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New HBO Doc Explores An Experimental Prison Yard In California

A watchtower at California State Prison (Photo by Joseph Sohm via Shutterstock)
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HBO has an upcoming documentary on the lifers in an experimental prison yard that focuses on self-improvement. Toe Tag Parole: To Live and Die on Yard A premieres on HBO on August 3 at 9 p.m., according to City News Service. Produced by Alan and Susan Raymond (I Am A Promise: The Children of Stanton School), the documentary revolves around California State Prison's Progressive Programming Facility. This prison yard, also known as the Honor Yard, houses 600, most of them serving life sentences without the possibility of parole.

Some of these men have spent nearly their whole lives in prison after being sentenced when they were only in their early teens. One of the men, Ken Hartman, got drunk when he was just 19 and beat a man to death. He's been in prison for 36 years, according to a release. He told filmmakers that the argument for locking people up for life has always been that it's better than the death penalty. "I'm sentenced to Life Without the Possibility of Parole," he said. "It's not better than the death sentence, because it is the death sentence."

California State Prison is a maximum-security prison in the Mojave Desert. The Progressive Programming Facility, however, is unique. The program came about in 2000 after an inmate requested a separate prison yard for men who, like him, were serving life sentences with no chance of parole. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation responded by turning Yard A into the Progressive Programming Facility. Here, inmates receive educations, practice religion and take art and music therapy courses. Filmmakers say that the problems that plague other prison yards—violence, gangs, drugs, booze, racial discord—don't exist here. There are no other programs like it in the U.S., though these 600 men are only a small fraction of the 50,000 people who are serving life sentences in the U.S.

This HBO documentary comes on the heels of other successful documentaries from the network, including Going Clear, which explored Scientology, and The Jinx, a true-crime miniseries that ultimately resulted in the arrest of New York real estate mogul Robert Durst for murder.