Film spotlights inmates and their children

By Scott Aiken
The Herald-Palladium (St. Joseph)

ST. JOSEPH (AP) — When a mother is convicted of a crime and goes to jail, the punishment may not fall on her alone.
Children, unable to understand why their parent is gone, often suffer lasting harm.
“The effect of a woman leaving for a few months is devastating, it’s heart-wrenching,” said Kim Clark, part of a documentary film team that has been working in the Berrien County jail since July.
In one case a child came home to find that the family van was in its place but his mom was gone.
“Nobody explained what happened,” Clark said. “It was like a scene from a horror movie.”
Faculty and students from DePaul University in Chicago making the film have interviewed women and men being held in the jail and have gone outside to record conversations with their children.
They have also talked with the sheriff, chief judge and county prosecutor.
Documenting the inmates’ lives and the impact of incarceration is part of the story, but the filmmakers are also looking at what’s being done to bring change, such as the Fresh Start program in the county jail that aims to reduce recidivism.
“The point will be to present a model that could be replicated,” said Patricia Werhane, professor of business ethics at DePaul, “to show you can do this.” The project began with the intention of showing what life is like for people, particularly women, who return to jail repeatedly.
But after more than 25 interviews, the film is still taking shape.
“The data keeps shifting. We learn more each time we do these interviews,” said Werhane, a business ethics professor and executive director of the Institute for Business and Professional Ethics at DePaul.
“We don’t know how this will turn out but it’s interesting and exciting,” she said.
To create the documentary, she teamed up with Clark, of Three Oaks, an adjunct professor of ethics at DePaul. Clark is well-known in performing arts, writing, directing and producing.
The film will be part of a series of documentaries they are creating on poverty and alleviating poverty. The first documentary was filmed in Bangladesh in March.
Werhane said they were especially interested in Benton Harbor, but also the diversity of people in the county jail.
The filmmakers were also drawn by the Fresh Start program, run in the jail by county Commissioner Marletta Seats and others.
The program attempts to give inmates a strong sense of self-identity, to change thinking patterns and avoid behavior that gets them into trouble.
Werhane said the U.S. Department of Education is interested in the work, especially as it pertains to children of inmates and what can be done to help them.
The department has asked for copies of the first round of interviews.
Also on the team are two university staff members, a graduate student from the media film school at DePaul and four undergraduate students who do the filming.
Clark said the underlying idea in the documentary series is how to change families.
“In America we think money cures all problems,” he said. “It’s much more about someone caring about you ... connected to you.”
Seats said she hopes the completed documentary will cause government at all levels to look at what happens to children whose parents go to jail or prison.
Services are lacking or not available, she said.
“It has an emotional and social impact. What we’re doing is creating another dysfunctional generation,” Seats said.
The people interviewed for the documentary tell “very powerful stories of loss of dignity, loss of family members,” she said.
“The kids don’t understand why momma’s not here. When she does get out, the relationship is lost.” Seats said.
“We’re capturing the voices of children who have been affected by arrest and incarceration and how they handle the impact and stigma.”

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