In 2008, Cindy Shank was convicted of conspiracy charges related to crimes committed by her ex-boyfriend, a drug dealer who had been killed years earlier. Married with three young children, she was ordered to serve the federal mandatory minimum for the charge: 15 years. The Sentence, a documentary by Cindy’s brother Rudy Valdez, is a compilation of iPhone videos and home movies that depicts the emotional reality Cindy and her family faced before, during and after serving her time.
Despite the nightmarish situation, Cindy remained hopeful in the beginning, looking forward to the day she would reunite with her family. Throughout her time in prison, however, as dance recitals, birthdays and holidays passed her by and days away accumulated, that hope faded. She was relocated several times from the cell in their home state of Michigan to as far away as Florida, creating a wider physical and emotional gap between her and her family. “Missing my daughters grow up, that’s what I was sentenced to,” Cindy says.
In the meantime, her brother Rudy was doing his best to mitigate that sentence in two ways. First by researching the appeals and clemency processes, and second, by making sure she would get to witness all the girls’ milestones and much more, at least on screen. He recorded every little detail of their family life at home (it was his older sister, after all, who helped inspire his passion for film), starting immediately after her incarceration. This way at least Cindy would be able to see how her daughters became the young women they are today.
Throughout Rudy’s recording process, he realized that the moments he was collecting provided insight into another side of Cindy’s story, one not often shared with the public. He knew he could pursue something greater: a documentary demonstrating the effects mandatory minimum sentencing has had on non-violent offenders as well as their families. Rudy not only dedicated his life to being a role model for his nieces and fought hard to reduce his sister’s sentence, he became an advocate for others suffering from the same laws.
In late 2016 Cindy Shank became one of the nearly 2,000 people granted clemency during Barack Obama’s time in office; her sentence was shortened by six years. She was able to surprise her family with a homecoming several days before Christmas. It’s a happy ending, but nine years too late.
The Sentence, which won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018, is more than just a feature-length home movie reflecting on lost times—it is an emotionally gripping indictment of the criminal justice system that raises awareness of the detrimental effects of mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
You can now stream Rudy Valdez’s The Sentence on HBO.