On 'The Right Track:' Local documentary shares portraits of felons as they enter life after prison

CINCINNATI - “I was in prison and you visited me.” -- Matthew 25:31–46

A documentary called “The Right Track: Stories of Justice and Redemption,” features the first-person accounts of six felons from the Greater Cincinnati area.

Written, produced and directed by the Rev. Noel Julnes-Dehner, of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Terrace Park, the film traces the former prisoners' crimes and incarceration, their turning points, their struggles and victories as they return to society with $75 and a ride to the bus station.  

“People are scarred by the experience,” Julnes-Dehner said. “They need a support system around them to help the re-entry process. There is often a gap in employment and a need to care for dependent children.  The documentary is geared to make people aware of the issues re-entering felons face."  

Julnes-Dehner said churches, civic groups and schools can use the film as an tool for education and awareness.

The road to re-entry

“Peace took hold of me, and God became my friend,” said Sheila Luther, one of the former prisoners who tells her story in the documentary.

In prison for thirteen years because she shot, but didn’t kill, an abusive husband, Luther was incarcerated at Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville. There, she spent four years in Tapestry, a behavior modification program. She also took five years of college courses, received spiritual direction and gained skills to handle “a life you weren’t equipped to before you went to prison.”  

“There was no program I wasn’t willing to take to become a better person," Luther recalled.  

Since leaving prison in 2006, the 61-year-old has worked several jobs in spite of her record and earned money to put down a deposit for a small one-bedroom condo in Pierce Township.  A member of the Mariemont Community Church, she met Julnes-Dehner through her contacts there. 

Sheila has returned to Marysville as a speaker and as a volunteer. Her latest effort is a woman-to-woman mentoring program with church volunteers. They visit residents who have no outside support and who never receive family visits. Her current job is the recovery services coordinator at the Safe Harbor House, a faith-based organization for women coming out of trauma, in Springfield.

Ohio's criminal record

Also appearing in the film is Hamilton County Prosecutor Joseph Deters, who says six percent of the criminals commit 70 percent of the crime. 

“A lot of people are saveable,” Deters says. There are hundreds of barriers, however, to housing, employment and education for those who have a felony record.

  • More than 650,000 people are released from incarceration nationally each year
  • Almost two million Ohio residents have criminal records  

“The Right Track” uses the portraits of former prisoners documentary to trace the struggle between justice and redemption as experienced by people who have committed crimes, served time and have returned to society.

“The goal is to bring the people experiencing this alive, and in front of viewers, because we as citizens have decisions to make," Julnes-Dehner said. "Other people are going to prison; even if we are not, we are all affected.” 

A number of organizations work to help former prisoners re-enter society. One is the Hamilton County
Office of Re-entry
under the direction of DeAnna Hoskins, a former drug user who changed her life and received a master’s degree in criminal justice from the University of Cincinnati in 2009. 

Other programs that assist in the re-entry process include:

  • Cincinnati Works
  • The Urban League
  • Talbert House
  • City Gospel Mission
  • Prospect House

“Our office is the largest centralized service provided to the county to coordinate, collaborate and communicate with all criminal justice stakeholders,” Hoskins said. “We are here for churches, family members and anyone who needs assistance to help individuals with criminal backgrounds.”

Next page: Genesis of an idea, view the documentary's trailer

Genesis of an idea

Inspiration came from the Rev. Jackie Burns, an Episcopal deacon in Columbus. Julnes-Dehner read a newsletter article in which Burns asked for help with a making re-entry video. Working with Burns, Julnes-Dehner honed her documentary skills. She found a co-producer in Sheila Obermeyer of Obermeyer Productions.

“This brings up the question of justice,” the filmmaker said. “When does the sentence end? Does it mean there are consequences? We need to make some changes. This is getting the story out in human terms.” 

Julnes-Dehner hopes people who view the documentary will act on what they've learned with donations to organizations that support re-entry programs; employer contacts; jobs and skilsl training; mentoring; and, even supplies and toiletries. 

“The documentary is meant to be a catalyst for other organizations,” Julnes-Dehner said. “It gives us new eyes to see the community. The impetus is to work to make society a safe and productive place for everybody.”

Funding for the documentary came from the Ohio Humanities Council. Julnes-Dehner also wrote and produced  the 2004 documentary “Under Fire:  Soviet Women Combat Veterans, WWII.”

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