'Apart' follows three women in Ohio prison system

The moving documentary, available to stream via the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, shows the impact of incarceration on mothers and children

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
In a still from "Apart," Tomika tells her young daughter she's in prison.

The impetus for “Apart” began with a staggering statistic: Since the 1980s, the number of women prisoners in the United States has grown by 800 percent.  

Documentary filmmaker Jennifer Redfearn wanted to understand that number, and while looking into the issue, she discovered a reentry program that works with a women’s minimum-security prison in the Cleveland area. The nonprofit is run by previously incarcerated staffers such as Malika Kidd, who shepherds female prisoners through the complex process of transitioning to home from prison.  

In late 2016, Redfearn interviewed nearly two dozen women from the reentry program. “Their stories were just so powerful and so heartbreaking,” Redfearn said in a recent phone call. “What came out of that was an understanding of how this impacts mothers, because the majority of women going into the system are mothers, and the impact on their children.” 

Redfearn narrowed her focus to three women incarcerated in Ohio — Lydia, Tomika and Amanda — and followed their journeys for more than three years. The resulting film, “Apart,” is streaming through May 27 as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. The 85-minute documentary provides an up-close, intimate look at the lives of the three women as they struggle to be there for their children from inside the walls of a prison, and as they try to repair those relationships upon their release.  

Tomika was separated from her daughter, Bailee, for more than nine years, and in one gut-wrenching scene, she decides to tell Bailee that she’s not actually away in college; she’s in prison.  

“Bailee was only nine months old when Tomika was sent to prison. What do you tell a child, and when do you decide to tell her the truth? And how do you break it to her? It brings up so many difficult questions. If trust is broken, how do you rebuild that trust when you're stuck inside?” Redfearn said. “That scene is the heart of the film. … The film is really about families and the impact of incarceration on mothers and their children. And so to me, what that scene in the film shows is just how heartbreaking incarceration is for young children, and it also shows that when our society incarcerates a mother, the whole family suffers.”

As the director, Redfearn had to walk the line between being present for intimate, difficult moments, and also making sure the filmmakers weren’t overly intrusive. Sometimes, those tough moments came after the women were released from prison, which is initially characterized by an overflow of joy, but soon becomes a challenging time as the mothers work to repair relationships with their kids while also looking for housing and jobs — a process that is not typically kind to returning citizens with past criminal records.  

In one tense dinner table scene, Lydia’s oldest son barely acknowledges her presence after she comes home. "It was a really important moment to film, because it shows how the relationship was affected by so many years apart. Lydia told us that this was a very tough time for them, and he barely spoke to her for the first six months that she was home,” Redfearn said. “The hardest part for people who are transitioning home from prison is that first three months.” 

In some ways, though, these three women were better off than many others in the system. They took part in the reentry program, which gave them support inside and outside of prison. But that program reaches less than 1 percent of Ohio’s prison population. Over and again, Redfearn witnessed a system that was designed to be punitive rather than restorative.  

“In the short term, I think part of the solution is programs like the one we profiled in the film that help people make this really difficult transition from prison back into their communities and families. And I think it's so important that people like Malika, who have the lived experience, are a part of designing and running those programs, because they know firsthand what people need,” she said. “In the long term, I hope the film can be a part of this conversation that we're having in this country right now about reimagining justice and what that looks like.” 

Redfearn also hopes “Apart” shines a light on not just mothers, but children, too.

“In the film we see the anger and the hurt and the heartache that the children feel. There needs to also be support for children,” she said. “There’s a trauma that happens when children are separated from their parents, and part of restoring those relationships is addressing that trauma that the children feel.”