Tutwiler, a Revealing Portrait of Pregnancy and Motherhood Behind Bars by FRONTLINE (PBS) and The Marshall Project, Makes World Premiere at Hot Springs Film Festival

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October 21, 2019

The newest documentary short from Academy Award-nominated director Elaine McMillion Sheldon will also be available to stream on FRONTLINE and The Marshall Project’s digital platforms


What is it like to give birth — and then be forced to say goodbye to your baby 24 hours later?

To most mothers, it’s a scenario that’s unimaginable. But it’s exactly what’s facing the dozens of pregnant women behind bars in any given year at Alabama’s notorious Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, most of whom are locked up for drug-related offenses.

Tutwiler, a new documentary short directed by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon (Heroin(e), Recovery Boys) and reported and produced by The Marshall Project’s Alysia Santo, offers a powerful and unforgettable window into the lives of incarcerated pregnant women — and what happens to their newborns.

“At one time we had three generations of women at Tutwiler that were from the same family,” Wendy Williams, Ph. D., Deputy Commissioner of Women’s Services at Tutwiler said. “And of course we have that concern every time a woman comes to us pregnant: Is this going to be another cycle?”

As the film from FRONTLINE (PBS) and The Marshall Project explores, it’s a cycle that the prison, with the help of local non-profits, is trying to break. Long regarded as one of the worst women’s prisons in the U.S., Tutwiler is now making changes — including working with the Alabama Prison Birth Project to provide pregnant inmates with support and resources.

“In America, people who are in prison are invisible,” says Santo. “Pregnant women who are incarcerated are potentially the most overlooked group of people…. one of the issues that gets overlooked is that when you have women entering prison, what happens to their children or their unborn children?”

Many of these women are survivors of domestic violence and have struggled with substance abuse issues and addiction disorders. Working with a group of doulas, they attend parenting classes, dream up names for their babies, and plan for how they’ll maintain their sobriety once they’ve served their time.

But still, nothing can fully prepare them for what’s to come: Once they’re taken to a nearby hospital to give birth, they typically get 24 hours with their newborn before being sent back to prison.

As one incarcerated woman says, “When you were locked up your whole pregnancy and it was just you and that baby, and then to walk away from the person that’s been there with you, it makes the strongest person break.”

As the population of incarcerated pregnant women across the U.S. continues to grow, Tutwiler is a powerful lens into the reality of pregnancy and parenthood behind bars.

“What we found was much more complex than a black-and-white, good-and-bad story,” says Sheldon. “I think it’s in many ways the story that other Southern prisons, and prisons across the United States, need to see.”

Tutwiler is an official selection of the New Orleans Film Festival, which screened the weekend of October 19-21 at the Ranch at Cac. The film’s official world premiere at Hot Springs Film Festival will take place at The Arlington Cinema 1 on Wednesday, October 23.



Tutwiler is a WGBH/FRONTLINE Production with The Marshall Project and Requisite Media. The director is Elaine McMillion Sheldon. The reporter and producer is Alysia Santo, The Marshall Project. Edited by Chad Ervin, Elaine McMillion Sheldon. The Executive Producer of FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath.

FRONTLINE is an investigative documentary series on PBS. The Marshall Project is a nonprofit newsroom covering the U.S. criminal justice system.

FRONTLINE, U.S. television’s longest running investigative documentary series, explores the issues of our times through powerful storytelling. FRONTLINE has won every major journalism and broadcasting award, including 91 Emmy Awards and 22 Peabody Awards. Visit and follow us on TwitterFacebookInstagramYouTubeTumblr and Google+ to learn more. FRONTLINE is produced by WGBH Boston and is broadcast nationwide on PBS. Funding for FRONTLINE is provided through the support of PBS viewers and by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Major funding for FRONTLINE is provided by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Ford Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the Abrams Foundation, the Park Foundation, the John and Helen Glessner Family Trust, and the FRONTLINE Journalism Fund with major support from Jon and Jo Ann Hagler on behalf of the Jon L. Hagler Foundation.

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