Tough cookies

The director of a PBS documentary about a Girl Scout troop whose moms are behind bars says our obsession with locking up women is harming their kids.

Published March 21, 2006 12:00PM (EST)

Most Girl Scouts earn their badges by crafting tchotchkes and taking hikes. But the girls of Troop 1500, in Austin, Texas, face the kinds of challenges most Scouts could hardly imagine: They all have mothers in prison.

Established in 1998 as part of Girl Scouts Beyond Bars, a nationwide program designed to help families affected by incarceration, Troop 1500 unites daughters with their convicted mothers in monthly meetings at the library of Hilltop Prison, a medium-security facility in Gatesville, Texas, about an hour and a half north of Austin. Under the compassionate eye of their troop leader -- who is also a trained social worker -- the girls are reacquainted with their mothers in hope that, as the psychological scars from their separation begin to heal, the intergenerational cycle of crime will be broken.

On Tuesday night, PBS's Independent Lens presents "Troop 1500," a documentary portrait by Ellen Spiro and Karen Bernstein that delves deep into the lives of five troopers, ranging in age from 8 to 14, following them over one year as they journey inside and outside the prison walls. Woven into the film's narrative are intimate interviews the girls conduct with their mothers. The questions are touching -- "What did you think the first night you were in prison?" "Were you around drugs when you were little?" "Do you think you'll be better when you get out?" -- but the deep ache and affection the mothers feel for their daughters are revealed not so much in their answers as in the expressions on their faces.

Spiro, 41, says that the girls of Troop 1500 are unseen victims of America's prison boom. Statistics estimate that 2.4 million children now have a parent behind bars; women are being incarcerated at higher rates than ever before, and eight out of 10 female prisoners are mothers. Damaged by loss and born into crime, children with a parent in prison are six times more likely to land in the juvenile justice system themselves. But with "Troop 1500," Spiro hopes to raise awareness of the unchecked costs of incarceration -- and to help the public understand that, no matter what their parents' crimes, these children deserve no punishment.

Spiro spoke with Salon by phone from her Austin home.

How did you get involved with the troop?

I knew I wanted to do this film the minute I heard about the project from my friend, Julia Cuba, who was the troop leader. We both moved to Austin in 1998. But honestly, at first I didn't pursue the idea very far because I realized I'd have to deal with both the Texas criminal justice system and the Girl Scouts.

Those do seem like rather monolithic organizations to navigate.

Yes, and I am totally bureaucracy-phobic, so that's why it didn't go anywhere until I started working with Karen Bernstein. We started a little documentary company together called Mobilus Media. At the time, she said to me, "If you could do one documentary right now, what would it be?" And I said, "Feasibility aside?" and she said yes. So I told her about the Girl Scouts and she immediately got on it, though even then it did seem kind of unfeasible at first.

Was there reluctance on the part of justice system and the Girl Scouts?

Well, the first thing that the Girl Scouts told us was that they'd love for us to do a piece, but we couldn't show any faces. [Laughs] So that's a radio piece, but we weren't really interested in doing that! And then ... the other response was a simple, "No, you can't film in jails." So instead we started to get to know the troop, volunteering with them because we just thought the program was so cool. We did media workshops, teaching the girls how to use cameras, and they made their own films that they were able to show at some children's film festivals.

Were those the same girls that eventually ended up in your film?

No, actually. There was some overlap, but the girls who go out to the prison change all the time, depending on whether their moms are still serving time or not. Our film was one year with the troop. The idea was that we could determine our story structure and time frame by stopping filming when the first mother was released. And that turned out to be about a year, as we had expected. Now, another year later, all but one of the mothers are out.

Have the mothers had trouble with the law since they have been released? Or does this story have a happy ending?

Many still do have problems. To the Girl Scouts' credit, they know this program can't solve all of society's problems. Still, they can help a small group of girls through this program. If we'd had the opportunity to go much deeper into the story, which would have meant shooting over a much longer time, you would really see some deeper reverberations into how incarceration without any rehabilitation destroys first the immediate family and then the community.

At least two of the mothers in my film, after their release, went straight back to drugs. One of those mothers had gotten her girls back, and they went and lived with her, so they were very traumatized by the experience. And, you know, the Girl Scouts in Austin ... has a counselor who works on training and transitional services for these mothers. But she's in a rut, too, because nobody wants to hire anyone with a felony. These are smart women, but their skills are in crime, and they strengthen those skills when they go back to jail. Everybody knows this story, but it's true; we as a society have created this monstrosity of a problem that gets passed down from generation to generation and gets worse the more people get locked up and not treated for their problems.

Despite all that, do you see the program as a good model?

Yeah, I think this particular program is great, but it's so rare. There are Girl Scouts programs like this all over the country, but they don't have the comprehensive services that the one in Austin does, because the one in Austin was started by social workers that understood that this wasn't just a single-level issue. It's not just that you take girls to see their moms and everything is wonderful. They realized that there should be counseling, so that there can actually be some change. And they understand that maybe even if the change doesn't occur within the mothers, because it's just too much to ask of them, then change can still occur within the daughters. And that's the good part. That's where we do see it happening. We watch these girls growing up and facing the kind of challenges that most of us don't even face as adults. And they have got this wonderful kind of support system where they are learning that other than their mothers there are these wonderful people in the world that can be reliable and that they can look to as role models -- while still loving their moms.

Was part of your hope in making the film to let not only the girls but also the audience see these women in a new light? Because I think the problem that faces a lot of programs that try to make incarceration easier on families is that many people have a knee-jerk reaction when talking about people in prison. They think, well, tough, they landed themselves there, why should they get this ...

Well, I'll tell you why. Because they're all grown-up little girls. That's what I saw when I went there. I just saw grown-up little girls, many of whom were victimized, many of whom never had the opportunity to see that they had the power to make choices like privileged girls do. But they also piss me off. I get really mad at them when they don't treat their girls nicely or when they do things that mothers shouldn't do in front of the girls, say things that mothers shouldn't say. You know, they start telling them about something they shouldn't be telling their kid about what happened in the jail, something maybe you tell your friend about over a beer [Laughs] ... Sometimes I was the only observer of these things and I was like, wait a minute -- should I film it? Should I say something?

I'd love to talk about that -- your role as the witness. Did you feel it was important that you just stand back and watch?

Well, with all my films I spend a lot of time just watching and just hanging out with people. That's what I like doing, really, more than actually making the films, is being in somebody else's orbit, somebody else's little world. It just gives me better perspective on my own ...

But most of my time is spent just being in their world, especially now that the film is over. I don't hang out with the whole troop anymore, but I have two girls in the troop whom I mentor, and they actually call my parents grandma and grandpa. They're kind of like my spiritually adopted children, but they're not up for adoption. They have mothers.

What was the timeline from when you first started thinking about the project to when you actually started the filming to it being over?

We premiered it this time last year in the film festivals, so it would have been 2004-2005 that we shot the documentary. The year before that we were hanging out with the troop. They were doing little films; I was teaching them. Julie would bring the whole troop over to the U.T. campus where I work, and I'd get all these cool women to come in who were filmmakers. Our first meeting was really funny when I was trying to figure out what to do because I thought, I'll get them to make documentaries. And they were all sitting there and I was trying to get everybody excited, but they were sort of acting like they were in school, which was really disturbing to me. They were obviously just horribly bored, so I just stopped and I said, "Look this isn't school, I don't want you to sit here and be bored. We're going to make films! What do you want to do? Why aren't you excited about this?" And one of the girls raised her hand in the back and I said, "Sierra?" and she said, "We want to make a real movie." "A real movie?" "Yeah we want to act in it and stuff." And I was like, OK, it's the documentary shit that's boring. Of course they don't want to make a documentary. So I was like, "All right, who has an idea for a movie?"

And that same girl came up with an idea for a story and I grabbed one of the graduate students whom I had recruited to help with this and they wrote a script based on her story idea and we did the script and that was the first film. It was called "Back to Beginning" and it was about a Girl Scout who gets pregnant and gets rescued by her Girl Scout troop. Isn't that sweet? [Laughs]

The parts in your film where the girls are filming their mothers and asking them questions -- were those questions the girls came up with?

Yeah ... I never felt that I wanted to stick the camera in their face and interview the girls. That's not what it was about. We wanted their stories, but I wanted it another way. We were just driving in the van to the jail and the thought just popped into my head, "What if they interview their own moms?" So I turned around and said, "Hey! Anyone in this van want to interview your mom?" And they all went crazy. Well, I think it was because the coolest kid, Caitlin, whom everybody looks up to in the troop, was like, "I do!" and so then everybody else said, "I do!" And I had all these clipboards with me so I just started handing them out and they were kind of copying each other's questions and stuff; that's why some of the questions are the same.

I didn't help them at all. I was more interested in the dynamic of the mom and the daughter when the daughter was in the position of total power and control with the camera, and because of the questions, the mom is on the spot. I was more interested in that dynamic than the specifics of the questions they were asking. Which is why those scenes are edited for gestures and non-verbal communication -- things that are universal to mother-daughter relationships.

What's next? You mentioned that you still see some of the girls, but do you want to do a follow-up film?

We do want to make a follow-up documentary to this that would take place over the next five years because in some ways that's the real story. Where are the moms and, more importantly, where are the girls in the next five years? We know statistically that a lot of the moms, in spite of the help that they get, are probably going to go back to jail. What the Girl Scouts are doing is heroic, but they can't do enough. And the mothers are not getting any support from society. So the real story is what happens to the girls. So far none of the [Troop 1500] girls have gone to jail since the Girl Scouts has been doing the program [in Austin], since 1998.

What do you want people who see the movie now to take away from it?

Well, what I hope will resonate with them is that when you throw a woman in jail, you're throwing in her children and her whole family. And do these children deserve to be punished in this way or is there some better way we can deal with this as a society?

And do you think there is a better way?

There's only better ways.

By Sarah Karnasiewicz

Sarah Karnasiewicz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Until recently, she was senior editor at Saveur magazine; prior to that she was deputy Life editor at Salon. She has contributed to the New York Times, the New York Observer and Rolling Stone, among other publications. For more of her work, visit and Signs and Wonders.

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