Film profiles The Trust, San Quentin inmates working to better themselves
on October 20, 2010
The auditorium darkened, a face popped up on the giant screen, and an inmate at San Quentin State Prison began the story of the worst day of his life.
An eclectic group had gathered last Thursday at the Oakland Cultural Center to view the Oakland premier screening of the work in progress, THE TRUST: Reclaiming Community In the Heart of the Prison Crisis. Produced and directed by yoga teacher Tamara Perkins, the film puts faces on the incarcerated and brings light to the issues they confront. Most of the men featured in the film are members of The Trust, a group of prisoners at San Quentin working hard to better themselves.
The two main subjects of the film, Trust fellows Noel Valdivia, Sr. and Harrison Seuga, sat in the front row among other men who had participated in the film, all of whom were released in the past few months. Valdivia was the only one who had yet to see the 15-minute clip presented.
“That video was kind of chilling,” Valdivia said during the question-and-answer session after the screening. “Being inside for 30 years, looking back was very emotional.”
Before the film began, Perkins talked about how her time in San Quentin had shown her the inmates’ need for support. The men in The Trust “were working with shorter-term inmates, helping them to understand how they’ve been destructive to themselves and to their community,” Perkins said. “To begin to purge old ideas of behavior, and to work in their community, and beginning to have values that would drive their behavior going forward.”
These men were working hard to improve the world around them, an effort that touched Perkins. “That is why I choose to make a film about the human,” Perkins said.
The issues prisoners face fascinated Perkins, but it was only when she finished teaching yoga to members of The Trust and was headed out the prison’s front gate one night when the opportunity arose to transform that fascination into action. Someone was calling her name, beckoning her back inside.
“They wanted to know if I would help tell their story,” Perkins said. “I felt like it wasn’t my story to tell. And yet when they asked me, and I realized I could facilitate the story that was being told in a frank and honest way that allowed you to see the men and who they are—good, bad. I had to do it.”
Perkins began working on THE TRUST in 2007 with the help of cinematographer Jesse Dana, and editor Diana J. Brodie joined the project a year later. The trio has filmed for more than three years and Dana estimates they still have a couple more years to go before the project is complete.
THE TRUST intimately follows two recently released life-term inmates, Valdivia and Seuga. The film chronicles the men’s physical and emotional journeys as they try to better their lives and the lives of others both inside and outside the prison walls.
As an outsider, Perkins described her shock upon her first entrance into those prison walls. After passing through gates, check points, sign-ins and more, she said, she reached an astonishing courtyard with fountains, green lawns, and rosebushes. Not knowing the significance of the courtyard during that first visit, Perkins only noticed that one side was “just really beautiful” and the other was “just blocked down.” The right side of the courtyard is dedicated to faith, religion and prayer. The left side is the Adjustment Center, or Death Row.
It’s important to make clear, Perkins said, that she is “not an apologist, and there’s no excuse for the acts that led the men, or anyone, to prison, and [the men] feel the same way about that.” But even with her strict “no excuses” policy, Perkins believes that one bad act should not define who a person is.
“I had nightmares” the night before she went to San Quentin for the first time, Perkins said. “So, I did a loving-kindness meditation in the morning and I decided I was going to go in with an open mind and an open heart.”
Spending the majority of their time filming the everyday lives of men in San Quentin, Perkins and her cinematographer Dana formed a close bond with their subjects.
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt safer then surrounded by those men,” Dana said. “There is a sense about it that if something went down in the prison and I was there, nothing would happen because I would be surrounded by these people who would protect me.”
While initially nervous when she entered the prison, Perkins said she “was treated like a grandmother.” She was impressed by the respect given her, and the “special care” the men took, especially with a young yoga teacher like her.
But even with protectors, Dana said, “it’s an incredibly difficult, difficult job. San Quentin is a crazy place.”
After the screening, the floor was opened to questions for the five men who had taken the stage: Valdivia, Seuga, fellow Trust member Demetrius Daniel, PolicyLink vice chairman Joe Brooks, and Donald Specter, director of the prison law office.
Perkins started off the discussion with general questions about the negative views that surround prisoners and the prison system. “We have these perceptions of prison that everybody there is a rapist and a child molester and serial murderer,” Dana said. “You forget that most of the people in prison are just like you and me except for they have made a horrible mistake. Beyond that they are people.”
Seuga didn’t see his victim–he shot a security guard who was on the other side of a door Seuga hit. Seuga was sentenced to seventeen-to-life at the age of 17 and was released on April 8, 2010, after serving nearly 21 years.
These prisoners worked hard to get released, but with release came drastic change. “You are walking around like a robot because you are not in the computer,” Seuga said. “You go to the DMV and they say they don’t know who you are.”
“I’m thankful to be out, but to leave the guys behind is the hardest part,” Valdivia said. “They become family.”
This re-introduction to society after more than two decades behind bars is central to many of the issues discussed and a crucial marker in these men’s lives. During the discussion on rehabilitation, Specter added that though California added ‘and Rehabilitation’ to the name of the Department of Corrections, most insiders refer to it as the Department of the Corrections with a silent ‘R.’
But the quips soon turned serious as several passionate audience members stood up to the microphone to voice their opinions. Former San Quentin inmate Lindsey Bolar, who served 23 years, talked about the lack of rehabilitation provided by the prison. “You put the violence in a cage, don’t treat the violence and then just let the violence back out” Bolar said, as “yeah” and “amen” could be heard echoing throughout the room.
THE TRUST confronts complicated and controversial issues that the San Quentin inmates and men of The Trust will deal with for the rest of their lives. “Part of the challenge is saying, well, when do we stop filming?” Dana said. “When do we have that story?”
The story is not finished, but Perkins is already spreading her message through preview screenings and panel discussions. “Here’s the bottom line,” Perkins said. “I saw their humanity. I no longer saw them as others. I realized it’s so easy to disconnect ourselves from people we don’t understand or are afraid of. These experiences remind me we just want a sense of connection.”
Correction: Valdivia and Seuga did appear in THE TRUST film clip.
Lead image: Audience member, and former San Quentin inmate, Lindsey Bolar asks the panel a question concerning the rehabilitation of prisoners after the Oakland premiere of the film The TRUST last Thursday evening.
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