Jennifer Redfearn, an Oscar-nominated director and producer (Sun Come Up) and current director of the documentary program at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, made the documentary Apart—with producer/cinematographer Tim Metzger—with the hope that “the film encourages audiences to grapple with how incarceration impacts mothers, children, families, and, as a result, entire communities.” It’s the powerfully personal story of three unforgettable, formerly incarcerated mothers, plus their support group leader, also a formerly incarcerated woman. These women were jailed for drug-related charges, fought to overcome alienation, and are now trying to readjust back to life with their families. But between shaking off the label of “felon” and ingratiating themselves with their loved ones, it’s far from an easy road.
“Apart puts a humanizing face on a population often badly stereotyped as only volatile and dangerous, a la Orange is the New Black,” wrote Susan Cole for Canada’s POV Magazine. Adds Ulkar Alakbarova of MoviesMoveMe, “Director Jennifer Redfearn delivers an honest portrayal of three incarcerated women‘s life stories in the most nuanced way. It’s touching, uplifting, and even inspiring.”
We talked to Redfearn about how she was able to get such intimate access to these women and their children to tell this story, about the challenges of filming in prison, as well as an update on how the women are doing now.
What inspired you to want to make this film, to tell this particular story?
First, I had read the shocking stats about women in prison. The War on Drugs has had a devastating impact on women, and it’s something that’s not talked about enough. Since 1980, the number of incarcerated women has grown by 800 percent. And this disproportionately impacts Black and Latina/Latinx women. As someone passionate about women’s issues, I found these numbers shocking, and I wanted to know more.
Then, I learned about a new reentry program for incarcerated women in Ohio—a state with record numbers of women in prison—run by a nonprofit organization and led by women like Malika, who have the lived experience to help women transition home from prison.
I was so moved by the women’s stories—they were at once heartbreaking, and infuriating. A big part of the drug war has been harsh sentencing. Tomika, who shares her story in the film, was threatened with 32 years for trafficking ecstasy and marijuana. By pleading guilty, she was able to get it reduced but was still stuck with a mandatory minimum ten-year sentence when her daughter was only nine months old.
Malika, the woman who now runs the reentry program, was formerly incarcerated. She‘d been arrested when her boyfriend was pulled over and police found cocaine in the trunk of his car. Malika was a passenger in her boyfriend’s car—she wasn’t a drug dealer, yet she was sentenced to 14 years and missed out on her son’s entire childhood. So, these are incredibly harsh and unjust sentences and part of mandatory minimum sentencing.
Although incarceration rates remain higher for Black and Latina/Latinx women than for white women, incarceration has been on the rise for white women, which reports say is connected to the opioid epidemic. The other two women we meet in the film, Amanda and Lydia, became addicted to drugs and were incarcerated due to drug-related charges.
And so the film looks at all of this while focusing on how drug sentencing and incarceration profoundly impact women and their children.
What do you hope PBS audiences take away from seeing Apart?
I made the film because I’d like the audience to confront this side of incarceration. Malika missed 14 years of her son’s life, Tomika missed nine years of Bailee’s life, Amanda missed seven+ with Tyler, and Lydia lost 2 1/2 years with her family. I hope the film encourages audiences to clearly see how incarceration impacts mothers and their children.
And I hope that mothers whose lives have been upended by our nation’s punitive system find more support. In the long term, how do we reimagine justice in this country? I hope the film can be a part of that conversation and effort.
What were some of the challenges you faced while filming in a prison?
When we meet the women in the film, they’re still incarcerated at a minimum-security prison in Cleveland. But, a small group of women, including the women in the film, join a new reentry program outside of the prison walls. The reentry program is run by a nonprofit, not part of the Department of Corrections. We first got access to film at the reentry program, and then through those relationships met with people at the prison and requested access to film there.
Every time we filmed in the prison, we had a minder (Public Information Officer) and there were parts of the prison that were off-limits. One of the biggest challenges we faced had to do with the logistical hurdles of filming in a prison environment, including gaining permission to film over the 3 1/2-year production period while personnel and politics shifted in the background.
To make a film this intimate requires such personal access. How did you get the women featured in Apart to trust your process?
Since the women were outside of the prison and in the reentry program most weekdays, we were able to spend time with them (without filming) and develop trust. We also treated consent as an open, ongoing conversation—we would talk about what we wanted to film and why. And we always encouraged them to share any concerns. Women in prison are stripped of their agency and so it was critical to me that they always knew they could say no to filming.
So, Apart is a unique look at women in prison because we were able to film while they were still incarcerated, but in a space where they were free to express themselves without surveillance. Tomika and Amanda would often say, “I’m an open book—you can ask me anything.”
Lydia talked about being profoundly embarrassed about being in prison, but said she felt it was important to learn how to talk about and own her experience despite the shame. All of the women showed such great courage when sharing their stories and experiences with us.
Were there any scenes that you had to cut for time but you’d like people to know about? And do you have a favorite moment in Apart?
Hmm, tough question. One of my favorite scenes was Amanda’s final meeting with her counselor, the day before being released. It’s a powerful and frank conversation that shows both her excitement and also her deep fears and nervousness about getting out and starting over. Though the scene itself is powerful, we ultimately decided to cut it so the audience could experience the full momentum and emotion of her release day.
There’s a scene in the film where Tomika tells her daughter Bailee that she’s in prison, not in college. That scene shows how heartbreaking incarceration is for young children. And, it also reveals that when our society incarcerates a mother, the whole family suffers, especially the children. Bailee was only nine months old when Tomika was sent to prison.
So what do you tell a child? When do you tell her the truth, and how do you break it to her? And how do you rebuild trust, if trust is broken, when you’re stuck inside where communication is so difficult and expensive? It was a very tough moment, of course, for Tomika and Bailee. It has a profound impact on me every time I watch it in the film.
On that topic, could you talk a little more about the impact the children in the film—the children of these incarcerated women—had on the story?
In the film, we see the anger, the hurt, and the heartache the children feel. We waited for the children to get a little older before we interviewed them. I wasn’t sure how the interviews would go, but the children were so clear and expressive.
When we interviewed Tyler, he said about Amanda, “I can’t see her as much as I’d like, and I can’t talk to her as much as I’d like, and it just makes me hurt.” That last line floored me—you can see the pain on his brave young face and it was such an honest, candid answer from a young boy.
The women on average saw their children 3 to 4 times a year. There’s only one women’s minimum security prison in Ohio, and the prison is far from where their families live. Tomika’s daughter Bailee was a 4 to 5-hour drive away, and Tyler was a 3 to 4-hour drive away. Lydia’s family had a 2 to 3-hour drive. A similar situation faces families all across the U.S. and it can be a huge hardship to make the journey, especially for families who are struggling financially.
So I think another important piece of this is the hardship faced by the children and the support they need to recover from the trauma caused by separation.
Knowing all the incredible challenges they must continually run up against, do you have any updates on the women featured in Apart that you can share?
Restarting from scratch, finding a job and stable housing are already tough challenges for anyone returning from incarceration, let alone during a pandemic. Like most Americans, the women in this film have had a difficult time during COVID-19. But with significant support, they are doing well.
Amanda received another promotion at her job. Her son still lives with his grandparents several hours away, but their relationship is stronger now. But the biggest news is that she’s fallen in love and has a beautiful baby daughter.
Tomika’s relationship with her daughter is also stronger, and Bailee is excelling in school. Tomika is still working multiple jobs to support the family, and she still dreams of opening a new restaurant one day. But in the meantime, she got her commercial driver’s license and started a trucking company, which she named for her daughter: Bailee’s Logistics.
Lydia is working two jobs and continues to look after her two boys and her husband Derek, who thankfully is still doing well. She told us she aspires to one day become an addiction counselor like Cheryl.
Malika, mentor to Amanda, Tomika, and Lydia, still works with the prison and oversees the reentry program at Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry where she’s been promoted to program director of workforce development. During the pandemic, she was part of a massive effort to feed and safely house Cleveland’s homeless, and she continues to advocate on behalf of incarcerated women. She’s also working on her MBA degree and plans to one day start her own nonprofit.
Any favorite documentaries that influenced you while you were making Apart?
Here are two that are on my mind lately. Garrett Bradley’s stunning feature, Time, inspires me for its visually and emotionally rich storytelling and elegant use of music. It’s also boldly pushing the art form (as did her short film Alone) while powerfully confronting injustice and loss. Another film I want to mention is Barbara Kopple’s classic, Harlan County, USA. Being there, day in and day out, with the striking miners allowed Kopple and her crew to bring us an insider’s view into their lived experiences. And when the foreman, who violently threatens the strikers, tries to intimidate her, she holds firm and keeps filming. It’s a striking example of courageous filmmaking and a remarkable work of art, just as vital now as it was 45 years ago.
How Incarceration Affects Mothers and Their Children | Blog | Independent Lens is written by Craig Phillips for www.pbs.org