Although Woman’s Prison is not a documentary, writer/director Katie Madonna Lee presents a realistic story of poverty and the struggles women, children, and to some degree, men face who experience it. From birth, Julie Ann Mabry is a quiet, shy person, who just wants to be safe with her mother (played by Lee). Sadly, her father takes away that option by murdering her mother, and she is left quietly battling predators, including her uncle.
When Julie encounters heart-wrenching situations, she does not lose hope. After she runs away from her uncle, she meets Butch, a guy who, at first, takes care of her. Because he does not force himself on her, she feels safe—but the honeymoon wears off when he begins to see her as just another financial burden in the two-bit town they live in. In one of the scenes, Julie is so hungry that she sneaks money out of his wallet to buy groceries at a nearby store.
Without community support or education, Julie drowns in postpartum depression, which leads to a prison term after she shoots Butch. She is given the choice of shutting up, putting up with the situation and getting out on good behaviour, or taking a stand to end the escalating sexual abuse that she suffers at the hands of one of the prison guards. Julie must decide whether prison is safer than the outside world, where her voice is silenced at every turn.
Lee has done a great job of assembling a cast of unknowns to play these characters. The movie has its finger on the pulse of poverty and how it gnaws away at both young and old. Woman’s Prison may be too painful for some audiences, but I hope they see it. Julie Ann Mabry is not just a character; she is thousands of women in America who have and will continue to experience such struggles.