Filmmaker Denali Tiller had another project in mind when she began following a woman who had been incarcerated for 17 years and had developed a program aimed at addressing the trauma experienced by children whose parents were in prison.
The documentary will air on the PBS series “Independent Lens” on April 1—available on local PBS stations or via online streaming, and it will be featured as part of a larger two-week initiative with departments of corrections across the U.S. called National Visiting Days, where incarcerated parents will be able to watch the documentary concomitantly with their families and loved ones on the outside.
Tiller, named one of 110 “filmmakers to watch” by Variety in 2015, discussed her film in a conversation with The Crime Report’s Julia Pagnamenta.
The Crime Report: Your documentary ends with a statistic: One in 14 children in the United States have a parent in prison. Are the experiences of the three boys in the documentary, Tre, Dasan and Maison, part of a larger conversation we should be having about the criminal justice system?
Denali Tiller: Absolutely. [The issue] disproportionately affects black and brown communities. One in nine black children have a parent in prison, one in 28 Latino kids, and one in 56 white children. That’s a tremendous statistic. Yet the collateral effect has not been at the forefront, if at all, in many of the conversations around criminal justice, even though it is very much in the zeitgeist of the past few years.
It really is a part of a larger conversation, and that’s another reason why there are three kids [in the film]. There isn’t a stereotypical child that might have a parent in prison, so they are representative of three very different experiences, and support systems. All of that was important to make the film really speak to a much larger population of kids, and really allow a window into what that experience is like.
TCR: How did the children initially respond to the idea that you were going to capture their daily lives?
Tiller: I followed them for three and half years. I don’t have personal experience with the incarceration of a family member, so it was a learning experience. I wasn’t coming in with any preconceived notions and I wanted them to really teach me what their lives were like. What I realized pretty quickly is that this is just something that they live with every day. It doesn’t affect them every day in some dramatic way, but there are some important moments that are challenging.
In the filmmaking process itself, they were really collaborators. They are credited. They also own ten percent of the film, and are LLC, and they really engaged in that in different ways. So that was important for me, I wanted them to feel as much a part and owner of that process as I was as a filmmaker. It wasn’t my film; it was their film.
Dasan and his cousin, Olivia, were at the playing age. Dasan [was] six, and Olivia was eight when we started. So they loved playing with the equipment. They would listen to the audio on the wireless microphones, the headphones. Even when Dasan’s mom is telling them that she wasn’t at school, [but] in prison, Olivia actually went on and put on the headphones to listen to her aunt’s voice. That really struck me because we’re here, I am not going to deny that it doesn’t affect the situation, and this is how she wants to experience this moment with her aunt.
That doesn’t necessarily come across in the film itself, but it was important for us and for them because we never tried not to be there, or be a fly on the wall. It was really up to the kids to tell us if they didn’t want something to be filmed, or if they did want something to be filmed, or if they wanted to engage with us in some way.
TCR: There’s a funny moment when Maison calls his father to update him on the Valentine’s Day gift he gave to a girl he liked at school, and the father is so relieved that it went well. He tells Maison he had stressed out about it all day. The documentary is full of these moments of warm interaction between fathers and their sons despite their separation.
Tiller: Those moments were so key to me, in that it totally normalizes the experience. They can just have a normal relationship with their parents if they are allowed the access, which of course depends on the facility’s willingness to allow that to happen, and then also on the structure and support that they may have at home.
TCR: Each kid reacts differently to his parent’s incarceration. Tre, the oldest of the three, has a lot of anger about his father being in prison and acts out as a result, and then his mother dies. What kind of social services and support can he rely on?
Tiller: Tre is in foster care now. The film really shows how important support systems are, and it is something that people are kind of aware of, and maybe know unconsciously, [but] it really comes down to who is at home, and what your environment is like, and you really see the difference between Maison’s support [he lives with his grandmother] and Tre’s support. Even Dasan’s support, when his mom comes home and what Tre is missing. Tre can be emotional and vulnerable with his dad in a way that he can’t be with anybody else, and you just see him breaking down a couple of times with his father.
TCR: Yes, it seemed like Tre’s dad was his most important bond, so even though his father was incarcerated they shared a close relationship.
Tiller: It’s complicated for Tre because his father is his deepest, closest bond, but at the same time he has anger at his dad for being incarcerated almost his whole life. It wasn’t like his father was incarcerated that whole time. He would get out, and do something, and go back. You don’t trust this person anymore. You’ve been betrayed so many times. That’s a very complicated emotional processing to go through as well, because you are going, ‘’I love this person, and I feel safe with this person, but at the same time, I am still mad at this person. They’ve let me down and hurt me so many times. I need to protect myself from that.”
Tre is 17 now, he’s starting to mature a little bit. Teenagers need a safe environment to make mistakes, to do the wrong thing, and get reprimanded for it, or be able to talk through it. So when you don’t have a safe environment that’s protecting you from that life-learning process, a lot of kids end up in the juvenile justice system, especially in poor neighborhoods. And in majority black and brown neighborhoods, there is over policing and all those things that come with it.
His father is black and in prison, and his mother is white and an opioid addict. So how do you figure out who you are, and what your identity is, when you are the product of these two people? [Trying] to figure out your own path, that’s extremely hard for a young person.
We can feel for Tre, and we want to hug him, and support him, but at a certain point, children turn into adults, and then that empathy stops. Then it’s, Get your life together! Be responsible for yourself! But when a person has never learned how to do that, and has no experience or role model, how can you expect them to do that? That’s something I started seeing with Tre, the push and pull of the people who were in his life. Yeah, poor kid, he doesn’t stand a chance, but also like, come on take responsibility for yourself, make the right decisions. Tre has to carry both of those things. It’s really hard.
TCR: There is a recurring scene where the children ask their parents what they did to get incarcerated. Maison’s amazing awareness really manifests when he speaks to his father about the violent crime he was involved in. Manny [the father] doesn’t want Maison to think he is innocent, but Maison is not mad because he seems to know that his father is already mad at himself. He wants his father to forgive himself. I was wondering if you could speak of that scene.
Tiller: In almost every film you see about people in prison, there is some voice-over that tells you what they did to be there. And for me the film was just about parents and their kids, and you don’t even find out what Tre’s dad is in for, because I only wanted people to find out what someone was incarcerated for if it was coming from the child, and the child was asking about it.
That whole conversation started because Maison had said, “Let’s do an interview!” Maison had known what his father did, and what his father was in for, but it was really hard for him to separate his love for his father from the crime he was involved in. The crime itself is pretty complicated. It was a bar fight, someone ended up losing their life, and there were a lot of people involved. Maison has had to understand his dad in two ways: both as someone who was involved in the death of a person and also as his dad, someone he loves very deeply. For a lot of kids that becomes a conflict within themselves and a source of a lot of stigma.
None of the parents [in the film] are in for non-violent crimes, or for something that might be considered under the War on Drugs, [issues] where people might be on the fence about whether they should be incarcerated or not, and that was important because at the end of the day there are so many kids that have parents in prison, but no matter what they are in prison for, or what they did, [that] should not reflect on their ability to parent, and [their] importance in their child’s life.
So what’s unique about this program in Rhode Island [where the scenes between fathers and sons are filmed] is the access that kids have to their parents, and how child friendly the visiting rooms are, and how much one-on-one interaction they have. They don’t have another guardian in the room with them so they just get time with their parents.
TCR: What level of security was the facility?
Tiller: This was a medium security facility [John J. Moran Medium Security Prison], but in Rhode Island they have visiting programs in all the facilities except max, but they are working on implementing it in the maximum security as well.
TCR: It was surprising that you were granted so much access filming in there.
Tiller: It was relatively easy at first, and then really the difficult part was convincing them that I wanted to keep filming for three years, but they are really focused and prioritize kids and families. As a department [visiting program] they are really proud of the services they provide for both the kids and parents. There wasn’t a risk necessarily that I was going to expose something about the prison that might implicate them in some way. And I truly think that in visiting other facilities and talking to other facilities around the country that this is a unique program, very specifically designed to have parents be parents despite their incarceration and [it] really provides [them with] a space to do so.
TCR: When Maison interviews his father, the conversation turns to the length of his sentence. Maison tells him he should not have to serve more than two years. Although Maison isn’t basing his reasoning on any particular research, there is a growing consensus that longer sentences are not necessarily more effective. His father rationalizes that his stay is a kind of penance, as a way to provide relief for the family of the victim.
Tiller: This might have changed in the last few years, but there isn’t a lot of understanding of the larger implications of the criminal justice system, and how it’s messed up. A lot of people who are in prison, and of course [my] sample size is not huge, but there is this difficult thing of like, yes, I wasn’t supposed to be doing the things that I did, and I am serving time because of that, but at the same time I am not getting what I need in here, and it doesn’t seem like this is really helping anybody at the end of the day.
Screening at San Quentin
It’s interesting because we showed the film at San Quentin State Prison [in California], and they have this amazing review of the film in the San Quentin newspaper. I was talking to some of the guys there because they have this really amazing restorative rehabilitative program. Their media center is amazing. They produce their own newspaper.
TCR: They have a great podcast Ear hustle.
Tiller: Yeah, Their camera and editing equipment is better than mine, and it was kind of this amazing space because it’s not just vocational skills, or making license plates all day, you are actually learning something that is useful, and can help you when you get back. At the same time, I was talking to some of the guys there who are serving life sentences because of the Three Strikes Rule from the 1990s, for selling weed, which is now legalized. So they are like, yeah it’s cool to get to work on a newspaper, but I shouldn’t be here.
On the other hand, I talked to some other guys who [said] I am grateful that I have this opportunity here, but why did I have to come to prison to have access to a film class? That’s not fair. So I think it really comes down to the deeper and larger questions about criminal justice. What justice looks like. Really critiquing an American way of serving justice through punishment without looking at the deeper, structural issues of racism and violence that comes with the class disparities, wealth disparities in our country, and the absence of resources.
TCR: Dasan’s case shows that even after Stephanie, his mother, is released, the family’s need for social services and support continues. Can you talk a little about the challenges of post-incarceration?
Tiller: That could be a whole film in of itself. There are a lot of complications that come with being a parent in prison. Child support is a huge issue because [it] doesn’t end when you get incarcerated, so you can get out of prison with hundreds of thousands of dollars potentially in child support that you weren’t able to pay. It just keeps on accumulating. Plus, you can be served in prison and lose your kids because you aren’t paying child support.
There are a lot of family issues that can arise when a person is released, and so that’s why social services around parenting are really important. Things like family counseling can help bring families back together. But really it just speaks to how important it is for people to have access to their families during incarceration. It certainly helps to have those bonds, and to have taken classes that give you perspective, and how to be a parent who is there for your kids, emotionally and physically, and not just financially. Especially for dads, the only thing some people consider is, are you paying your child support? And not, are you there emotionally for your kids?
Quite honestly I don’t know what the[re-entry] landscape looks like around parenting, but we’ve been doing screenings with re-entry groups, which has been really powerful. We had one screening with the Doe Fund. The men just open up and are emotional, and crying, and so it opens up the space for emotion that’s really supportive. One gentleman came up afterwards and showed me a Facebook message that he had sent to his son during the screening and he said, this film allowed me to reconnect. Seeing yourself maybe in the dads, but also seeing yourself in the kids, and being able to reflect on your own experiences and be empowered to speak about them is really important.
TCR: There aren’t too many scenes of the boys interacting with peers. A notable exception is when Dasan goes camping with his mother and a Boy Scout group and has a hard time socializing with the other children. You mentioned the stigma of having an incarcerated parent. Did you see them interact with theirs peers and witness this stigma firsthand?
Tiller: I didn’t personally see anyone saying negative things, but I experienced it a lot second-hand through them. So like with that camping trip, Dasan’s mom [Natalie] didn’t want to tell the other families she had been formerly incarcerated, because of course there is always an issue of people judging you, or being afraid of you, or asking inappropriate questions. So we had told the Boy Scout troop that we were making a film about families and boys growing up, but weren’t really specific that it was about kids whose parents were in prison.
And now actually Stephanie is teaching fourth and fifth grade. She is in AmeriCorps for non-violent peers, and she’s seen a lot of stigma within her classroom, from other teachers and people in the school against children who are maybe acting out in class, and who may have parents in prison. She is developing her own curriculum, particularly with teachers and social workers in the school to help them understand how to be supportive of children who have parents in prison, and to de-stigmatize that experience, so that they are just more aware of behavioral issues that might be happening in the classroom.
Fear of the Stigma
It’s really deep-seated, and most of the children I’ve spoken to who have parents in prison, they just don’t talk about it because they are afraid of that stigma, and then there is all the stuff that comes up unintentionally in our language, and how we speak about people in prison. There is a story of one of the social workers at the Department of Corrections [who] told me that her daughter was on a school bus on a field trip, and they were driving past the prison, and someone asked what the building was, and the teacher answered, Oh that’s where bad people go. Her daughter came home and told her the story, and she actually called the teacher and told her you can’t use this language. What if there was a child on the school bus who has a parent there? [Are] they thinking their parent is a bad person?
If you are hearing that over and over, it’s reinforced [and] that makes you question yourself, and your relationship with your parent. So even things like not referring to people as inmates, or felons, or prisoners, but incarcerated parent, or just mom and dad. That’s something we’ve been building into our outreach to schools and educators.
TCR: Language is important. Even if you aren’t trying to be malicious, unintentionally reducing complex phenomena into careless words has repercussions.
The other thing that’s come up is [what happens] on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, especially for younger kids. You are making cards for your mom or your dad, and there is all kind of support if your parent has died, or if your parent is in the military, or is away, but if your parent is in prison that’s not something that a lot of teachers know how to navigate and deal with, and [it] is not something that the child might be comfortable sharing.
The San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents developed a Bill of Rights, of eight rights that children with incarcerated parents have, which includes the right to see and touch and talk to parents, the right to be safe and supported at home, the right to an education and all these things. That’s also something we are handing out with our discussion guides in classrooms. Teachers have been educated on how to respond and speak to kids who have a parent in prison, and sometimes it’s hard because you don’t want to identify that you have parents in prison because of those stigmas.
TCR: Did you show the documentary at other prisons besides San Quentin?
Tiller: We showed it at a couple of prisons in Europe. [Also], for the broadcast on April 1st, we are launching what we are calling National Visiting Days, where we will be putting the film out to organizations and prisons, so that people in prison can watch the film at the same time that their family members are watching on the outside. It creates a visiting experience; a shared experience of watching the film together even while you are separated. We are working with a few correction departments [and] 12 different states on these partner screenings.
A trailer for the documentary can be downloaded here.
Julia Pagnamenta is a contributing writer for The Crime Report. Comments are welcome.