'They Call Us Monsters' director Ben Lear on seeing three teen boys stare down life in prison

In his documentary They Call Us Monsters, filmmaker Ben Lear set out to tell the stories of three boys–Jarad, Juan, and Antonio–at LA's Sylmar Juvenile Hall while each was awaiting trial in a maximum-security section of the prison called the Compound.


Jarad, 16, was facing 200 years to life for four attempted murders while Juan, also 16, was charged with first degree murder and faced 90 years to life—Antonio, the youngest of the three at 14, faced 90 years to life for two attempted murders. The three enrolled in a volunteer-taught script writing program at the facility and Lear's documentary follows them through the 10-week program and beyond as they work on a movie script of their own and grapple with the consequences of their crimes.

Lear spoke to Fusion about the rewarding learning experience of making the film and the importance of reexamining how juvenile offenders are treated by the American prison system.

The following interview has been edited and condensed.

What brought you to this story in the first place?

The whole thing started in early 2013. I had an idea to start getting into film and specifically had an idea about a prison story but knew nothing really about prison at all and didn’t even know where to go to learn. I read a New York Times article about this prison program that fascinated me. So then I reached out to Gabe, the teacher in the film, who’s also an old friend of mine, just to kind of throw the idea around with him. And he suggested that we meet with an old family friend of his who is a volunteer in a juvenile hall. And through that initial meeting we met this guy Scott Budnick who was by day a big Hollywood executive and by night he was just the most hardcore relentless effective juvenile justice advocate in the state I would say.

Now he’s a full time advocate. But at the time we met Scott, he brought us into four or five different facilities in the course of a couple of weeks, the most meaningful of which was definitely going to the Compound and sitting in for the first time with this class, InsideOUT Writers. And it feels like the beating heart of juvenile justice advocacy in LA because they're in every single juvenile hall teaching classes every week.

What was that like, sitting in on that class at the facility for the first time?

I’d never experienced anything like this. First of all, I’d never met a gang member before, I’d never met anyone who was incarcerated, I’d never met anyone accused of a serious crime. I had met some kids in like, juvenile camps before who were in there for three months, six months, who were in there for petty theft or truancy. These kids looked exactly the same. They wore the exact same County outfits. But they were facing decades if not hundreds of years in prison.


What struck you about the environment in there?

The vibe was more serious on one hand but, this is where it gets really complicated and what fascinated me, everything is a contradiction. On the one hand they’re kids in every sense of the word. On the other hand, they've committed the most serious crimes. They’re in there facing decades in prison, doing everything in their power to distract each other from what they’re going through. That is a contradiction and then this place is also a bit of a purgatory between childhood and adulthood, but really a childhood they never had and an adulthood they may never have.


But I also just really connected with them on a basic human level and had a really good time hanging out. I just thought, holy shit, I didn't know these kids existed, I'd never met them before, I feel like most people I know have never given them a thought one way or another.

What kind of an effect do you think having these very long prison sentences hanging over them has on these boys?


I think the sad part but also the most revealing part is that it doesn’t have that much of an impact. Because I don’t think they are capable of truly grasping the gravity of that. And that speaks directly to their age and the development of their brains. They don't have the part of the brain that determines long term consequences and impulse control and all that stuff.

So when you see Jarad getting 160 years in his sentencing and he's walking out of the court room with a smile on his face, it's your choice, you can think, 'well he's obviously a psychopath' or you can think, 'this dude has no idea what's happening to him,' on an emotional level. He's not there yet. He's just not mature enough. I don't know if I could even fully grasp that.


While that's obviously true I will say that they understand it to a certain extent for sure. That's why a lot of these kids are more interested in trying to change their lives than kids that don't have those sentences hanging over them. I think they think a lot about how much it's going to hurt their moms and they think a lot about how horrible it will be when something happens on the outside that they can't control. Or if somebody get hurt, if they lose a family member, and they can't be there.

How did they respond when you told them you'd be talking to the victims of their crimes as well?


They knew from the beginning this was going to be 100% not biased. I had to tell both sides of the story. They weren't allowed to talk about their crimes obviously because they were awaiting trial. But I told them I was going to. Jarad knew I was going to film the trial, that if I got access I was going to be there. There were a lot of nerves and a lot of anxiety and we had to be really careful about how we went about that.

Why do you think the pace of change in juvenile justice has been so slow over time?


I don't think it has as much to do with them being juveniles as it does to do with the types of crimes that they committed. I think the issue is that we have this mass incarceration problem, it's recognized as a problem.

And so there's a mandate to do something about it. I think lawmakers are going to naturally go for the safest option, which would be to release low-level, non-violent offenders. Get rid of mandatory minimums, get drug users into treatment, all that stuff. And then you realize that unfortunately that's not enough. You're going to have to look at lifers. You're going to have to look at people who committed serious crimes. And so I think the reason this issue is getting some traction is because I think once you look at serious offenders, I think the most palatable population are young people and that is because of the neuroscience that has come out and the Supreme Court decisions that have come out. That have basically forced the state to do something about it. But its incredibly slow.


What do you think the prospects are for that momentum toward reform to keep up given the national political climate at the moment?

The good news is the federal government is pretty limited actually when it comes to addressing these issues. The vast majority of them are state issues. The thing that the federal government can do is that it can set a tone. Obama made an announcement that he was going to get rid of solitary confinement federally and private prisons federally. That doesn't actually effect that many kids, but it sent a statement. So if that gets reversed, again it won't effect that many kids, but it will also send another statement. It really is a matter of what kind of lead the states are going to take from the federal government. I wouldn't be automatically super disheartened on this issue.


How are Juan, Jarad, and Antonio doing now?

I'm in touch with them all regularly. I have some credit on my phone so they call when they want. Antonio calls probably the most. He's in the middle of trying to get sent back into juvenile court again and released soon. He's definitely going to be out in not too long and he'll have another shot and being free.


Warren and Jared are obviously locked up for some time, but the great news with them is that they're both on the same prison yard and it's a youth offender program. So it's a bunch of former juveniles, who are living there together, going to college, doing tons of programs, trying to change their lives.

And some of this legislation, like SB 260, SB 261, these "second chance bills," are changing the environment on prison yards. They're making prison yards safer, like directly. It's a huge impact that isn't really talked about because not many people get to see what the yards look like. But what it's doing is its convincing some of the older guys who run the politics of the yard that maybe its worth letting these kids study. If they actually have a reasonable shot at getting out, everybody wants that for themselves. So its another opportunity for them to stay safe and stay on the right track. Warren and Jared are taking advantage of that. Jared was taking a business management class. Warren was taking some sort of technology class.


What's next for you professionally?

I'm actually working on that original scripted film idea that I had before the documentary ever started, so it's kind of come back full circle. I felt like I wasn't ready to work on that because I didn't have any basis of knowledge to work from. In the course of making the documentary I got very schooled. So now I'm ready to kind of go back and try to work on this fiction project.


They Call Us Monsters is screening now in select theaters nationally.