The movement to reform sentencing laws in the United States landed on the public radar in a big way earlier this month when President Barack Obama paid a visit to an Oklahoma prison and argued that non-violent drug offenders should not receive excessively lengthy prison terms.
As U.S. legislators examine the financial and moral costs of excessive sentencing, a documentary airing on HBO this weekend is weighing into the debate by giving a face and voice to prisoners serving life without the possibility of parole.
Directed by Oscar-winning filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond (I Am a Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School), Toe Tag Parole: To Live and Die on Yard A (pictured) takes viewers inside California State Prison’s Progressive Programming Facility – or what the inmates refer to as the Honor Yard.
The yard is an experimental space within the maximum-security prison that is home to 600 inmates serving life without parole. The idea for the yard was initiated 15 years ago by lifers who wanted to find ways to improve their lives in prison. Today, it is unique among American prisons as a space intended to be free of violence, racial segregation, gangs and alcohol and drug use. Prisoners are able to get an education, attend religious services and take art and music therapy courses.
After the Raymonds pitched the project to HBO, which took it on as an original production, they proceeded to visit prisons around the U.S. to find a single location that would lend itself to their vérité approach to documentary.
“It’s just a little more relaxed. It’s still a highly secure situation with lots of towers and guns and things,” Susan Raymond tells realscreen. “But [in] the peer group sessions, the men talk to one another and all of a sudden you’re reaching an enormous population of people who are articulate and comfortable talking in groups. That doesn’t happen in other prisons for life without parole prisoners because they say, ‘Why spend the money on them? They’re never going to return to society.’”
For that reason, the prisoners in the film argue that life without parole is tantamount to a death sentence. According to American sentencing advocacy group The Sentencing Project, the U.S. now has the highest number of inmates serving life sentences in its history, with one in nine prisoners serving life without the possibility of parole.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole were unconstitutional for juvenile offenders, but those previously convicted still have to serve out their sentences in certain states. A year later the European Court of Human Rights ruled that denying prisoners a sense of hope was inhuman and degrading and thus in violation of the European convention on human rights.
“Most of the characters in our film are people who’ve committed the crime of murder,” says Alan Raymond. “How sympathetic people will be to them? I don’t know. We tried to present their stories in a way that people could understand.”
While he maintains the doc-makers are “not advocating that everybody be let out of prison,” he also points towards studies that “have shown that keeping people in prison forever is not helping crime rates or serving any useful purpose.”
Getting access to California State Prison was tricky. Correctional authorities had banned filmmakers from filming within state prison facilities, so the Raymonds entered into lengthy discussions in which they outlined the nature of the project, explained that they would be showing a ‘positive’ side of prison life and name-checked their Oscar win.
Once they were granted permission, the filming process was heavily restricted. Although the associate warden who appears on camera was cooperative, the directors were assigned a minder from Sacramento who sometimes cut short scheduled shoots at a moment’s notice, and day-to-day access was not guaranteed. The process also required criminal background checks prior to each visit.
Moreover, the prison is located in the Mojave Desert where temperatures can climb to 100-degrees Fahrenheit.
“The actual filming experience was stressful,” explains Susan. “You have a day. You shoot the whole day and you try to plan things that may or may not fit somebody’s schedule. You just keep rolling and hope they let you in another day.”
“Prison is one of the areas of American society where you could say the access issue is a pretty formidable one,” adds Alan.
Despite the unpredictable nature of the shoot, the filmmakers managed to tick a few things off their wish list. For example, they wanted to interview a prisoner who was sentenced to life without parole as a juvenile and were able to land an interview with Wilbur Morales (seen in the exclusive clip below), an 18-year-old serving three consecutive life sentences on kidnapping and robbery charges.
“All of this is a nightmare that doesn’t end,” he tells the camera. “You don’t wake up from it.”
Other interviewees include a former military officer who was jailed for murder and now participates in group therapy for former veterans; a 22-year-old who was tried as an adult at age 14 for second-degree murder; and a man sentenced in a capital murder case who has spent 20 years behind bars and now creates paintings that are auctioned off for charity.
The Raymonds and HBO are doing a small amount of social impact work around the film to help raise awareness for the issue. They have reached out to organizations such as The Sentencing Project and Human Rights Watch, and hope the doc will force Americans to think more deeply about the moral and financial costs associated with life without parole sentences, which will become thornier as the prison population ages.
“America has difficulties with redemption,” says Susan Raymond. “The question is, do you think people can change? That’s a really moral question. What you see in this group of men is they can come to terms with their crime and the damage that they’ve done and they can change. Another line our president said is, ‘Justice and redemption go hand in hand.’”
- The HBO documentary Toe Tag Parole: To Live and Die on Yard A will debut on Monday, August 3 at 9 p.m. EST/PST.
Clip courtesy of HBO.