Eight years ago, Jazree was like any other eight-year-old hanging out with friends and experiencing important milestones of her youth. She finished Elementary school and started the emotional roller-coaster called puberty. She even started having crushes — crushes on girls. All of these experiences impacted Jazree’s future, but one experience overshadowed all others. Jazree’s dad was sentenced to seven years in prison for possession of an unloaded firearm by a felon.
Jazree says she and her dad had been like two peas in a pod, like twins. But her mom — that was a different story. They don’t get along. In eighth grade, when Jazree came out, her mom broke down crying. She still can’t get used to Jazree being a lesbian.
Jazree is one of 2.7 million American kids growing up forcibly separated from an incarcerated parent, another terrible consequence of America’s system of mass incarceration. At Brave New Films, we’ve seen countless stories of unnecessary suffering caused by our country’s obsession with long prison sentences. Our producers work hard to find stories most people haven’t heard and put a face to this tough issue.
We found Jazree through the non-profit that has been working with her in the Bay Area: Project WHAT (We’re Here And Talking). This is a youth-led organization that raises awareness for these children of parents in jail and prison. With their help, we were able to find and interview Jazree and her family.
Our producer, Brittany Washington, talked on the phone with Jazree weeks before the shoot began last Thanksgiving. She took Brittany to the basketball court – her home away from home and the inspiration for the film’s title. She started to warm up. She told the camera how she was bullied in school because she had a crush on a female classmate. Her mom said she should have expected it, after she told her friends she was “different.” She couldn’t talk to her dad — he was “away.”
Every teenager wrestles with her own issues. But most are lucky enough to have parents there to help them and understand their problems. But not Jazree. Like millions of others, she was forced to deal with the grief that comes with a parent’s absence. In her case, it was compounded by the complications of coming out.
Brittany spent three intimate days with Jazree and her family, filming or just talking. Her camera was there when Jazree and her dad Gordon were reunited after his release, two years after they last saw each other in the prison visiting room.
Zoe Willmont of Project WHAT tells me that the filming has been one of the best experiences Jazree has ever had. But there are so many other kids out there just like her. The United States locks up more of its citizens than any other country on Earth, and nearly two-thirds of them committed non-violent offenses. Now, one out of twenty-eight children in America have an incarcerated parent. We want viewers to think about our system differently. Is it worth it to warehouse millions of parents away from their kids? Isn’t there a better way?
Her dad may always carry the label “criminal,” but her love for him serves as a reminder that the incarcerated are more than just the sum of their mistakes. To many kids like Jazree, they are family, and sometimes the one person they need the most.