Vermont film takes on tough topic: bringing prisoners home

MIDDLEBURY — People tend to make headlines — for all the wrong reasons — when they’re arrested, convicted and sent to jail.
But unless we’re talking about a violent criminal or sex offender, you don’t really hear about prisoners once they’ve paid their debt and are released back into society.
Until now.
A new documentary film directed by Kingdom County Productions’ Bess O’Brien follows the journey of five Vermonters as they transition from prison to everyday life. The film, “Coming Home,” captures the full range of emotions of the three men and two women as they learn about accountability, trust and living independently through an innovative state program called Circle of Support and Accountability (COSA).
A special screening of the 90-minute film, followed by a Q&A session, will take place at the Congregational Church of Middlebury on Sunday, Nov. 11, beginning at 7 p.m. It will be the last screening in what has been a five-week tour featuring O’Brien and other film participants.
COSA, developed by the Vermont Department of Corrections, has been gaining a lot of national attention for its success in reintegrating former prisoners back into their daily lives. COSAs are made up of community volunteers who meet once a week with offenders, enabling those folks to create strong bonds of support. Prisoners placed in COSAs include sex offenders, drug-related criminals and felons.
The rate of recidivism drops when folks are involved with a COSA team, O’Brien noted during a Thursday phone interview with the Independent. Restorative justice in general and COSA specifically, when implemented successfully, save taxpayers millions of dollars, O’Brien noted. It currently costs $50,000 to $75,000 per year to incarcerate a person in Vermont, she said.
“The whole idea is that when someone gets out of prison, we want them to stay out of prison,” O’Brien said.
Department of Corrections officials asked O’Brien to make the film more than two years ago, and O’Brien quickly agreed. She sensed a fertile subject for conveying drama, overcoming the odds, and making amends.
The five “stars” of “Coming Home” hail from St. Johnsbury, Montpelier, Barre and White River Junction. All accepted an invitation from the Department of Corrections and O’Brien to be in the film.
“I think they’re doing it because they want to tell their story,” O’Brien said, adding participants believed the film might allow them to enlighten other inmates about the benefits of COSA.
“There are a lot of ups and downs in the movie; it’s not all a straight line,” O’Brien said. “But I think you fall in love with these people and realize they are folks who have done something wrong, have apologized for it, and are trying to make their way back into the communities by connecting to people in the communities.”
 And it’s a connection facilitated by volunteers. Each COSA participant is assigned two or three trained helpers to look after their best interests and teach them simple skills ranging from managing household finances to shopping for food.
“You have your local banker, teacher and retiree sitting around a table with a sex offender,” O’Brien said. “Whoever thought they’d be doing that? But during the process, everyone gets to know each other and the person coming out of prison meets new people and creates a circle of support and friendships.”
Viewers get to see an unvarnished version of each COSA client, at their best and worst.
And that’s just the way O’Brien wants it.
 “The people in my films are very courageous,” O’Brien said. “They are brave enough to be vulnerable in front of the camera.”
There are 20 community justice centers in Vermont, and each operates a COSA program. Vermont is the only state in the union that uses COSAs that extensively, according to O’Brien.
“We are way ahead of the game, as far as other states in the union,” she said.
Jenny Quesnel leads Addison County Restorative Justice Service’s COSA offering. She and some of her colleagues will attend the Middlebury screening of “Coming Home.”
Quesnel was given a sneak peek of the film, and praised it for its accurate portrayal of COSA. She’s spent more than three years leading Addison County’s COSA, which typically serves two or three former inmates each year. Quesnel would like to serve more clients, but the program faces two big challenges here in the county: A shortage of both volunteers and affordable housing.
“If we can’t keep (clients) in Addison County, we end up losing them,” Quesnel said.
Anyone interested in becoming a COSA volunteer should call Addison County Restorative Justice Service at 388-3888.
Meanwhile, O’Brien is looking forward to a well-attended screening and lively Q&A in Middlebury to cap off her tour. More details about “Coming Home” can be found at kingdomcounty.org.
“As we go around the state, we’re having terrific conversations with audience members around bringing people back into communities who have served their time, and how we welcome them back and try to reintegrate them to be productive members of society,” O’Brien said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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