Steven Craig, a 27-year-old ex-convict, tells his parole officer he “needs anger management courses.” A few weeks later, Craig commits Toronto’s 21st homicide of 1997, handcuffing, punching, strangling and finally drowning his transvestite lover. “He was doing everything right,” Craig’s parole officer Brian Welsh says. “I just didn’t know how badly he needed anger management.” Nobody knows. That’s the overriding message of High Risk Offender, a one-hour documentary that will be broadcast on Feb. 3 on TVOntario’s series The View From Here, and later in four other provinces. Toronto director Barry Greenwald and his crew followed Craig and six other Toronto parolees for 10 months. The result is a piece that adroitly examines the system designed to cushion a convict’s return to lawabiding citizenship. Trouble is, return implies that a person was once law-abiding. Many of High Risk Offender’s parolees are career felons. They started early, and have no skills, not even personal ones.
Greenwald’s subjects are a varied lot: exhockey players with cocaine addictions, smooth-talking art fraud con men, and remorseful drug addicts. Many lie pathologically. Drug test failures, for example, are attributed to far-fetched causes, including “someone put cocaine on my pizza.” Morality is inverted. Scott Burns, a petty thug, lists “seeing an old man squirm” as an “interesting” aspect of his dubious job as a debt collector. His therapist replies: “So an interesting thing to you is that you might enjoy seeing someone afraid.”
These counsellors and therapists provide the law-abiding yin to their clients’ criminal yang. They employ a cynical suspicion tempered with optimism that offenders can be taught to live free from crime. During the course of 1997, the parole unit chronicled by Greenwald processed 191 cases. Each one had the potential to break the criminal cycle. Ultimately, High Risk Offender demonstrates that it is impossible to determine what makes one person a recidivist and another stay clean. “Don’t rob a bank please, Barry,” Welsh tells Barry Proctor, a man who spent 28 years in jail for 17 different convictons. “They’ll bury you so deep you’ll have your own postal code.” So far, Proctor has taken Welsh’s advice.
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