There’s nothing easy about visiting a prison. Days and weeks ahead of time, you submit your request, your ID, your answers to the questionnaires. Most prisons are far from urban centers and airports, and the drive out is long. At the prison entrance, you surrender your cellphone — gone are the emails, texts, the addictive flow of pings that are the stuff of modern life. Airport-like security, gates and more gates, another request for ID, a walk down long institutional hallways flanked by officers and guards. Finally, a large, cavernous room, with over forty men in their light brown prison uniforms, sitting on rows of folding chairs, waiting patiently and politely for the show to begin.
The trip was to the Elkton federal prison in rural Ohio, and I’d come for a screening of my film "Knife Skills," a documentary about the work of Brandon Chrostowski, a restaurateur who had traveled with me to Elkton that day.
Brandon had had his own troubles with the law when he was young, before he learned cooking and restaurant management in elite restaurants in Chicago, Paris, and New York. He then moved to Cleveland to open Edwins, a white-tablecloth classic French restaurant staffed almost entirely by men and women recently released from prison. A chance encounter led me to spend months following him and the trainees he had recruited for his venture.
The film tracks the restaurant’s hectic launch, but its real subject is what people in the criminal field field call reentry: what happens to men and women when they have done their time and come out to rebuild their lives.
Reentry, it turns out, is filled with risk. Of the 650,000 men and women who are released from prison in America every year, almost 25 percent of federal prisoners and 45 percent of state prisoners will end up reincarcerated (within eight and five years, respectively). In theory, those who are released from prison have paid the price for their misdeed and are free to make a fresh start. In reality, most will continue to pay a heavy price throughout their working life, shut out of many career paths, denied work licenses, disproportionately relegated to temporary and day labor and earning far less than those never imprisoned.
Given the extraordinarily high rates of incarceration in the United States, this negative effect is felt by tens of millions of Americans. As a country, we spend $80 billion on incarceration annually, and that is just a fraction of the overall $1 trillion toll on the American economy. Successful reintegration of those released from prison would benefit us all.
Given the extraordinarily high rates of incarceration in the United States, this negative effect is felt by tens of millions of Americans.
Fear, ignorance and stigma are a powerful part of this story. When I set out to shoot my film at the restaurant, familiar stereotypes filled my head: tattooed men with bulging muscles, hardened from years behind bars. I was unprepared for what I encountered among the class of trainees at Edwins: the vulnerability, the palpable frailty, the eagerness to talk and to be heard.
There was fervent gratitude for the opportunity at the restaurant, a yearning to make the most of this second chance. And among many men and women there, there was also deep worry about the issue of character. What were the flaws that had gotten them into trouble? Did they now have those flaws under control? As they started their training at the restaurant, the personal stakes were enormous: their future lay on the line.
Despite this motivation, there was a lot that could and did go wrong. After months or years of enforced passivity in prison, life on the outside moves fast: beyond finding work, you must find a place to live, means of transport, you must reconnect and repair relationships to family and friends. Recovery after prison, like recovery from addiction, is not often a straight trajectory.
After months or years of enforced passivity in prison, life on the outside moves fast.
The Willie Hortons of the world — the violent offenders who get released from prison only to commit new, violent crimes — are rare. But it’s equally rare, when someone gets out of prison, that all goes right, right away. There are relapses with addiction. There are failures to comply with the strict rules of probation. Short stints back in prison are common, and that usually means loss of job, loss of home, and starting the process of reentry all over again.
That human fragility, so evident at the restaurant, was also palpable at our screening at the Elkton prison. For the incarcerated, the past is often a source of shame and the present a monotonous stretch of days, months, and years. The focus on the future — on the prospect of life after prison — offers something hopeful to hold onto.
As the film ran, there was stillness and intense focus. When the story was done and the credits rolled, the inmates sprung to their feet and clapped and kept on clapping. Not for the film, or even for the restaurant, so much as for themselves, for the possibility that life after prison could be something different.
I felt a catch in my throat. I looked across at the restaurant’s founder, Brandon Chrostowski, and I could see he too was fighting back emotion. As we left, we talked excitedly about doing more such prison screenings. Yes, getting inside a prison is a lot of work, a hassle. And yes, reentry is hard and filled with setbacks. But then — isn’t that’s true of anything worthwhile?
Thomas Lennon is a director, producer and cinematographer whose work in documentary film has earned him an Academy Award, three Academy nominations and two Emmys. His film “Knife Skills” is available at The New Yorker’s Screening Room.