Family life is often collateral damage in the war on crime. The Justice Department says two-thirds of the women in prison, and half of the men, have children under the age of eighteen. So at any one time about one and a half million American children have a parent behind bars.
Marsha, the mother of two boys, served seven years in the North Carolina state prison system for second-degree murder - a result of her relationship with a drug-dealing boyfriend. She was just 22 when she got locked up and left her young sons behind. Now she has to reclaim her role as their mother.
Most of the inmates at the Raleigh Correctional Center for Women wear the required blue-green shirt - sort of like the shirts surgeons wear. This day Marsha wears jeans and a black sweater. She's a pretty, round-faced woman with shoulder-length hair. She's reserved and watchful, but today she wears a distinct glow. It's release day.
"Today is Thursday, November 15, 2001," Marsha says, her voice breaking into a giggle that she can't quite suppress. "It's a date I will never forget."
Marsha sits down in the prison cafeteria across from her new parole officer, who reads her the terms: the early-evening curfew, no traveling outside of Wake County without permission, the understanding that she effectively remains in the custody of the state.
As Marsha gathers with several of her closest friends in the prison's grass courtyard, the talk has the feel of graduation day - except that only one of the women is graduating.
"It's a beautiful day to go home!" says Marsha's friend, Maleena.
"God, Marsha, you ready?" says Candace.
Gina teases Marsha about an earlier conversation: "I asked her, 'What's the first thing you're going to do?' She says she wants to go to the grocery store!" The women laugh and joke about Marsha's impending freedom from prison cafeteria food.
"I just want to go to a grocery store and push a grocery cart, and let my sons pick out what they want," Marsha says dreamily.
Marsha's fellow inmates will tell you she's a sure thing to make it on the outside. She got her degree from Shaw University while in prison. Classmates in her job-training course voted her Most Likely To Succeed. Partly because she was such a model inmate, Marsha served just seven years of a 30-year sentence. Even before her release she lined up a job with a Raleigh housing corporation; the job will pay $25,000 annually plus benefits.
Marsha pockets her gate check - $45 in North Carolina - says one last goodbye ("I love y'all!") and walks out of prison.
Next: The challenge begins