The parenting advice I’m taking from Netflix’s “Girls Incarcerated”

Girlhood is expensive, whether behind bars or under your parent’s roof

You may have stumbled upon “Girls Incarcerated” on Netflix and added it to your watch list. Or perhaps you skimmed past it, presuming it was another “Orange is the New Black” spinoff. I’d recommend you queueing up an episode, though, sooner rather than later. I’ve not been inspired by a program such as this in a very long time, particularly as a parent of a girl.

“Girls Incarcerated” is an 8-part documentary series about the now-defunct Madison Juvenile Correctional Facility in Madison, IN. The series portrays the lives of a dozen or so girls who are doing time in a building called “Unit 5.” The series has done a good job of allowing the girls to tell their own stories, both of their lives before arriving at the facility, the relationships and struggles they encounter while serving their sentence, and, for a few of the girls, after they are released. The series also offers glimpses of the girls’ families who wait for their release.

Photo by Ashim d’Silva

Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of the series, though, is the staff who are dedicated to helping the girls rehabilitate their lives. The level of care the correctional officers, counselors, teachers and other Unit 5 staff members seem to have for each girl, knowing each girl’s story and triggers, is remarkable. Of course, a skeptic wonders if it is easy to turn on the therapeutic approach while cameras are rolling.

However, there is some strong evidence that the staff’s approach to rehabilitation is sincere. The low recidivism rate for Madison girls, as reported by Superintendent John Galipeau as around 20%. In trying to verify Galipeau’s statistic, I found it difficult to find any hard numbers about juvenile girls and recidivism. I wondered if these numbers are hard to track since sometimes girls are reincarcerated but by that point they are no longer minors. I did find a 2014 study published in the Law of Human Behavior journal indicating that recidivism rates for girls in juvenile facilities was 23%, but those who had a history of sexual abuse had five times greater odds of recidivating than their nonabused female counterparts. This certainly aligns with many of the girls of Unit 5 who reported personal histories of sexual abuse.

Further evidence of the exceptional approach to rehabilitating girls is found in one staff member, though, who emerges as one of the most inspiring forces in the girls’ lives, and by extension, in mine. She only appears on the first two episodes because she is seen departing for graduate school. Counselor Jacie Minnick, In her five years at Madison, clearly has influenced so many of the girls in positive, irreversible ways, given the grief and sadness that her departure stirs up in the girls.

In her final address to the girls, Counselor Minnick makes one gesture that is unforgettable.

She tells the girls to find their pulse. “You can find it here,” she says, pointing to her wrist and to her neck, and then she crosses her heart, showing where else one’s pulse can be found. She continues, “I’m going to tell you something that your heart’s been telling you since Day One. Since you were a baby, before you could talk, before you could walk, before you could make mistakes.

“Thump thump. That is your purpose. You have purpose. Remember that you’re here for a reason. Not here,” she says, as she motions to Unit 5, “ but here,” as she motions to the greater, grander world of opportunity.

As the mother of a soon-to-be adolescent daughter, this is the speech I am trying to deliver to my girl every day, in word and in deed. This is the speech I may have to borrow from Counselor Minnick one day soon.

My daughter is not showing any symptoms of delinquency, but Counselor Minnick’s message is so universal and still so necessary, for our girls, especially. Her message of the intrinsic purpose of each girl, especially for girls coming of age in a hyper-connected, highly commercialized culture is more than a pep talk. It is a battle cry.

Girlhood is expensive in 2018. Girls pay a high price for retaining their innocence, for just enjoying being a kid. They cash it in, sometimes unconsciously, for the cheap currency of Instagram likes, for photos they have no business taking or sharing. They give away their girlhood in exchange for an adolescence that does not allow them to celebrate their strong, energetic bodies or their sharp, creative minds. Whether in a correctional facility or under their parent’s roof, it is easy for a girl in 2018 to forget about the heart that beats inside of her, calling her back to her purpose. And her purpose, as Counselor Minnick says, is to be an “agent of change.”

You can find Counselor Minnick on Twitter. She is still advocating for the girls of “Girls Incarcerated.” She is still inspiring me with her dedication to their reaching their potential. She is an agent of change and an example for all of us who believe in the power of each girl to be one, as well. It’s in each one of us, if we remember to put our hand to our hearts.

Written by

Writer of essays, collector of vintage, reader of books, wife of one, mother of two. Subscribe to my monthly love letter:

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