Hot Docs 2016: Off the Rails
Every so often, we are witness to examples of the American justice system failing its inmates. Such is the case for New Yorker Darius McCollum, a repeat offender with 32 convictions. Diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at an early age, his love of public transit turned into a revolving door of him impersonating bus and subway train operators, being arrested and convicted of a felony, being in jail, being released, and compulsively repeating his behaviour. At no point has he received any counselling while in prison, therefore ensuring his journey stays the same. Adam Irving’s Off the Rails documents the life of this man who has not received the care he needs and has fallen through the cracks of a society more concerned with keeping people locked up than helping them get better.
Growing up, Darius McCollum found solace and refuge on the subway. Bullied by his peers because of his Asperger’s, the only place he felt safe was within the confines of the structured system of the MTO. As he got older, the transit employees got to know Darius and began showing him how the trains operated. Very discreetly, at the age of 13, an operator supervised him as he operated the train. This began a life-long habit of needing to operate buses and subways to calm McCollum’s compulsions. He began impersonating operators as a teenager, receiving his first arrest at 15 years of age. At the ages of 17 and 18, Darius applied to be a proper employee of the MTO but was rejected because of his criminal record. His compulsions continued. He knew the lingo, he knew the routes, and he slid into this world easily.
Over the next 35 years, he was arrested and sent to jail more than 30 times. He has spent more than half of his adult life in prison. Because his crime was stealing and operating vehicles and impersonation, it is considered a felony crime and Darius was sentenced to maximum security facilities. His lawyer failed him, the prison system failed him, the social workers only did what they could when he was out, and his parents, getting on in years, were not in a position to help. If the government had stopped to properly examine this case, they would see that he was not a violent criminal. If they just took some of the $60,000 it took each year to imprison him and allocated it to rehabilitation and therapy, they could have broken the cycle. The system seems ill-equipped to handle someone like Darius. Now at the age of 51, he will likely live out most of his remaining days behind bars.
While incredibly interesting, it’s infuriating to learn about McCollum’s story. If someone in a position to help him while he was in prison had properly examined his case–the correctional officers, the judges handling his trials–and stopped to ask how can we fix this instead of blindly following rules of the system, Darius likely could be rehabilitated back into society with supervision. Many also advocate that the MTO hire him in some capacity to allow him the ability to have a purpose and ease his preoccupation with stealing vehicles. This story forces us to take a closer look at the structure and design of the criminal justice system and how it can be improved. In America though, with incarceration now a big business, little is likely to change.
Irving’s film is an excellent record of this fascinating case. It’s well structured and through interviews with Darius himself, we get a clear timeline of the events that have occurred in this man’s life. We get first-hand accounts of the people around him which helps give a richer picture of the story. We get to know the man behind the crimes and we see someone who is kind and has no ill-intent. He’s just someone whose mind operates a little differently than most and deserves compassion and understanding. Off the Rails is an absorbing look at a misunderstood and lovable man destined to live out his days as a cautionary tale to a society that has failed him.