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Inside the Life of Lifers

Local filmmaker Tamara Perkins examines what happens when two convicts serving life sentences are released from San Quentin in the provocative documentary Life After Life.

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In 2006, Tamara Perkins found herself teaching yoga at San Quentin State Prison. When two inmates discovered Perkins also had a background in filmmaking, they asked if she would tell their story. Harrison Suega, 38, and Noel Valdivia, 49, had both been serving life sentences at San Quentin for murders they committed at 17 and 18, respectively; collectively they'd spent 51 years behind bars.

Six years of filming and 150 hours of footage later, Life After Life chronicles the lives of the two convicts inside San Quentin, and documents their unexpected release in 2010. But Life After Life also explores the troubling notion that the current prison system only serves to stigmatize and stunt prisoners, rather than rehabilitate them back into society.

Shot and co-produced by Jesse Dana, a three-time Emmy Award-winning cinematographer, Life After Life has screened a couple of times in unfinished form in the Bay Area, and recently wrapped up a successful Kickstarter campaign this past Saturday. They raised more than $30,000, which will be used to complete a rough cut of the full film, as well as fund an accompanying educational component and speaking tour. The project has already received high praise, including kudos from documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, who called it "fresh, contemporary, and engaging."

Perkins has a background in a variety of social-outreach programs in the Bay Area, having worked as a grief counselor; co-founder of the Niroga Institute, a yoga and meditation organization for traumatized youth and families; a consultant to Healthy Oakland; and the executive director of Apple of Discord Productions, a film production company focusing on public health issues affecting women and minorities. But Life After Life appears to be her most ambitious project to date.

Perkins was given unusually intimate access to the prisoners, the prison, and its inner workings, which she chalks up to her status as a trusted community member and the fact that two people who helped develop programming at San Quentin — Dr. Garry Mendez, founder and executive director of The National Trust for the Development of African-American Men, and Michael Shaw, director of the Urban Male Health Initiative for Alameda County — believe in more progressive offerings for "lifers."  

"The then-Warden at San Quentin [Robert L. Ayers, Jr.] really got it because he's coming from a public safety perspective and looking at the end goal," Perkins added. "How do we make sure that these men come back and are positive members of society?"

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, California boasts the highest recidivism rate in the country, with more than 70 percent of released inmates returning to prison within three years. While Perkins acknowledges that our prison system is decidedly broken, Life After Life is less about pointing fingers than it is about creating awareness and humanizing people society often paints as monsters.

Rather than relegating these men to a sphere of anonymity — murder typically strips individuals of their "right" to an identity other than as a killer — Perkins seeks to spark a national dialogue about the cyclical effects of incarceration and the vise-grip of violence on vulnerable communities.

"Right now, prison is not about rehabilitation, it's about punishment," said Perkins. "But what we need is restorative justice, a way for people to restore what's been broken. [Harrison and Noel] believe they needed to be punished. They say, 'We're taking responsibility for our crime, but at what point do we get to become full citizens again? At what point have we served our time and can now become part of the solution?'"

The answer, said Perkins, begins with pioneering prison programming, but has to extend to public understanding. "There are about 3,000 volunteers at San Quentin, and some of the most effective programs that have been facilitated were developed by incarcerated or formally incarcerated people, which are the most successful because they understand the issues," said Perkins. "With many of these men, like Harrison and Noel, they were just teenagers when their crime happened. They grew up with violence all around them and this disconnects you from what's happening. The numbness allows you to make decisions you otherwise would not make. And then they spend the rest of their lives trying to tip the scale back from the actions of their youth."

Perkins describes Suega's own journey to life in prison, which she believes represents the all-too-common tale of the 93,000 American youth currently held in juvenile justice facilities; 4,302 children are arrested every day, the majority of which are Latino and African-American males hailing from poor urban communities.

Harrison grew up in Hawaii with an abusive, alcoholic father. He said one day his father absconded with him to Los Angeles, where his abuse continued. Harrison began selling drugs in order to raise enough money to buy a plane ticket home. But he got tangled up with the wrong people, and the rest, as they say, is history.

All is not doom-and-gloom, however. Perkins noted that Oakland is where the Black Panthers were founded, and has historically boasted a long lineage of progressive thinking. "There are innovative ideas supporting the community, whether it's in public health, education, corrections, even alternatives to incarceration for youth," she said. "There are certain opportunities in place for prisoners, like Project Rebound at San Francisco State University, founded by Professor John Irwin. That's how Harrison is getting his degree in sociology."

Perkins believes these men are not only capable of reinventing themselves, but of serving as a vehicle for societal change through their firsthand experience of crime, incarceration, and redemption. 

"If no one has ever told you that you were special, if you've never felt the joy of being a light for someone else through providing guidance ... and suddenly you're thrown into a situation and can support someone else — maybe help them build resiliency or see themselves in a different light — suddenly education is a possibility. And you find out you're a great writer, a great leader."

Suega and Valdivia both mentored youth during their time in prison, and have continued their outreach work since their release. Suega has been working with UC Berkeley to create a program like SFSU's Project Rebound, which would help formerly incarcerated men and women get their degrees through UC Berkeley, while Valdivia has led workshops at McCullum Youth Court in Oakland.

Perkins believes some of the most compelling footage in her film was shot through the head cams she gave them, which offers the audience unique insight into the much-maligned minds of murderers. "They're so engaged in the project — they've really given their lives over to me and have been in a fishbowl for six years," said Perkins. "It's incredible, their dedication to eradicating this cycle of violence and incarceration. All we can see is their crime, but if we could see them as potential allies, and have them help us to create programs that truly would support successful re-entry and directly affect the dismantling of the 'cradle-to-prison' pipeline ... they could be part of solution."

For more information: LifeAfterLifeMovie.com

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