On February 29, 2008, Cindy Shank’s life changed forever. That’s the day the Lansing, Michigan-based Mexican-American was sentenced to 15 years in prison on drug conspiracy charges, forcing her to be a mother, wife, daughter and sister from hundreds of miles away for nonviolent crimes she did not commit. Her story is the subject of “The Sentence,” an award-winning documentary filmed by Shank’s brother, Rudy Valdez, exploring the injustice of mandatory-minimum sentencing.
“I don’t think anyone else could have made this film about my family. I don’t think it would have had the same effect,” Valdez, who started shooting videos of his three nieces — Autumn, Annalis and Ava — so that his older sister could watch some of the many moments she missed while away in prison when she returned home, told FIERCE. The home recordings inspired a documentary eight months into Shank’s sentence, when she cried over the phone imagining her oldest daughter dance at an upcoming recital. “I had an opportunity to tell a story you don’t get to hear about: the family, the children left behind and the residual effects of long sentences,” he continued.
That story begins in 2002, when Shank’s then-boyfriend, Alex Humphry, who started selling drugs after they began dating, was murdered.
When police officers arrived at the scene, they found 20 kilograms of cocaine, a kilogram of crack cocaine, 40 pounds of marijuana, $40,000 and guns. While mourning the death of her partner, Shank was indicted for multiple drug crimes. Maintaining her innocence — she alleges she was never a part of her late ex’s drug offenses — she declined a plea deal and, with no evidence against her, was released from jail with her case dismissed.
In the years that followed, Shank moved on with her life: she fell in love again, got married, bought a home and had three daughters. But during an early morning in March 2007, police once again knocked on her door, this time arresting Shank on federal charges of conspiracy to distribute cocaine.
“Conspiracy is knowledge. Any knowledge you have of a crime, you could be charged for that crime,” Shank says in the nearly one hour and thirty minute-long film. “Basically, I lived in the home, so any crimes he committed while we lived together I was charged with.”
Shank, nor her parents, husband or brother, has ever denied guilt for not informing police officers of her boyfriend’s misdeeds. Throughout the documentary, her, and her worried family, take issue with the unfairness of her 15-year prison term. For the family, as well as the litigators and experts interviewed for the film, mandatory-minimum sentencing laws — controversial regulations that encourage strict sentencing rules over judicial discretion — account for one of the greatest failures of the U.S. government. The law, once considered unconstitutional, puts power into the hands of prosecutors, rather than judges, and has been abused in the drug war to punish tens of thousands of low-level, nonviolent state and federal defendants with harsh terms.
In the film, Valdez is one of the biggest opponents of mandatory-minimum sentencing, speaking with media about the wrongfulness of these laws and unceasingly fighting, through failed appeals and a clemency petition, to have her sister released early. His battle comes to a triumphant end in November 2016, eight years into Shank’s term, when then-President Barack Obama commuted his sister’s sentence. Shank was released on December 21, 2016, just in time to surprise her daughters for the holidays.
“The best is the little things: holding my daughters at night, having conversations with them, knowing them from the inside out. I know Ava doesn’t like cheese. I know how much I have to tickle Annalis to get the dimple on her cheek,” Shank, now 45, told FIERCE.
But she’s the first to acknowledge that her long-awaited release hasn’t just brought sunny days.
Shank, whose husband filed for divorce three years into her sentence, is trying to build relationships with daughters, who know her more from five-minute phone conversations and annual prison visits than caring for them at home.
“The hardest is the late-night conversations. Annalis comes to me and asks why were you gone. We are still having these talks and will throughout our lives. Who knows what’s to come? We won’t know the ramifications of all of this until the future. We’ll see it in what lies ahead and the decisions they make,” she added.
Accompanying her pain for lost time is that of the continued years, months, weeks and days of the people who, like she once was, remain behind bars because of unjust mandatory-minimum sentences. Shank was one of more than 35,000 inmates who requested consideration for a commuted or reduced sentence through the non-government affiliated organization the Clemency Project 2014, and she is one of less than 2,000 to receive it.
“When Rudy told me it was just 1,600 people, it crushed me. My heart crushed because I know what that’s like. Every time a list would come out, I would look to see if I was on it — for three years. I know what it’s like to have that hope and to feel defeated every time it lets you down. Hope is hard to have, and yet it’s the hardest to live without,” she said.
For Valdez, this documentary isn’t for his sister, his nieces or his parents. Instead, it’s for the tens of thousands whose names were not listed, for those who continue to be forgotten in the U.S.’ criminal justice system.
“This film is about the larger issue. Her story is emblematic of everyone else, of the people still there and of the children still going through this,” Valdez said. “This is for those who are going to go through this fight in the future and those who have been left behind.”
Check out the trailer below:
Watch “The Sentence” on Monday, October 15 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO.