For Bess O'Brien, one film often leads to the next. While the Barnet-based filmmaker was touring All of Me, her 2016 documentary about eating disorders, she was approached by Derek Miodownik, an executive with the Vermont Department of Corrections. Miodownik proposed that O'Brien make a movie about the state's Circles of Support and Accountability program, which uses trained volunteers to help recently released prisoners reintegrate into their communities.
After eight months of filming and nearly a year of postproduction, Coming Home premieres Saturday, October 6, at Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center in Burlington.
"I thought it was an incredible program and something that more people should know about," O'Brien says of Circles of Support and Accountability in a phone interview, "especially because Vermont is really one of the only states in the country that is really thoroughly using the program."
In Vermont, COSAs are overseen by reentry coordinators at the state's 20 community justice centers. Over a one-year period, former inmates meet once a week with a group of unpaid volunteers, who aid with everything from finding housing and employment to relearning social skills.
The COSA model was developed in Hamilton, Ont., in 1994. Though it was designed specifically for high-risk sex offenders who had served their maximum sentence, Vermont expanded its scope to include parolees who were jailed for a variety of crimes. According to Miodownik, since the state launched the program in 2005, a total of 425 COSAs have been completed or are still active.
O'Brien's latest documentary follows five people adjusting to life on the outside. One was convicted of a sex crime; the others were incarcerated for drug-related offenses or violent crimes involving substance abuse. In that respect, the film serves as a companion piece to O'Brien's 2013 doc The Hungry Heart, a humanistic look at Vermont's opioid epidemic.
"I often joke that all my films are essentially the same film, because these issues all intersect with each other," O'Brien says.
Though weekly COSA meetings are conducted in formal settings, the film shows how genuine friendships between volunteers and ex-convicts often develop beyond the walls of community justice centers. Many of the ex-convicts don't have friends or family to turn to for support.
"To come out of prison and just be put back out on the street, what do you have, man?" asks one COSA member in the film, a recovering alcoholic who served time for domestic assault. "Most of us have burned every bridge that there is."
Coming Home explores an irony of postprison life: While some former prisoners try to steer clear of old friends and hangouts to avoid falling into familiar patterns of criminality, isolation can also lead to an increased rate of recidivism.
"The research shows that isolation is a key factor in making someone vulnerable to reoffending," says Kathy Fox, a sociology professor and associate dean at the University of Vermont, in the film. "If they don't have some sort of support or social interaction — if they're truly isolated — then they're at much higher risk of reoffending."
Fox notes in an email to Seven Days that a study she conducted revealed that ex-convicts who participated in the COSA program committed some form of additional offense 45 percent of the time, compared with 56 percent for those without a COSA. However, she observes, people who have a COSA, "even if they do reoffend," tend to "stay out in the community longer before doing so, and are convicted of much less serious crimes." Specifically, she found that just 18 percent of COSA participants subsequently committed felonies, compared with 35 percent of nonparticipants.
Beyond the challenges of staying clean after an extended prison term, the film examines the societal barriers faced by people with a permanent criminal record. A man named Travis, who at age 23 was arrested in a sting operation for propositioning a 14-year-old girl online, reflects in a filmed interview on the difficulty of overcoming the worst mistake of his life.
"There's definitely a stigma with being a sex offender. It's really hard to get a job. I disclosed [it] once during a job interview to a guy, and you'd have thought he put his hand in a meat slicer. He visibly recoiled," Travis says. "If I'm gonna keep getting doors slammed in my face, it's really hard to want to try and knock."
O'Brien hopes the film will help mitigate the stigmatization faced by sex offenders and other criminals — and perhaps inspire more people to volunteer with the COSA program.
"In the United States of America, you go to prison, you serve your time, and then you're supposed to come out with a clean slate. You're supposed to come out and be able to start over," O'Brien says. "And I think for a lot of people, that's really hard to wrap [their] head around. We tend to continue to judge and to shame these people, and that really does not help them, because what they need is support to try to be healthy members of society."