Funded! This project was successfully funded on April 30, 2012.

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Natural Life challenges inequities in the justice system by depicting stories of 6 juveniles sentenced to Life Without Parole.

What is this project about?

Natural Life challenges inequities in the juvenile justice system by depicting the stories of six individuals sentenced to die in prison since youth.

Why should you contribute to this campaign?

Natural Life is currently at its post production stage. Dozens of hours of footage -- close to fifty interviews as well as reenactment scenes in and out of prison (generating images such as those posted here) -- have been shot, assembled and transcribed. We now need the last financial support to allow the piece to be completed and be ready for distribution before the end of summer 2012. $20,000 is the minimum needed to allow for all our final post production costs (editing, animation, original music and sound) to be covered.

How does Kickstarter work?

Your contributions will be rewarded immediately by having your name posted on our website and, for amounts exceeding $250, also in the body of the film. Copies of the work will be given to you upon its completion. 

The greatest reward, however, and our biggest challenge, is for us all to spread the word out about the juveniles sentenced for Life Without Parole, so that change in legislation is effected! 

If you are unable to put cash in, you can still help by sending the project URL out and making this campaign known to the widest group of people interested and invested in restoring social justice!

BE AWARE: 

KICKSTARTER CONTRIBUTIONS ARE ONLY PROCESSED IF THE FUNDING GOAL IS MET IN FULL. THERE IS NO HALF WAY.

IT IS EITHER ALL ($20,000) OR NOTHING!

We therefore chose to set only the minimum amount needed for completing the project as our target for this fundraiser. 

Why is this project so urgent and critical?

Fear of juvenile crime has in recent years violated the fundamental ideas upon which juvenile court rests, and specifically, the belief in children’s unique capacity for rehabilitation and change. State law makers and the federal government have more and more frequently opted to resort to the harsher punitive adult model, demanding that children be put on trial as if they were as culpable, liable and informed as­­ adults who commit similar crime [1].

Natural Life is a feature length experimental video documentary I am producing in conjunction with the legal efforts of The Law Offices of Deborah LaBelle (LODL). Its goal is to depict the experiences of youth who receive the most severe sentence available for convicted adults--being sentenced to die in prison (i.e. given a sentence of "natural life" or "life without parole")--against the overlapping contexts of social bias, neglect, apprehension and alienation, and through these depictions to challenge the inequities in the juvenile justice system in the United States [2].

Forty one states in the US elect to enforce a sentence of life without parole (natural life) on youth under the age of eighteen. While Michigan is one of these states (per capita, Michigan has the highest incarceration rate of Juvenile Life Without Parole sentences), its stringent scheme of mandatory punishment has resulted in this sentence--the harshest sentence inflicted on adult offenders--to be imposed on three hundred and fifty eight (358) children (nearly 15% of the total number of juveniles serving this sentence worldwide). The sentencing system for youth is especially vulnerable to a challenge where over half of the youth did not, themselves, commit a homicide, and at no point in the process was their youthful status and lesser culpability taken into account [3].

What is our angle on the issue?

Focusing on the extreme case of Michigan’s legal system, we aim to portray the ripple effect of the juvenile justice system’s imbalance on the lives not only of the incarcerated youth and the victims of their crime, but on their family members, on law enforcement and legal officials and on the community at large, through a selection of six stories of youth that were sentenced to die in prison.

For that end we have videotaped close to fifty interviews with individuals who were involved in various ways with the crime, the arrest and the sentencing of the six featured inmates the project is focused on. Among the people we have interviewed are judges, lawyers, police officers, private investigators, news reporters, wardens, youth counselors, teachers, members of families of the incarcerated youth as well as members of the victims’ families; all this alongside extensive recorded phone conversations with the inmates themselves. These interviews will be interwoven with staged, animated and documented moments from prison, from court and from the main characters’ childhood and crime scenes.

What is our ultimate goal?

The Law Offices of Deborah LaBelle have worked with coalition partners such as the Juvenile Life Without Parole Initiative on a broad effort at reforming the treatment of juveniles both in the juvenile justice and in the educational systems. Similarly, the video project's goal in conveying the impact on many lives of these youths’ incarceration is to ultimately bring to an end the juvenile life without parole sentence, and to obtain release opportunities for those currently serving this sentence.

What kind of background research did we undertake?

The Law Offices of Deborah LaBelle (LODL) began working on a Michigan juvenile life without parole project several years ago, after Deborah LaBelle received a senior Soros fellowship to address the conditions of juveniles incarcerated in adult facilities. A research and documentation project on youth serving life without parole in the United States arose out of the fellowship work, and resulted in the first report published on juvenile life without parole in the United States, Second Chances: Juveniles Serving Life Without Parole in Michigan Prisons [4].

Following the initial documentation project, a broad coalition was built in Michigan inclusive of faith based communities, juveniles serving this sentence, family members of victims, community organizations, criminal justice advocates, associations representing medical and mental health organizations, educators, law enforcement, and youth groups. The coalition worked to draft and support passage of legislation that would abolish juvenile life without parole and provide parole opportunities after 10 years for those serving the sentence [5].

LODL, with the assistance of interns from the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University, Schools of Social Work, Law and undergraduate programs, began interviewing juveniles in Michigan and collecting a detailed written database and background information on the juveniles, including life and education background, schooling status at the time the offense was committed, family circumstances, adequacy of legal representation, prior juvenile histories and conditions of confinement.

This research, in conjunction with the research conducted more specifically for the current video project, forms the basis for Natural Life. The video is produced alongside a legal effort by LODL to reform the treatment of juveniles in the criminal justice to a non-punitive, rehabilitative model and to abolish the juvenile life without parole sentence in Michigan and nationwide. The video documentary is participating in this effort, and aims to open up a fresh, impactful, public debate contesting juvenile life without parole sentencing in the US and proposing an amendment to the laws which allow the waving of youth into the adult legal system.

How is the story going to be told?

Natural life extracted from the database of written interviews conducted by LODL information on six individual inmates’ stories. These stories, freshly recorded, interwoven and told from multiple angles, will form a progression from young to older inmates through gender, economics and race differences. Our intent is to create a tightly structured web of stories in which, for instance, the story of a judge who practiced civil disobedience and refused to follow the life-without-parole guidelines imposed on him by the state, will be juxtaposed with a judge who feels his hands are tied in the face of the state law; or the voice of a victim’s sister who had formed an intense bond with the killers of her brother, will be contrasted with comments by angry, unforgiving family members.

Furthermore, since video and audio recording is strictly forbidden at the Michigan state prisons, we located an abandoned prison structure where we were able to shoot extensive reenactments by youth actors of many of the cell and yard scenes described by the incarcerated interviewees. Thus an additional layer--images depicting a prison inhabited by kids only--will be woven into the array of recorded stories.

Complementing the prison-life reenactments are a set of studio recordings of key moments from the youth’s past family and social life, as well as moments from their crime scene. These recordings will be inserted into constructed 3D animation models, and edited to fork into various options that would tell the path not taken as well as the event as it unfolded. Our goal is thus to expose the mundane cause and the tragic effect in their frequent overlap (e.g. through images portraying moments of deliberation prior to a fatal outcome: waiting at a café with a key to the victim’s apartment; finding a gun in the drawer of a house broken into during a robbery). Varying testimonies that clash, a not guilty plea next to a guilty verdict, will be juxtaposed in order to destabilize the projected story of the crime and question its public version as well as its inevitability. By injecting fiction (hypothesis) into the documentary format we hope to suggest alternative interpretations of the documented facts.

In what way is this project so unique?

The project thus aims to transgress and complicate the tension between fabrication and record, guilt and innocence, accident and intent, as well as the gap between 3D animation and documentary video, acting and manifesting, projected and recalled worlds. Our hope is that the formal crossing over between 3D animation, staged scenes and documentary film, which I have been exploring in previous video work, will make tangible and felt the actual lives, stories, legal structures and statistics which underlie the current state of youth serving life without parole in the US in general, and specifically at the Michigan state prisons.

Through this project we are given not only a deeper, rare insight into the inmates' world, but also an opportunity to have actual, concrete, impact on their lives. We are pursuing through it a desire to engage in a public conversation that makes tangible claims and has immediate bearing, as action, on personal and political realities.

What is our distribution and outreach plan?

Our goal is to the have the piece distributed to the larger community, to be screened to juveniles serving this sentence, family members of victims, community organizations, criminal justice advocates, educators, law enforcement and prison reentry programs, as well as at various conferences, university settings, museums and galleries nationally and globally. The law offices of Deb LaBelle have formed a coalition inclusive of the above mentioned groups and organizations, all of which would form an immediate and available target audience for the piece.

We will distribute the piece through TV networks as well as movie theaters, galleries and museums nation wide, and arrange screenings through related conferences, community organizations, high schools and universities.

Additionally, we hope to have the work seen in the array of public venues in which I have presented my work to date. These venues have regularly included many major museums, galleries, festivals and conferences for new media, visual ethnography and art.

Beyond these, my work is consistently presented at seminars, conferences and lectures at universities and schools. I count numerous ongoing relationships with curators at such museums as The Museum of Modern Art, NY, The Jewish Museum and the Whitney Museum, as well as professionals in academic settings in the US and abroad, among my contacts.

I have presented work for over fifteen years through the European distributor Heure Exquise, and have enjoyed invitations from international curators at venues such as L'espace Multimedia Gantner, France; Rencontres Internationals and others. Our hope is to have as many of these contacts and venues active, enabling a distribution to the widest and most diverse audience possible, and making the issue of incarcerated youth publicly known and debated world wide.

What other projects on overlapping topics have I produced?

Recently I have completed two additional collaborative projects on the issue of incarceration:

Sentence Worn, a 3D animation/video installation reflecting on the life of Soros Justice Fellow and Reentry activist Mary Heinen (Glover). The installation comprises of a set of short vignettes presented simultaneously on individual screens within a gallery setting. In them specific recalled scenes for Mary’s thirty years of incarceration are recounted through their detailed visual and visceral impressions: the light, the touch, the heat, the movement, the colors comprising Mary’s personal and embodied experience. The story, that is, focuses on the physical imprint of incarceration and of reentry: the sentence as worn--and worn out--by Mary’s body over time.

All Day, an experimental documentary made in collaboration with Justin Gibson who is serving life without parole since youth in a Michigan prison. The piece tells Justin’s fictional interpretation of the story of his crime and ensuing incarceration, as well as his personal rendering of stories extracted from interviews with fellow inmates regarding their own prison experience. Using 3D animation modeling, and following detailed descriptions of the cell(s) Justin has been locked in over the years, we constructed a site which emulated the physical space within which the stories unfold. Justin’s cells are door-less boxes inhabited by the videotaped figures of previously convicted individuals, recently released, who are reenacting the different facets of the inmates’ life in prison, as well as their own past experience.

How can you contact us?

You can write us directly with any further questions to teven@saic.edu. We will get back to you promptly!

Thank you for your time and support. It is greatly appreciated. 

____________

[1] “Prosecuting Juveniles in Adult Court, An Assessment of Trends and Consequences”, Malcolm C. Young and Jenni Gainsborough, January 2000. Http://www.prisonpolicy.org/scans/sp/juvenile.pdf

[2] See also Bringing Human Rights Home, Praeger Press 2009, Vol. III, Chapter 5, Ensuring Rights for All: Realizing Human Rights for Prisoners, LaBelle, Deborah. 

[3] Ibid. 

[4] The report was published by the ACLU of Michigan, who has been a partner in the reform efforts. The project is physically housed at the Law Offices of Deborah LaBelle and Deborah LaBelle is the project director. LODL provides space, overhead and staff as in-kind services.

[5] This legislation passed with broad bi-partisan support in the Michigan House of Representatives before stalling in the Senate. (HB 4402, HB 4403, HB 4404, HB 4405). The legislation has been reintroduced with amendments and votes are anticipated in the fall of 2010 in both the House and Senate.  

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