Film Review: Released

Documentary recording a theatrical production of four ex-convicts telling their redemption stories, produced by the organization that helped them.

An eloquent infomercial for the 46-year-old nonprofit organization the Fortune Society, which helps transition ex-convicts to the outside world, this documentary of four former prisoners telling their stories is a sort of “Scared Straight” for social progressives. You can't argue with the premise, that it's better for everyone when criminals become productive, tax-paying members of society. But as worthy as that message is, Released is perhaps willfully credulous, accepting the ex-cons' self-justifying stories whole and offering not a trace of third-party sourcing to back up their claims, nor giving any voice to the victims or their families in order to provide perspective as to who these people are.

The filmmakers might say such concerns are beside the point—that these four have served their time and deserve a chance. But convicts are notoriously liars and manipulators, and there are unexplained discrepancies in at least one of the quartet's tales. When a documentary advocates changes in social policy, it has a responsibility to provide society with the full picture.

Released, produced in 2010, is based on the 2008 theatrical production The Castle, created by David Rothenberg, a producer of the enduring 1967 off-Broadway play Fortune and Men's Eyes, about a youth subjected to sexual slavery in a detention center. In 1967 he also founded the New York City-based Fortune Society, which offers housing and an array of other support services to what it says are 3,500 former inmates a year, in a bid to reduce recidivism. The four ex-cons' stories here all eventually wind to the Fortune Society's transitional Fortune Academy, nicknamed The Castle—a 62-bed facility at West 140th Street and Riverside Drive in West Harlem, a Gothic Revival structure that formerly housed the St. Walburga's Academy Catholic school and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The four, all from the New York/Long Island area, are Casimiro Torres, a Matt LeBlanc lookalike who says he was arrested 67 times and released in 2005 after 16 years in prison for an unspecified crime; Kenneth Harrigan, a middle-class African-American with drug issues, released in 2004 after two burglary arrests "on back-to-back Easter Sundays—one burglary later they sentenced me to 12 years to life"; former drug dealer Vilma Ortiz Donovan, released in 2007; and Angel Ramos, released that same year at age 47 after serving three decades for killing a woman during an argument. The film records them telling their stories side-by-side on chairs facing an audience at the Minetta Lane Theatre and at the Queensboro Correctional Facility, with the movie intercutting additional interviews with them.

The details of their crimes are left mostly vague. We don't know if Ramos shot, stabbed or strangled his friend, or who she was—she's an unnamed non-person, as far as the movie goes. Torres talks about sticking up street-prostitutes' johns in Hell's Kitchen Park, robbing people at a particular subway station and burglarizing apartments for drug money. All but Harrigan recount horrific childhoods, with Torres claiming he and several of his young brothers where forced to fight each other like pit bulls for the crowds of thieves and degenerates who—with no explanation he offers—gathered nightly at his purportedly sainted mother's apartment; he goes on to talk about youth centers where staff sexually abused minors with impunity, prompting him and a brother to run away and live on the streets.

The broad strokes are likely true, but given convicts' sociopathic propensity for telling people what they want to hear, holes pop up. Torres says his daughter was born a month after his 67th and last arrest, yet we see a studio-portrait photo of him with a tiny infant, clearly not during a prison sentence. Also, his mug shot in once instance gives his name as "Robert S. Gonzalez." What's real and what's not becomes a nagging issue, and even something as simple as text cards with the basic facts of their cases would have gone a long way to giving viewers a better sense of not being had.

Perhaps the facts don't matter much in the face of the larger question: What is the most rational, practical and pragmatic way of integrating such damaged people into the larger world? The Fortune Society's successful work with these four makes them poster children for the organization's approach—a couple are in college, three are working in such careers as substance-abuse counseling, two have gotten married to women they met after release—but hidden in the folds of their stories is something Harrigan says in passing, about being interviewed in a shelter for one of The Castle's few available spaces. The Fortune Society's success stems in large part to its carefully selecting what may be the relatively few individuals who are salvageable—its method might be fruitless with the vast majority.

Still, it's encouraging to see a humane and enlightened approach working, and while the stars' stories may raise more questions than answers, they're engaging and keep you interested. That's most of the battle with any documentary.