Film director John Lucas hoped to show jailed friends’ ‘complex humanity’

At the Whitney, the filmmaker and stars of the documentary “The Cooler Bandits” screened their film and led a discussion on it and the criminal justice system.
John Lucas, Richard Poochie Roderick, and Donovan Harris lead a Q and A at the Whitney Center at Yale.

Film director John Lucas (far left) took part in a discussion of his documentary “The Cooler Bandits” with two of the film’s subjects, Richard “Poochie” Roderick and Donovan Harris. Roderick and Harris spent much of their early adult years in prison for a series of restaurant robberies they committed in Ohio in 1991. They are now helping others with their reintegration into society. (Photo by James Finley)

When two men who were once among the four Ohio restaurant robbers who gained notoriety as “The Cooler Bandits” took the stage at Yale on Jan. 30, many in the audience felt they knew them personally.

Before Richard “Poochie” Roderick and Donovan Harris made their entrance in the Whitney Humanities Center, the audience watched the nearly two-hour documentary film “The Cooler Bandits,” which follows their journeys and that of their other two friends — Charlie Kelly and Frankie Porter — through different stages of their incarceration and reintegration into society. The film is directed by John Lucas, who joined Roderick and Harris in a Q&A after the screening.

Lucas’ film documents how, as teenagers, the four African-American friends took part in a series of restaurant robberies in 1991. The young men, all from the impoverished North Side neighborhood of Akron, Ohio, earned the moniker “The Cooler Bandits” because they put employees in the restaurants’ walk-in coolers before robbing the cash registers. Although no one was hurt in the robberies, they received prison sentences ranging from 60 to 500 years.

Lucas conducted candid interviews with the men over a period of nearly seven years, beginning while they were in prison, learning about their dreams of living meaningful lives in society as transformed individuals. In addition to the accused, Lucas’ film also features family members talking about the impact the men’s incarceration had on their lives, as well as victims’ reactions to their ordeal.

After the film screening, Roderick and Harris were greeted with robust applause as they walked down the aisle in the Whitney Humanities Center auditorium before an audience of Yale students, faculty, and other members of the New Haven community. Also joining them for the Q&A about the film was Yale graduate student jub Sankofa, who moderated the discussion. The event was offered in conjunction with a project Sankofa is working on for a documentary film class taught by Yale professor Charles Musser.

Sankofa told the audience that he, too, is from Ohio and spent some time in prison as a teenager. He noted that the film brings to the fore the themes of redemption and transformation, and asked Lucas why he created the film.

Lucas said he wanted “to peel away the statistics of mass incarceration” to “tell a story about friendship.” He noted that he had actually met the four men before they became known as “The Cooler Bandits.” While he was a volunteer Big Brother to Roderick’s young cousin, Lucas was told by the four friends that if he wanted to hang out with his mentee, he’d also have to hang out with them.

I never saw them as the ‘Cooler Bandits,’” said Lucas. “I saw them as friends. … I saw them as kids.”

He added that he hoped to show the men’s individuality and “complex humanity” in his film.

Harris and Roderick served the lesser sentences of the four men, with Harris (the only accomplice who was able to hire a lawyer) being released after 13 years in jail and Roderick winning his freedom after nearly 20 years. They and Kelly were able to continue their friendship as inmates in the same prison facility, while Porter — who received the longest sentence — was incarcerated in a higher security prison. Kelly was released shortly after Roderick; Porter, whose pleas to the state for clemency have not been granted, won’t have a parole hearing until 2035. In “Cooler Bandits,” the prosecutor in the case acknowledges the men received lengthy sentences for crimes in which no one was physically harmed.

Speaking about the events of his life since the film, Roderick said he completed his undergraduate degree in sociology at Pitzer College in California and is now working as the program coordinator of the Justice-in-Education Initiative at Columbia University, which seeks to provide educational opportunities to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals.

Harris now travels to prisons throughout Ohio to help others navigate the re-entry process in connection with his work for the Summit County Re-entry Network. He emphasized that the re-entry experiences of he, Roderick, and Kelly — who have the opportunity to meet people all over the country when traveling to discuss Lucas’ film — are not typical.

[Y]ou have to understand that the road after incarceration is not a linear road,” he said. “People think if you get a job, you get a place to live, and you get transportation you should be a restored citizen. It’s not a linear road. It’s a lot of bumps and twists and turns.” Because of these challenges, he said, those in the best position to help others navigate life after prison are people who have experienced that transition themselves.

If you’ve never been there and walked that road … you can’t really understand what I’m going through,” he said. ‘[Those released] have what’s called post-incarceration syndrome, which is very similar to post-traumatic stress syndrome. When we come out, we’ve got all this stuff inside of us that somebody has to help us deal with.”

Roderick explained that his development was in sense “arrested” during his time in prison, despite all of his personal efforts to educate himself. He said that when he came out of prison at the age of 38, he felt closer in age to the 18- to 22-year-olds he was in classes with as an undergraduate student.

I was learning all those things that people do in society that I missed out on,” said Roderick.

However, when asked if they were angry about their lengthy jail sentences (some say they were made an example of), Roderick and Harris said they were not.

While today he thinks about the ways in which systematic racism and oppression have played a role in his life’s journey, Roderick said that he believed he needed to accept responsibility for his crimes and be accountable for his actions.

Harris said that he felt more disappointment than anger.

My disappointment is in myself and that I let my mother down,” he explained. “As a father, my greatest focus is to give my kids all of me because I took that from my mother. I’m so disappointed that I took that turn.” Sometimes, his disappointment hurts more than any anger, said Harris, but he tries to make up for it.

I try to show society my apology in my walk, in how I behave, in how I act and carry myself daily. It’s my apology to my mom, my grandmother, and to myself for the decision I made.”

Still, Roderick said, while traveling to discuss the film in public settings, he attempts to focus some of the discussion on transforming the system through public policy, noting that systematic racism and oppression had some effect on the choices the four teenaged boys made in 1991.

Our schools, churches, and stores are still segregated,” he said. “We have to re-imagine how to address these issues. How do we begin to transform our own communities?”

Harris told the audience that despite his years of freedom he still identifies more with the inmates he works with daily than with those who have never been incarcerated.

When I see a police officer — even when I know my license is good and my insurance is good — [I know] that if they run my license, all this stuff about ‘The Cooler Bandits’ will come up,” he said.

Lucas said he hopes to share “The Cooler Bandits” film with inmates at some Connecticut correctional facilities. He has also collaborated on short films with his wife Claudia Rankine, the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale. One of those films — featuring Rankine reading from her poem “Making Room” from her award-winning collection “Citizen: An American Lyric” — was shown before “The Cooler Bandits.” Rankine dedicated the multi-award-winning poetry collection to Roderick, Harris, Kelly, and Porter.

At the end of the evening, Harris and Roderick urged members of the audience to write notes of encouragement to Porter, the last of the friends in prison, saying that it is difficult for him to maintain hope due to his long imprisonment, with no promise of release. Trying to win freedom for Porter is a cause for which his friends and family are still actively fighting.

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