Three people walk out of prison. As they pass the barbed wire and through the steel gates, a camera follows their very different paths. One heads out into the snowy dawn, struggling to orient himself in an unfamiliar landscape. One makes a beeline to a nearby convenience store to wait for a ride. And one is met by a welcoming committee of family and friends and whisked away to a clean and sober living environment.
This is the fly-on-the-wall approach of “Inside Out: Leaving Prison Behind,” a half-hour documentary produced by 360 North and KTOO Public Media that premiered June 23 on statewide public television, and 360North.org.
“Inside Out” explores some of the reasons people return to prison over and over, through the stories of three Lemon Creek Correctional Center inmates being released in Juneau.
From the moment they walk through the gates, they face significant obstacles as they struggle to rebuild their lives — from difficulty finding jobs and housing to personal struggles with addiction. They also find support and encouragement from family, friends, and the community.
During the course of the documentary, Stephan Haseltine is seen falling off the wagon, “testing dirty” on his first visit to probation and, at one point, admitting to hiding out when he should have turned himself back into prison for violating probation.
“There’s not a lot of help when you get out,” he says. “There’s nowhere to go if you want help — it’s a joke. … Back to square one.”
After the filming ended, Haseltine reportedly returned to live with his family in Ketchikan.
The second male inmate featured in “Inside Out,” Chawn Summerall, clearly reveals his stress as he navigates the probation process in a new town. He winds up, initially, at homeless shelter The Glory Hole, and then finds more permanent housing in a sober living house.
Summerall stayed in Juneau and remains upbeat, hoping to win an appeal of his 2010 conviction on first-degree assault charges.
He agreed to participate in the film because, he says, “If it helps one person, it’s worth my time. … How can this man’s tragedy help others?”
Summerall said it’s easy to fall back into destructive behavior patterns, acknowledging that his time out since December has been “very up and down.”
He has had four jobs since then and just lost his most recent one this week.
He’s determined to find another position, saying, “I’ll scrape pots and pans, I don’t care. I’ve gotta do something.”
Summerall has a pragmatic view of life on probation, saying, “If you do what they want, they’re not going to harass you. You can buck the tide or you can go with the tide.”
Keeping his nose clean just makes life easier in the long run, he knows, and tries to keep the long view.
“It’s nice to be out,” Summerall said. “I want to get a boat and get back to my life. I commercial fished, before I went to prison.”
Michelle Bennett’s journey on film appears strikingly different, as she immediately gets picked up by a group of women, including sister Yvonne, and is taken to Haven House, a faith-based recovery residence.
The Bennett sisters are both still at Haven House, a peer-led home run by Kara Nelson, herself a former inmate.
“People in prison, they’re going to come home,” Nelson said. “So why aren’t we building a compassionate community” to welcome them?”
Haven House is trying to fill that gap, she said.
“We’ve all been those people who walked out of those gates with nothing and no one,” she said, adding that she sees her staff’s role as being the “first responders.”
Bennett said she was nervous when she got to Haven House, because she didn’t know what to expect from that kind of structured environment.
“The five-year flat sentence I just did, I thought a lot about where I wanted to go,” she said. “Especially with my family. I wanted to be there for them.”
Bennett said she is working to be a different person than the continually relapsing alcoholic she always has been.
“All I knew was jail,” she explains. “I’ve been institutionalized since I was 13. It was my safe environment.”
Bennett admits she has relapsed, going out for a night on the town when she felt stressed about starting her new job.
“I wanted to run away,” she says softly. She didn’t want to face Nelson, she adds, “Because I felt like I let her down.”
But Nelson pushed her to take the high road, going with her to meet with the probation officer.
“I was sweating bullets,” Bennett said. “Before, I would look for the easiest way out. This was different, the PO was willing to work with me. The lesson learned was, I just need to reach out for support.”
Chronicling different paths
The “Inside Out” documentary started with another project published last year called “The Flying University,” about a literature and philosophy class in LCCC.
Director David Purdy said he worked on the Flying University project with producer Scott Burton, and the duo found so many compelling stories about inmates’ experiences after getting out of prison that they eventually percolated into a second documentary.
“We followed each of (the three inmates) as they walked out of the gates,” Purdy said. “One (Summerall) we followed the entire first day … It was a very long day.”
The filmmakers then checked in periodically.
“We didn’t want to get in the way of whatever they were doing,” Purdy said, adding they wanted to chronicle what kinds of milestones they were reaching and difficulties they were confronting.
In a little bit of serendipity, Purdy said the filmmakers ended up with the only three subjects they started with.
“We wanted people with different plans, different backgrounds,” he said. “Everyone’s experience is different. If there’s one thing I’ve learned (from this project), it’s that there is no single path. Fortunately we were able to work with three people who were going through very different things.”
Purdy said they started the filmmaking process as blank slates.
“In many ways, we went in very unprepared, in that we have never been through this, we’ve never been to prison, we have no first-hand knowledge or expertise of what this process is like,” he explained, adding that Associate Producer Elasonga Milligrock was able to guide them through the process.
“It made it more challenging because everything was unknown, we didn’t know what was going to happen, what specific challenges they were going to encounter,” Purdy said. “Our main goal was to see the process (of re-entry) through their eyes and get that first-hand look. … We wanted to show that process and that uncertainty.”
Purdy said it was good to feature inmates who had cycled in and out of the criminal justice system.
“That was one of the issues we were interested in highlighting,” he said. “It can become a revolving door, a cycle that can be very difficult to break.”
Purdy gave all the credit to the three subjects, saying, “I was tremendously impressed at how willing everybody was to share their experiences with us very openly. It must be difficult to be that vulnerable with a camera in your face. I’m very grateful they gave us a window into what this is like.”
The biggest takeaway for Purdy, he said, that that re-entry is a very individual process.
There are some great resources out there,” he said. “There are people doing some amazing work.”
The documentary was funded by Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, a state organization that uses its resources to support an integrated mental health system. The documentary will air periodically on TV and also is available online on 360north.org.
• Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 523-2246 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.