Among their least desirable strides toward gaining parity with men, women in America are increasingly going to prison. Statistics showing 400,000 female inmates comprise our fastest growing prison segment form the backdrop of a harshly but absorbing "HBO Showcase" premiering tonight on the premium cable service.
"Prison Stores: Women on the Inside" (at 10 p.m., with repeats through mid-February) is a trilogy of films by three leading female directors -- not so long ago you could hardly say there were that many -- and starring five young actresses who bring strong believability (and strong language) to their roles.
Like such other efforts as HBO's "Women and Men: Stories of Seduction" and "The Showtime 30-Minute Movie," the three-act format here lends itself to drawing sharp character studies which hint at broader truths.
The sometimes weak but inescapable maternal bond is the common theme of the three stories, along with a blunt implication that many women behind bars owe much of their trouble to the men in their lives.
In the first story, "Esperanza," director Donna Deitch ("The Women of Brewster Place") presents Rachel Ticotin as a young mother serving a sentence for drug dealing, while her husband who set up the deal has fled to parts unknown. Taliso Soto is the sister trying to tend her nephew, Mico (Edwin Maldonado Jr.).
Yet the son, who touchingly records audio cassette tapes to take to his mother, is also being drawn into the drug world himself.
Lolita Davidovich stars in "Parole Board," the second story by director Joan Micklin Silver ("Crossing Delancey"). She is a woman jailed years earlier for murdering her abusive husband, who soon will be up for parole.
She has learned to survive comfortably in prison and, like many long-timers, has mixed feelings about reentering the outside world. In the meantime, however, the daughter she was pregnant with at the time of her crime, now a teen-ager, is becoming rebellious and troubled.
Davidovich, who played Baltimore's most famous stripper in "Blaze," is captivating here.
In the final story, "New Chicks," Rae Dawn Chong stars as a street-tough girl who learns she is pregnant only after being imprisoned on a felony conviction. Her accomplice in the crime (Annabella Sciorra), doing time in the same prison, has a son on the outside.
Yet Chong falls under the influence of a tough inmate gang leader and must decide what to do about her unborn child.