A film by Ellen Spiro and Karen Bernstein, TROOP 1500 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.
Premieres on PBS's Independent Lens the Emmy Award-winning Series Hosted by Edie Falco Tuesday, March 21, at 10 PM (Check Local Listings)
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(San Francisco)—Their mothers may be convicted thieves, murderers and drug dealers, but the girls of Girl Scout Troop 1500, in Austin, Texas, want to be doctors, social workers and marine biologists. At Hilltop Prison in Gatesville, Texas, Troop 1500 unites daughters with mothers who are serving time for serious crimes, giving 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. They not only allow the camera to enter their own lives, but also use the camera to interview their mothers, asking some difficult 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 they gained unprecedented access to Girl Scouts of the USA, Hilltop Prison and its 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 will air nationally on the Emmy Award–winning PBS series Independent Lens, hosted by Edie Falco, on Tuesday, March 21, 2006, at 10 PM (check local listings).
Ninety percent of female inmates are single parents, and their daughters are six times more likely to land in the juvenile justice system than daughters of non-inmates. TROOP 1500 poignantly reveals how Girl Scouts Beyond Bars (GSBB), 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 five young troop members—Jasmine, sisters Caitlin and Mikaela, Jessica, and Naomi—whose mothers are serving time. Once inside the prison bars, the girls of Troop 1500 fall into the arms of the mothers they seldom see—Melissa, Kenya, Ida and Susan—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.” 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 my life, where my mom and I 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 Spiro, “It's both heart-wrenching and heartwarming 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 their daily lives are like, balancing family, schoolwork and extracurricular activities under the care of dads, friends and grandparents. And although the girls longingly await the day when their moms are free, their problems don't always end upon their mothers' release. As Cuba 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 because it's such a scary time. And Troop 1500 is there to support them in both phases of their lives, when mom is in and when mom is out.”
ABOUT THE MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS OF TROOP 1500 Melissa and Jasmine: Melissa joined GSBB 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 daughter, then eight years old. Once Melissa was home, she had to face the pressures of the real world. Today, Melissa works at the delivery service company owned by Jasmine's father, 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. Still in counseling and still with her Girl Scout troop, she is keeping her hopes up that her mom will stay out of prison.
Kenya, Caitlin and Mikaela: Kenya joined GSBB in 2001, left the program in 2002 and rejoined 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. The most outspoken and direct member of Troop 1500, 11-year-old Mikaela, who is in sixth grade, is exploring her love of piano.
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. Jessica, age 11, lives with her stepfather, Danny. She enjoys working in the garden, and she shares her bounty with the troop during their monthly visits to Hilltop.
Susan and Naomi: 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. Naomi, age 14, has opened up a great deal since joining the troop and as a result has grown closer to both her mother and the rest of her family. Naomi has a dedicated mentor and is very involved in extracurricular activities, but she always makes time for her Girl Scout meetings. Susan has tried to have the courts revisit her case with no success.
The TROOP 1500 interactive companion website (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 Camerapeople: Ellen Spiro, Deborah Eve Lewis Editor: 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 GSBB program for a few years before shooting. With a grant from Humanities Texas and 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 the 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 “girl-mom” interviews told the deeper story of their fragile relationships beautifully. The girls used the opportunity and the formality of the interview situation to ask their moms questions they had never asked them before. The camera became a witness, an 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 are the impetus for the girls' ultimate realization that they would have to create their own futures, with or without the guidance and support of a mother.
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, they inspired me to continue shooting the story because I could see how the girls were growing stronger through the process of being part of the documentary as both subject and crew member.
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 close, personal relationships with the moms get in the way of an honest depiction of their lives.
TROOP 1500 is filled with deeply complicated and disturbing realities, but it is also about love. In spite of their disappointment and 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, often because of mistakes their moms made that were about their own overpowering addictions, not about their lack of love for their daughters. And although this film is finally finished, in some ways it marks 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 and 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 shown in such museums as the Guggenheim, the Whitney Museum Biennial and the Museum of Modern Art. Her films have been broadcast worldwide on PBS, HBO, BBC, CBC (Canada) and NHK (Japan).
Karen Bernstein has spent the last 15 years in documentary production, most notably as series producer for PBS's acclaimed series American Masters, for which she received a Primetime Emmy Award 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 With 3.7 million girl and adult members, Girl Scouts of the USA is the preeminent organization for and leading authority on girls. 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. For more information on how to join, volunteer or donate to the Girl Scouts, call (800) GSUSA 4 U (478-7248) or visit www.girlscouts.org.
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