What if you knew that you’d spend the rest of your life behind bars? What if that realization happened before you’d even turned 18? In the US this has become a stark reality for thousands of inmates. ‘Toe Tag Parole: To Live and Die On the Yard’, a great new HBO documentary, explores the life of around 600 men sentenced without the possibility of parole in an innovative rehab program maintained by the California Department of Corrections.
Known as “the other death penalty” the concept of life without parole is explored in-depth by looking at some of the inmates that it affects. The documentary introduces inmates like Daniel Whitlow, locked up at 17 for a murder conviction and the recipient of such a punishment.
In 2012 the US Supreme Court ruled that juveniles can no longer receive mandatory minimum jail sentences with no possibility of parole, but no such ruling is retroactive. This means that all the inmates convicted and sentenced under this now unconstitutional practice remain in prison for life with little remedy. The film notes that in early 2012 there were around 300 juvenile lifers in California.
‘Toe Tag Parole’ also examines a new rehab program in California that aims to reduce violence at prisons and to offer inmates outlets for expressing themselves and living what little of their lives that they can. While this program certainly looks promising and injects a bit of humanity into a system that has objectively been void of it for decades one can’t help but feel that even this program is no fix for the bigger problem explored by the documentary.
‘Toe Tag Parole’ is a well-made and eye opening film. It inspires a sense of helpless despair knowing that while many future juvenile inmates might avoid this fate there are still thousands that will see their punishment carried out.