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A Film Review of A Sentence For Two
By Robert DeLauro, MSW, ACSW

With the large number of social issue-oriented documentaries—many of them outstanding—how does the inquiring social worker decide which to watch? A Netflix account allows for easy access to many popular documentaries. However, A Sentence For Two, the 2008 documentary by Randi Jacobs, is not available through Netflix; this is unfortunate because the film deserves a wider audience.

Choosing to watch a documentary usually indicates that the time spent is intended for more than entertainment. A good documentary film can provide a concise summary of a complicated topic while engaging the viewer’s understanding of the social issue’s impact on real people. A Sentence For Two successfully provides an overview of pregnancy and incarceration with legal, criminal justice, familial, and psychosocial perspectives described and discussed. Within this synopsis, the personal struggles of four pregnant inmates facing time in an Oregon prison are sensitively detailed.

Although the incarcerated women are all facing a delicate dilemma with their pregnancies, each presents a unique predicament. They agonize over their plans to ensure healthy homes for their babies, and they are articulate and well informed about their available options. For one woman, adoption is the choice. But connecting with a couple who will adopt a child of an incarcerated woman is not easy. Another woman considers having members of her family of origin temporarily care for the baby. However, these relationships are strained and tenuous. Foster care is presented as another option, but the instability and volatility common to these environments make them a regretful choice.

As a contrast to the Oregon prison, the documentary visits the nursery at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York, one of a handful of states where inmates can keep their newborns with them. It is impressive to see the nursery where the babies and young children are provided the support and resources found in good day care centers. In addition, the cells that accommodate a mother and her child are shown. Mary Byrne, PhD, of Columbia University conducts research on the development of babies during their first year of life in a prison environment. Her interview and the promising initial results of her research are highlights of the film. Hopefully, Byrne’s findings will be influential as other states consider prison nurseries for their women’s facilities.

Although this film lasts only 58 minutes, it manages to examine a number of important characteristics and life circumstances of the four young women. Their backgrounds are filled with chaos, abuse, and estrangement. Unfortunately, their current situations within prison and the criminal justice system result in a continuation of these same characteristics for their children. As a viewer, I experienced a crushing sense of repetition and an overpowering inevitability about the downward spiraling lives of these women and their children. Will the circle be unbroken?

The women who are the focus of this film used the word “choice” quite often. At times it seemed that they were using the vocabulary of their counselors, who have likely stressed to them that they have “made choices” in their lives and the consequences of those choices are what they are now facing. But to continually emphasize the act of making choices with people who were born into chaotic families and lived disorganized lives seems to miss a more important point. Of course the choices we make mold our lives. But to place most of the emphasis on “choice” seems narrow-minded given the circumstances within which the choices were made. To focus on the choice and thus the person, instead of the overwhelming and complicated factors that result in the circumstances (or environment), seems to be an easy way out for helping professionals. Social work has a rich tradition of looking at the person in their environment. I am not writing off the importance of personal responsibility, but we should never forget the context of environment.

— Robert DeLauro, MSW, ACSW, is an organization development consultant at St. Vincent Catholic Medical Centers in New York City. He is also president of the New Jersey chapter of the Martin Scorsese Fan Club.