The installation version of Natural Life, the project I’ve been working on while in residency at HCL, has just had its first preview at 2739 Edwin Gallery in Detroit!
On the opening night we hosted a panel discussion about juvenile life-without-parole sentencing, which included Civil Rights lawyer, Deb LaBelle and Donald Logan, who was sentenced to life without parole at age 17.
Natural Life is an experimental documentary I produced alongside the legal efforts of the Law Offices of Deborah LaBelle. The project challenges inequities in the juvenile justice system by depicting the stories of five youths who received 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”). These stories are presented against the overlapping contexts of social bias, neglect, apprehension and alienation.
The project’s aim was to create a loosely structured web of conflicting or differing views in which, for instance, the voice of a victim’s sister who has, over time, formed an intense bond with the killers of her brother, is contrasted with comments by angry, unforgiving police agents or frustrated family members. For that end I videotaped close to fifty interviews with individuals who were involved with the crime, the arrest and the sentencing of the featured inmates. 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.
To compensate for the legal restriction on videotaping the incarcerated juveniles in prison, I located an abandoned prison inMichigan, and with a group of high school actors from Chicago 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.
For the installation version of the piece I partnered with Ivan Martinez, who designed the gallery space, and constructed a beautiful set of concrete cast pillows/blanket rolls, emulating a kid-size version of those which one would receive upon entering prison. Each set was marked with the date of birth and the date of arrest of the juveniles featured in the project, thus defining the length of their life in the free world.