“One day, I’m 15 years old I’m in society then… next I’m out. You telling me that I’m gonna never go home?”
Writing about documentaries over the past few years I’ve had the chance to see some pretty humbling and disturbing stories, and probably use the term “heartbreaking” to describe way too many of them. Not many have actually moved me to tears however, but tonight’s film 15 TO LIFE: KENNETH’S STORY most definitely did that.
Directed and written by Nadine Pequeneza, it tells the story of a young black man called Kenneth Young, who is sentenced to what equates to a life – and more – in prison for his role in several armed robberies. This is despite the fact that he was a troubled 14-year-old at the time, and wasn’t actually armed.
“They was like, ‘Mr. Young, you know, you’re not going home, you’re going to die in prison’,” says Young in the opening minutes. “It’s just like one day I’m 15 years old, I’m in society. Then, the next day, I’m not and you’re telling me I’m gonna never go home? That’s kind of like, hard to deal with. And I couldn’t grab the concept of that.” I challenge anyone to say that they could, and when more of his background is revealed it demonstrates that the poor kid definitely had the numbers stacked against him from day one.
With a mother who was a crack addict at the time and 15-year-old sister with a baby that he was forced to drop out of school at the age of eleven to watch, it’s clear from early on that Young’s violent neighbourhood and problematic home heavily influenced his actions. Jacques Bethea, the man who coerced him into crime and Kenneth’s mother’s crack dealer, also played a major role. He was the man holding the gun, known to be a violent character and supposedly threatened the teen’s life if he did not assist in the robberies. And despite all of this, Bethea actually ended up with a lesser sentence than Young, how bloody unfair is that?
In prison now, serving four consecutive life sentences, Young - who was tried as an adult - is one of 200 Florida prisoners sentenced to life when they were children. The United States is the only country in the world that routinely condemns children to die in prison. 15 TO LIFE: KENNETH’S STORY is the story of one of those children, now seeking a second chance in Florida with the help of a dedicated, kick arse legal team.
As the film goes on it suggests that Young’s case is complicated by the fact that it’s over a decade old and by Florida’s wildly unpleasant history regarding black men, in particular, a pattern of fear and punishment that extends into today’s penal system. Quite appallingly, it turns out to be complicated even more by what he’s done right during his time inside. When the judge hearing his case assesses that his good behaviour and impressive educational achievements only go to show that his imprisonment has been appropriate, I actually laughed out loud in disbelief. A kindly retired warden, Ron McAndrew testifies on Young’s behalf, saying: “nobody’s handed him a thing. Because of the length of his sentence, [the state] won’t give him a GED program. They won’t give him any education because they feel it’s a waste”. The emotions passing over Young’s face as the court case goes on are so hard to watch, and yep, with undoubtedly lead to more than one viewer’s “leaky eyes”.
Young’s story is incredibly sad, and even sadder is the fact that he is not alone. The United States justice system has sent 2,500 children to life without parole since the early 1990’s. 70 percent of those crimes by juveniles were, like Young’s, under the direction of an adult. If by watching 15 TO LIFE: KENNETH’S STORY even a handful of people are moved to help bring about change then it is more than worthwhile – the fact that it is a captivating watch is an added bonus.
15 TO LIFE: KENNETH’S STORY premieres Thursday 2 November 8.30pm on Rialto Channel