The United States has the highest prison population in the world. Over 2.25  million people are incarcerated, with an additional 5 million on parole or probation; two-thirds of those released from prison will return behind bars within three years. Released, directed by tonight’s guest Philip F. Messina, follows the stories of four parolees who prove that the implacable tide of recidivism can be reversed–under the right circumstances.

Released is based on the Off-Broadway play The Castle developed from the real life stories of Vilma Ortiz Donovan, Kenneth Harrigan, Casimiro Torres and Angel Ramos, who combined spent over 70 years in prison.  After leaving prison with no homes to go to and no jobs for support, they found a unique program known as “The Castle”, a 62-bed reentry facility run by former prisoners in New York City. This haven was created by The Fortune Society, founded by Broadway press agent, producer and activist David Rothenberg after years of engagement with former prisoners through talkbacks after the performances of his hit play Fortune and Men’s Eyes.

As part of their rehabilitation, they worked with Rothenberg developing their stories–from childhood into incarceration and release–into a compelling spoken word piece. The film is primarily the play itself, each of the principles taking up a part of their own story in chronological order, through childhood, their crimes (ranging from drugs and theft to murder), and the changes prison and the Fortune Foundation made in their lives.

Kenneth Harrigan, a straight-A student, refused a basketball scholarship to college because it would put him in a school close the prison where he visited his brother.  Low self-esteem and environment drew him into drugs, and he resorted to burglary to support his habit, and was sentenced to 16 years in prison. His ability to read and write in prison became a huge asset in an illiterate population; he taught other prisoners to read, and using the law library got many off on appeal, based on technicalities. Eventually paroled, he was sent to a parole mandated shelter, more horrifying than prison, with no job prospects until the Fortune Foundation accepted him into their shelter, “The Castle.”

Angel Torres had no future when he was sentenced to prison for killing his friend in a rage. Through the help of a  prison volunteer, Angel–who was raised by abusive parents–learned to read and eventually passed his GED. But once released after 30 years, he had no job opportunities. But now through the supportive re-entry program, he is in school and training to be a advocate.

Vilma Ortiz spent 6 years in prison for dealing cocaine. From a solid family background, Vilma found the excitement of the nightlife and drugs helped removed her feeling of insecurity, but as she fell deeper into addiction her pain and self-loathing increased. Prison programs and her own motivation helped her gain self-awareness and self-confidence, and she now works for the Fortune Foundation.

Fatherless, living with his alcoholic mother in a Hell’s Kitchen apartment that was den of thieves and drug addicts, Casimiro Torres and his younger brother were eventually placed in a juvenile shelter rampant with sexual and physical abuse. The boys escaped and lived on the streets, surviving by stealing food during burglaries. Torres became a crack addict and was arrested 67 times, eventually spending 16 years in prison.  It was through the Fortune Foundation that he was able to learn how to be a father and establish a relationship with his daughter who was born while he was in jail.

The Fortune Foundation is a model for positive change in the lives of released prisoners, and programs for prisoners can make changes in the lives of the incarcerated (one such program takes the play “The Castle” into institutions as a learning tool for prisoners). Current mandatory sentencing laws and an increase in drug enforcement are increasing the prison population, and there are few safety nets for those who have done time. Although the cycle seems unbreakable, thankfully there are those working in various capacities to change lives before, during, and after prison.