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Film by Ellen Spiro and Karen Bernstein Takes an Inside Look at Girl Scouts Beyond Bars, an Innovative Program that Strives to Preserve and Strengthen the Bond Between Girls and Their Incarcerated Moms
March 9, 2006
Girl Scouts of the USA
Patrice Tanaka & Company, Inc.
New York, N.Y.— Their mothers may be convicted thieves, murderers and drug dealers, but the girls of Austin, Texas Girl Scout Troop 1500 want to be doctors, social workers and marine biologists. At the Hilltop Prison in Gatesville, Texas, Troop 1500 unites daughters with mothers who are behind bars, serving time for serious crimes, offering them a chance to rebuild their broken bonds. Facing steep sentences from the courts and tough questions from their daughters, the mothers struggle to mend their fractured relationships with their daughters. The girls, who have been trained in camera and interviewing as part of their troop experience, are the heart of the film as they not only allow the camera to enter their own lives but also use the cameras to interview their mothers, asking some tough questions.
Filmmakers Ellen Spiro (whose previous ITVS-funded films include "Greetings From Out Here" and "Roam Sweet Home") and Karen Bernstein volunteered with Troop 1500 for two years before making the film and gained unprecedented access from Girl Scouts of the USA, the Gatesville Prison facility, the wardens and the families themselves. The result is an eye-opening look at the struggles faced by the more than 1.5 million American children who have a parent behind bars. "Troop 1500," which is distributed by Women Make Movies, will air nationally on the Emmy Award-winning PBS series Independent Lens, hosted by Edie Falco, on Tuesday, March 21, 2006, at 10 p.m.
Ninety percent of female inmates are single parents and their daughters are six times more likely to land in the juvenile justice system. "Troop 1500" poignantly reveals how Girl Scouts Beyond Bars, an inspired yet controversial effort by the venerable Girl Scout organization, is working to help these at-risk young girls deal with their unique circumstances and break the cycle of crime within families. It's emblematic of the Girl Scout organization's continuing effort to meet, serve and empower girls in all circumstances.
The film follows four young troop members — Caitlin, Naomi, Mikaela and Jessica — whose mothers are serving time. Once past the metal prison bars, the girls of Troop 1500 fall into the arms of the mothers seldom seen — Kenya, Ida, Susan, and Melissa — crying and laughing while pulling out report cards and pictures, and passing along hellos from grandparents and absent brothers. At the conclusion of each monthly meeting in the prison library, the girls and moms form a circle and recite the Girl Scout Promise in unison, "On my honor, I will try to serve God and my country, to help people at all times, And to live by the Girl Scout law," and then they sing "Day Is Done."
For Julia Cuba, the young social worker who is the energetic leader of Troop 1500, the challenge of mentoring her troop is also a joy. Says Julia, "It is extremely rewarding to be able to help these girls create positive memories with their moms, and remember that this was a snapshot of their lives where the girls and their moms really loved each other and trusted each other. And it was safe. Our program enables mothers and daughters to reinforce the love and trust they have for each other amidst the most trying of circumstances." Adds filmmaker Ellen Spiro, "It's both heart wrenching and heart warming to watch how these girls deal with the many challenges they face on a daily basis. Their mothers have committed crimes and are incarcerated, but they are still daughters who very much crave strong bonds."
"Troop 1500" goes beyond the girls’ prison experience to show what there daily lives are like, balancing family, school work and extracurricular activities under the care of dads, friends and grandparents. And, although the girls fervently wish for the day when their moms are free, their problems don’t always end upon their mother’s release. As leader Julia says, "These girls have to be very strong because, as hard as it is for them when their mothers are in jail, it’s almost even harder when their moms are out of jail and readjusting to ‘normal’ life. It can be a scary time but Troop 1500 is there to support them in both phases of their lives."
About the Mothers and Daughters of Troop 1500
Melissa and Jasmine: Imprisoned for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, Melissa joined GSBB (Girl Scouts Beyond Bars) about a year prior to her release in 2003 and is an excellent example of a mother who has graduated from the program and done well. During her time in GSBB, Melissa met the challenge of being a dedicated mother behind bars, using the program and its resources to get to know her then eight-year old daughter. Once Melissa was home, she had to face the pressures of the real world. Today, Melissa works at Jasmine’s father’s delivery service company, spends time with her kids every day after school and sometimes attends special Girl Scout events. Now 11, Jasmine still lives with her dad, and has adjusted to having her mom home. She is still in counseling and her troop, keeping her hopes up that her mom will stay out of prison.
Kenya, Caitlin and Mikaela: In prison for selling drugs, Kenya joined GSBB in 2001, left in 2002 and rejoined the program in 2003. As a mother with two daughters in GSBB, Kenya struggled to make time for both girls during their monthly visits, using the program to foster a sense of family with her daughters, who lived with different grandmothers. Upon her last release in 2005, Kenya moved into a transitional home and has been working steadily as she prepares to bring her girls to live with her. With her mother now a steady presence in her life, 14-year old Caitlin relies on Kenya’s advice about boys, friends, school and clothes. Eleven-year old Mikaela, the most outspoken and direct member of Troop 1500, is exploring her love of piano and is in sixth grade.
Ida and Jessica: Ida has been part of GSBB for about two years and is due to be released from prison no later than March 2006. She is preparing for her freedom by examining herself with a critical eye and acknowledging her past mistakes. Ida has benefited greatly from GSBB, learning how to be a supportive listener, counselor, disciplinarian and friend to her daughter. Eleven-year old Jessica lives with her stepfather, Danny, and enjoys working in the garden and shares her bounty with the troop during their monthly visits to Hilltop.
Susan and Naomi: Convicted of euthanizing two patients while working as a nurse at a nursing home, Susan has served almost nine years of a 50-year sentence. Susan hopes to continue with GSBB until Naomi turns 18, recognizing that GSBB is the only reason she has an active relationship with her daughter. Fourteen-year old Naomi has opened up a great deal since joining the troop, bringing her closer to both her mother and the rest of her family. Very involved in extracurricular activities, Naomi has a dedicated mentor and makes time for Girl Scout meetings. Susan has tried to have the courts revisit her case with no success.
The TROOP 1500 interactive companion Web site
www.pbs.org/independentlens/troop1500 features detailed information on the film, including an interview with the filmmakers and links and resources pertaining to the film’s subject matter. The site also features a Talkback section for viewers to share their ideas and opinions, preview clips of the film and more.
'Troop 1500' Credits
Director: Ellen Spiro
Producer: Karen Bernstein
Camera: Ellen Spiro, Deborah Eve Lewis
Editing: Lillian Benson, Ellen Spiro, Jean Garrison
About Making TROOP 1500, by director Ellen Spiro
Karen Bernstein and I volunteered with the Lone Star Council's Girl Scout Beyond Bars program for a few years before shooting. With a grant from Humanities Texas and the Independent Television Service (ITVS), we trained the girls in media production. The girls then made their own films and, when documentary production began for "Troop 1500," they had a better understanding of the documentary process.
After an extensive process of getting permissions from Girl Scouts of the USA and the Texas Criminal Justice System, I asked the girls to interview their own mothers. The so-called "girl-mom" interviews told the deeper story of their fragile relationships beautifully. The girls used the opportunity and the formality of the interview set-up to ask their moms questions they had never asked them before. The camera became a witness, ally and a friend to them, something to help them get at the truth of their situations. The girl-mom interviews reveal conflicted emotions of love and abandonment and the ultimate realization that the girls will have to create their own futures, with or without their mother's guidance and support.
Statistically, these girls are six times more likely to wind up in jail than other kids. So, the ultimate goal of the troop is to help them grow strong enough to fight the pressures that might land them in prison some day. Although the "girl-mom" interviews are only a small part of the larger film, it inspired me to continue shooting the story, because I could see how the girls were growing stronger with the process of being in the documentary as both subjects and crew.
We went to the prison and showed the fine cut to the mothers. Most of the mothers' issues with the film had to do with their close-ups and we could not change that! But one mother did accuse us of making her out to "look like a big time dope dealer" to which one of the other mothers responded "but you are a big time dope dealer!" So, it was a difficult, ethical balancing act: not letting our close, personal relationships with the moms get in the way of an honest depiction of their lives.
"Troop 1500" is filled with deep, complicated and disturbing realities, but "Troop 1500" is also about love. In spite of the disappointment, feelings of abandonment and betrayal, these girls really love their moms. They understand, on some deep level, the complexities of why their moms are in prison, usually due to mistakes their moms made that were about their own over-powering addictions, not about their lack of love for their daughters. This film is finished, finally, but in some ways it is just the beginning of our friendships with the girls and their moms. They will always be a really important part of our lives.
About the Filmmakers
Ellen Spiro has created many inventive documentaries, including "Diana’s Hair Ego," "Greetings From Out Here," "Roam Sweet Home," "Atomic Ed & the Black Hole" and "Troop 1500." She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, two Rockefeller Fellowships, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Jerome Foundation Fellowship and others. Her work has won numerous awards and has been shown in museums, including the Guggenheim, the Whitney Museum Biennial, and the Museum of Modern Art. Her films have been broadcast worldwide on PBS, HBO, BBC, and CBC (Canada) and NHK (Japan).
Karen Bernstein has spent the last 15 years in documentary production, most notably as Series Producer for PBS' acclaimed series, American Masters, where she received a Primetime Emmy and a Grammy award for documentaries on Ella Fitzgerald and Lou Reed, respectively. She recently finished producing and directing, "Are The Kids Alright?" for PBS and has produced documentaries for the Sundance Channel, HBO, and Gallery HD.
About Girl Scouts of the USA
Girl Scouts of the USA is the preeminent organization for and leading authority on girls with 3.7 million girl and adult members. Now in its 93rd year, Girl Scouting builds girls of courage, confidence and character, who make the world a better place. The organization strives to serve girls from every corner of the United States, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Girls Scouts of the USA also serves American girls and their classmates living overseas and attending American or international schools. Girl Scouts of the USA also serves American girls and their classmates living overseas and attending American or international schools. For more information on how to join, volunteer, or donate to the Girl Scouts, call (800) GSUSA 4 U (800-478-7248) or visit www.girlscouts.org.
About Independent Lens
A film festival in your living room, Independent Lens, is an Emmy Award-winning weekly series airing Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on PBS. Hosted by Edie Falco, the acclaimed anthology series features documentaries and a limited number of fiction films united by the creative freedom, artistic achievement and unflinching visions of independent producers, which has prompted Television Week to call it "Entertaining as hell and better than any other documentary series around."
Presented by ITVS, the series is supported by interactive companion websites and community engagement campaigns. Further information about the series is available at www.pbs.org/independentlens. Independent Lens is jointly curated by ITVS and PBS, and is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), a private corporation funded by the American people, with additional funding provided by PBS and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Independent Television Service (ITVS) funds and presents award-winning documentaries and dramas on public television, innovative new media projects on the Web and the Emmy Award-winning weekly series Independent Lens on Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. on PBS. ITVS is a miracle of public policy created by media activists, citizens and politicians seeking to foster plurality and diversity in public television. ITVS was established by a historic mandate of Congress to champion independently produced programs that take creative risks, spark public dialogue and serve underserved audiences. Since its inception in 1991, ITVS programs have revitalized the relationship between the public and public television, bringing TV audiences face-to-face with the lives and concerns of their fellow Americans. More information about ITVS can be obtained by visiting itvs.org. ITVS is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American People.
PBS, headquartered in Alexandria, Va., is a private, nonprofit media enterprise owned and operated by the nation's 349 public television stations. Serving nearly 90 million people each week, PBS enriches the lives of all Americans through quality programs and education services on noncommercial television, the Internet and other media. More information about PBS is available at www.pbs.org, the leading dot-org Web site on the Internet.
About Women Make Movies
Established in 1972 to address the under representation and misrepresentation of women in the media industry, Women Make Movies is a multicultural, multiracial, non-profit media arts organization which facilitates the production, promotion, distribution and exhibition of independent films and videotapes by and about women. T he organization provides services to both users and makers of film and video programs, with a special emphasis on supporting work by women of color. Additional information on Women Make Movies is available at www.wmm.com.