This documentary looks at the knotty effects of life without parole at Yard A, an experimental program at the maximum-security California State Prison in the Mojave Desert.
"We're not perfect guys, we're bad guys. That's why we came to prison in the first place." Ken Hartman has been in prison for 36 years, sentenced to life without parole. A mug shot shows him then, his head cocked back, his jaw set. "I was just out of control, there's no other way to put it. I would not want to hang around with the me that was eighteen years old now."
Then, Hartman explains in Toe Tag Parole: To Live and Die on Yard A, he didn't understand his own anger and pain or their consequences. "A sense of long time is not very well developed in young men, I don't think," Hartman observes, his mustache now white and neat, his head bald and his eyes soft. "At the ten years mark," he remembers, "It started to dawn on me what I had actually done," namely, "I beat a guy to death while I was drunk."
The consequences of what Hartman "had actually done" form the focus of Alan and Susan Raymond's film, premiering this week on HBO. The film interviews men serving sentences of life without parole in an experimental program called Yard A, at the maximum-security California State Prison in the Mojave Desert. Lt. Charles Hughes describes Yard A this way: "When they come over to this facility, they've all agreed to basically stop the politics." The "politics" is how inmates organize by race and define themselves by violence. Here, Hughes says, "They've all said, 'Look, I'm tired of that.' They want to paint, they want to take college courses, they want to better theirself in anger management classes."
It's a change for all of them. Most prisoners have come up in the system, whether they've been in and out of prison or juvenile incarceration, whether they've survived by gang affiliations or by enlisting in the military: they've always lived with violence. "Could it happen? Absolutely it could happen," Hughes cautions. "It's prison."
Prison is the overwhelming, abiding system, inside or outside facility walls. It shapes all experiences in Toe Tag Parole, as interviewees describe their histories and, inevitably, their regrets. Their perspectives are all different. One war veteran says he didn't even know what PTSD was until he was ten years into his prison sentence ("I came back very damaged," he admits to the veterans truth-telling group at Yard A, "I didn't go over there to fight women and kids").
Wilber Morales is just 18, sentenced to three life terms, and just arrived in prison for the first time. He means to educate himself, he says, standing in the six by eight foot cell that will be his home for the rest of his life. "I advise everybody," he says, "Young people out there, really think about stuff before you do it. All of this is a nightmare that doesn't end, you don't wake up from it."
But you might come to terms. This is the story repeated by Yard A inmates. Many men remain angry, remain "political", but Yard A inmates see and make other choices; they share their experiences, they communicate their doubts, they think about justice.
The question of justice is complicated, as the film makes clear. What constitutes a just punishment? What does it mean, and for whom, to imprison an 18-year-old for life? (Or a 14-year-old? Edgar Gomez was 14 when he was convicted, then lived in juvenile until he was 18 and moved to adult prison.) "It's amazing the sentences they hand out to people. They just throw the key away," says former soldier Richard Fontes, sentenced to life without parole plus five years, "they just consider this person is unredeemable."
Such sentencing leaves prisoners without a "window", says Chris Mann, interviewed in front of his paintings, including a dour monk behind bars and a portrait of Heath Ledger as the Joker. On the day he was sentenced, he says he didn't care whether he lived or died. "I could kill 20 people from that point on. What are you gonna do? Can't do nothing. All you can do is kill me and you've already done that."
Another painter, muralist Harlan King, makes the case for hope despite what he calls his sentence with a "toe tag parole" (where "we're put on our slab and sent back to wherever"). King speaks while standing in front of a wall mural he's painting with mountains and trees and snow. "You never give up hope," he says, "One of the reasons why I paint is because I still have hope. It's all we have in here is hope."
Hope and lack of hope shapes other experiences, too. Ken Hartman, in prison for 36 of 54 years, met his wife by phone when he was inside and she was working in a lawyer's office. He's grateful for that relationship remains, and especially for their daughter, Alia. In turn, she describes her father as "the best dad", and rejects the stereotype that everyone in prison is "a bad person". Wearing a pert red suit and a delicate gold necklace, she observes, "I'll always be tied to the prison system for sure. I mean, I was conceived in a prison, that right there is a lifelong bond, I guess."
Alia's bond means she carries a weight ("My greatest fear isn’t even like him being there forever, it's like me going on and forgetting about him"), and also that she thinks about how the system shapes so many lives. "There's a point, I think, where justice stops and revenge begins. You know, like, let's just lock them up forever because they've hurt us and we've got to hurt them back as bad." Her voice cracks as she presses on, poised and thoughtful, as you see that such an equation can never make anything right.