Film has long been a vehicle for social change and awareness, but that wasn’t director Adam Irving’s plan when he started making his first documentary Off the Rails.
Off the Rails, which premiered at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival on April 7, depicts the true story of Darius McCollum, a 51-year-old African-American man who has been jailed 32 times since the age of 15 – but it’s not what you might think.
McCollum’s crimes have all revolved around commandeering subway trains and buses while impersonating members of the Metro Transit Authority in New York City.
He has never hurt anyone. He has never damaged any property. He made all the stops on his transit routes safely. However, he has spent a total of 23 years of his life in prison, never receiving proper treatment for his disability.
Growing up in Queens as a boy with undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome, McCollum escaped school bullies by hanging out in the subway and making friends with the transit workers. This turned into a love of transit and a lifetime of driving hundreds of trains and buses along their scheduled routes without pay – or permission.
At first, director Adam Irving thought McCollum’s quirky crimes would create an entertaining film. However, pretty soon, that all changed.
Irving says, “Within a few months, it became clear that this film could be very effective as an educational tool, as a tool for social awareness/advocacy, not just for Darius – like get this guy help – but also for all the other children like Darius out there who don’t present as mentally ill but have all these issues that if addressed would prevent [them] from continuing to commit crimes – which are harmless – but end up costing the state millions of dollars and wasting the person’s life by putting them in jail.”
McCollum’s true story highlights what Irving calls the “gray area” that exists on the Autism spectrum and diagnosing it.
See, unlike many individuals who have Autism or even Asperger’s, McCollum presents as a “normal” person.
According to Irving, “He can make perfect eye contact. He has a good sense of humor. He picks up on social cues. He does all these things that people on the spectrum don’t do… which just kind of reminds us how much gray area there is in diagnosis and how fluid the spectrum is.”
Yet, despite McCollum’s normal presentation, his repeated felonies show that he clearly suffers from mental health issues.
Irving states, “That’s an important ‘character’ to have in stories that we tell to show that not everyone who is mentally ill is foaming at the mouth, and talking to themselves, and violent.”
In fact, according to Irving, “Darius is a very calm, non-violent, charming individual.”
Unfortunately, McCollum’s non-clichéd portrait of mental illness has impacted him negatively in court.
Irving describes, “You’ll see there’s a scene in my movie where a judge about 15 years ago said that she had done a Google search and based on her research on Asperger’s, she had determined Darius doesn’t have it, and therefore can’t be considered for mental health court or any kind of lenience in her sentence for him because he was clearly a normal person who knows what he’s doing and sentenced him to 5 years in prison.”
What’s even more surprising is that even though the case was featured in the New York Times, no one protested this shocking decision.
Lori Shery, President and Executive Director of ASPEN (Asperger Autism Spectrum Education Network) was actually in the courtroom when the judge issued her sentence.
“I understand that not everyone knows about Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome, and that’s absolutely fair,” said Shery. “But not only was the judge not receptive to learning something about it, but she was also dismissive of everyone who even suggested he had it, suggested it had anything to do with his behaviors, and wanted to help him.
Shery and her organization had been contacted by McCollum’s attorney at the time for her specialized assistance with the case. She was appalled by the judge’s lack of professionalism and respect.
At the same time, Shery notes that a lot has changed since the days when she started ASPEN and people had never even heard of the term Asperger’s. “There’s been a lot of progress,” she says, “but one of the areas there really hasn’t been progress is in the judicial system.”
Shery doesn’t believe McCollum and other criminals on the spectrum should be let off the hook. “He’s a repeat offender… It is definitely not okay that he’s doing it,” she says. “But his issues need to be addressed by medical professionals.”
However, it takes a well-educated judge to recognize and allow for that.
That’s exactly why Irving hopes this film helps reduce the ignorance about mental illness and highlights the fact that “there’s a gray area in between [being unfit for trial] and just a regular person who knows what they’re doing and has to be held accountable.”
Unfortunately, McCollum’s story shows just how ill-equipped the justice system is to handle those individuals with mental health issues and disabilities who fall in this “gray area.”
Right now, taxpayers fork out $60,000 a year to keep McCollum locked up in a maximum security prison for his crimes, rather than even attempting to rehabilitate him and get him the psychiatric treatment and therapy he truly needs.
As Irving points out, “If they just spent $60,000 once to give him a job or a year of therapy, then he might have been rehabilitated the first time so he never did it again.”
Sadly, he’s not the only non-violent criminal who ends up in prison over and over due to an untreated mental health issue. Millions of state tax dollars are wasted every year on punishing McCollum and others instead of properly rehabilitating these individuals into productive members of society.
Ultimately, Irving hopes his film and others attract the attention of politicians and those with the power to change the way criminals who fall on the Autism spectrum are addressed in the judicial system.
“I’d like to bring light to the way that mental illness doesn’t really fit well into the American criminal justice system and to show that there are people on the Autism spectrum that are criminals… I want to show that they’re like everybody else in that they can commit crimes or they cannot commit crimes,” says Irving.
Now, perhaps the best chance of helping those individuals on the spectrum who keep ending up in prison for the same harmless crimes is with the upcoming Hollywood movie that’s set to fictionalize Darius McCollum’s story. It will feature Oscar-winning actress Julia Roberts as McCollum’s lawyer. Irving hopes that the sheer marketing power of a Hollywood movie will bring the public attention necessary to make a difference for people like McCollum and so many others.
Change Starts with You Right Now
In the meantime, you can do your part by educating those around you about the diverse symptoms of those who fall on the spectrum and eradicating the stereotypes that exist around this disability.
In addition, click on the icons below to share this article on the web and social media to raise awareness about McCollum’s case and the tragic lack of resources for others on the spectrum who are stuck in the revolving door of the judicial system.