“Missing my daughters growing up. That’s what I was sentenced to.”
In 2007 Shank was married and raising three daughters—the youngest of them just a few months old—when a knock came at the door. It was police there to arrest her for something she had hoped was consigned to her distant past—failing to report the activities of a previous boyfriend, who had been involved in the drug trade.
“I don’t like to say that she’s innocent. She made poor choices with who she was in relationships with,” Valdez concedes. “But by no means was she the kingpin, was she the person pushing the drugs or selling the drugs…She was there enough for the prosecutors to say, ‘Well, she knew enough that she could’ve gone to the police and she didn’t.’”
Shank, a non-violent first-time offender, was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison under mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines enacted in 1986 as part of the “war on drugs.”
“The judge said he can go no lower,” Valdez recalls.
The heart-wrenching documentary, now in contention for Emmy nominations, shows how Shank tried to nurture her children despite being shuttled from federal prison to federal prison, sometimes more than 20 hours away from her kids. There were times when more than a year passed between visits with her daughters.
“I wasn’t a filmmaker when I started this,” Valdez tells Deadline. “It all started with me literally just capturing moments of my sister’s daughters’ lives, because I wanted to figure out a way for her to watch them grow up. There was going to be a lot of punishment with the sentence, but to me that was the biggest punishment, that she was going to miss seeing day-to-day stuff—miss holidays, miss birthday parties, and just seeing them run around, and live, and play.”
The Sentence can be viewed as a love story between a mother and her children. It’s also a love story between a family and their incarcerated daughter—Cindy’s parents and siblings keeping the faith as they mounted appeals and tried to get her freed from prison. The director came to understand how many other people faced similar realities.
“So many families [are] put up against a system that really uses all of its means and all of its power and all of its influence to keep you from your loved ones, and to break a family down, break the structure of a family down when somebody is incarcerated,” Valdez states. “It was something that I think our family felt at the very beginning, and certainly throughout, and I did everything within my power to never lose that hope, and not allow Cindy to lose that hope.”
The Sentence has helped further the debate on the impact of mandatory minimum sentencing, which has swelled the federal and state prison population with non-violent offenders. There is a growing consensus that mandatory minimums were overly punitive, counterproductive and disproportionately impacted minorities.
“America is a nation that believes in redemption,” President Trump declared during his State of the Union message earlier this year, touting passage of the First Step Act. That legislation, one of his few bipartisan achievements, enacted modest reforms to the federal criminal justice system and may augur further attempts to roll back mandatory minimum sentencing structures.
“Do I think the First Step Act is enough? Not by a long shot. Do I think that it’s wonderful? Yes,” Valdez comments. “We’re seeing the results of that as people are being let out more and more who are the First Step recipients…and every time I see one of those it’s a reminder that, while we didn’t go far enough, and we still have so much more to go, lives are being changed.”
Valdez has taken his film to Capitol Hill and many other places around the nation to push for sentencing reform. And he plans to expand his effort.
“We’re trying to start this tour now where we’re going to go across the country, showing to prosecutors and judges this film that can allow them to, hopefully, take a look at the sentences they’re laying down in a more human way,” he notes. “And we’re going to start going to law schools, future judges, future lawyers, future prosecutors, and just let them see what this means, what their sentences actually do.”
Valdez’ sister served almost a decade in prison before President Obama granted her clemency in 2016. She was freed with enough time to see her girls grow into adulthood.
“I think Cindy is doing amazing, and the girls are doing really well,” Valdez tells Deadline. “That’s what this clemency really means. It’s not, ‘Everything is great and you’re able to just go home and live life again.’ You have to pick up the pieces, and it’s a new fight. It is a new fight, but it’s a fight that we’re really happy to have, and I think we’re doing well with it.”