New Documentary Explores People Sentenced to Life in Prison as Teens

May 23rd 2015

When Efren Paredes Jr. was 15, the grocery store where he worked was robbed and the manager was murdered. Paredes and his family claim that Paredes was at home at the time of the robbery, yet Paredes was convicted based on witness testimony.

He has been in prison for the last 26 years and will remain there until he dies.

Paredes is one of 2,500 prisoners currently serving life sentences for crimes they committed as youth, a sentence referred to as Juvenile Life Without Parole (JLWOP). The diminished decision-making capacity possessed by teenagers and the often-difficult upbringings of these individuals were not enough to mitigate a life sentence.

Tirtza Even, a documentary filmmaker, chronicles the story of Paredes and four other individuals sentenced to JLWOP in Natural Life, a three part project that includes a single-channel video, an installation, and online archives. Natural Life will be screened at DocFest in San Francisco in June.

Even and the Natural Life team chose to focus their project on Michigan, which included filming recreated scenes in an abandoned Michigan prison, one of five states, in addition to California, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Florida, that account for two-thirds of JLWOP in the United States. According to the Natural Life team, “Under Michigan law, for certain crimes, a youth between 14 and 16 is automatically waived to adult court and with no judicial review is convicted and sentenced to mandatory Life Without Parole. “

A series of Supreme Court rulings in the past decade have amended the sentences that can be imposed on youth. In 2005, Roper v. Simmons abolished the death penalty for children under age 18. In 2010, Graham v. Florida mandated that the JLWOP was unconstitutional for non-homicide offenses. Finally, in 2012, Miller v. Alabama said that mandatory JLWOP sentences were unconstitutional, yet each state has been left to decide if it will apply this ruling retroactively to the 2,500 prisoners serving JLWOP.

The JLWOP prisoners are disproportionately people of color. All were convicted for crimes they committed before the could legally vote or purchase alcohol. According to data from state prison systems in 2011/2012, 1,409 of 2,319 Juvenile Life Without Parole prisoners are black, while 626 are white. (data is missing for 219 of these prisoners) Twelve of these prisoners were age 13 when their crimes were committed, 77 were age 14, 305 were age 15, 804 were age 16, and 1149 were age 17 (data is missing for 197 of these prisoners).

I spoke with Even via email about her experience creating the film and the dire need for systematic reform.

Is there an anecdote or statistic you discovered while working on Natural Life that was especially shocking?

What I witnessed confirmed too well what I expected: the most immediate victims of the JLWOP sentencing were often kids from abusive homes, where poverty -- economic, emotional and cultural -- prevented them from receiving the kind of care that would have buffered them from the implications of extreme actions and where there was no positive, productive, behavioral model they could emulate.

Do you envision a particular path to reform for the justice system and especially for the treatment of juveniles? What do you think that should look like?

With regards, specifically, to the Juvenile Life Without Parole (JLWOP) sentencing, my hope is that the sentence would be taken off the table entirely, and that those 2,500 kids already sentenced to JLWOP would be given not only a re-sentencing, but a sentence including parole opportunity, whereby they will be examined for change and growth frequently and regularly. I also would call for a re-examination of the very possibility many states endorse of charging and sentencing youths as adults. They are not adults. They are kids. They are ethically not yet fully formed and behaviorally not fully developed, and are susceptible to pressures that adults are more immune to. We should consider their potential growth and change and apply a charging/sentencing structure that takes those into account.

You wrote on Natural Life's website, "I want to have the work suggest the very same resistance to analysis that draws me to the documented scene in the first place." Can you elaborate on this?

Choosing to work in documentary format, for me, guarantees the promise of the magic of the unpredictable gesture, story, person, composition. I can prepare a script; research and analyze an issue in depth, but when I go on-site and meet the people I engage with, or enter the landscapes (social, political) I chose to depict, their idiosyncrasies resist and undo my preconceptions in wonderful and fresh ways.

While working on Natural Life, did you encounter race-based inequalities in the way the court or prison system treated defendants or inmates?

Definitely. The majority of those who are sentenced as juveniles to life without parole are of color. There is overwhelming research that points to this new form of silent segregation that the legal system endorses and generates.

What were the most striking effects that the life-long incarceration of these individuals has had on their families and communities?

The effect is devastating and ongoing. The incarceration of these youths impacts their families economically and isolates them socially. In situations where color is playing a role, it further segregates and divides the communities the kids come from. And the grieving never ends. It is a bitter loss that is felt and negotiated daily.

Can you explain how and why you were inspired to create Natural Life?

During the period of 2008-2010 I was working with Justin Gibson, a young man locked for life in the Michigan prisons since age 15. We were working on a 3D animation/experimental video project entitled "All Day," which we conceived and executed collaboratively. Towards the end of the process I needed to move to Chicago for a teaching job at the School of the Art Institute. At that point, I decided to create a more mainstream documentary that would address the issue of juvenile life sentencing directly. I contacted Deb LaBelle, a civil rights lawyer who is representing the 350 youth sentenced to life without parole in Michigan alone, and with her support -- both logistically and financially -- began working on the project.

How did you choose the format for this project?

The format for the project evolved over time. At this point, it consists of three iterations: a single channel version (77 minutes in length), an installation version -- made in collaboration with Ivan Martinez, and an interactive online archive to be launched later this month.

I initially intended to work on the single channel version only. Very early in the process, though, I was asked by the Sullivan Gallery, a gallery associated with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, to display a work in progress portion of the piece for a show revolving around the topic of incarceration. That was when the first iteration of the installation was born, as well as the split screen format. The film was projected, folded, into a corner. The viewers were seated on a bench across from the corner, that way outlining a square the size of a prison cell. I kept the split screen as a formal device in the single channel piece as well from that point on. It enabled me to address one of the main points of the film: difference. The voices are always interpreted through more than one view: older and younger, black and white, victim and perpetrator, police and convict, inside prison and outside it. The meaning of each of the two sides of the screen, however, mutates and alters. Difference is the only constant. The project’s aim is to depict change as inevitable and difference as structural, and in that way, challenge the underlying presumption of permanence and sameness that the sentence of life without parole for juveniles claims and imposes.

The last iteration of the project -- its interactive online archive, was born much later in the process in order to accommodate the mass of valuable footage I accumulated in the process of making the film. I conducted close to 50 hours of interviews and very little of that material ended up included in the edited version. The archive will allow people to navigate the stories in more depth and with minimal editorial intervention.

If you’d like to send your representative a letter advocating for reform, the Natural Life team has provided a template that can be amended for a particular state.

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