Putting a Face on the Human Consequences of Mandatory Minimums
By Ariana Bacle
The Sentence filmmaker on telling the story of his sister's imprisonment.
More than five years after Cindy Shank’s boyfriend was murdered, police showed up at her house to arrest her for conspiracy charges stemming from her ex-boyfriend’s drug-related crimes. She was soon sentenced to 15 years in prison — the mandatory minimum for the crime in question.
The Sentence, a film by Shank’s brother Rudy Valdez, explores the consequences of this requirement and the life his sister was forced to leave behind. Much of the film captures Shank’s family in a state of heartbroken limbo, wondering if she was really going to be behind bars for 15 years. Nearly nine years into Shank’s sentence, President Barack Obama granted her an early leave as part of his clemency program. By December 2016, she was finally home with her three daughters.
On October 10, Shank sat alongside Valdez, her eldest daughter Autumn, and the Osborne Association CEO and president Elizabeth Gaynes at New York’s SVA Theatre. There, Valdez discussed how the documentary began as a collection of videos just for Shank so she wouldn’t miss seeing her daughters grow up. It then evolved into a bigger endeavor when he went to Autumn’s first dance recital. Hearing his sister tell Autumn, “Do you know what Mommy’s going to do when 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.” Valdez revealed that was the moment he decided he wanted to turn this footage into a film.
“When you read about people being sent away to prison and these mandatory minimum sentences, you don’t hear about the children left behind,” he noted. Inspired and determined, he bought a copy of Filmmaking for Dummies and got a job as a production assistant to learn as much as he could. “I needed to be the best filmmaker that I could possibly be to make this film as strong as it could be,” he said.
The film features interviews with all three of Shank’s daughters, including Autumn, who compared the process of promoting the film to therapy. “I’ve bottled in my emotions since the day [Shank] was sent away,” she shared. “I became this small, shy girl who kept to herself, so doing this has given me this chance to talk about my experiences and really push me out of that bubble I was forced into for so long.”
As for Shank, she’s made a living out of talking — within a month of her return, she got a job in sales and has been promoted four times since. “I got this mouth on me that I’m able to talk to people,” she joked.
Aside from working, she says she’s busy “being a mom”: “I’m doing the things I should have been doing all along.”
The Sentence is available to watch on HBO GO and HBO NOW.