Screen shot: Tutwiler
Screen shot: Tutwiler

Tutwilera new documentary short directed by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon (Heroin(e), Recovery Boys) and reported and produced by The Marshall Project’s Alysia Santo, offers an unforgettable window into the lives of incarcerated pregnant women — and what happens to their newborns.

will have it’s broadcast premiere on PBS’s America ReFramed on May 19 at 8/7c on WORLD Channel. Long regarded as one of the worst women’s prisons in the U.S., Tutwiler is now making changes — including working with the Alabama Prison Birth Project to provide pregnant inmates with support and resources.

“At one time we had three generations of women at Tutwiler that were from the same family,” Wendy Williams, Ph. D., Deputy Commissioner of Women’s Services at Tutwiler said. “And of course we have that concern every time a woman comes to us pregnant: Is this going to be another cycle?”

As the film explores, it’s a cycle that the prison, with the help of local non-profits, is trying to break.

“In America, people who are in prison are invisible,” says Santo. “Pregnant women who are incarcerated are potentially the most overlooked group of people…. one of the issues that gets overlooked is that when you have women entering prison, what happens to their children or their unborn children?”

Many of these women are survivors of domestic violence and have struggled with substance abuse issues and addiction disorders. Working with a group of doulas, they attend parenting classes, dream up names for their babies, and plan for how they’ll maintain their sobriety once they’ve served their time.

But still, nothing can fully prepare them for what’s to come: Once they’re taken to a nearby hospital to give birth, they typically get 24 hours with their newborn before being sent back to prison.

As one incarcerated woman says, “When you were locked up your whole pregnancy and it was just you and that baby, and then to walk away from the person that’s been there with you, it makes the strongest person break.”

As women are now the fastest growing incarcerated population in the U.S., Tutwiler is a powerful lens into the reality of pregnancy and parenthood behind bars.

“What we found was much more complex than a black-and-white, good-and-bad story,” says Sheldon. “I think it’s in many ways the story that other Southern prisons, and prisons across the United States, need to see.”

Tutwiler won the audience award at the 2019 New Orleans Film Festival, had its world premiere at Hot Springs Film Festival in October 2019, and has been chosen for this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.

Tutwiler is now streaming on FRONTLINE (PBS) and The Marshall Project’s online platforms, on the PBS Video App and on YouTube. The film will have its broadcast premiere at 8 p.m. ET on Tuesday, May 19, as part of America ReFramed on WORLD Channel. Set your DVRs.

This post was curated by Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., founder & editor-in-chief of The Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter @Ntellectual or @TheBurtonWire.

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