Motherhood Behind Bars

Motherhood Behind Bars

May 10, 2024

Filmmaker Tommy Franklin on being born in prison, and his upcoming film You Don’t Know My Name

Mother’s Day isn’t just about flowers and brunch—it’s a time to reflect on the powerful bond between mothers and children, especially for those impacted by incarceration. This year, to commemorate the holiday we spoke with Tommy Franklin about his journey to find his birth mother, who was incarcerated when he was born. Throughout his life, the intense longing to know her has always been with him, and now, as a filmmaker, he's channeling that longing into his upcoming film You Don't Know My Name. In this feature blog, Tommy shares more about his story, the intersection of maternal health and incarceration, and what Mother’s Day means to him. 

1.) Tell us about your film and how you came to make it. 

Throughout my life, the intense longing to know my birth mother is always with me. Learning later in life that when she gave birth she was incarcerated, made my search even more urgent, not only for me but hopefully for her peace and healing, too. I was already working on improving systems-impacted lives, so I understood some of the carceral environment's life-threatening challenges. Documenting my search for my family and the journey of the organizations I work with, which aim to break down the barriers to accessing safe maternal health care while incarcerated, can shed light on a little-known issue. Additionally, it may provide some comfort to others who share a similar journey with me. You Don’t Know My Name will be a transformative look at loss, parenthood, and a powerful movement of people who must roll up their sleeves and make the change needed. 

2.) What comes up for you when you think about Mother’s Day? 

For me, it’s a day that honors the people in our lives who give unconditional love, whether in their work or on a personal level. I’m grateful to have so many people who share my values and are dedicated to helping others. 

3.) As a first time filmmaker, what’s one surprising challenge and one surprising thing that sparks joy about the process? 

As a first-time filmmaker, one surprising challenge is wanting more time to capture every facet of this story. Some of the new familial relationships I’ve made on this journey need time for us to bond more before they are entirely comfortable with filming. On the flip side, the moments that surprisingly spark joy are when they start to feel comfortable with me, and it feels like an adventure of a lifetime. 

4.) What impact do you hope this film has? 

Goals for impact are inseparable from the process of making this film. We walk together with the powerful women who fight from the frontlines to improve conditions, from building a community for shared healing to founding their doula training and lactation clinics, and advocating for birthing people behind bars every step of the way. This film will also be a powerful tool in shedding light on exactly how bad conditions are when you happen to be pregnant while in prison. The fastest growing population behind bars is women, and the state of maternal care in the prison system is still in the dark ages, with birthing people facing malnutrition and physical torture, such as being forced to give birth while their wrists and ankles are shackled. There is already a lack of information out there to improve maternal health, much less for those who are locked up at the time. We want to tackle this issue from the grassroots levels to help be a driving force behind nationwide policy change to enforce much-needed rights and ensure safety for all.

5.) When and where can people watch? 

The film is currently in production, but please keep up with the journey on our social media platforms and our fiscal sponsor donation website at Film Independent.

About Tommy Franklin

Tommy Franklin is a filmmaker, writer, producer, creator of Weapon of Choice Podcast and Special Menu Productions. He was a founding board member of All Square, is a founding board member of the Ostara Initiative, and is a communications consultant at the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI). His documentary You Don’t Know My Name, currently in production, has received support from Sundance Documentary Fund, Catapult Film Fund, Perspective Fund, The Just Trust, Jerome Foundation, Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, InMaat Foundation, and Vital Projects Fund. 

Franklin’s one hour drama pilot Intrepid was a finalist for 2021’s Sundance Episodic Lab, and he was a 2022 Sundance BIPOC Mentorship Program Mentee. Tommy made three off-the-wall narrative short films, and he collaborates in grassroots organizing communities to produce nonfiction content he believes in. A survivor of incarceration (born in prison and having served time in adulthood), Franklin works along creative culture lines to radically reimagine power structures, focusing on Black liberation. He is sure he wants to do this.

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