It’s been a long time coming, but at last, the United States’ dreadful and morally suspect criminal justice system has become part of the national conversation. By now, you’ve heard the statistics about incarceration rates for blacks and Latinos and seen that our comparative prison population blows away just about the whole rest of the world combined. But there’s another penal phenomenon that hasn’t generated quite as much press: Life Without Parole (LWOP). Until now, that is. Premiering this week, a new original documentary from HBO explores the reality of the so-called “Other Death Penalty” as the filmmakers follow a handful of inmates through their daily lives in California’s Progressive Programming Facility.
According to statistics, one in nine inmates in the U.S. corrections system is currently serving a LWOP sentence, many of whom were convicted as minors. The Academy Award-winning filmmaker duo of Alan and Susan Raymond decided to take this difficult subject head on in Toe Tag Parole: To Live and Die on Yard A, whose title refers to California’s model Honor Yard, where lifers are permitted to live in an environment free of the violence and racial tensions otherwise rampant in U.S. prisons.
Their primary subject is the young Wilbur Morales, a recent arrival who was sentenced to three life sentences at the age of 17 on kidnapping and robbery charges. Also featured is Edgar Gomez, who was sentenced to life without parole for merely being present when a fellow gang member offed a rival. He was 14 at the time. In combining their plights with a handful of other stories, Toe Tag Parole ultimately weaves a tapestry of justice and redemption that will force us to face hard questions about the role of the corrections system in American society.
Toe Tag Parole is playing on HBO throughout the month of August, and is currently available for streaming on HBO GO. Cable and satellite subscribers will be able to see the documentary On Demand starting August 4.