Cindy Shank, a mother of three young children, was sentenced to prison for 15 years for her murdered ex-boyfriend’s crimes. Her brother Rudy Valdez, not wanting Cindy to miss out on her children growing up, picked up a camera and started to film. The home videos eventually became The Sentence, a documentary that chronicles the traumatic effects mandatory minimum sentences have on families. Read this Cindy Shank wiki to learn more about her prison sentence, how it altered her family, and The Sentence, which debuted on Monday, October 15, 2018, on HBO.
Cindy Shank: An Innocent Girlfriend?
In the late 1990s, Cindy Shank started dating Alex Humphry, an apparently emotionally, verbally, and physically abusive individual who also happened to be one of the biggest drug dealers in Lansing, Michigan.
On May 9, 2002, Alex Humphry was murdered in a shootout over an argument about drug territories. His killer was never found. Through a search warrant, though, local police uncovered a massive stash of narcotics, including 20 kilos of cocaine and 40 pounds of marijuana. They also located 12 guns and $37,000 in cash.
It ended up being the biggest drug bust the city had ever seen.
According to FBI Special Agent Andy Arena, “This organization operated out of the Lansing [area] from 1999 to 2002 and concluded with Humphry’s murder.
Despite the haul investigators found at Humphry’s place, they believed a substantial amount was removed from the premises before police arrived. It was thought that more than $200,000 was taken from the house and they were also aware of one shipment of 50 kilos of cocaine from Texas.
The head of the operation and lone distributor in Lansing was Humphry.
It wasn’t just Humphry the police were after—they convicted 28 individuals.
“When you convict 28 individuals in this kind of case,” said U.S. Attorney Charles Gross, “it’s quite a group.”
Included in that group was Cindy Shank.
Shank initially gave police information about Humphry’s criminal activity, which, she maintains, she was not involved in. Why did she stay with him if she knew he was a notorious and violent drug dealer? Shank said he became abusive, threatened her, and kept her captive for several years.
Despite her pleas of innocence, Shank was charged in state court in 2002 with conspiracy. She turned down a plea deal, which would have seen her sentenced to 13 years. Charges were eventually dropped, though, when prosecutors failed to make a case and Cindy Shank refused to cooperate.
At the time, her attorneys said Cindy Shank was “at most…a courier and a money-counter for him and the only question was whether she did it voluntarily or at the threat of his violence.”
Cindy Shank Moves on with Her Life
With the trauma of the court case behind her, Shank moved on with her life. Over the next five years, she settled down, landed a job, got married to a man named Adam Shank, and had two children.
Cindy Shank was pregnant with their third child when the federal government came knocking on her door early one morning and indicted her.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Michigan hit Shank with a multi-count indictment, charging her and others as co-conspirators. She was arrested and faced minimum penalties of 10 to 40 years and five to 20 years.
Her lawyer at the time said, “the government’s entire case was based on cops and snitches who got reduced sentences or charges dismissed. We managed to get one witness to testify that he never saw Cindy do anything and that she tried to stay out of Alex’s business affairs in the drug trade.”
His testimony did nothing, it seems, to help Shank’s case.
Cindy Shank Handed 15-Year Minimum Sentence
She was felled by what’s known as the “girlfriend problem.” Shank said she did not deal drugs; she only lived with a drug dealer. Still, that proximity was close enough for prosecutors. She was convicted of conspiracy and possession.
Since her conviction was related to drug charges, Cindy Shank was handed the mandatory minimum of 15 years for the two counts she was found guilty of, in a federal prison. The prosecutor actually wanted Shank to serve 89 years, but the judge gave her the minimum mandatory sentence.
When she reported to prison, her daughter Autumn, was four years of age, Ava was two years of age, and Annalis was just six weeks old. For the next 15 years, her daughters would grow up without knowing their mom.
The Harsh Consequences of Minimum Sentences
When the 15-year sentence was first handed down, her older brother Rudy Valdez thought there had been a clerical error. The judge probably meant to give her a sentence of 15 months. That seemed like a more appropriate sentence.
Appropriate, perhaps, but not what she got.
Thanks to the Reagan-era War on Drugs, Shank’s 15-year sentence was correct and was the shortest allowable under the law.
1980s War on Drugs
Valdez does not challenge the arrest or guilty verdict, but he is opposed to mandatory minimums, a remnant of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs. In 1986, Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act into law. The $1.7 billion government-led program resulted in tougher mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. It also changed the focus of the federal supervised release program to a punitive one from a rehabilitative one.
The War on Drugs was supposed to curb crime. But it didn’t. The U.S. has less than five percent of the world’s population but nearly 25% of its incarcerated population.
The U.S. imprisons more than any other country in the world, and most of those prisoners are there because of the war on drugs. This has resulted in millions of separated families. Those most affected are people of color. While the rates of drug use and sales are similar across ethnic and racial lines, black and Latino individuals are convicted at a much higher rate than whites.
Why did the so-called War on Drugs target lower-income communities and minorities? Under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, possession of 28 grams of crack cocaine led to a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for first-time offenders. To receive the same sentence for possession of cocaine in powder form, you’d need to get caught with 500 grams.
This discrepancy mainly hurt African-Americans and Latinos living in impoverished inner-city neighborhoods, where crack cocaine is cheaper than cocaine in the powder form.
Fair Sentencing Act
On August 3, 2010, then-President Barack Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act into law, which reduced the discrepancy in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine. Unfortunately for many already in prison, the Fair Sentencing Act is not retroactive.
If you were charged with distributing 50 grams of crack cocaine on August 2, 2010, you were given a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years. If you were convicted of the same crime on August 3, you would have received a lesser penalty.
It goes without saying that Shank’s incarceration had a massive impact on the lives of her family members: her husband Adam, three daughters, parents, and her brother, Rudy Valdez. Valdez, who was a pre-kindergarten teacher, didn’t want his sister Cindy “to miss her daughters living.” So he picked up a camera and started to film.
Cindy’s family was going to send her pictures and talk with her on the phone, “but I wanted her to watch them grow, run, and laugh and do all the things kids do that she was going to miss.”
Those home films organically turned into the documentary The Sentence. The film reveals how incarceration, mandatory minimum sentencing, and the War on Drugs affects families.
Valdez went on to say he wanted to document a story you don’t normally get to hear or see, a story about the children left behind. A story about the families left behind and the true ramifications of these kinds of sentences.
The day after Cindy was sentenced, her family was at home, with the girls on the couch. The eldest daughter, Autumn, was holding Annalis, who was just six weeks old. Valdez picked up his camera and started to film.
“My gut told me that I needed to start documenting,” he recalled.
His extended family didn’t seem to mind. When asked if there were times that Cindy’s daughters said that they didn’t want to be filmed, he said, “No, it was this trust factor that I had with them. They knew I was Uncle Rudy and that I was there to care for them and love them and tell their story.”
The story Rudy captured on film was more compelling than he’d imagined. The Sentence won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018.
Rudy Fights for Prison Sentencing Reform
Filming Cindy’s daughters also turned Rudy Valdez into a prison reform activist. Initially, Valdez thought going to prison was about rehabilitation, preparing inmates for their release and being contributing members of society. But it wasn’t. For Shank, prison was just a holding pen where people sat around.
As Valdez found out, Cindy’s predicament isn’t unique. There are thousands of women with cases like Cindy’s who are just as deserving to be released, if not more so in some cases. Their incarceration has a devastating effect on the entire family.
Valdez said he would always ask, “Who is this benefiting?” As he saw it, it was benefiting the people who profit off the prison industrial complex, “the people profiting off the backs of disenfranchised communities, mostly brown and black people. And that enraged me so much, because it’s pointless.”
Other than challenging minimum sentences, Rudy Valdez’s prison reform fight targets the entire prison-industrial complex. This includes the price of phone calls, markup of commissary items, and the cost of having a loved one in prison.
“When my sister was moved to Florida and her kids were in Michigan, they got to see her once a year. That’s cruel and unusual punishment. When we look at all the things that you are fighting for to reduce recidivism, it’s plain to see the things that help reduce recidivism are connections to family, connections to community, and just general family connections over all,” Valdez said.
Valdez goes on to say that his film is a call to action, but not a political one.
“I don’t say, ‘You need to go and do this, this is what’s going to solve this.’ I don’t think that that is going to work with this particular story.”
Instead, Valdez says, “I think that this is a hearts-and-mind revolution that has to happen. This is a cultural shift that has to happen in this country. And I hope that this is going to be able to play a small part in this stigma shift that we have with incarcerated people and the families of incarcerated people.
“They’re not the ones that need to be ashamed of themselves. The system that has created all this needs to be ashamed of itself, and we need to fix that…This War on Drugs has failed,” Valdez added.
Cindy Shank’s Family Falls Apart
Does the punishment fit the crime?
Shank spent most of her sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution in Pekin, Illinois. Her family lived nearby, and were able to visit her every six weeks.
This was stressful enough on her husband and three young children. But Shank was then transferred to another federal facility in Orlando, Florida.
If the stress of only seeing her family once every six weeks wasn’t enough, a 1,000-mile commute made it much, much worse. In fact, it destroyed her family. She didn’t get to see her daughters grow and her marriage to Adam collapsed (though they remain close). All because of a punishment that simply didn’t match the crime.
“Missing my daughters grow up, that’s what I was sentenced to,” Shank said.
Adding, “I was in three different prisons. I met hundreds of women who had the same story.”
President Obama Commutes Cindy Shank’s Sentence
Early on in Cindy’s 15-year stint in prison, her brother Rudy and then-husband Adam Shank searched for ways to get his sister out of prison. It was then that they came across presidential clemency. It was a long shot, but the pair was determined to help Cindy any way they could.
On November 22, 2016, as his term in office neared an end, President Obama commuted the sentence of 79 individuals, including Cindy Shank.
Cindy Shank was released on March 22, 2017 and returned to her family.