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Television Review - 'The Released' - A Documentary on Pbs Asks, ‘After Prison, Then What’?

April 28, 2009; New York Times; Television Review - 'The Released' - A Documentary on Pbs Asks, ‘After Prison, Then What’?; by Ginia Bellafante.

“The Released,” a documentary to be shown on Tuesday on most PBS stations, seeks to confirm everything you may already believe about the egregious lapses in the nation’s prison and mental health systems. Specifically, the film deals with the insurmountable difficulties facing mentally ill inmates once they are set free, often with little more than petty cash, a ticket out of town and two weeks’ worth of medication.

Written and directed by Miri Navasky and Karen O’Connor, who five years ago made “The New Asylums,” a documentary examining the treatment of mentally ill offenders in the Ohio prison system, the new film bears the distinct characteristics of a “Frontline” offering: dolorous, reproachful, illuminating in detail if not enlightening in its arguments.

Here again, good and decent people are caught up in fallible systems: the caseworkers, psychiatrists and judges filmed all mean to serve their population well, and yet the outcome for mentally ill prisoners remains incredibly bleak. According to the film, one million people with psychiatric disorders fill the country’s prisons right now, and a vast majority of them will be back behind bars within 18 months of their release. Whose fault is this? Presumably, in the film’s assumption, it is the Man’s.

“The Released” cites the closing of state mental hospitals in the 1970s as part of the problem — prisons essentially replaced them as care facilities — but doesn’t engage in the debate about deinstitutionalization, even as one of its own talking heads calls it a largely positive change in policy. In place of any real analysis of the issue, the film gives an admittedly harrowing account of the lives of mentally ill prisoners once they’ve re-entered society.

One man sets his girlfriend’s house on fire within weeks of his release. Another, whom the filmmakers met in 2004 as he was about to be paroled after serving time for aggravated robbery, wound up in prison three months later for robbing a pharmacy. He swallowed a cassette recorder, crushing it into bits and downing it with water, but he doesn’t consider himself mentally ill, describing his condition instead as a “spiritual insanity.”

Recidivism results largely from the difficulty of getting treatment. Homelessness, the all-too-frequent aftermath of prison release, makes obtaining help virtually impossible. As Mike Unger, a doctor running a mobile outreach unit, saliently puts it: “This isn’t a population that’s going to come with their planners and their organizers and keep track of their appointments and seamlessly integrate their own physical health care issues with their mental health issues and be compliant with their medications and keep them in that perfect little medication box, as they live, you know, behind a Dumpster somewhere.”

It is a population that needs supervisors, saints, heroes.

FRONTLINE

The Released

On most PBS stations on Tuesday night (check local listings).

Produced by “Frontline” with Mead Street Films. Directed, written and produced by Miri Navasky and Karen

O’Connor; series producer, WGBH Boston; Michael Sullivan, executive producer of special projects; David Fanning, series executive producer.


Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

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