Intrinsic in our criminal justice system is the understanding that if individuals commit a crime and serve out their sentences, they are given a clean slate. In the eyes of the state, that’s true. However, at home in our communities, that’s not always the case.
In reality, the stigma of incarceration can make it difficult for people to find employment, housing and social acceptance when they get out of prison. Such prejudice makes individuals feel alienated and alone, and makes it difficult for them to reintegrate into society. Often, this isolation causes them to give up and fall back into criminal behavior.
“Coming Home,” a new documentary by Vermont filmmaker Bess O’Brien, explores the state’s unique approach to restorative justice called COSA, or circles of support and accountability.
O’Brien, whose previous films have tackled hefty social issues like addiction, foster care, eating disorders, domestic violence and sexual assault, has now focused her lens on how we treat people returning home from prison. Shot over 18 months starting in 2016, the film follows five men and women with various criminal records living in different parts of the state as they weather the everyday struggles, disappointments and setbacks of life post-incarceration with the support of their COSA team.
The film is currently on screening tour around the state, where it will stop in 15 cities and towns. The screenings will feature Q&A sessions with O’Brien and participants in the film. A Montpelier screening is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday at the Savoy Theatre. A Rutland screening will be presented at 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 10, at the Rutland Free Library.
Developed in Canada in the 1990s, COSA is a model of restorative justice in which community volunteers work with sex offenders coming out of prison to provide support, guidance and friendship with the goal of keeping them from reoffending. The Vermont model, which has expanded its scope to support all serious offenders, was first implemented in 2005. Since then, more than 400 individual COSAs have been facilitated, according to Derek Miodownik, community and restorative justice executive for the Vermont Department of Corrections.
O’Brien said Miodownik pitched the idea of making a film about COSA.
“I had known about community justice centers and restorative justice ... but didn’t know about COSAs,” she said. “I thought this would be a really fascinating film to make.”
COSAs are voluntary. Working with one of the 20 local Community Justice Centers in Vermont, probation/parole officers and DOC caseworkers identify and refer potential participants to the program. If selected, the individual is paired with a team of three to five trained volunteers who serve for a minimum of one year. Over that time, the team helps the individual adjust to life outside prison, develop healthy living patterns and accept accountability for their actions.
O’Brien said her time spent observing COSAs was “moving,” calling it a “wonderful example of connection, not only for the core member but for the volunteers.”
“There’s just a compassion that, I think, occurs in the COSA circles that is very profound and very simple. You can just see it. You can see how everyone becomes friends. People need friends, and when you’re coming out of prison, a lot of times you can’t hang out with your old friends; you have to make new friends. The COSA model is a perfect way of starting those new friendships.”
Miodownik maintains the model’s compassionate approach to restorative justice has been successful in reducing recidivism.
“COSA has proven to be highly effective in every jurisdiction where it’s been fully implemented,” he said.
However, as the film notes, Vermont has facilitated more COSAs than all other U.S. states combined. So what makes COSA so successful here?
“COSAs are about quality relationships and collaboration on multiple levels,” Miodownik said.
While he noted “the Vermont program findings are consistent with other national and international evaluations,” he offered several factors that account for Vermont’s success. In Vermont, a combination of an integrated statewide network of Community Justice Centers, a well-structured web of volunteers and an engaged parole/probation staff have bred success.
“It’s because of the statewide system we’ve built that we are able to bring this quality to scale at a level that does set us apart.”
He pointed to a 2013 report by University of Vermont sociology professor Dr. Kathryn J. Fox.
Her findings indicated that those who had COSAs were re-convicted for felony-level offenses half as often as those from a matched sample group who did not have the benefit of a COSA upon release from incarceration. (Read the full report at bit.ly/uvm-cosa.)
“Coming Home” is an intimate, personal look at the difficulties of reintegrating into society after incarceration. The individuals O’Brien follows open themselves up to the camera with heart-wrenching honesty.
For Vermont audiences living within this tiny state, it’s made all the more personal by their familiarity with the places, circumstances and, likely, even some of the people they meet in the film. These people’s stories are recognizable. Even if you don’t know these five people personally, you know people like them — they are in your communities and, sometimes, in your families.
The film, then, issues a challenge to the viewer: What have you done to help people we may know in this situation? And what are you willing to do?
O’Brien sees the film as an opportunity to educate audiences about COSA and start a statewide conversation about incarceration and how we treat people attempting to reintegrate into their communities.
It’s also a call to action.
“I hope people learn something new, reflect on their own stigmas that they have around people who are coming out of prison,” she said, adding that she hopes people get inspired enough to volunteer for a COSA.
O’Brien’s experience with the film has convinced her COSAs make communities safer, and are effective in helping people “stay out of prison and become more productive members of society.”
“In my opinion, everyone coming out of prison should have a COSA. … The more COSAs we have the better outcomes we will see.”
Beyond the current statewide screening tour, O’Brien said the film will be screened at national conferences where it will be used to tout COSA as a successful model of restorative justice. She said it will also likely be aired on Vermont Public Television.
Further afield, Miodownik noted the film will be screened in Vancouver, B.C., Oct. 18 at the annual Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers conference. In addition, he said the National Governors Association in Washington, D.C., “as well as several other leading organizations,” have expressed interest in the film.
To learn more about COSA and how you can volunteer, email COSA@vermont.gov.