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A Released Prisoner and Talented Talker Shares His Story on NPR


Dan Collison, a film and radio producer, had an idealistic mission. "I wanted to put a human face on the numbers," he said in an interview, referring to the thousands of men who are released from prison every day. "Some of them have nothing but a bus ticket, so it's no wonder that half of them end up back in prison. I wanted to see what the obstacles were, how hard it really was to turn your life around."

He decided to follow a former prisoner through the rehabilitation program at St. Leonard's House, a Chicago halfway house, with an impressive-sounding track record: almost 90 percent of the men who complete its four-month program avoid recidivism, compared with Illinois's prevailing rate of 50 percent.

But finding the right person turned out to be more difficult than the optimistic numbers at St. Leonard's suggested. Mr. Collison's first four candidates left the halfway house after a few weeks. One went back to prison, another to drugs. A third disappeared, and the fourth got a job and didn't want to bother with St. Leonard's demands, which include daily support meetings, job training, household chores and a pledge to stop using alcohol and drugs.

So Mr. Collison was skeptical when he met James, 38, who came to St. Leonard's after his fourth prison term, most recently seven years for burglary. But in this case hopefulness prevailed. James not only completed the St. Leonard's program, he turned out to have a natural talent for radio -- a musical voice and fine sense of timing -- as he offered his story to Mr. Collison's microphone.

He was so good that Mr. Collison decided that James should narrate his own story for "Learning to Live: James's Story," a 22-minute radio documentary to be heard today on "All Things Considered" on National Public Radio. James's "scratch tracks" -- normally practice takes to test the sound -- were so proficient that Mr. Collison ended up using half of them in the final product. James also collaborated on the writing.

Though Mr. Collison said the "quality of voice didn't matter," the documentary's graceful intimacy springs from its narrator's clarity and use of simple, vivid imagery. "I remember the first night I got out of prison," James begins. "I played softball that night. I can still hear the birds that were out there that day. It was a nice summer evening."

From that placid scene emerges a sad story of failure: half a lifetime spent in jail and much of the rest in a fog produced by alcohol and drugs. James speaks of his past with rueful honesty. "Had I been charged with all the crimes, I'd be locked up until I was an old man," he says.

The documentary follows James through his days at St. Leonard's, and allows listeners to hear from the priest who runs the halfway house and from James's caseworker, also a former convict, who tells his charge, "Whatever could happen to a maggot like me could happen to a butterfly like you if you just try."

The microphone captures the sounds of St. Leonard's sessions, filled with exhortation and clapping and chanting. It relays the compassionate voice of a woman who explains why she hired James. (She likes his appearance, she says, observing that he is friendly, well dressed and smiles, and that his answers were "customer-focused.")

We hear about James's children, including an 18-year-old son whom he hadn't seen since the boy was 4. During the course of the documentary project, the son was arrested for cocaine possession, and we hear James trying to pass along to his son the hard lessons he has learned.

Although more than eight months have passed since he was released from prison, statistics indicate that his journey is far from over. As James says near the end of the documentary, possessed of a job and a determined outlook, "I can't afford to get complacent."

ALL THINGS CONSIDERED NPR today; in New York, WNYC-AM (820) and FM (93.9) at 4 p.m.

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