Rudy Valdez and Cindy Shank of HBO Documentary 'The Sentence' : It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders It's Tuesday: Cindy Shank was living a comfortable life at home with her three little girls and husband when one day the feds came knocking. They were there to arrest her for not telling the police about an ex-boyfriend's drug dealing several years prior. That's the story behind a new HBO documentary, 'The Sentence' - directed by Shank's brother, Rudy Valdez. Sam talks to Cindy and Rudy about documenting the impact on their family, a mother's love for her children, and how the film has brought politicians together on both sides of the aisle.
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'The Sentence' Documents Toll of Mandatory Sentencing Laws On A Family

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'The Sentence' Documents Toll of Mandatory Sentencing Laws On A Family

'The Sentence' Documents Toll of Mandatory Sentencing Laws On A Family

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(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SAM SANDERS, HOST:

Hey, y'all. From NPR, IT'S BEEN A MINUTE, I'm Sam Sanders. Today, we're going to talk about a movie that I cannot stop talking about. It's called "The Sentence." I saw it this summer at the Latino International Film Festival here in Los Angeles. It is a documentary about Cindy Shank. She's a mom. She has three kids, a husband, a home, a pretty normal life, but one morning, the feds come knocking. They arrest Cindy for something she was involved in years before. Her boyfriend had been a drug dealer, and because she knew what he was doing and didn't report it, she was committing a crime. And because of mandatory sentencing laws, she got 15 years.

This movie is about Cindy's struggle to get out, her struggle to keep being a mother to her three daughters, who were only 4, 2 and 6 weeks old when she got locked up. And the whole movie is directed by Cindy's brother, Rudy Valdez. I talked to Rudy and Cindy last week. They were in New York City, I was in LA, and I had to start by describing the scene at their film's premiere.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: Thank you both for being here, Rudy and Cindy - brother and sister.

CINDY SHANK: (Speaking Spanish).

RUDY VALDEZ: Double trouble.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

VALDEZ: We're very happy to be here. We're very humbled that you would have us on, as well. Thank you so much.

SHANK: Absolutely.

SANDERS: I mean, I had to do it. Like, I saw your movie, "The Sentence" - I go to a lot of film screenings for work, and I've seen all kinds of movies for work. And I swear to you, I'm not sure I've ever had the experience I had watching your film. Everybody in that theater was crying, and, like, crying so forcefully that you could hear it. Seriously, the last 15 minutes or so of the movie were basically scored by the audible sobs from the audience. Is this how it goes every screening for y'all?

VALDEZ: You know, yeah, in a lot of ways, it is.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

SHANK: Yeah.

VALDEZ: But I will tell you, that screening in particular, you know, I don't really sit through the screenings anymore. It's too emotional for me.

SANDERS: Really?

VALDEZ: And my producer Sam - yeah, especially if I'm going to do a talk after. Like, I'm a blubbering mess if I've just watched the film and then somebody's like, tell me about your crying father, and I'm like, I don't want to, you know.

(LAUGHTER)

VALDEZ: But I was - so we were actually sitting outside of the theater, and one of the people who programmed us there came out, and they were like, I've never seen this before. And I was like, what? And my producer was like, what are you talking about? Because he knows I don't like to go in. He was like, I'm going to go check it out. And in my head, I'm thinking everybody has left.

(LAUGHTER)

VALDEZ: Like I didn't know what - like you've never seen everyone leave the, you know, Mann's Chinese Theater before. And he comes out, and he looks at me, and he was like, Rudy, I know you don't like to watch. He's like, but you have to come and just look at what's happening in there.

And so I came in, and it happened to be at a part where there was, like, some levity in the film, so people were bawling crying but also laughing hysterically and sort of hanging on every word of the film. And it was just such an amazing experience.

SANDERS: And so I guess - you know, we're describing how folks watch this movie and they cry. We should tell our audience a little bit what the movie is about.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: Cindy, help me out.

SHANK: Well, it follows the life of my daughters. I was given a sentence of 15 years in 2008, and my daughters were 4, 2 and 6 weeks old, and Rudy starts to film their lives. And it films what actually happens to families that are left behind on these long sentences and what happens - what truly happens to the families.

SANDERS: Yeah. And these long sentences, like, there's a name for this kind of sentence - these mandatory minimums. We should explain briefly what the idea of these minimums is and how some folks say it has hurt families like yours.

VALDEZ: Yeah. I mean, they're all, you know, products of this war on drugs that started in the, you know, late '70s, early '80s, where these sentences were sort of imposed based on weights and based on different criteria when you're facing a drug sentence, especially on the federal level. And a lot of people refer to what happened to my sister as The Girlfriend Problem...

SANDERS: Yeah.

VALDEZ: ...Which is, basically, you know, she was knowledgeable about what was happening in, you know, the household she was living in, but she didn't go to the police. And you know, subsequently, she was sentenced as if she were the person actually buying and selling the drugs.

SANDERS: Yeah. What exactly had your boyfriend - your ex-boyfriend - been doing? Lay out the case for us.

SHANK: Well, he had - he was a drug dealer, and he had started selling drugs after we had started our relationship. And he was actually murdered, and that is when the federal government came across everything that he was doing. And they initially indicted me in 2002 and dismissed my case.

SANDERS: Why did they dismiss it?

SHANK: You know, the feds picked it up, they dropped it, state picked it, state dropped it, and I got a letter from my attorney saying that my case had been dismissed. It was really trying time at that time because we're - you know, it was quite a whirlwind with the murder and then being charged initially. And then, you know, I moved on with my life and built my life back up, put my pieces back together and then only to have them come back later and take me away.

SANDERS: Six years later. And so - I mean, Rudy, you mentioned this Girlfriend Problem. Basically, the thinking with this is that these mandatory minimums, they unnecessarily catch up folks that maybe didn't actually commit the crimes?

VALDEZ: Yeah. And I mean, I think - one of the things I say in the film and that I'll always say and, you know, my sister says it as well, you know, this isn't a film about guilt or innocence. You know, when you look at the letter of the law, did she know what was going on? Yes. Did she go to the police? She did not. So, technically, she's guilty, you know, and she's guilty because she knew what was happening.

Now, what our film tries to show is do these sentences make sense? You know, she was given a 15-year prison sentence for a first-time nonviolent offense. And I think what sort of spawned this documentary and what I think is resonating with a lot of people is that we're very clear on the fact that Cindy's sentence, while you watch the film and you cry and, you know, you feel for the family, and it feels like this really special case and this outlier, it is not. You know, Cindy is emblematic of thousands and thousands of other people who are going through the same thing. And the film sort of asks the question why.

SANDERS: Cindy, so what did they actually convict you of? I know it was some kind of conspiracy charge. Like, what was the formal sentence?

SHANK: I was actually given four felonies. I was charged with possession with intent to distribute cocaine, crack, marijuana and also conspiracy. I was charged with all of his crimes.

SANDERS: When they came to you - years after your ex-boyfriend had died, years after you've moved on and started a new life with a new husband, children of your own - when they said, we're going to lock you up, did you think that any sentence would be fair, or do you think that sending you to prison at all was wrong?

SHANK: You know, I've gotten asked this question quite a bit, and it's hard for me to say because it's me. You know, obviously, no, I don't want to go to prison.

SANDERS: Yeah.

SHANK: But, you know, I understand that, you know, people make a choice, and you know, I knew what he was doing. So yes, I think that some sentence would have been fair, you know, on some level. But you have to also understand, the prosecutor asked for 89 years for me.

SANDERS: Oh, my goodness.

SHANK: I was given the mandatory minimum. The judge went as low as he could go. His hands were tied.

SANDERS: That was the lowest?

SHANK: Yeah, that was the lowest he could go.

SANDERS: Wow.

SHANK: He could go no lower because of mandatory minimum laws. I just feel, you know, hey, maybe - I'd never - I had never even had a speeding ticket.

SANDERS: Wow.

SHANK: You know, so it's kind of like two years, three years maybe and maybe, you know, probation for, you know, 10 years. I have no problem, you know, checking in, doing what I have to do and, you know, following the letter of the law. And...

VALDEZ: Sorry, not to interrupt, but I think, like, the whole thing with the sentence, with her getting 15 years, is that it is such an arbitrary number, you know what I mean? I think that as sentencing goes, we should, you know, allow judges to do what we have entrusted them to do - take in the factors of the case, take in the history of the case, take in the situation of the individual and decide what can I hand down that is going to be fair?

SANDERS: So, you know, there is this moment in the movie that just broke my heart. Cindy, your dad is - he can't afford to go out to see you in prison, but he wants to make sure you have enough money to use the phone to call your girls. And he is, at one point, collecting scrap metal to do that. I want to play some of that tape here.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE SENTENCE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You have to have it real clean in order to make a little bit extra. I probably got enough here to send Cindy another $40 for the week. You know, that's what I try to do every day - just try and have enough money for her, so I've never missed a week, you know, so she can have money. I can't afford to go out there all the way right now and see her, you know, but I would rather have the money sent to her so that she can see - or she can hear, talk to her kids every day, every week or something like that. But I do miss her a lot. But I don't know what else to do. She talks about, you know, how good of a dad I was and that she misses me a lot, and she misses my fajitas. She liked my fajitas.

SANDERS: You know, hearing that scene back and watching it in the theater, I thought of my own dad, and if he were ever that tender in speaking about his love for me, I don't think he would want it on camera. Did you have any moment where you said, Cindy, don't put the family out there like that?

SHANK: I never have, I guess. I never thought that, no, nobody should see this. If anything, I'm proud of my father and the man that he is and how loving he is towards us.

SANDERS: He loves you. He really loves you.

SHANK: Absolutely. And who wouldn't want to share that, what a good man he is, what a good dad he is? And he exactly did that. I never had to worry about not being able to call my kids, and that's because my dad loved me so much, and he still does. He calls me two or three times a week right now, and we go to lunch, just me and him.

I mean, we're really close. You know, I'm his baby girl, and I would always be - growing up, I'd be the one, you know, standing on the board while he's cutting it or handing him wrenches while he's working on the car, you know? I'm his baby girl. Of course, I would want to share his love for me to the world.

SANDERS: It was beautiful. And I think, one, that scene alludes to it. I love how much your family was brought together, throughout the entire film, through food.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: There were these moments all throughout where, like, the food breaks the tension.

(LAUGHTER)

VALDEZ: Yeah, very much so.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: Time for a break. When we come back, how this movie is bringing together politicians on both sides of the aisle. BRB.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: This seems like an issue that might transcend either party. You have people in Congress, Republicans and Democrats, who will agree that there are too many Americans in prison and that some of these sentences, particularly for nonviolent offenders, are too long. There is agreement there. You've got folks running the gamut from Rand Paul to Kamala Harris, right?

Why has there been no movement on this issue, knowing that there's a pretty good consensus right there and everyone thinking this is a thing that needs to change.

VALDEZ: So let me tell you this. So two days after we premiered at Sundance, I was contacted by a senator - a Republican senator from Utah - Senator Mike Lee from Utah. He said thank you for making this film. One of his staffers...

SANDERS: Wow.

VALDEZ: ...Had seen it at Sundance. And he said, I believe in this, I believe in this issue and I believe in sentence reform. So with Senator Mike Lee, Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, together in a bipartisan effort brought the film to Capitol Hill to show to staffers, to show to legislators, to show to the House to say, this is how we need to approach this. It can no longer be me versus you. It's an us thing. So again, it's an apolitical film that makes it more political.

SANDERS: Cindy, one of the most striking features of the film was watching your children grow up on-screen knowing that I was seeing more of their growing up than you could. What was it like for you? I mean, you got to talk to them on the phone as much as you could, but you didn't see them a lot.

SHANK: No, I didn't. It's devastating as a mother to not be able to watch your children grow, you know, to not be able to learn their expressions and their, you know, mannerisms and their likes and dislikes and all the little things that every mother should know about their child. I didn't get that. I didn't - you know, 'cause, OK, one part of it was, like, me on the phone.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE SENTENCE")

SHANK: I love you, princess.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: I love you, too.

SHANK: Like, I always knew. And I would say to girls on the inside, you know, it hurt me so much to think, you know, I'm a phone to them.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE SENTENCE")

AUTUMN: (Singing) You make me happy when skies are gray. You'll never know, Annalis, how much Mommy loves you.

SANDERS: Yeah.

SHANK: Mommy's a phone. And I had this idea that that's what it was. And when I'd seen that on film, wow (laughter)...

SANDERS: Yeah.

SHANK: ...That hurt. You know, people ask me all the time, like, oh, what was it like the first time? I think I missed half of the film the first time I saw it because I was crying so much just trying to capture an expression...

SANDERS: Yeah.

SHANK: ...I hadn't seen yet. You know, and I'm trying to sear it into my mind. Like, oh, she smiled, and her dimple came out just so.

SANDERS: Oh.

SHANK: And, you know, I'm seeing different things, I think, than other people might see. I'm - you know, I'm really focused.

SANDERS: Yeah.

SHANK: So I've seen it quite a few times now. And I think I told Rudy - maybe it was about the seventh or eighth time. I was like, I think I've finally seen it. Like...

(LAUGHTER)

VALDEZ: Yeah, she came up to me at Sundance. It was after, like, the fifth screening at Sundance.

SANDERS: Wow.

VALDEZ: And she said, wow, it's actually a good movie. And I was like, what are you talking about?

(LAUGHTER)

VALDEZ: I was like, what have you been watching?

SANDERS: Oh, my goodness. What moment in the film most, Cindy, stopped you in your tracks?

SHANK: There were quite a few, but I think the one for me - one of them is when I - it fades to black. And then it comes up and they're dancing in their dresses.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE SENTENCE")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Hey, Daddy. Can we put on our dresses?

SHANK: And I hear Autumn say...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE SENTENCE")

AUTUMN: Mommy's going to watch this video.

SHANK: They were thinking of me, too, like I was thinking of them.

SANDERS: Yeah.

SHANK: And it was really - it's really hard to watch that.

SANDERS: Yeah. Well, and then, you know, you come back. You get out. Mom is back, but Mom hasn't been there for so many years. Was it hard to readjust and be someone that, you know, told them to go to bed and brush their teeth when they were, like, we ain't seen you in a few years, lady?

SHANK: (Laughter) I think - you know, I think it's still - we're still adjusting.

SANDERS: Really?

SHANK: You know, I think we're - yeah. You know, not so much that they know Mom's - Mom's strict. Mom has rules. And, you know, they know they need to listen to Mom. But at the same time, you know, they're kids. They push boundaries. And there's other things that I had to learn. I got to remember, oh, yeah, that's right, Ava; you don't like cheese.

(LAUGHTER)

SHANK: You know, it's like certain - you know, I'm, like, always ordering cheese on for Ava. And she's like, Mom. I'm like, no, I knew that.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

SHANK: I know, no cheese. You know, I think the first day - literally the second day, they were - like, the next day after they had stayed with me, I forgot to feed them. Like...

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: Oh, you know, all parents do that, I'm sure.

SHANK: It was, like, around - oh, my gosh. It was horrible. I felt horrible. They were like, we're hungry. I was like, oh, my God, you know? It was like...

VALDEZ: If child protective services is listening, they have been fed since.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: They have been fed.

VALDEZ: Yeah.

SHANK: And shortly after they requested food, they received food.

SANDERS: Good, good. Oh, man.

VALDEZ: A short four days later...

SHANK: (Laughter).

SANDERS: Yeah.

VALDEZ: ...They received food.

SANDERS: Were they mad at you over any of this, over your return, over your absence?

SHANK: You know, I think we had these discussions where Autumn kind of - like, Autumn was the first. She had this discussion with me about, you know, she wanted to know why I was there. And she had written me this letter, and she was just adamant. You know, explain everything to me 'cause I was explaining if you've not seen - you know; you saw the film - how she was - had her understanding. She was so young, I would explain kind of age appropriate at times. As she would ask - grow and ask more questions, I would explain it to her more and more. But then when she was 9, she was just like, no, I need to know everything. And I explained it to her, you know? And all the girls came into the realization on their own time, and I explained everything to them. And they tell me they're not mad. And, you know, we've had different talks here and there. But, you know, they're - I think it's only natural, I think, to have some feelings of sadness and maybe, from time to time, resentment. And, you know, we're just going to work through that as a family.

SANDERS: Time for one more break. When we're back, we hear from Cindy's daughters. We'll be right back.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: One of the questions I was dying to ask you, Cindy, as soon as this film ended was, I guess, the question I always want to ask when I hear these stories of people being locked up and then getting out - you know, you try so hard to get your life back and rebuild all the pieces. But, like, what was the one thing you couldn't get back? What was the one thing you couldn't rebuild?

SHANK: You know, one of the things that I couldn't get back and couldn't rebuild was my marriage. And we were divorced four years in, and I had to let go of that. During that time, it's something I couldn't hang on to. I had to move on, you know? And that's one of the things that were fractured, and that was the cost that I had to pay for being gone.

SANDERS: I mean, you had to go through a divorce while in prison. I can't even imagine. How was that?

SHANK: It was devastating. You know, you have this idea of family. And, you know, we had loved each other so much. And, you know, we had this young family. And then we were ripped apart, and, you know, it was part of my anchor. It was part of one of the things that were grounding me and to - I had actually had just moved to Florida. So I was already...

SANDERS: 'Cause they moved you through several prisons.

SHANK: Yeah. At this time, I was - had moved to Florida. So now I'm, you know, quite a few hundred miles away, you know? And now I'm not being able to see the girls as often. And then I was, you know, given the news of divorce. So it was just - it was just devastating to me. But at the same time, I understood. You know, I understood that he had a life and that he had a chance to make a life for himself and to, you know, maybe find somebody and marry someone. And maybe the girls could have a mom, you know? And I - and, you know, I had to get over that because I had to focus on what was best for him and the girls.

SANDERS: Yeah.

SHANK: And, you know, ultimately, I just had to move forward and move on.

SANDERS: Are you guys on good terms, you and your ex?

SHANK: Yeah, we are. We're really good friends. We're co-parenting the girls.

SANDERS: Oh.

SHANK: And, you know, we're family. He's always going to be family to me. You know, he's the girl's dad. And he's a good man, a good father. And I couldn't be happier to have them - him as their dad.

SANDERS: Yeah.

VALDEZ: And I'm sorry to interrupt here, but I - whenever Adam is brought up, the girls' father, I always like to, you know, give him proper credit, you know, because, you know, with the help of my family and his family, you know, these girls were loved and taken care of. I was able to go in and do these other things and fight in other ways.

SANDERS: Yeah.

VALDEZ: He's a really amazing guy.

SHANK: Yeah.

VALDEZ: He'll always be my brother. He'll - you know, he's an amazing man.

SANDERS: Are the girls there?

VALDEZ: Yeah, they're actually looking...

SHANK: They are.

VALDEZ: ...At us through a big window.

SHANK: (Laughter) Yeah.

VALDEZ: Autumn is waving at us right now.

SANDERS: Do they want to come say hi on the microphone to our audience?

VALDEZ: They all just stood up as soon as you said that.

SHANK: Ava jumped up.

SANDERS: Come on in.

(LAUGHTER)

VALDEZ: Ava jumped up as soon...

SANDERS: Come on in.

SHANK: Come on in.

VALDEZ: Come on in, girls.

SHANK: Here they come.

VALDEZ: Now they're pretending to be shy, but they have this little...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

VALDEZ: ...Grin on their face.

SHANK: And this little gleam and twinkle in their eyes.

VALDEZ: They're like, can we really do this? Yeah.

SANDERS: And tell them to get way up on the mic. Get all up on that mic.

VALDEZ: Get up on the mic.

SANDERS: Hi, friends.

ANNALIS: Hi.

AVA: Hello.

AUTUMN: Hi.

SANDERS: Can you all tell me your names?

AVA: Ava.

AUTUMN: I'm Autumn.

ANNALIS: I'm Annalis.

SANDERS: It is so great to meet you all. I saw your movie, and I feel like I already know you. And I just want to say to the three of you you've been through so much and you seem so strong and poised and graceful. And I know I couldn't have handled what you all handled at your age. So I just want to say that you - all three of you are an inspiration.

AUTUMN: Thank you.

AVA: Thank you.

AUTUMN: That really does mean a lot to us.

SANDERS: Yeah. So I'm guessing you guys have seen the film. What are your thoughts on it?

AUTUMN: Well (laughter)...

SANDERS: Which of the three are you? Sorry, real quick.

VALDEZ: This is Autumn.

SANDERS: OK, Autumn. Keep going, sorry.

AUTUMN: It's kind of hard sometimes to see us when we're younger and see our lives put on-screen and all the tough times and, like, the times that were rough to get through. But it really - it's also - it's great because it gets to show everyone else what happened and what really happens when someone like that goes away. So I think it would be - it's really something that was needed to be shared. So I'm really glad that my uncle did this.

VALDEZ: I did not pay her to say that.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: For you three girls - for people that are going to watch this movie, might hear this interview and then go watch the movie, what do you want them to keep in mind or think about while they watch it?

ANNALIS: Well, like - it's Annalis. I think, like, maybe they will think - will keep in mind that there are still other families that - like, still other families that, like, parents are incarcerated. And, like, their kids are going through, like, what we went through. And...

AUTUMN: There's still change to be made. This isn't the last time that - this isn't the first time this has happened. And this definitely wasn't the last thing, so to keep in mind that there are still things that need to happen so that this doesn't keep happening. So...

SANDERS: Yeah, this is great. I thank the three of you for being strong and brave and sharing your story. Cindy, Rudy, same to y'all. This is emotional work that you're doing, and I appreciate your candor and your honesty and all the good vibes (laughter).

SHANK: Thank...

VALDEZ: Thank you so much.

SHANK: Thank you.

SANDERS: Thank y'all.

AVA: Thank you.

VALDEZ: Thank you for having us

SANDERS: Of course. Also if I'm ever in your neck of the woods, I'm going to make someone in that family cook for me 'cause y'all can throw down. I could tell.

VALDEZ: You got to have Dad's fajitas. I'm...

SHANK: (Laughter) Dad's fajitas.

VALDEZ: I'm telling you...

SANDERS: Listen, I'm in.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: Thanks again to Rudy Valdez and Cindy Shank for sharing their story. Thanks to Cindy's three girls, Autumn, Annalis and Ava. This movie "The Sentence" is out on HBO this week. Listeners, want to hear from you for our long-distance segment in the show. I want to know what's going on in your neck of the woods. Tell us your story. Send me an email at samsanders@npr.org - samsanders@npr.org. We are back in your feeds Friday. Till then, talk soon.

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