“Think about the worst thing you ever did and what would it be like if no one ever forgave you, no one ever let you live it down, no one ever saw you for anything but that. Five years, 10 years, 20 years after you’ve done this.”
Those stark words are a sobering challenge from state probation officer Susan Wells spoken in “Coming Home,” the latest film from Vermont documentarian Bess O’Brien, which will be screening in Chittenden County throughout the week.
Focusing on parolees in the Northeast Kingdom, O’Brien has found this public attitude of unforgiveness to be the grim reality many parolees face when they return to the world outside of prison.
It can be extremely difficult for previous offenders to reconnect with the community at large; old friendships are often hazardous temptations to the lifestyles that led to their incarcerations, and complications in family relationships are frequently exacerbated by the stress of having a relative in jail, the film shows. Lacking supportive bridges to help parolees reintegrate back into a community is all too often a devastating obstacle that can lead to repeat offenses and more time spent behind bars.
This is where reintegration programs known as Circles of Support and Accountability can make all the difference in a parolee’s success or failure. “Coming Home” turns the spotlight on COSAs, which are peer groups of three to five trained volunteers who help previous offenders transition into law-abiding citizens. The Essex Community Justice Center hosts COSAs that serve northern Chittenden County including Essex, Colchester and Milton.
“To come out of prison and just be put back on the street, what do you have?” laments Mark, one of the film’s five main characters who between them have served time for various crimes including domestic assault, drunken driving, prostitution, drug use, sex offenses and armed robbery.
Now on parole and trying to turn his life around, Mark found it difficult to hit the ground running.
“Most of us have burned every bridge that there is,” he says. “Sometimes it’s just needing a friend.”
Simply being a friend, or group of friends, is very much at the heart of the COSAs in “Coming Home.” O’Brien’s film focuses on the intimate moments of friendship between volunteers and core members. Viewers see simple conversations about about football, books, playing music together.
As one volunteer in the film observes, “Every time I go to a COSA meeting, I realize how wonderful it is, because we COSA people meet with each other as human beings — not as a college professor, not as a nurse, not as an addict. We meet as human beings, and all of those false lines are erased.”
O’Brien, who garnered national attention when touring with her 2013 film addressing opioid addiction, “The Hungry Heart,” is currently traveling around the state through mid-November presenting her latest film, and her goals for touring with “Coming Home” are modest.
“To hopefully soften people’s judgments on these folks is No. 1,” she told the Sun. “The United States of America says, ‘If you do something wrong, you are convicted, you go to prison — you have now served your time.’ When you come out you have a clean slate to start over, that is how it is supposed to be.
“Many of us view these people as bad people, people who aren’t going to turn their lives around, people we don’t want to deal with,” she said.
In response, O’Brien’s film does a masterful job of humanizing the core members through their intimate struggles of finding a job, preparing to have a baby or going on a first date. By the end of the film, like the COSA volunteers, the audience sees the identity of “convict” stripped away from the subjects, leaving behind human beings in want of forgiveness and thankful for those volunteers that became their friends.
O’Brien’s other goal is to help facilitate the growth of these restorative justice programs, which are often in need of help.
According to the film, Vermont has facilitated more COSAs through 2018 than all other states combined, but their success relies on volunteers. The commitment is once a week for a year.
If you’re interested in volunteering for a COSA program, contact the Essex Community Justice Center at 662-0003. And catch “Coming Home” locally at the Essex Cinemas on Tuesday, Oct. 16 at 7 p.m. Admission is free, though donations are accepted. Learn more at kingdomcounty.org.