Kerry Washington and Tracy McMillan Are Taking on the Prison Industrial System

'Unprisoned' takes a hard look at single parenting and the impact incarceration has on families.

Kerry Washington has graced big and small screens portraying everyone from a dance-enthused sister to a problem-solving maven. Now, she’s showcasing the intricacies of single motherhood and being the daughter of a formerly incarcerated father in the new Hulu series UnPrisioned

Representing single motherhood was not something Washington took lightly—she explored all the fine details that made up her character. 

“There's a lot of dynamics in the single mom relationship that I think are beautiful,” Washington told Kindred by Parents. “When we start the show, Paige feels like she has the capacity to be able to control the dynamic between her son and her father somehow, that she's figuring out what she wants it to look like. But by the end of the first episode, you get the sense that this is bigger than her and that she's not going to be able to be in control of this, in this kind of siphoned-off way, compartmentalized way that she imagines.” 

Washington’s experience as a parent to three children has taught her the value of surrendering to the moment.  

“So much about parenting is being able to be in the moment and pivot and surrender when you can't be in control, but still look for appropriate boundaries in places where you can have them and create them,” she says. “Parenting is definitely a balance, a tightrope walk of stepping into your role to be responsible for creating and maintaining healthy boundaries and limits but also surrendering to the reality of [your children’s] moment-to-moment truth and who they are.” 

But parenthood is only one aspect of the series that depicts the real life of author and relationship expert Tracy McMillan, who serves as a writer and executive producer of the show. The layers within the story include Paige’s sordid love life, her budding new relationship with her father, navigating a confused upbringing, and coming face to face with years of repressed trauma. 

Parents with repressed trauma don’t always realize what they’re bringing to the table, McMillan told Kindred by Parents. She, however, knew immediately upon birthing her son that something just didn’t feel right. 

“When I became a mother, a lot of stuff from my childhood came to the surface naturally,” McMillan said. “I had a lot of stuff to unpack, and I'm trying to show a character who has that amount of stuff to unpack. I didn't have parents. I had my dad's girlfriend, who was not a parent,” says McMillan. “She was, at best, a roommate and, at worst, a really bad roommate. I had parents for four years in my Lutheran foster family, so I’ve got four and a half years of parenting lessons to draw upon when I became a mother.”

Through her experience, she learned that vulnerability has been key in her life. It’s something she hopes Washington’s Paige depicts on screen. 

"Paige deciding that she's willing to be in a relationship with her dad—there's no greater emotional risk to her than to let him into her life and have him leave again,” McMillan said. “It would be much safer and perhaps even a better bet to just go, ‘No, you're cut off. I'm not even going to deal with you.’ But that's not the highest self. In the highest self, you love your dad. You want to give him a chance, even at great risk to yourself. And so, to me, that's the greatest vulnerability. And that is in every episode in pretty much every scene.”

Millions of Americans are impacted by the criminal justice system and not just those who are behind bars. Because of this, McMillan hopes to develop an understanding of their forgotten humanity. 

“It doesn't matter what we're doing. We're humans every second of the day,” McMillan says. “I have been in a family impacted by mass incarceration my entire life, and I've never seen something that really addressed the challenges for me as a family member of this situation in these circumstances. There aren't just people in prison—there are family members in prison. Those are people who have dozens of people that they are connected to that are all impacted by that. I wanted to humanize the families and humanize people who are formally incarcerated and people who are currently incarcerated.”

Criminal justice reform is something that Washington has worked on through her own volunteer ventures. Being a part of a story that explores it from a human perspective felt natural to the seasoned actress. 

“I really love taking a story about a community that we think of as a marginalized community – there are 80 million Americans who are living with criminal records—and saying those stories are important,” Washington said. “We want to make sure that we are not just telling the story of what it's like to go to prison or what it's like in prison but to really excavate this idea of what it's like to be part of a family that has a returning citizen, a formerly incarcerated person. And how, as a family, do you learn to love and heal and be unprisoned together.”

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