UW News

February 23, 2015

Documentary explores a juvenile crime, a life transformed

News and Information

The possibility of longtime prisoners being released from prison and leading happy, productive lives may seem unlikely.

But a new radio documentary project aims to dispel that perception. The Rethinking Punishment Radio Project is a collaboration between UW professor Katherine Beckett and two radio journalists from the University of British Columbia. The first episode, which aired Feb. 25 on the Cited podcast, tells the story of Jeff Coats, who served 17 years in adult prison for charges including robbery and attempted murder.

Jeff Coats at the time of his arrest

Jeff Coats at the time of his arrest

Coats was 14 when he and two 17-year-olds kidnapped Tacoma resident David Grenier in 1994 and stole his car. The trio duct-taped Grenier and put him in the trunk of his BMW, but he later escaped.

Coats, who had been in 62 foster care placements over a three-year period before the crime, was tried as an adult and sentenced to 20 years.

He is now a Seattle real estate agent who regularly talks to groups about what life in prison is like.

“Jeff’s doing really well,” said Beckett, a professor in the UW’s Law, Societies and Justice Program. “There are people like Jeff who have these incredible stories of transformation, despite in many cases having extraordinarily difficult starts in life.”

The 22-minute documentary is part of the Rethinking Punishment project, started by Beckett and Steve Herbert, director of the Law, Societies and Justice program, about a year ago to reframe issues around human rights, violence and incarceration.

Listen to the documentary at this link.

Beckett said she got the idea for the documentary series while volunteering with the Concerned Lifers Organization, a group of male inmates at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe. Talking with them, Beckett repeatedly heard stories of former inmates who had turned their lives around.

“I think there’s a lot of cultural skepticism around people’s ability to change.” Beckett said. “People know that prisons are violent, awful places, so they can’t imagine how somebody could get better in a prison.”

The lifers group led Beckett to Coats, as well as two other former inmates leading successful lives. She originally planned to make a video documentary series, but then met the two Vancouver journalists behind the Cited podcast, Sam Fenn and Gordon Katic, who were in Seattle on another project.

Fenn said the pair was immediately interested when they heard about Coats.

“His story is so extraordinary,” he said. “It was clear that we had to try to help make this documentary.”

The documentary’s title, “Superpredators Revisited,” refers to a prediction by social scientists in the 1990s — most notably, criminologist James A. Fox and Princeton University political scientist John J. DiIulio Jr. — that forecasted a wave of violence by remorseless American youngsters. Though ultimately disproven, the prediction led many states to pass legislation that dramatically increased the numbers of juveniles being tried and sentenced as adults.

The documentary will air on college and campus radio stations in British Columbia, and the producers are currently looking for U.S. distribution partners.

Beckett said Coats’ story underscores the human capacity for transformation, even among prisoners who have been incarcerated for long periods.

“If that’s true, we should be doing more to facilitate it,” she said. “That means giving people a chance to present themselves and show the world that they’ve changed.”