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I grew up going to federal prisons. From the ages of 4 to 14, I visited my dad twice a year at correctional institutions all over the Midwest — Leavenworth, Terre Haute, Oxford and Sandstone.
People sometimes ask me what it was like visiting prison. I usually start off by saying what it wasn’t like: There wasn’t a glass partition to speak through, or a phone, or a lot of sad faces. What there was, mostly: a big, surprisingly lively room filled with women and children. Playing cards, or with Barbies, or Parcheesi with men in shiny shoes and pressed prison uniforms, eating vending machine food, joking, laughing. Because the visiting room was an experience first and foremost of family. Families spending time together. Families connecting.
I’ve never seen that on television.
In fact, most of what I’ve seen on television regarding the lives of people in prison focuses either on the arrest, trial, and conviction of an individual — or that individual’s carceral life behind bars. But centering the stories of family, and specifically the partners and children left behind when someone is sent to prison, and what happens when it is time to reunite, that is something I wanted to explore. And as my dad’s release date drew closer, that want turned into something much closer to a need. With an estimated number of prisoners in this country at almost 2 million, it’s a need I knew I was not alone in having.
Other shows had touched on this territory. Rectify was beautifully acted and directed, but centered on a man wrongfully convicted, as did ABC’s critically acclaimed For Life. The pilot of Ray Donovan came a bit closer — with Ray’s dad (played by Jon Voight) getting released five years early and becoming a complication for his son who, as played by Liev Schreiber, is himself as ruthless and violent as any stereotypical TV criminal.
But while these shows were one version of life after life (so to speak), they really didn’t capture my story — or the stories of millions of other Americans who, like me, have played Crazy Eights and eaten microwaved cheeseburgers behind multiple barred electronic doors, under the watchful eyes of armed guards.
For starters, even though my dad was a high-level drug dealer, he was not hardened in any way. Decidedly non-violent, he never carried a gun. He was disarmingly sweet and open and funny and spiritual. He loved to laugh and did so often. If you didn’t know he’d spent an aggregate of 37 years in federal prison, you would never in a million years guess. In some ways the most “criminal” thing about him was his pinky ring. (Okay, rings! He liked jewelry, a lot.)
So where were the stories like ours? Stories free of the stereotypes and the many assumptions made about people who are felons? Stories focused on the full human impact of incarceration — which is not just about the person who went to prison, but reverberates seismically through family systems. It affects husbands, wives, girlfriends, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, cousins and, most of all, children who like me often end up in foster care. (Which is itself a form of incarceration; I remember being around age 12, realizing that like my dad, I, too, was marking time — until my parent was released and could come back to claim me.) And most of all, where was the heart, and humor, and hope these families bring to the task of putting a family back together? The tone of our family is not a gritty drama. It’s more like Mary Tyler Moore if her dad got out of prison and came to live with her and her teenage son. We’re going to make it after all!
The simplest answer is that stories like mine haven’t been told because until now, people like me haven’t gotten TV shows. Television is a business of hierarchies — it takes time to move up the ranks, to form relationships with studio and network executives, to be trusted with the tens of millions of dollars a season one will cost. The advent of streaming and the peaking of Peak TV has certainly opened doors for a greater variety of voices, but in a country of 335 million people, creating a TV show is a privilege extended to only about 0.0001% of us.
Early on in my television writing career a showrunner said to me, “You have to write what only you can write.” I would add to that: The highest good actually comes from writing what I am most afraid to write — the things I thought I had to hide, the things that I feared made me “less” than other people, the things society told me I should be ashamed of. Like my dad being in prison. This is what offers the audience catharsis and understanding. Ultimately, it’s what makes a show resonate.
I created Onyx Collective and Hulu’s UnPrisoned — a dramedy about a Minneapolis marriage and family therapist (played by Kerry Washington) whose dad (Delroy Lindo) gets out of prison after 17 years and comes to live with her and her teenage son — because I wanted to make emotional sense out of a situation that has deeply affected my family and me: life after incarceration. I wrote it to see our circumstances accurately portrayed. I didn’t do it to change the world — not really. But my story is actually America’s story. As a nation we incarcerate people at the highest rate in the world! And real change begins not when a law is passed or a policy is enacted. It begins when a group of people who have been marginalized are seen for their humanity. It begins with a shift in the hearts and minds of people both outside and inside that group. This can be startlingly simple.
And powerful. Shortly after UnPrisoned dropped, I was approached by a woman who thanked me for the show. “I am a professional woman, I have a master’s degree, and my husband got out of prison five years ago. I have never been able to talk about it. I’m hoping your show changes that.”
That’s what I’m hoping, too.
Tracy McMillan created and executive produces the Hulu/Onyx Collective dramedy series UnPrisoned and is best known for her writing work on shows including Mad Men, Marvel’s Runaways, Necessary Roughness, and United States of Tara. She is also the host of the OWN relationship reality show Family or Fiancé. She’s the author of three books, including a memoir I Love You and I’m Leaving You Anyway.
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