When federal law enforcement authorities came to Cindy Shank’s Lansing, Michigan, home one early morning in 2007, it was a knock on the door she said she’d long dreaded. Six years earlier, her then-boyfriend had been involved with illicit drugs, and she had been questioned about criminal activity in the house they shared. Her boyfriend had since died, and police did not pursue the case against her.
Now, Shank was married to someone else and living a perfectly middle-class life, of jobs and family as the mother of two girls with a third on the way. Regardless, in short order she was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison—with very little hope of early release—not long after her youngest daughter’s birth.
Shank’s incarceration not only altered her life, but that of her family, including her husband, parents, the three little girls who would grow up without her, and her brother, Rudy Valdez, a teacher whose initial plan to shoot home video of his nieces to send to Shank transformed him into a documentary filmmaker and prison reform activist.
Valdez says he doesn’t contest the arrest or guilty verdict. But he vehemently opposes mandatory minimums, a leftover from the War on Drugs of the 1980s that’s resulted in countless separated families, even for those imprisoned for nonviolent crimes or on accessory charges.
The Marshall Project’s Robin Washington spoke with Valdez after a screening of his film during the recent Smart on Crime Innovations Conference at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. The HBO documentary film “The Sentence” debuts Oct.15 on HBO.
Q: You started shooting the day after she was sentenced.
A: Yeah. The next day we were at their house, and the girls were all sitting on the couch. Autumn (the eldest) was holding Annalise, who was 6 weeks old at the time. I just picked up the camera and started filming. My gut told me that I needed to start documenting.
I was living in New York at the time, and I would fly back whenever I could. Her oldest daughter was having a dance recital. I knew Cindy really wanted to go to this dance recital. I was filming her oldest daughter getting ready for the recital, and completely unexpectedly, completely organically, Cindy calls. I continued filming, and she says to Autumn, “Do you know what Mommy’s going to do while you go to dance? I’m going to lay down in my bed, I'm going to close my eyes, and I’m going to think about you.” That is the precise moment that this became a documentary.
Q: What were you doing professionally? You weren’t making films.
A: I was a teacher. I taught pre-K and Kindergarten. And I was also an actor and a writer. This husband and wife production team from the school that I was teaching at allowed me to come and (be a production assistant) and intern for them. So the style of this movie is—I don’t want to say all over the place, but it grows with me. I literally bought “Filmmaking for Dummies”!
Q: Tell me about the girls. Were there times that you picked up the camera and they said no?
A: No, it was this trust factor that I had with them. They knew I was Uncle Rudy and that I was there to care for them and love them and tell their story.
When I was filming my father, he breaks down crying. I wanted nothing more at the time than to put down the camera and say, “We’re going to be OK,” and just hold him, just hug him. And I didn’t. Something inside me said “hold your shot.”
Q: You call this an apolitical film.
A: Yeah, I call it an apolitical film because I don’t really go into the politics of any of this—who wrote these laws, who has perpetuated these laws, who has fought against these laws. Because I can’t win anything by going back and placing blame on anybody. And so I didn’t want to alienate anybody who possibly could help fix this problem.
Q: What are your plans to use it as advocacy? You already showed it to some senators.
A: Yeah, we took it to Capitol Hill. We showed it to senators. But one of my big goals is to take it to law schools, take it to future lawyers, future judges, the people who are going to be enforcing these laws and these sentences in the future and allow them to see the compassion that needs to go into what they’re doing.
Q: Other than minimums, what specific areas are you targeting in reform?
A: My focus is on sentencing and sentencing reform. I think if I were to branch out in anything else it would be the prison-industrial complex. That was something that (the film touched on.)
Q: The phone calls.
A: Yeah, the price of phone calls, The markup of commissary items. The general cost of having a loved one in prison. From there I could go on about the difficulty of having somebody five states away from their family. It’s devastating. When my sister was moved to Florida and her kids were in Michigan, they got to see her once a year. That’s cruel and unusual punishment. When we look at all the things that you are fighting for to reduce recidivism, it’s plain to see the things that help reduce recidivism are connections to family, connections to community and just general family connections over all.
Q: What do you want people to come away with? Not feel—they’re going to cry—what do you want them to do?
A: I think there’s certainly a call to action with this film, but it’s almost a personal call to action. Again, it’s not a political film. I don’t say, “You need to go and do this, this is what’s going to solve this.” I don’t think that that is going to work with this particular story.
I think that this is a hearts-and-mind revolution that has to happen. This is a cultural shift that has to happen in this country. And I hope that this is going to be able to play a small part in this stigma shift that we have with incarcerated people and the families of incarcerated people. They’re not the ones that need to be ashamed of themselves. The system that has created all this needs to be ashamed of itself, and we need to fix that. We can no longer sit around and allow people to make millions and billions on the backs of poor, disenfranchised, mostly brown and black people. That is insane. This War on Drugs has failed.