“I just wanted to share my story. I wanted people to know my struggles, to know what criminals have to face when they finally get out. They need to know that criminals are people,” said Harrison Suega.
Suega is one of the subjects of the documentary “Life After Life,” a film by California director Tamara Perkins. The film follows Suega, 46, and Noel Valdivia, 56, both released from San Quentin State Prison after serving life sentences for murders they committed when they were 18 and 17, respectively. The film also follows Chris Shurn, 36, who was convicted of drug possession when he was 22 and sentenced to life in prison.
The three navigate life after serving a collective 61 years behind bars. They each have families — wives and children — whom they try to take care of as they search for a job and comply with their parole.
Filmed over 10 years by Perkins — who began in 2006 while teaching yoga at San Quentin, a subject of another one of her films, “Niroga” — ”Life After Life” elevates the discussion around incarceration and criminal justice reform.
“If we continue to see all incarcerated men and women as a group instead of individuals with unique stories and potential, we’ll continue to have the issues that plague our country today,” said Perkins “We seem to be more interested in punishment rather than reform or rehabilitation.”
Perkins held a viewing of the documentary at the Miami Lakes Playhouse in January. She brought Suega and Valdivia with her, along with leaders of local criminal justice groups, including Anthony Blackman, a member of Liberty City-based group The Circle of Brotherhood.
“I’ve been in prison; I did five years in prison,” Blackman said. “We want to help those that have been incarcerated — that’s why I’m here. We have a school, we have job training programs, we do youth mentorship, we do job development, we create businesses.”
Perkins couldn’t bring Shurn, the third subject of the film. Shurn, who was convicted of a home invasion robbery that took place during the documentary’s filming, was on parole and had travel limitations.
“Chris is not the exception, he’s the norm. He shows the reality of African American boys. There are obstacles that I can’t just show you. But if you remove all of those obstacles, what’s left? Race,” Suega said.
Perkins seeks to show in her film that Shurn’s recidivism is not caused by an innate evil, but by his desire to help his wife and child — a situation many ex-convicts find themselves in upon release.
“My mission is to help the average person to see these men, their stories, their mistakes, and their potential. Only when we have that empathy, only then can we begin to make real progress for them and us,” said Perkins.
Suega is now re-entry director for the Asian Prisoners Support Committee, where he helps Pacific Islanders like him who are struggling with life after prison. He met with President Obama to discuss criminal justice reform.
After his release, Valdivia got remarried and lives with his new wife and child. Shurn was released from prison and is attending San Francisco State University, taking photography, among other courses.
“Although we’ve been successful, many others have not. We are the exceptions, and we need to try to help those who don’t have a film crew following them around,” Valdivia said.
Perkins is working on a new film, “The Waiting List,” exploring the role of gender, race and class in the child care and early education system.