Phantom Parents

Jenny Scholten reviews Mothering Inside, a documentary film about incarcerated motherhood.

When we consider prison, we imagine with dread an abysmal nothingness that is the partial fulfillment of basic needs and not much else. Outside of those prerequisites there isn’t much to pin our focus on besides returning to our families and to our lives. In Brian Lindstrom’s documentary film, Mothering Inside, we see the realities of parenting while incarcerated and through this lens, a sharper vision of not only prison life but the bonds between child and parent come into focus. If we’re not parents ourselves, it may be challenging to reflect wholly on that bond. However, we can all reflect through our portals as children.

The Family Preservation Project (FPP) was set in place to help incarcerated mothers rehabilitate and nurture bonds with their children from within the confines of Coffee Creek Women’s Prison in Wilsonville, Oregon. Through Mothering Inside, we don’t learn the crimes of the eleven women we meet. We don’t even learn the names of some until the credits roll. Instead, this half hour long video gives us just enough insight into the emotional connection between incarcerated mothers and their children. Or actually, just mothers and their children. There isn’t a divide.

Children with Incarcerated Parents

Although the studies I read couldn’t provide me with enough reliable data to support that children of incarcerated parents are more likely to end up with the same fate, we do know that there are serious repercussions to breaking up a family unit. This should ultimately be the more immediate concern.

A child from Mothering Inside
A child in Mothering Inside

For the children already equipped with both parents, they may only be required to deal with the mental and financial costs if one parent is sent to prison. They still have the support of one parent at home and they can ideally count on a shared struggle forward through the proverbial pitfalls of the justice system. They may even still reside in the home they’ve always known, now one body short. For others though, with only one parent from the start, it either means uprooting completely to stay with a relative, or worse, landing in foster care.

We cannot deny that our parents and their life choices ultimately have an effect on our emotional, mental, behavioral and financial well-being. This claim does not need statistics, simply being granted life is enough. An adult desire is born to us out of the nervous habit that is parenting. We form dexterity through unweaving knots left by our mothers and fathers and by replacing those patterns with ones unique to our being. Even though I feel my upbringing was decent, that my siblings and myself turned out ‘alright’— I’m aware that the experiences we’ve had with our parents will always play a role in how we continue to perceive the world.

Risk & Reward

Through alternating levels of what are ultimately therapy sessions for the women in the FPP, we watch them reveal parenting goals not dissimilar to those of parents living on the outside. The only difference is that these goals are not diluted with the fluidity that is everyday life. Here they focus on family reunification and parenting education which equips them with better tools and coping mechanisms moving forward. At the core, it offers them practiced communication and immediate feedback from others in a similar situation. The sessions provide a concentrated space for women to work with a counselor in order to better understand themselves and their children. They are also able to enjoy a community space where they can interact with their children more organically during visitation.

It’s here in the video that, with such clarity, I wished this kind of guidance for my own parents. It sounds awful, but it’s not unique to me that there were many times growing up when I felt neglected even in the presence of both of them; like they had phantomed their imprisonment from my existence. If you strip the stigma of it, I’m saying I wish that they would have taken more time to understand themselves through us and otherwise. So maybe then, time would have actually needed to stop in order for that to happen. We are so good at distracting ourselves from what it is we truly need.

Simple as it may be, it’s not a secret that time does not cease to carry on. Our lives may seemingly slow, or speed up, but time absolutely does not stop — even in prison. Which is why, after the FPP was discontinued, the absence of such a progressive program is likely making that again more evident to those inside.

Going Forward

In the Fall of 2014 the Oregon Department of Corrections announced that they were no longer going to fund the FPP beginning January 2015. However, because 3,000 signatures demanded otherwise, they were able to extend the program for three more visits — the last one occurring about six months ago. It’s rumored that Corrections cut this program without offering any alternatives, which is a tired reality considering there is so much that needs to done, and that can be done.

It’s comforting that Lindstrom is skilled in crafting a piece so easily relatable when parenting through incarceration is foreign to many of us. The message is clear. The benefit of the FPP stretches beyond satisfying the immediate desire of one of the mother inmates and functions as a temporary supplement for greater issues in the justice system. It  is visible that those directly benefiting are the children that had no choice, made no wrong decision in order to get there.

Further down the line of the benefited are caregivers, family members, future children and countless other people within each social web. I’m curious about the doubts of those involved in the approval of a program that seems to have a remarkable impact on future generations. I suppose it’s paranoia about the intention of others or a lack of trust that distracts us from realizing that. Maybe these women won’t remember what they were taught or actually pass it on to their children. Maybe they’re just bullshitting their way through an undesirable prison sentence. Maybe we should just take the chance that they’re not.

NW Film Center will screen Mothering Inside at Whitsell Auditorium August 11th at 7pm.

Jen Scholten

By Jen Scholten

Jen remains curious and inspired by all ventures unfamiliar and unconventional. A transplant from Grand Rapids, Michigan, she continues her creative discovery in an artistically inclined community of dreamers. She functions with a background in photography and an insatiable desire to express her swirling thoughts through wordplay.

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