A documentary offering an in-depth look at how Connecticut is moving more people out of prisons and keeping them out could get a second life as a training tool particularly for educators and parole officers.
It could also become a tool for advocacy for more resources for rehabilitation.
Those were some of the recommendations of the more than 20 people who gathered at the Ives Main Branch of the New Haven Free Public Library Tuesday night for a public viewing of and discussion about “Life on Parole,” a documentary produced by PBS’s Frontline in collaboration with The New York Times. The viewing was hosted by the Institute for Regional & Municipal Policy and the Malta Justice Initiative.
The documentary provides an unprecedented behind-the-scenes look at what parole is like for four former inmates — Jessica Proctor, Vaughn Gresham, Rob Sullivan, and Erroll Brantley — who are physically outside the walls of the correction facilities where they were held but not quite free. The entire series, which includes articles in the Times, actually follows a total of 12 people as they left prison for parole, according to Cynthia Farrar of Purple States, a production company that helped produce the documentary.
The parolees must adhere to the strictest rules about who they can be around, where they can go in their free time, what they must do with the money they earn from the jobs they must get. They must not take drugs or use alcohol. Any slip up can land them back in prison to finish their sentence behind bars. Or, as the documentary shows, it can land them in a revolving door of recidivism that hinges on the discretion of their parole officers.
Earl Bloodworth, who directs the city’s Warren Kimbro Reentry Project, summed it up best: “Those on parole or in a halfway house are still under DOC control. Those that don’t treat it like they’re still under DOC ... don’t succeed.”
And it is easy to fail, as one of the parolees in the documentary says, when “freedom is dangled in front of me.”
Viewers Tuesday night got to see the frustration of Rob Sullivan, who had a 10-year-old daughter for whom he couldn’t buy shoes because he’s not allowed to have in his possession more than $1 for every hour that he works. A daughter he can’t see as often as he would like even if his contact with her might keep him out of prison.
Fed up with the rules that keep him away from his daughter, Sullivan refuses to hand over his last paycheck for the mandatory budgeting and savings that are a condition of his parole. He walks away from the halfway house. He’s seen buying his daughter those shoes and explaining to her in a tear-filled scene that he must go back to prison because he violated his parole. He ultimately goes back to prison to finish serving his sentence.
The crowd also got to see the tough but empathetic response of Parole Officer Katherine Montoya, who sees her job as providing second chances for parolees, many of whom are moms trying to reconnect with their children while doing the hard work of getting their life back on track. When parolee Jessica Proctor, a mom who was incarcerated when her son was a baby, is discovered to have used marijuana, Montoya doesn’t arrest her immediately.
Instead, she asks her why she was using drugs. She discovers that Proctor is feeling stress about how to parent a child she did not raise, whose grades are suddenly slipping since she’s been home, while simultaneously trying to finish a program to become a certified nursing assistant. Proctor ultimately is not rearrested and graduates from her CNA program with her very proud son there to congratulate her.
After the screening, Bob Gillis, a retired warden and former director of the Parole and Community Services Division for the state Department of Corrections now serving on the Malta Justice Initiative Board of Directors, asked what impressions the documentary made on the audience. He asked how it can be used for in the effort to shape policy.
Carlah Esdaile-Bragg, who worked in prison reentry and helped advocate for the creation of the Warren Kimbro Project, said it would be a good idea for educators to see it.
“It might help teachers understand what some kids deal with and why they might not be paying attention or are disengaged,” she said.
Another audience member suggested that it might be a good training tool for parole officers. The documentary provided a window into the world of the parole officer, the heavy caseloads they face and the dual role they play as both police officer and social worker.
The parole officers all take different approaches with one being particularly strict with a parolee and sending him back to jail pretty quickly after he is found to have violated the terms of his probation. And another, being tough but willing to work to keep the parolee out of prison. Parole Officer Montoya’s approach, however, seemed to be the one preferred by the crowd.
Warren Hardy of Hartford, who was formerly incarcerated for six years, said that the toughest parole officer seemed unyielding in the way she dealt with her parolee who happened to have a history of being caught in the revolving parole recidivism door.
“She did her job but she also was taking things personally,” Hardy, who now works in a halfway house and mentors children through a program he started called Helping Young People Evolve, or HYPE. He said you could tell by the tone of the officer’s voice and the language she used that she was out of patience.
Keith Barile of East Windsor noted that that particular officer only called her parolee by his last name which is similar to how one might be treated in prison. Barile, who is now a drug counselor, served 15 years of a 25-year sentence at Osborn Correctional Facility before he was released on parole. He said it makes a difference when a parole officer has interpersonal skills and treats you like a human, not an object. He called Office Montoya “the perfect parole officer.”
“I had a parole officer who called me by my first name and that meant something to me,” he said. “Ideally you get a parole officer and a social worker but lots of parole officers are doing both. I haven’t had a bad parole officer but I also was in compliance all the time.”
Bloodworth noted that to be all the things that many people need to be successful when they get out—substance and mental health treatment, housing, and employment—will take resources that the state doesn’t have and won’t have any time soon.
But one audience member posed a question that might signal the next frontier for a state corrections system that some including Gov. Dannel P. Malloy wants to move from punishment to rehabilitation: Why is the state expending resources monitoring and rearresting people who haven’t actually committed crimes?
All of the parolees featured in the documentary violate their parole. Only two technically commit crimes—possession of illicit drugs—while on parole. But the two parolees who actually go back to prison don’t commit any actual crimes; they are simply in violation of the rules of their parole.
“I don’t see that as criminal activity or a danger to my personal safety,” the audience member said. “What is a threat to my personal safety is someone getting so frustrated by cycling through the system repeatedly that he turns to crime.”