We thought viewers of Ben Lear’s They Call Us Monsters may be interested in hearing from the young men featured in the film. Yes, they have a lot of free time on their hands, but that didn’t guarantee they’d be comfortable writing back to us, to answer questions about their experience making the film and what they’ve been up to since. But we did hear back from Juan Gamez and Jarad Nava, both of whom are currently serving life sentences. [Antonio was advised by his lawyer to decline a follow-up interview.]
We’ve posted their answers below, and also included the original letters if you’d like to see an authentically handwritten response.
Have you seen They Call Us Monsters yet and if so what was your reaction to seeing yourself in the film?
Juan: “Yes, I saw the movie, before release. I have to admit that it was ‘weird’ to see myself from an outside perspective. I was more critical than anything, but I think that that’s just the person I was at that time.”
Jarad: “Yes, I was given the opportunity to watch the documentary and it was uncomfortable at first watching myself. I don’t know if it’s because I was acting like a fool. Nevertheless, it proved to be very insightful because I [saw] how I was coping with pain, hurt and the fact I forfeited my freedom. I used laughter as a mask to shield myself and others [from] my reality. Instead of facing my life I numbed myself to it and behaved immaturely.”
Was there anything that tripped you out or that you learned about yourself after watching the movie?
Juan: “Yeah, Jarad and I were tripping out on how many times we came out shaking hands. We thought that was funny. If I learned one thing about myself I’d say it is that the camera loves me. (Haha) Just kidding.”
Are you still interested in screenwriting and filmmaking and would you try to do that again even though you’re incarcerated? What other stories would you like to tell in film or writing?
Juan: “I find screenwriting and filmmaking very interesting, [e]specially for the power you can have of telling a story and raising awareness about certain topics. Of course, I would like to participate in activities like those even though I’m incarcerated. Other stories I’d like to tell… I look around at the people around me and I see great stories of personal achievements or overcoming struggles. Also, the story of my family, [e]specially my mom’s.”
Do you feel the law in California is generally fair when it comes to juveniles who commit violent crimes?
Juan: “I don’t want to say the law is unfair, but rather the people passing certain laws are quick to make decisions – like throwing you in prison and throwing away the key – without even giving you a chance (sometimes). And, I understand they’re just trying to keep the peace in the communities, which is real good, but I do feel that our youth has so much more potential and should be deal[t] with differently.”
Jarad: “No… because for one police officers manipulate juveniles through coercion to admit to information that they may actually be innocent of. Let me clarify, I don’t think juveniles should just be let free or given a slap on the wrist. But if studies prove a juveniles’ brain is not fully developed why would you give him more time in prison than he’s lived. Granted time should be done, but if prison is for rehabilitation and you give a sixteen-year-old 40 years to life, after 10 years he’s truly changed, you still keep him inside. The problem could be stopped before it reaches this… how does a teen get a gun is never questioned. What is going on in these cities that so many young teens are being charged for gang-related murders? What’s going on inside these households, schools, and streets?
What TV and movies do you watch in there? Are you allowed to watch anything? Are there any TV or movies that would inspire you in trying to do your own film?
Juan: “We are allow[ed] to watch TV, we can have our own [set] in the cell. The prison has a channel in which they play some of the new movies coming out…so we watch about everything and anything that tells a good story. I don’t usually watch TV shows like that, but I do like The Big Bang Theory, The X-Files, American Ninja Warrior, I catch them from time to time.” [He adds that nothing he’s watched has inspired him as far as doing his own film.]
Is there anything else you’d want to tell the movie’s audience about yourself that they may not know?
Juan: “Man, there’s so many things the audience don’t get to see, especially the fact that I’m grown now. I’m not that 17 or 18-year-old boy anymore. I’m guessing people probably think we’re still in the same mindset, and doing the same stuff. I can’t think of anything specific other than I’m grateful so many people have embrace[d] our story and joined the prison reform movement (one way or the other). I appreciate the support and open-mindedness.”
Jarad: “Since the movie I’ve been striving day after day to become a better person and hopefully re-enter society and just be a citizen, an asset, not a liability. I’ve since chosen to leave the criminal lifestyle in my past and serve my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I haven’t done drugs in three years [as] opposed to getting high every day. I got married to a beautiful amazing woman and we have two daughters, one’s three, the second a [little] over one year.
“I’m two semesters away from obtaining an AA in Business & Technology. I must say God is good despite where I came from, God has me living in the now looking forward and learning from the past. Change is possible but forgiveness is needed.”