For more detailed information on the project, go to:
Natural Life, produced in conjunction with the legal efforts of the Law Offices of Deborah LaBelle (LODL), is a three fold, 80 minutes long, experimental documentary comprised of a single channel video, a gallery installation and an archival website. The piece challenges inequities in the juvenile justice system by depicting, through documentation and reenactment, the stories of five individuals who were incarcerated for life without parole (natural life) for crimes they committed as youth. The youthful status and/or lesser culpability of these youths, their background and the circumstances leading to their crime, as well as their potential for rehabilitation, were not taken into account at any point in the charging and sentencing process. The five will never be evaluated for change, difference or growth. They will remain in prison till they die.
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 harsher punitive adult models, demanding that children be put on trial as if they were as liable and informed as adults who commit similar crimes.
There are over 2500 inmates who are serving a life without parole sentence for a crime they committed as juveniles (at times, when they were as young as 13). The U.S. is the only country in the world that allows life without parole sentencing for youth.
Focusing on the extreme case of Michigan’s legal system, where approximately 350 inmates are now serving the sentence, Natural Life portrays the ripple effect that the juvenile justice system’s imbalance has had on the lives not only of the incarcerated youth and the victims of their crime, but on family members, on law enforcement and legal officials and on the community at large.
My intent is to have the piece stir — and engage in — a fresh, impactful, public debate contesting the sentence of juvenile life without parole in the U.S., proposing its replacement with a non-punitive, rehabilitative model, and obtaining release opportunities for those juveniles currently serving the sentence.
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. Following an 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.
LODL, with the assistance of interns from the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University, began interviewing juveniles serving life without parole in Michigan and collecting a detailed written database and background information on them, 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, formed the basis for Natural Life. From the database of written interviews executed by LODL, I extracted information on five individual inmates’ of different age, gender, economic background and race.
These stories, freshly recorded, are interwoven in the documentary and told from multiple angles. Close to fifty interviews with individuals who were involved with the crime, the arrest and the sentencing of the featured inmates were recorded. Among them were judges, lawyers, police officers, reporters, wardens, teachers, child psychiatrists, legal experts, members of families of the incarcerated as well as of the victims’ families; all this alongside extensive recorded phone conversations with the inmates themselves.
The interviews were coupled with staged and documented scenes from court and from the main characters’ childhood and crime setting. That is, critical past moments from the stories (e.g. the arrest, the sentencing) were reenacted by the now older parent or brother at the original site of the event.
Lastly, to compensate for the legal restriction on videotaping the incarcerated juveniles in prison, I located an abandoned prison in Michigan, and with a group of high school actors and an ex-convict who assisted in directing them, shot dozens of hours of detailed images depicting the day-to-day experience of life in prison as told by the interviewees. Thus, a somewhat surreal additional layer — images depicting a prison inhabited by kids only — is woven into the array of recorded stories.
By injecting fiction (hypothesis) into the documentary format, I propose alternative interpretations of the documented facts, and question the public version of the crime as well as its inevitability. The tension between fabrication and record, guilt and innocence, accident and intent, as well as the gap between acting and manifesting, projected and recalled worlds, is made manifest, transgressed and complicated.
My goal is to examine context as activating and revealing change and difference. Synchronically, through simultaneous yet incongruent views on similar acts or events, and diachronically, by allowing positions and phrases to mutate and flip meaning, as in a pun, when transitioning between stories.
Formerly, this is done first and foremost through the literal device of a split screen. The voices, thus, are always interpreted through more than one view: older and younger, black and white, victim and perpetrator, police and convict, inside prison and outside it. The meaning of each of the two sides of the screen, however, mutates and alters. Difference is the only constant.
The project’s aim is to depict change as inevitable, and difference as structural, and in that way challenge the underlying presumption of permanence and sameness that the sentence of life without parole for juveniles claims and imposes.
The 77 minute video of Natural Life is to be shown in one of two ways — as a gallery installation (see images below) and in a standard movie theatre setting.
The gallery exhibition of Natural Life consists of a two-channel projection constituting an enclosed corner within the larger gallery space. The corner is arrived at through a defined exhibition area, which itself is designed to embody portions of the information (statistical; historical) that the video project depicts.
The enclosed corner forms an isolated viewing area. All but the projection-lit corner is painted black. Two custom raw-steel benches produced by Ivan Martinez, who collaborated with me on shaping the gallery installation and who created the various design elements in the space, are positioned in the corner mirroring the screen, thus replicating the floor-plan of a cell while providing seating for an intimate number of viewers at a time.
A cast of five sets of the standard issue bedding (a pillow and a bedroll) given to prisoners upon their arrival to the facility, are arranged on raw-steel pedestals in the area leading to the video projection. The sets, scaled down to kid size and made of a stack of crumbling thin sheets of material resembling deposits of rock, are cast in concrete. Individually marked with the date of birth and the date of arrest of each of the five prisoners featured in the documentary, they thus delineate the brief time the inmates spent in the free world.