by Megan Mulligan
Photography courtesy of OffTheRailsMovie.com
Off the Rails, a documentary by director Adam Irving, is a well-parceled film that’s educational without being drab, that’s intriguing and well-constructed without being showy and stylistically festival-ready. It premiered at the ReelAbilities Film Festival in Boston on March 29.
The film follows the story of Darius McCollum, a 45-year-old man imprisoned more than 30 times for impersonating transit drivers in the Greater New York Area. Newspapers said he earned himself “free rides to prison” and described him as a “transit bandit.”
Across three decades, McCollum dressed as subway driver, a LIRR driver and picked up passengers on NJ Transit buses—but his final stop would end up being Rikers Island Correctional Facility.
But McCollum is also a diagnosed autistic.
This detail, according to filmmakers and sources in the movie, is often overlooked by judges and prosecutors. McCollum hyper fixates on trains and transportation vehicles, which his social worker explains is a display of his Autism Spectrum Disorder. When he was younger, the subway gave him a refuge from the bullying he faced at school, and a train driver gave him his first taste of the rails when he was 15—this was also the first of his arrests and the beginning of his story.
“It was my home,” McCollum said. “And I didn’t want to give it up.”
Through Off the Rails, Irving questions the social attitudes around people on the autism spectrum, especially toward those convicted of and serving time for crimes of varying severity.
The question, often tossed around in conversation after a larger-scale tragedy, is whether a person’s mental or intellectual disabilities contribute to or cause the crimes they may commit. In McCollum’s case, his defense team and therapists said his hyper fixations lead him to gravitate toward an obsessive love of transit. This combines with his past in finding refuge in the subway, and makes the driver’s seat makes it a safe, desirable place to be.
Today, McCollum sees a therapist regularly. He wants to adjust. He considers working as a tour guide at a museum about trains.
He just wants a “normal” neurotypical life, one where he doesn’t look at a bus or train and feel a compulsive urge to drive it.
Whether or not he displays any change makes no difference in the eye of the court system. As shown in the film, his diagnosis and desire for “normalcy” make no difference each and every time he is reinstated. And, each and every time, the emotional burden and punishment on him worsens. His aging mother moves away, and because he is under house arrest he cannot see her.
Despite his desire for change, because little action is taken on the part of the court to help him developmentally, he spends years in prison distanced from the few people he feels cares about him. McCollum becomes caught in a “revolving door,” constantly going in and out of prison without receiving any appropriate treatment.
Irving frames it as if he is locked away, not punished for having impersonated transit officers, but punished for his condition and the behavior he exhibits as a symptom.
A train driver is clearly McCollum’s ideal occupation. When he’s in the seat, he said, he wants to make the experience enjoyable for drivers. He wants it to be like an “adventure,” and makes sure his stop calls and intercom messages are relaxing, personal and entertaining. Regular drivers are too boring.
McCollum believes he can do it better. He has the passion for it and an encyclopedic knowledge, not to mention having spent much of his young preteen and teenaged years in the driver’s car, watching drivers and learning from them. It comes naturally to him, effortlessly. But judges say that this is enough to render his actions illegal, and he is sentenced time and again to prison—not a mental health facility, not directly to house arrest, but to correctional facilities across New York.
Irving seems to bring into intense question the effectiveness of imprisoning people diagnosed with and living with autism spectrum disorders. Today, mass shooters or other people accused of large-scale crimes are noted as having some level of mental illness, but nothing further than that is ever said. To Irving, it seems to be a cop-out to recognize McCollum as autistic in court, if at all, and do nothing about it.