“He’s going to say whatever it takes to look better.”
“Everything happened so fast.” Wearing a red prison jumpsuit, Kenneth Young sits on a chair in shackles, the wall white and wide behind him, his teeth gold, his expression open. Cut to a prison gate, closing. Slowly. Cut back to Young’s face, close-up. He shakes his head. “They was like, ‘Mr. Young, you know, you’re not going home, you’re going to die in prison.” He was “in denial”, he says. “It’s just like one day I’m 15 years old, I’m in society. Then, the next day, I’m not and you’re telling me I’m gonna never go home? That’s kind of like, hard to deal with. And I couldn’t grab the concept of that.”
And with that, 15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story sets up its central question: how does a child grasp the concept of time? Some ten years ago, a 14-year-old Young was living in Florida. His mother was a crack addict and he’d been out of school since he was 11, when his then 15-year-old sister needed him to look after her baby while she worked.
He’s in prison now, serving four consecutive life sentences, because he participated in four armed robberies in Tampa and in Georgia, along with Jacques Bethea, a drug dealer ten years his senior, his mother’s dealer. Young — who was tried as an adult — is one of 200 Florida prisoners sentenced to life when they were children.
All these numbers come to light in 15 to Life in the context of some others. In 2010, US Supreme Court ruled in Graham v. Florida that life sentences for juveniles convicted of crimes other than murder were unconstitutional, a ruling that means 77 prisoners are now eligible for early release. (The film, which airs and streams this month on PBS, underlines that the US is the only country in the world that sentences juveniles to life without parole.) As the documentary opens, Young’s attorney Paolo Annino, head of Florida State University’s Children in Prison Project and co-director of the Public Interest Law Center in Tallahassee, is working to have Young resentenced.
The film suggests that Young’s case is complicated by the fact that it’s over a decade old and by Florida’s ugly history regarding black men, in particular, a pattern of fear and punishment that extends into today’s penal system. Quite appallingly, it turns out to be complicated even by what he’s done right during his incarceration, when the judge hearing his case assesses that his good behavior and his educational achievements only go to show that his imprisonment has been appropriate.
15 to Life offers a series of counterarguments, beginning with the explanation that Young has earned his high school degree with no help from the state. Retired warden Ron McAndrew — who testifies on Young’s behalf — asserts that “Nobody’s handed him a thing. Because of the length of his sentence, [the state] won’t give him a GED program. They won’t give him any education because they feel it’s a waste.”
McAndrew appears on the stand and then in an interview, earnest and frustrated in each instance. As he concludes, “Why should you waste this educational effort on someone who’s gonna be in prison the rest of their life?”, the film cuts to a fountain outside the courthouse, sculpted dolphins glimmering in the sunlight. This, you surmise, is where the money does go.
Next to such a splashy celebration of power and authority, Young’s accomplishment becomes both less visible and more impressive when you consider where he started. Apart from dropping out of school at age 11, he arrived in prison without a record prior to the robberies with Bethea, and with all kinds of fears of his own — based on his limited, difficult experiences as a child.
Two victims of the robberies speak to the trauma they suffered, one grateful to Young for stopping Bethea from assaulting her, and one insisting, “As much as I know that he wants to be released, I’m not ready to have him walking around where I live. And I’m not moving.”
As valid as their experiences surely are, they’re not the only victims, says Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. Young’s life as a victim has been brutal. “If you’re sympathetic to victims of crime as I am,” he says, “There’s no population more deserving of our help than the kids sentenced to die in prison for crimes they’ve committed. If you look at that population, they’ll be some of the most victimized people. These are the kids who’ve suffered physical abuse and sexual abuse and neglect and torture and mistreatment and poverty and malnourishment and all kinds of mental health problems with no help and medical problems with no help. And no one’s done anything.”
It’s a convincing argument. While it’s easy to call children predators, to be afraid of them or judge them by what the look like or what they wear, it’s imperative to look at how they come to embody such fears. It’s imperative to think through the many steps of responsibility, the many choices made or unmade by adults who might have shaped the children’s environments. It’s imperative to consider the time that it takes to make a child, and then an adult, the time that seems so incomprehensible as it stretches before and behind you.