Black Mountain documentarian J.P. Kennedy’s latest project that aired on PBS Frontline recently looks at Connecticut’s innovative prison reduction plan through the lives of four prisoners who struggle to adjust to life on the outside.
Shot in collaboration with The New York Times, “Life on Parole” is an intimate look at the successes and failures four parolees experienced on both sides of their prison release dates. Fifty-three minutes long, it can be seen at pbs.org. It ran on “Frontline” on July 18 and had been in the works for more than two years.
The documentary “doesn’t do enough justice to how trapped people’s lives are in the (prison) system,” Kennedy said in a recent interview.
The world is pretty hostile to people who have been to prison, Kennedy learned. In the documentary, a parolee to whom they gave a phone so he could film his life taped himself drinking liquor in a halfway house and talking about how the stress of entering a world that didn’t want him was more than he could handle.
“If both your parents died of heroin when you were in high school and you’re trying to get out (of the life), it’s pretty hard to navigate that,” Kennedy said, “especially if you have mental health issues and post-traumatic stress syndrome and you’re in a world that’s not very supportive or welcoming.”
Kennedy wrote for The Black Mountain News in the early 2000s. After that, he was a freelance writer and, in 2007, he started his video production company, Purple States, with his wife Cinnamon Kennedy and his step-mother, Cynthia Farrar. Purple States (purplestates.tv) seeks to tell the stories of people its founders contend are not represented in other media.
In the 1980s, Farrar started an AIDS hospice in New Haven, Connecticut that caught the attention of state legislator Bill Dyson. They talked and Dyson became a family friend. In 2009, Kennedy, fresh off producing some election season videos for The New York Times, had coffee with Dyson and asked him for story ideas for a new round of videos. Dyson, a state representative who retired that year after 32 years as a legislator, said prison re-entry.
Connecticut was then – and is now - on an ambitious campaign to reduce the number of people in its prisons. The campaign has had considerable success; its prison population was declined steadily over the past few years and the state has closed several prisons. “Life on Parole” attempts to show the challenges the state’s parole system has had in integrating parolees into society.
Taking the legislator’s cue, Kennedy pitched the idea of “Life on Parole” to The New York Times, which declined. In 2014, he tried again. The newspaper said yes.
Purple States has a colorful history. In 2007 Farrar, who had come into some money, asked Kennedy what venture he’d be interested in conspiring on. He wanted to do journalism, he told her. She wanted to tell stories, she told him. With Kennedy’s wife Cinnamon Kennedy, they created Purple States.
2007 was an auspicious time to launch a story venture. The economy was starting to tank. President George W. Bush committed 20,000 more troops to a war in Iraq the U.S. initiated over weapons of mass destruction the Bush administration argued Saddam Hussein was stockpiling. “It seemed like politicians were not paying attention to people,” Kennedy said. “The idea (with Purple States) was to find out what people were actually saying,” as opposed to what politicians were saying.
Farrar was teaching at Yale University at the time. There, she met Andrew Heyward, who as part of CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather’s team had been fired in 2005 over what CBS later said was an error-filled report on Bush’s National Guard service. Heyward, president of CBS’s news division when he was fired, introduced Farrar and Kennedy to The New York Times. At a meeting in Manhattan, they pitched a series of stories about following “regular” people during the campaign leading up to the 2008 primary. The idea, they told the newspaper, was to see how true politician’s promises and platforms rang with these ordinary people.
“They (the New York Times) said ‘no’ to everything we said,” Kennedy recalled. A woman followed them out of the meeting and said if they got the project going, she’d be interested in seeing their first video. Hiring a director and a professional production crew, Kennedy and Farrar went into the battleground states with their “star,” a guy from Maine, to watch speeches and ask candidates questions.
“We were staying at a hotel in New Hampshire one weekend, and Mike Huckabee (a Republican vying for the party’s presidential nomination) was swimming in the pool,” Kennedy said, “and we said, ‘can we film you?’ And he said, ‘if you don’t film me in my swimming trunks, I’ll give you an interview at my (political) event tonight.’”
It was a real “get” for Purple States. The guy from Maine asked Huckabee questions, and later he asked Democratic contender John Edwards questions. Purple States put together a story and showed it to The New York Times, which OKd the company to do a five-minute segment that it would consider for the newspaper’s website.
In the end, Purple States did seven pieces for the newspaper. It was able to leverage that exposure to get work with the U.N. Millennium campaign, created years earlier by 189 countries to address challenges facing the world and its poorest residents. Purple States worked on videos for The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and did a couple more video series for The New York Times.
What Kennedy called “the tiniest media company in the world to get on all those platforms” had to date created only short videos. “Life on Parole” was its first long project.
Purple States brought on bigger partners as the documentary grew. The founders’ friend at The New York Times suggested a director – Matthew O’Neill – whose work had won a bunch of awards. Kennedy and Farrar got some production money from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. They approached PBS’s news documentary program Frontline, which said OK.
Having created what Kennedy said was “a roadmap that seemed like it would work,” Purple States shot the feature in Connecticut, where Farrar had connections with state government and where Kennedy knew people in community organizations.
Mike Lawlor, Connecticut’s under-secretary for criminal justice, was eager to tell the story about the state’s prison reform and its prisoner re-entry program. Working with the state’s corrections department, Lawlor helped Purple States find prisoners about to leave prison who would be willing to talk, on camera, about their transition into the free world. The prisoners – eight men and two women – agreed to be filmed in prison, walking out of it, and among the general public. Lawlor arranged for Purple States to have access to their parole officers too.
Some of the prisoners had been in and out of prison since they were 16, Kennedy said.
“Most agreed (to take part in the project) as a way to additionally monitor their behavior,” he said. “They were so desperate to break the cycle that having a camera follow them around would be helpful to them to maintain sobriety and (rehabilitation) programs and whatever pathway they had to stay out of the prison system.
“I didn’t understand that until I started talking to the individuals. Some of the guys that I talked to had been through so much crap in their lives, they were trapped in these cycles.”
Their offenses ranged from murder to probation violation. One guy had been under supervision for three decades since, as a six-year-old, he picked up a gun and fired it on a playground. “He had been churning in and out of the system for 30 years,” Kennedy said. “He wanted to maintain a relationship with his girlfriend and the mother of his kids. And he just couldn’t” because of his self-destructive habits.
The prisoners interviewed indicated they knew they screwed up, Kennedy said. They wanted to do the right thing “and at the same time, they’d do the opposite behavior driven by impulses that are deep and ongoing for years,” he said.
Rob Sullivan sticks in Kennedy’s memory. Sullivan had two teardrops tattooed near his eye. He’d been in jail since he was 16. He’s seen in the documentary getting out of prison, moving into a halfway house, getting a job as a short-order cook. He re-establishes a relationship with his daughter and her mother and finds an organization that will take the prison tattoos off for free.
“Changing his life in a profound ways was so stressful that he was using heroin again six weeks or so after he got released,” Kennedy said. “I saw no one leaving prison who said ‘I’m going to party.’ I saw no one leaving prison and saying, ‘I’m going to get back with my gang.’ The anxiety, depression and stress of actually changing was too much.”
Six of the 10 people that the documentary’s interviewers followed ended up back in prison. The production crew followed them as they locked up again.
Kennedy spent a year and half on the project, much of it in the company of the parolees. He liked them, he said, and got along with them. “I wanted them all to be able to resurrect their lives,” he said.
Kennedy is now working on a project for the Southern Poverty Law Center.