Arrest Helped Shape Porter’s Politics
“Criminal Justice Insider” airs every first and third Friday of the month on WNHH FM at 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Listen to the full interview with Cynthia Farrar by clicking on the audio player or Facebook Live video below.