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Juvenile Life Without Parole, Captured in ‘Natural Life’

Juvenile Life Without Parole (JLWOP) will one day hopefully be as obsolete as pillories, bilboes, brands and branks. Until then, the United States remains the only country in the world that allows children, some as young as 13, to be incarcerated until death without hope of parole. Stepping into this ongoing calamity is Natural Life, Tirtza Even’s 2014 experimental video documentary that aired at the 2016 Currents New Media Festival. The documentary aims to hasten the day when juvenile life without parole will be universally banned.

Natural Life is Even’s third video project on youth incarceration. When she launched her Kickstarter campaign to finance post-production of Natural Life, she wrote that “41 states in the U.S. elect to enforce a sentence of life without parole on youth under the age of 18.”  Now, 17 states have banned JLWOP, and five states ban life without parole for children in most cases. Even’s film focuses on Michigan, the state that has approximately 368 JLWOP prisoners, a number exceeded only by Pennsylvania, according to a January 2016 article in Mother Jones.

Even’s feature-length video depicts the lives of five juvenile prisoners, and affords them opportunity to tell something of their dehumanizing experiences as they age through the prison system. In one prisoner’s words, she entered prison “wearing a training bra” and is now “menopausal.” Another yearns for a son “to protect and love. And to love me.” But JLWOP mutes their biological clocks, reducing their urges to motherhood to a dream not only deferred, but denied.

Natural Life tells the worst possible story about the U.S. justice system and American justice in a way that is not only affecting but generative. Even’s main visual editing device is the split screen in which juxtapositions are used cinematically. Yet Natural Life’s aesthetic strategies resist the commonplace presentation of talking heads taking turns with their narration as if on a witness stand. Instead of just a cavalcade of lawyers, police officers, bureaucrats, prisoners’ family members, and victims’ families, the pairings offer context, contrast, relief, respite, reinforcement. They underscore the humanity of the film’s subjects as people who are confined all the time.

The documentary’s panoply of imagery transmits through the watcher’s senses. Images of leaves as ubiquitous nature transact with fences and gates as ubiquitous prison-life anomalies. Through repetition, the slot where food is passed to prisoners in solitary confinement is not just an aperture into a view of a cage, but a portal to compassion for the prisoner loneliness and deprivation the gesture underlines.

At the start of the film an animal tethered to a rope appears next to a view of a groomed horse loping into a barn. The rider who dismounts expertly is the twin sister of a brother who was murdered. An unlocked door swings open and shut in wind. The victim’s sister tells of the poverty and dysfunction with which her young life was saddled, before her twin’s murder made her burden even heavier.

Even considers scale and proportion in her storytelling that also advances her protest against this horrendous form of imprisonment for juvenile offenders that manifested in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s with the rise of the myth of the “super-predator” advanced by some criminologists, and described by Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative in his book Just Mercy. From page 159:

Sometimes expressly focusing on black and brown children, theorists suggested that America would soon be overcome by “elementary school youngsters who pack guns instead of lunches” and “who have absolutely no respect for human life.” Panic from the impending crime wave expected from these “radically impulsive, brutally remorseless children” led almost every state to enact legislation that increased the exposure of children to adult prosecution.

No cohort of “super-predators” ever manifested, and the myth has been thoroughly debunked.

But the “exposure” came in the form of state laws that weakened the threshold for transfer from juvenile court to adult court, the unintended consequences of which were addressed by US Supreme Court Justice Kennedy in Graham v. Florida in 2010, a case that decided JLWOP could not be imposed for non-homicide offenses.

…the fact that transfer and direct charging laws make life without parole possible for some juvenile nonhomicide offenders does not justify a judgment that many States intended to subject such offenders to life without parole sentences. –GRAHAM v. FLORIDA Opinion of the Court, p.16

In Natural Life, three of the five prisoners whose stories Even reveals were stooges of adults they hoped to please or placate. One boy gave his mother keys to his father’s apartment; the boy’s mother used the keys to enter and kill the boy’s father. On what scale can a sentence of the child to JLWOP be weighed as just?

Even is a skilled colorist of mood and themes. There is a moment where a lawyer weeps for his client whom the Michigan Department of Corrections has provided with no rehabilitation services, even as she has been repeatedly sexually assaulted and abused in prison. His shirt and tie are the same hue of blue as the unoccupied plastic bucket seats in the split screen; there’s a sense that these seats are not just empty, but abandoned.

Even chooses interesting, unexpected framing devices. She’ll shoot scenes through a tire swing or a grate. A multiplicity of perspectives both in and outside of prison are constant undercurrents of her visual scene-making. An ingenious original score by Oded Zehavi seems often to be asking: How long must we wait for a righting of such profound systemic injustice? As the credits rolled, the electronic chords sounded like eerie cries from outer space—austere and alienating.

Artistically, Even was handed a set of constraints that fostered the creativity of the telling. The Michigan Department of Corrections would not allow on-camera interviews with the prisoners, only their voices could be recorded as they spoke to her on the telephone.

Even located an abandoned prison in Jackson, MI, and used that interior as a film set for staged illustrations by young people acting out various tableaux of imprisonment—pacing, sleeping, tracing their fingers over walls, playing solitaire. They seem to be holding a place in our imaginations for the actual prisoners whose faces cannot even be recorded under the prison system’s strictures and censures.

While one actual prisoner describes in voice an opportunistic gang rape of a juvenile during an electrical outage when the prison was suddenly plunged into darkness, the half-screen is visually completely blacked out. His words read as white subtitles scrolling across the bottom of the frame. The actor in the split screen is bouncing his foot in an agitated way.

There’s no reenactment of the violation being narrated by voice. The agitated and anxiety-provoking movement conjures the violence of the assault.

As a viewing experience, letting the surfaces, colors and actions wash over one’s consciousness becomes an enjoyable mental exercise, or game, that counterbalances the relentless heaviness of the topic. I left the theater curiously energized by the film’s artistic excellence. Even’s documentary has expressed her deepest hope of her director’s statement:

“My hope 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.”

Her hopeful challenge may be catching on.

“In the last four years the number of states banning JLWOP has more than tripled,” said Jody Kent Lavy, Executive Director of Fair Sentencing for Youth. “We’ve seen broad bi-partisan support of these reforms to ban the use of it as a penalty for children under 18 years-old. Whether coming at it from the right from the perspective of the need for redemption and second chances, or from the perspective of racial justice and human rights on the left, we agree that we have gone too far, that it’s too extreme, and that there’s really a need to revisit this approach and scale back these extreme sentences.”

Even’s current project continues her thematic preoccupation with issues of mass incarceration and long-term injustice.

It was a curious other factor of the post-viewing experience that I started thinking of actions I might take to help bring greater awareness to Natural Life and to the plight of the estimated 2,500 prisoners in the US subjected to the cruel and unusual punishment of JLWOP. I reached out to Efrén Paredes Jr. through a Facebook page dedicated to clemency for him.

Paredes Jr. is one of the five prisoners featured in ‘Natural Life’, and was also recently named in Latina Magazine as one of four Latinos deserving clemency right now. Please visit this link for my interview with him.

This column originally appeared on Adobe Airstream.

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Frances Madeson is the author of the comic novel Cooperative Village (Carol MRP Co., New York, 2007), and a social justice blogger at Written Word, Spoken Word.

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