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Tuesday, August 4, 2015

‘Toe Tag Parole' Some Juveniles Will Never Get Out!

Subject: [CaliforniaPrisonNews] ThinkProgress: Interviews the Award winning film makers of :Toe Tag Parole
‘Toe Tag Parole': What It’s Like To Live In Jail When You Know You Are Never Getting Out“It’s not better than
the death sentence because it is the death sentence,” said Kenneth Hartman, a maximum-security inmate
serving life without parole. “The outcome of the death penalty is death — it’s never being free again.”
So begins Toe Tag Parole: To Live And Die On Yard A, a new HBO documentary about 600 men who are
sentenced to life without parole and participate in an innovative rehabilitation program created by the

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) in 2000. The film dives into the sentencing of
children to life without parole, who have to confront the ‘other death penalty.’ It follows Wilber Morales, who

received three life sentences plus five years at age 16 for a murder conviction and currently lives in a single cell

while he adjusts to prison culture. Viewers also meet Daniel Whitlow, who was locked up when he was 17 for a

murder conviction.
Although a 2012 Supreme Court ruling says that juveniles can no longer receive mandatory minimum

sentences with no chance of parole, the ruling was not retroactive. So thousands of inmates who were

sentenced as juveniles are still serving life sentences. As of early 2012, there were 301 juvenile “lifers” in California.
Edgar Gomez is one such lifer who was convicted at age 14. One day, while he was hanging out with a group of
friends, a member of the group shot and killed someone with a gang affiliation. Gomez did not pull the trigger, but because he was present during the killing, he was convicted of second degree murder. He was 22-years-old
when the documentary was filmed.
“You can’t help but to think about the decisions that you made in the past and this is what it’s costing you
now. Every day that I’m in my cell I have to live with that — what I could have done. What if that wouldn’t
have happened?” Gomez explains in the film. “You can let that destroy you and let all those thoughts
accumulate in yourself and just go wild like many of the prisoners have done….Why should you just give up on
a 14-year-old because he committed a horrifying crime?”
But the documentary also explores the unique facility where 600 lifers strive to turn their lives around. In the Progressive Programming Facility, also known as Yard A or the Honor Yard, inmates (including those sentenced as juveniles) are completely committed to “breaking the code of violence dominating prison life.” And as a
result, they have unique access to rehabilitative resources, such as anger management, art and music therapy, and peer group discussions. Prospective residents must have a clean behavior record and adhere to strict
requirements: random drug testing, racial integration, participation in a rehabilitative activity, and no gang
ThinkProgress talked to Toe Tag Parole filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymonds about making their third prison
film for HBO and fifth criminal justice documentary.
How was this specific prison chosen?
Susan: When we read there a was huge increase in life sentences (1 in 9 prisoners), we started to research the subject. We discovered this yard at the CDCR and that California has the highest number of inmates serving
life (1 in 5). They had to do something with this huge population and so they devised this yard in 2000. We
thought for our purposes it was going to give us great access to men doing life. We shoot in video verite style, so we wanted to have access to as many lifers as possible, in a setting that was going to allow us to walk around and shoot. Alan: It gets into the whole philosophical human rights scenario. If you’re going to
condemn people to die in prison — life without the possibility of parole, the so-called other death penalty —

maybe you should think about how you should treat them and create yards where they can have a better life

than just warehousing them. The sentence is so extreme that we thought this yard would be an interesting

lens into America’s policy of extreme sentencing.
How were the inmates chosen?
Alan: The warden recommended (Hartman and) a couple others, but it was things we just happened upon.

Susan: We were interested in the juveniles who were sentenced to life without. Morales had just arrived so

that was a major coincidence. Alan: The whole juvenile life without parole is another subset of the story and

would make a good interview subject because Morales was just taking it all in. He had that great line about

the nightmare that doesn’t end. Edgar Gomez was just at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Edgar Gomez’s story also struck a chord with me.
Susan: That’s the nature of felony crimes. I don’t think the public understands the severity of the sentencing.

Alan: At 14 he’s clearly unable to stop what was going on. I think the whole thing of giving sentences, which

essentially means you’re going to spend your life in prison, to such young people is really a horrific miscarriage

of justice. All studies suggest that young men under the age of 18 are not able to always make the best

decision in difficult circumstances. Their brains aren’t fully formed. As they mature up to around age 25, when they become fully aware of things as their brain develops, they’re different people.
In general, how did the inmates perceive you?
Alan: Usually people think [inmates are] the ones that would create the problems when you film. But because

it’s such a closed out society, I think when they see filmmakers like us there — and also see that we’re not just there for an afternoon — I think they actually like it. They think that there’s some hope that we’ll bring some

news to the outside world of their plight. On this particular filming, we had no problems with the inmates. We had people lined up around the block wanting to be in the film.
How did you build their trust?
Susan: We had the ability to win over some guarded people. We were very happy to get into the veterans’
support group, and that took a couple of days for all the men to agree to let us film. That takes time, but you ask politely and they think about it. Alan: We do cinema verite documentaries — observational films. You
hope they let you film them in a natural, spontaneous way. Susan: That’s the value of showing up multiples
Did you hear common themes or concerns, particularly among those sentenced as juveniles?
Susan: Well their complaints are about harsh sentences. One of the overriding themes that we found was they

believe life without is very cruel and at least should be known as the other death penalty. Alan: I think the

younger inmates on this yard are not subject to bullying or sexual advances that are common in other prison yards. I think they mainly were terminally depressed. California leads the nation in the inmate suicide rate.

When you get the life without parole sentence, (it can) make or break you — to get up every day and know
that nothing you do will ever make any difference on your getting out. We should also say the prison does not make it easy to visit.
In the documentary, viewers don’t hear the questions that inmates are answering. Why’d you go with that
Alan: Normally when we do interviews, the idea is to get people to talk and eliminate ourselves. We’re not
there as correspondents or personalities. We try to be as low key as possible. In the editing process, we try to take our questions out Susan: We want it to seem like it’s flowing like a conversation so that you are
experiencing it. We think it makes it a more personal film if you get to be up close and personal with this
person instead of filtered through us.
Did you encounter any challenges while filming?
Susan: Access to the prison was difficult but we persisted. Alan: California had shut down all filming in their prisons several years before we approached them. What they do is do it on a case-by-case basis. We were successful in convincing them to let us in because we were doing a good representation, and also we’re

Academy Award-winning filmmakers. Once we got in, it wasn’t easy because we had to work with a press
person from the CDCR and she had never worked on a documentary film. The prison is located in the Mojave

Desert so many days we were filming we had 100 degree temperatures. It was a hard location to film in.
My final question for you is: why did you choose to make a documentary on criminal justice?
Susan: You’re shining a light on a forgotten, secret world that America doesn’t know about. If we are going to have any reform of the criminal justice system, we have to shed some light on these places.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can watch Toe Tag Parole on August 3 on HBO.

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