Why we’re making this film
Award-winning filmmakers Drew Petrimoulx and John Fernandez are teaming up to tell the compelling story of how a former drug addict turned law student worked with a transgender inmate to fight for justice after the inmate was abused by guards at a Florida prison.
This film will bring two urgent messages to audiences around the world. The first is that we must understand that people who are addicted to drugs are more than their addiction. Telling stories of the incredible things that are possible when people are able to free themselves from the vice grip of this disease helps promote a more progressive approach to dealing with the problem of drug addiction.
The film also sheds light on the abuse trans inmates, especially those of color, face while behind bars in the United States. One in two Black trans people in America has been incarcerated in their lives. According to the Department of Justice, nearly 40 percent of trans people in prison have been sexually assaulted, more than 10 times the rate of non-trans people. This film will bring to light the systemic abuse of incarcerated trans people and advocates for them to be treated with dignity while they are in the hands of the criminal justice system.
If you care about these issues, we need your help to bring this story to the broader public.
This project all started with a social media post by a woman that Drew and John knew from high school. Tiffany Toldeo was the type of student that sat in the front of the class. She got straight A’s. She was on the cheerleading team. And she was always involved in extra-curricular activities around school. But it was clear from the post that Tiffany had been through a lot since the last time they saw her.
Here’s the part that really got their attention: “Today, I go to see my very first client for the first time at Avon Park Correctional Institution. I have feelings about this – I’ve been to prisons and jails, but never voluntarily.”
Um, what!? Tiffany Toledo from high school went to prison? Drew and John had to know more. So they sent her a message and set up a phone call. Tiffany told them about a harrowing struggle with addiction that began after the sudden and unexpected death of her mother. Tiffany started using opiates to dull the pain. Eventually, she became an intravenous heroin and meth user. She was arrested multiple times. She was in and out of jail. She lived in a car and drug houses. For 10 years, she fought a battle with addiction until she finally got sober.
Inspired by a lawyer who defended Tiffany during her battle with addiction, Tiffany decided she wanted to go to law school. She studied tirelessly and worked to clear a slew of hurdles to prove addiction and crime were in her past. Tiffany was accepted into the Stetson University School of Law where she quickly rose to the top of her class.
While in law school, Tiffany learned of a case involving a transgender inmate named Levante Gordon who was suing several prison guards and the state of Florida over abuse Gordon was subjected to while behind bars.
Levante was raised in Florida’s foster care system, having been taken away from her biological parents at an early age. Levante grew up in a life of fear, facing constant physical and mental abuse. She struggled with her gender identity and sexual orientation. Eventually, Levante got caught up in the criminal justice system.
In May of 2019, Levante was serving a prison sentence for burglary at the Franklin Correctional Institution in Carrabelle, Florida. Levante had come out as trans, which made her life behind bars especially difficult. One day, prison guards informed Levante that she was being moved to a new cell with another inmate. The inmate was a known member of a prison gang whose “code” barred any interaction with transgender or homosexual inmates. Despite violent threats from the other inmate and pleas from Levante to stay in a solitary cell, the guards forced Levante and the gang member into the same cell. Levante was attacked. She was punched in the face repeatedly before she fell to the ground and suffered many kicks to the face and ribs while she curled up in the fetal position. The attack left Levante with a concussion, broken tooth, and black eye. But her mental wounds were even deeper, including a profound distrust of prison guards and other public safety officials – the very people whose job it was to protect her.
In response, Levante filed a federal lawsuit alleging a violation of her civil rights. Levante initially represented herself and was able to survive attempts by the guards’ lawyers at the Florida Attorney Generals’ Office to dismiss the case, no small feat for an inmate without a lawyer.
When Tiffany heard about the case, she traveled to the prison to meet with Levante. Levante told Tiffany that she filed the lawsuit to expose the abuse that she and other trans inmates are subjected to behind bars and help push for better treatment. Under the supervision of a mentor lawyer, Tiffany took the case.
What ensued was a David-versus-Goliath struggle as Tiffany and Levante fought to expose the evidence that would prove their case while the attorney general’s office denied any abuse had happened.
What your support means
Drew and John have done a lot of work on this film already. They’ve been conducting interviews, shadowing the people involved, and pouring over court documents. But there’s a lot of work to be done to bring the story to the public. Post-production will demand many hours of careful editing which will require Drew and John to take time away from other work opportunities. They plan on hiring professionals, at a fair wage, to help with music scoring, sound design, color grading, and animation to raise the production value of this film to the quality they believe these issues deserve. They also want to allocate funds to a web designer to create a home for information about the film online. Finally, they want to spread the film far and wide. That means paying fees to enter it into film festivals all across the globe. Your donations will help cover all these costs. Any leftover funds will allow them to pay travel expenses to attend film screenings where they will further promote the film’s message.
About the filmmakers
Drew Petrimoulx and John Fernandez are high school best friends from Tampa, FL. They met at baseball practice the summer before freshman year and were inseparable for the next four years. But after high school, they drifted apart. Drew moved across the state for college and then started a career in TV journalism that took him from Orlando, FL, to Little Rock, AR, to Washington, DC. John stayed in Tampa working in various jobs before realizing his career path in film production. He graduated from film school in 2011, working on productions ranging from commercials and TV shows to feature films. But as the world shut down in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, both Drew and John found themselves back in their hometown. They reconnected over their shared love of filmmaking to launch a production company they called Framed Up Productions.
Drew and John’s first film together, Carving a New Life, tells the story of Daniel, an addict, who turned his life around to become a master craftsman of classic wood chairs. The film was released in partnership with NowThis News and has been viewed more than 75k times online. Carving a New Life received the Best Documentary Subject award at the 2021 LA Documentary Film Festival and was a finalist in the short doc category at both the 2021 Toronto Independent Film Festival of Cift and the 2021 New York International Film Awards.
Drew and John are committed to telling impactful stories that give voice to the voiceless, hold power to account, and promote a world that respects the dignity of all people.