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Film gives hope for reversing the tide of prison recidivism

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – The final film in the Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution (KIPCOR) series for 2014-15 will screen March 1 at Bethel College.

Released is a series of hopeful stories of four parolees who prove that the tide of recidivism can be reversed if former prisoners are given the support they need to reenter society.

The film will show at 3 p.m. in Krehbiel Auditorium in Luyken Fine Arts Center. The event is free, with donations accepted to support the film series and the work of KIPCOR.

Steve Dechant, retired deputy warden at Hutchinson Correctional Facility, will facilitate a talk-back session after the film.

Released, a 73-minute documentary by Philip F. Messina, states that two-thirds of all inmates in the United States return to jail within three years of being freed, and looks at the lives of four who beat the odds.

The film is adapted from a 2008 off-Broadway play, The Castle, that starred four ex-cons. The film has the same cast: Casimiro Torres, Kenneth Harrigan, Angel Ramos and Vilma Ortiz Donovan, all former longtime inmates of New York State prisons.

The personal stories of these four are chilling and heartbreaking. They include sexual and physical abuse, drug addiction, poverty and neglect. The shortest prison sentence was six years; the longest (for murder), 30.

Things all four shared: the ability to draw on long-overlooked personal strengths, and an understanding that the will to live productive lives was in their control.

They also shared the Castle. After leaving prison with no homes and no jobs, they each found the unique 62-bed reentry facility created by the Fortune Society in New York City and run by former prisoners.

Fortune Society founder is Broadway press agent, producer and activist David Rothenberg, who had engaged for years with former prisoners through talk-backs after performances of his hit play Fortune and Men’s Eyes.

As part of their rehabilitation, Torres, Harrigan, Ramos and Ortiz collaborated with Rothenberg to tell their own stories. Originally conceived as an exercise in self-awareness, the project developed under Rothenberg into the play The Castle, produced for a 14-month off-Broadway run in 2008-09 by Eric Krebs, a highly regarded theater producer and social justice advocate.

To date, more than 30,000 people have seen The Castle in more than 200 performances at prisons, colleges, community centers and other organizations, including the New York State Legislature.

When Martin Feinberg, a successful advertising and marketing executive, saw a performance of The Castle in a women’s prison, he knew it would make an important movie. As executive producer of Released, he was able to bring these inspiring and challenging stories to the screen in 2013.

The film shows Torres, Harrigan, Ramos and Ortiz performing in front of two different audiences, one in a theater, the other in a prison. They speak of the forces (such as religion or loved ones) that made them want to change. All four are now job holders who credit their success to the Castle.

The Castle provides, in addition to shelter, career development and social training. According to Released, fewer than 10 percent of those who have stayed there have returned to prison.

“In this unforgettable story,” says the website Covering Media, “four extraordinary people – three men and a woman, each a convicted felon, who by force of their own will, deep good nature, profound change in attitude and access to the finely tuned prisoner reentry system of the Fortune Society – overcome a brutal past and defy the grim statistic that two out of every three prisoners released in the United States today will be back in prison within three years.

“Providing a model for the nation, this life-affirming and heartbreaking story proves that the implacable tide of recidivism can be reversed.”

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2014-15 Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States, and is the highest-ranked Kansas college in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2014-15. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.

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