Still Not Free: New Documentary “Life on Parole” Follows Former Prisoners Navigating Early Release

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As more states try to reduce their prison population by placing more people on early release, The New York Times and “Frontline” profile four former prisoners as they navigate challenges faced during their first year on parole. We meet with some of them and speak with director Matthew O’Neill and journalist Shaila Dewan, the national criminal justice editor for The New York Times.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We end today’s show with a fascinating new collaboration between Frontline and The New York Times called Life on Parole, that airs this evening on PBS.

NARRATOR: Tonight on Frontline, hundreds of people are put on parole every day, and many of them wind up back behind bars.

MIKE LAWLOR: It is not unusual for parolees to come back once or twice, once they’re out. They didn’t commit a new crime, but they’re violating the rules of their supervision.

ROB SULLIVAN: Like, right now, even going in this store, I can end up back in jail. And I’m only getting a coffee.

NARRATOR: But many states are trying to break the cycle.

MARK PAWLICH: He’s giving me every reason to lock him up, and I’m still working with him.

ERROLL BRANTLEY: Really didn’t know it was that serious. I thought—

MARK PAWLICH: It’s extremely serious. You’re also going on GPS today.

NARRATOR: Filmed over a year and a half—

ERROLL BRANTLEY: Why would you do this to somebody? So my life is pretty much ruined for the next [bleep] three years.

NARRATOR: —with unprecedented access to parolees and their supervisors—

LISA BRAYFIELD: I only care—

VAUGHN GRESHAM: No matter about your family member?

LISA BRAYFIELD: I only care about you.

VAUGHN GRESHAM: You don’t care about me.

LISA BRAYFIELD: I’m in charge of your supervision. So the—

VAUGHN GRESHAM: Just say that.

LISA BRAYFIELD: Exactly.

VAUGHN GRESHAM: Don’t say you care about me.

NARRATOR: —and the make-or-break relationships between them—

KATHERINE MONTOYA: So, you understand what you’ve done? Seriously, like I’m here trying to save your ass, but I don’t know if you understand what you’ve done.

JESSICA PROCTOR: Some people think that being on parole is you’re free. You’re not.

KATHERINE MONTOYA: I have to believe that she is going to do good. I make a living on second chances.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Frontline: Life on Parole was filmed in Connecticut, which, like many states, is trying to reduce its prison population by putting more people on early release. It follows four parolees and their parole officers as they navigate their first year out from behind bars and try not to violate their terms of release. Today, we’ll meet some of them. We begin with Erroll Brantley.

KATHERINE EATON: Just want him home. Been waiting for this for too long.

MARGARET BRANTLEY: Open. Open.

KATHERINE EATON: When Erroll was coming home, I was more than excited. We were waiting for him to get out on parole and to come home. When you love somebody and you want to make a future with them, you kind of feel like all that is on hold.

NARRATOR: Erroll Brantley is being released from prison early, after serving 20 months for drug possession and burglary.

ERROLL BRANTLEY: Hey.

MARGARET BRANTLEY: Oh, my god. It’s been so long since I had a hug. I’ve got a bunch of hugs from everybody.

KATHERINE EATON: To just be able to put your arms around somebody is a huge thing.

ERROLL BRANTLEY: I got to go to parole.

MARGARET BRANTLEY: Do we know where that is?

ERROLL BRANTLEY: 100 Sheldon Street, Hartford, Connecticut. I don’t even feel like I woke up in prison this morning. You know? I’ve been coming to prison since 1999 now, and I’ve been in and out of jail 11 times. This time that I got out was the first time that I was on parole.

MARK PAWLICH: Brantley?

ERROLL BRANTLEY: I was definitely frightened. I didn’t know what to expect.

MARK PAWLICH: Released from Carl Robinson, correct?

ERROLL BRANTLEY: Yes.

MARK PAWLICH: Parole sentence, a little less than four years.

NARRATOR: Erroll’s parole officer is Mark Pawlich. He’s been a parole officer for 18 years.

MARK PAWLICH: So what was your crime over there?

ERROLL BRANTLEY: Burglary.

MARK PAWLICH: Burglary?

ERROLL BRANTLEY: Yeah.

MARK PAWLICH: Is that kind of your thing? Or…

ERROLL BRANTLEY: No, not at all. It was for drugs.

MARK PAWLICH: Right. And drug of choice is?

ERROLL BRANTLEY: Heroin.

MARK PAWLICH: Mr. Brantley, you can just read, had a long, long history of opioid addiction. And if you’re in this business long enough, you know the chances are, at some point, it will rear its ugly head. So, now he’s on your watch, so you’ve got to make sure you’re dotting I’s and crossing T’s, that’s for sure.

So, what we’re going to do today is, I’m going to have you review these conditions now. So what I need you to do is read every one and make sure you understand each condition and then sign at the end.

NARRATOR: Among the conditions of his release, Erroll will have to undergo mandatory drug testing. And he’s barred from contact with prior victims, which includes his girlfriend Katherine.

MARK PAWLICH: I mean, is long-term planning with your mom at that address, or are you going to kind of look to get on your feet and get a job?

ERROLL BRANTLEY: No, I want to go back home. I don’t live with my mom. I actually live with my girlfriend, Katherine.

MARK PAWLICH: That’s why I’m asking.

ERROLL BRANTLEY: But there was a problem at the jail. They said that she was a victim, and they took her off of my visiting list after like 17 months.

MARK PAWLICH: Who’s the person?

ERROLL BRANTLEY: Katherine Eaton.

MARK PAWLICH: Well, was she a victim or not?

ERROLL BRANTLEY: No, she wasn’t.

MARK PAWLICH: What are they saying she was a victim of?

ERROLL BRANTLEY: Burglary.

MARK PAWLICH: Did you ever burglarize your own house, that she lived in?

ERROLL BRANTLEY: No. Yeah, I took my TV to the pawn shop.

MARK PAWLICH: The Department of Corrections has a policy. When an offender is released, they can have no contact with previous crime victims or co-defendants. She called the police on him. She got him incarcerated, and at least got him sober or cleaned up for a while, but she then created the situation, in the department’s eyes, that she was a crime victim, because he took her TV set.

There’s no staying overnight there. There’s no nothing.

ERROLL BRANTLEY: Yes.

MARK PAWLICH: Following you out.

NARRATOR: Erroll leaves and goes straight home with Katherine, violating the terms of his parole on his very first day.

ERROLL BRANTLEY: I just wanted to stay close to the people that I love, and feel protected. And I understand that parole feel that they have to do what they have to do. But I was happy. I was home. That’s all I have up here. That’s all I need.

Yeah, welcome home, absolutely. It’s a good place to be. Been trying to get here for a long time.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Erroll Brantley, one of the parolees featured in Life on Parole, a documentary by Frontline with The New York Times. It airs tonight at 10:00 p.m. local time on PBS stations around the country. You can also watch it online.

For more, we’re joined by Matthew O’Neill, who’s the film’s director, and by Shaila Dewan, the national criminal justice editor for The New York Times. Her related report on Erroll is headlined, “She’s His Rock. His Parole Officer Won’t Let Him See Her.” It’s up now. In fact, it was the cover story of the Monday New York Times, or the top-of-the-fold story, quite an amazing front page, then full-page spread, Shaila. This incredible dilemma for Erroll, who comes out of jail, and he is not allowed to see his girlfriend, Katherine Eaton. If you can explain this further, from what we watched, and also in this piece?

SHAILA DEWAN: Sure. I mean, he was actually told at his parole hearing, “We won’t list Katherine Eaton as one of your victims.” The plan was for him to go back to living with her, as he had been before he went to jail. And all of a sudden, they get told, “You know what? She’s a victim. She’s showing up in the records. Someone is going over the records. You can’t do it. We’re not going to approve this plan.” So the whole thing is thrown into turmoil, the thing they’ve been waiting for for two years, and this is because of this phone call she made to the police in 2014 saying, “My boyfriend is out of control. He needs help.” She says that she made the call in order to force him basically into rehab. He’s using heroin. He needs money, and he takes the TV.

AMY GOODMAN: And she was afraid he was going to be injured by the heroin that was laced with—

SHAILA DEWAN: That’s right. Both of them know a lot of people who have OD’d on heroin, and they’ve had heroin deaths in their lives, so it’s a reality to them that this can happen.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And how was it resolved eventually, or was it?

SHAILA DEWAN: He was arrested. At the time, he was on probation, so he actually violated probation just by having her call the police. So he’s arrested, and—but the charges that involved her being a victim, which is the theft of the television, were dropped. So she’s—there’s never any ruling that he has victimized her. There was no violence in that incident. And he eventually is convicted of an unrelated break-in. And so, that’s what he is now on parole for.

AMY GOODMAN: And so it goes to this larger story of the state controlling—I mean, I’m sure all studies show, when you go home to a solid home life, it’s going to increase your chance that you won’t return, you won’t be a recidivist.

SHAILA DEWAN: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet he is not only not allowed to live with her, but contact her in any way, the girlfriend who has written to him, visited him nonstop through his years in prison?

SHAILA DEWAN: And you see a lot of these policies in criminal justice. I mean, just the fact that they make phone calls so expensive, or video calls, any kind of contact with prisoners so difficult, undermines this idea that strong family relationships are really the motivator to keep people from getting in trouble again.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Matthew, I wanted to ask you, we’ve all heard about the 2 million people in prison or in the jails across America, but not of the—is it 4.7 million that are on parole or on probation?

MATTHEW O’NEILL: Four-point-seven million on parole or probation. And the number of people who are on parole is actually growing, as we lower the number of people who are incarcerated. And I think, at this time, it’s important that we look at the entirety of the criminal justice system, because, as plays out in Erroll’s story, once the criminal justice system touches you or you touch it, it is very, very difficult to ever get unstuck. And you see these events chase people throughout their lives.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did you look at Connecticut?

MATTHEW O’NEILL: Connecticut is a state that is trying to reform many aspects of its criminal justice system. And when we actually went there, we were really focused primarily on what happens after release, what are the challenges that people face when they’re released from incarceration. And we quickly understood that parole plays a huge role in people’s ability to succeed or the obstacles that they may face. And most people who are released from prison are released to the supervision of a parole officer. So these relationships were so central to the lives of everyone that we were following that we realized parole was something important to look at.

And Connecticut is trying to change the way parole works. Traditionally, it was, if you make a mistake, we’re going to throw the cuffs on you and bring you back into prison. And as you see play out in the film, parole officers are more and more being asked to play multiple roles: sort of prosecutor, investigator, as traditionally done, but also drug counselors, social worker, even housing advocate. And I think you begin to understand by seeing these otherwise invisible meetings, because parole officers have enormous control over the lives of the parolees, and very few people analyze that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, let’s go back to the film.

MATTHEW O’NEILL: Sure.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I want to turn to the story of Jessica Proctor, another person that you featured in Life on Parole.

MIKE LAWLOR: On parole, you’re still sort of in the Department of Correction. You’re being monitored in the community by a parole officer, but any day, for any type of violation, they can take you directly back into prison, because you’re still technically serving your sentence, right?

NARRATOR: Mike Lawlor is one of the officials trying to turn this around and give parolees more chances once they’re out.

MIKE LAWLOR: It is not unusual for parolees to come back once or twice, once they’re out, right? They didn’t commit a new crime, but they’re violating the rules of their supervision.

NARRATOR: One change has been the creation of a special unit devoted exclusively to the needs of women parolees. Officer Katherine Montoya helped start the unit.

KATHERINE MONTOYA: Women are a different population. They have different needs. Their supervision is a bit different. My ladies oftentimes are the primary caretakers of their children. But then, if they’re not doing good, if I remove them from the situation, who’s going to take care of those kids? So, you know, it’s—do a lot of thinking after hours, whether the decisions that I’m making are correct or not. So, it’s hard.

So, Jessica, I haven’t met her yet, but I read her case. She came in when she was 18 years old. She’s going to be doing five years of parole with me. This is a pivotal time for her. She needs to make a decision right now whether this is just a one-time deal that happened in her life and she’s going to move on from this, or whether she’s going to be a returning customer, someone that keeps coming in and out of the system.

JESSICA PROCTOR: I did 10 years. I was young. I was 18 years old. I don’t think I should be on nobody else’s supervision. I’ve been getting watched for 10 years. OK? People stripping me, all that, I’ve been through it, like I don’t think that I need to be on nobody’s parole.

NARRATOR: Jessica Proctor went to prison for slashing another girl’s face with a razor blade.

JESSICA PROCTOR: I didn’t kill nobody, but you would have thought I did kill somebody, though. Ten years, five years parole, I think that was a little bit excessive. So I do hold some type of resentment.

NARRATOR: She got out of prison six days ago. This is her first meeting with Officer Montoya.

KATHERINE MONTOYA: So, hi, Jessica. I’m Officer Montoya, your parole officer. How’s everything? So, when you come here, you have to clear the metal detector.

A lot of people think that being on parole is like you’re free. They’re not free, but there’s going to be a measure of freedom that is going to be afforded to you.

Going to be together for a while. It’s going to be five years. We might not see eye to eye every single time, but the point is that we have to work together. And the better you and I get along, the chances are your situation is going to be a success.

JESSICA PROCTOR: Right.

KATHERINE MONTOYA: Jessica was young, got in trouble, went to jail for a [inaudible] amount of time, came back out. She really wants to reconnect with her son. That’s one of her biggest goals in her life, to get her son back into her life, to be a mother to her son.

KANEISHA: So this is Donte’s bio mom, Jessica, my cousin. This is when she first went into prison.

NARRATOR: Jessica gave up custody of her son, Donte. And for now, they are not living together.

KANEISHA: I think, for a long time, he thought that I was his bio mom, until my sister got pregnant. And he said, “I was in your stomach like that.” And I—oh, I was like—

LESLIE: “No, Pop.”

KANEISHA: “No, Poppa, you weren’t in my stomach. You were in Mommy Jessica’s stomach.” And then, from then on, I would just tell him, “You’re different than most kids, because most people only have one mom, and you have three moms.”

DONTE: When I was growing up, the only thing I really knew was like she was locked up. And I’m like, “She’s locked up, so when is she coming out? When can I see her?”

KATHERINE MONTOYA: Reconnecting with family is so difficult, reunification with your kids. I always advocate for family counseling, for—not only for the offender, but as a family, everyone together, because there’s a lot of hurt feelings, there’s a lot of anger, and people don’t have a lot of skills to be able to maintain a situation like that, so they’ll go back to their behaviors, you know, which is like drinking or drug use.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So, that was Jessica Proctor. Matthew, to what degree are the people that you filmed here—reflect the general population that you were dealing with? Because, obviously, everyone was on camera, both the parole officers as well as those who were—as the parolees, and so they are very aware of their situation and perhaps on their best behavior. I’m wondering if you got any other stories from the parolees about parole officers who weren’t as nice on camera as they were during these interviews?

MATTHEW O’NEILL: Well, I think you’ll see in the film that people, both on the parole officer side and the parolees, are remarkably unguarded. And I think we see a lot of those relationships exactly as they play out, because we were there so consistently. We were in every parole meeting we could have access to. We were with the people we were following on the streets, in their homes, at their place of work when we could. And we became very much part of the fabric of their lives. So I think you’ll see in this film things that, if you were trying to perform for the cameras, you wouldn’t put on camera if you were a parole officer or a parolee.

AMY GOODMAN: Shaila Dewan, one of the pieces that’s upcoming in the Times is about Rob, who is on parole. We don’t have time to play the clip of him, but can you talk about the challenges he faced and what this says about the parole system, which increasingly people are on?

SHAILA DEWAN: Rob is a guy who, when you look at his life story, he’s the child of an addict. There’s addiction and death from addiction throughout his family tree. And you just kind of look and go, “Were you destined for institutionalization in a way? Like how would you not have had this life trajectory?” And we tried to quantify that, in a way, by giving some of our parolees a survey that ranks childhood trauma from one to 10. And four is considered a high score. And Rob scores a nine on that. So we’re really trying to pick apart this cycle, because Rob has children, including one young child, and we’re trying to look at how this cycle perpetuates itself and how it can be interrupted in Rob’s case, because we now have many, many children of opioid addicts, and this is going to be an increasing issue.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what most surprised you in the time you spent on this story?

SHAILA DEWAN: I mean, I think one of Matt’s takeaways was one of the most surprising things, that he said to me, “You know, the people we are following, who had the longest sentences, like Jessica, are the people who are doing the best now.” And it makes you wonder whether short prison sentences even make any sense, or if there should be another approach, a different kind of intensive, individualized approach to those people.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, whether short—what do you mean, that whether short prison sentences—

SHAILA DEWAN: Well, it was surprising, because we talk a lot about how long our sentences are in this country and how overincarcerated we are compared to other places. But just to hear that, you know, spending a long time in prison gives you, when you come out, a sort of more determination and tools to do better is a little surprising. So, then you have to think about: Well, what about those short sentences? Do they do any good at all, spending a year in prison?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Matt, you did both those who are on parole and probation. For those who are not familiar with the criminal justice system, what’s the difference? And was there any difference in the outcomes?

MATTHEW O’NEILL: Well, there’s—when you talk about the criminal justice system, it’s very hard to make generalizations, because in the United States we’re really talking about—and I’m stealing one of Shaila’s lines here—50 different criminal justice systems, because each state is complicated in the way they run parole and the way they run probation, that are very, very different. In our particular group, generally, the probationers did not come back as frequently, because a parole officer can remand you, take you back into prison directly, whereas a probation officer will issue a warrant for your arrest if you’re in violation. Parole is generally stricter, and probation is generally looser. And I think that that tension that Shaila is bringing up between the desire to rehabilitate as part of the criminal justice system and this desire to punish, you know, as part of the criminal justice system, which are both in there, is really fascinating. And you see that rehabilitation aspect play out.

AMY GOODMAN: And people can see it tonight. Two million in prison, 4 million people on parole or probation. Matt O’Neill, director of Life on Parole, documentary by Frontline with The New York Times. Shaila Dewan is the criminal justice editor at The New York Times. You can go to democracynow.org to see all the links. Ten o’clock tonight in your local area on PBS.

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