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A Sister’s Raw Deal: ‘A Story That People Never Get to See’

Rudy Valdez is a Michigan-raised, Brooklyn-based filmmaker. He got his start as a camera operator on the Peabody Award-winning Sundance Channel series “Brick City,” and has worked as a cinematographer for such directors and producers as Sebastian Junger, Whoopi Goldberg, Geeta Gandbhir and Sam Pollard. Ten years in the making, Rudy’s directorial debut “The Sentence” premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. It won the U.S. Documentary Audience Award and was acquired by HBO.

My sister Cindy made mistakes. She was the girlfriend of a drug dealer and made poor decisions during their time together.

That relationship ended when her boyfriend was murdered in what police say was a drug deal gone wrong. After his death, 26 people were sentenced right away in connection with the drug ring. Cindy was not. Lawyers led us to believe the state had dropped the case, and that the federal government wasn’t interested in pursuing charges against her.

With the support and encouragement of her family, Cindy began to rebuild her life. She eventually found a job and met someone new, with whom she had two children. She was pregnant with her third when the government came knocking five years later. A jury subsequently found her guilty of conspiracy — which, by definition, means she had knowledge of the crimes and played a part in what was going on.

I thought about our prison system, and what I thought it was designed to do. I was always under the assumption that it was there to punish, but also to rehabilitate: to allow people to learn from mistakes, and re-enter society in a way that will permit them to be contributing members once more.

I was aware that Cindy had the chance of receiving a very lengthy sentence, but I truly thought the effort she had put into turning her life around would have an impact on the judge’s decision. After all, she had already done what prison is designed to do. I expected her to receive some time though I couldn’t even quantify for myself what would be fair. I left that to the judge.

She was ultimately sentenced to 180 months — 15 years — for a first time non-violent offense. Could this be a mistake?, I wondered. After some research I discovered that there were thousands of other first-time non-violent offenders serving these lengthy sentences. Because of mandatory minimums, the judge could not impose a lesser punishment.

I started filming the day after Cindy went away, telling myself that I needed to capture moments of her girls. She would have pictures and phone calls, but I wanted her to be able to see them live, run, dance, fight, and grow. I wanted to give her that.

It wasn’t until I had flown back home, to capture a dance recital of her oldest daughter Autumn, that I realized there was something bigger to document. Cindy called as Autumn was preparing, and said something to her that changed everything for me: “Do you know what Mommy is going to do when you go to dance? I’m going to lay down in my bed, I’m going to close my eyes, and I’m going to think about you.”

At that moment I realized the true ramifications of this sentence, and how many people would actually serve it. I knew I had an opportunity and responsibility to tell a story that people never get to see.

Over the course of my sister’s incarceration, I observed and filmed a lot. I witnessed lost connections to home and family. Expensive phone time and costly travel for visits made maintaining relationships extremely difficult, and ultimately ruined her marriage.

As a brother, I took this on to provide my sister a glimpse into the time she lost. As a filmmaker and concerned citizen, I finished it and continue to try to further its reach to bring awareness to a problem. I hope its impact is to provide a voice to the voiceless and awareness to those unaware, so that they may create a shift in a system that’s not working for the people it serves.

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