‘Life After Life’ Documentary Takes Aims At America’s Criminal Justice System
‘America places people into poverty and then criminalizes them. We’ve got to ask ourselves, what kind of force do we want to be as a country?’
Circles are deceptively simple. A smooth ring with no edges or sides, circles are often made synonymous with the bittersweet cycles that govern our lives.
But their simple structure belies their more sinister nature. And perhaps there is no circle more sinister than the one we call our justice system.
Life After Life traces the journey of three men of color returning home from San Quentin State Prison in California, painfully illustrating the systemic racism that dominates American incarceration and the glaring lack of restorative justice for the 2.3 million people living in varying stages of captivity. According to the U.S. Census, Blacks are incarcerated five times more than Whites, and Hispanics are nearly twice as likely to be incarcerated as Whites.
Filmed over 10 years by Tamara Perkins — who began her journey in 2006 while teaching yoga at San Quentin — Life After Life was crafted from more than 250 hours of footage and aims to complicate the dialogue around those who’ve committed violent crimes; the film is a touching — if harrowing — portrayal of the complicated societal forces that prey on our most vulnerable communities.
Trauma, addiction, violence, poverty, and racism intersect in a twisted kaleidoscope that has rendered these men — like millions of others — “murderers and monsters” in the eyes of society, when in reality they were mere children suffering under extraordinarily difficult circumstances.
“America places people into poverty and then criminalizes them,” says Perkins matter of factly. “Our current system does not help the victim. It’s all about punishment with no care for cost. We’ve got to ask ourselves, what kind of force do we want to be as a country? Do we want people to thrive? What is our end goal as a society?”
Perkins, who has worked in grief and trauma for the past 17 years, also watched her Nephew — who is half black — get “the book thrown at him.” Although Perkins worked closely with the superintendent of the juvenile hall and the chief probation officer — and knew many of the judges when he was first arrested — she could do nothing to stop the process of mass-criminalization that actively feeds on young black boys.
She vowed to take aim at the system that took a child and nearly broke him.
Life After Life is taking that aim.
Harrison Suega, 45, and Noel Valdivia, 55, had both been serving life sentences at San Quentin for murders they committed at 17 and 18, respectively. Chris Shurn, 35, was first arrested for armed robbery at 16 and then sentenced to life when he was convicted of drug possession at 22.
Collectively they’d spent 61 years behind bars. All three men are on parole for four years; they must stay within a 50 miles radius and operate under a 10 p.m. curfew.
Seems simple enough, but when you’ve been stripped of your agency, your identity, your very adulthood, and face a devastating lack of support and understanding of a world without cement walls, creating a new life can feel nearly impossible.
And it nearly is.
According to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, more than 65% of those released from California’s prison system return within three years. Nationally, 650,000 people are released from prison every year and 2 out of 3 will reoffend in 3 years.
And while it feels exponentially easier to relegate these staggering recidivism rates to moral corruption, depravity, laziness, or some such belief that tidily places the blame on the prisoners’ obvious deficiencies, Life After Life illustrates how deeply flawed and problematic these narratives are.
Harrison has had a long time to consider what feels like personal failure when it’s actually the dizzying cycle of poverty and violence that follows families for generations.
“I was raised the way my father was raised, “ he says in the film. “Discipline. Punish. You can get used to getting beat up.” Harrison says his father used to mercilessly beat his mother as well. He says his inability to protect her haunts him. “I wanted to defend her but I was too afraid. I felt so weak.”
Harrison’s abusive father eventually absconded with him to Los Angeles, where he fell in with a gang “who became his new family.” He began selling drugs to try and get back to his mother in Hawaii, but fired a gun in a deal gone wrong — frantic, frightened, and drunk — and found himself in prison instead. He was 17.
“Everything was violence,” says Noel, the son of farm laborers in Stockton, California. “I was a scary kid. At 18 I tried to rob someone, the guy reached for the gun and before I knew it, my hands were on the trigger and he was falling to the ground.” He was denied parole 11 times and finally litigated his own case to achieve parole.
“Every child is innocent,” says Chris. “Until something breaks and you become a survivor.” At age 5, Chris witnessed his mother get stabbed in the chest by her husband. She escaped death, but recognizes her children weren’t able to escape the trauma. Her eyes haunted and brimming with tears, she says, “They never got the counseling they needed.”
Perkins believes the intersecting roles of race and implicit bias cannot be underestimated. “Black children are almost four times as likely to be suspended than white preschoolers,” she says. “You have to unpack that. We are starting this punitive action in kindergarten.”
She points to a chilling study conducted by Yale last year which revealed the incredible discrimination that plague black and brown children; this racism underpins our industrial prison complex and destroys millions of black families across America.
While we’d like to believe that the particulars of a child’s home life are often unknowns to their teachers and thus they’re punishing them for acting out like they would punish any student — what the study discovered is precisely the opposite.
According to Gilliam’s study, black preschoolers in America are more than three times as likely to be suspended than their white classmates. “Implicit biases do not begin with black men and police,” says Walter S. Gilliam, lead researcher and Yale child psychology professor. “It begins with black preschoolers and their teachers, if not earlier.”
“If a teacher knew more about the child’s situation — they were hungry, dealing with abuse, uncertainty and trauma in the home, and they were the same race, empathy went up, but if they weren’t the same race…the punitive reaction was actually higher,” Perkins explains. “We expect little black boys — just as we expect grown black men — to behave badly, despite all the evidence that runs contrary to that belief.”
While Life After Life is equal parts heartbreaking and infuriating, it’s also designed to spurn a dialogue around restorative justice. It’s designed to offer a solution and a way forward.
“For most of the men and women who I’ve worked with in trying to transition home, they’re amazing allies in supporting youth. We should be leaning into them,” she says. “Once someone has a felony it closes so many doors for the rest of their life. So this to me is both the pathway to employment and a way to reach youth.”
Perkins explains that another piece of the puzzle is the way we treat these crimes and the people who commit them as though they’re operating in a vacuum. When you start tracing the effects of a life sentence on a family, the fallout becomes exponentially more complicated. When you jail someone for 25 years, you are not only harming the individual, but every single person that cares about them.
“Look at Noel and his family. Every one of those 45 people were impacted by him being incarcerated for 30 years,” says Perkins.
“We need spaces in which we can heal communities. And I’m not saying there’s no room for punitive actions but in restorative justice, it’s about offering support instead of compounded harm. We could spend a fraction of what we do on incarceration if the focus instead was on seeing the whole child and providing whatever that family needs support for addiction or substance abuse. Simply making sure they have food.”
And let’s be clear: White privilege is potent, ubiquitous, and undeniable. Treating every individual identically — ignoring the “whole child,” the child with absent parents, daily violence or exposure to addiction — is as ridiculous as it is dangerous.
“If you already have incredible resources and a legacy of success behind you then your baseline reality is in a total different realm,” says Perkins. “And the irony is, as a society we don’t want you to be able to understand this horrible trauma. But hopefully this film allows you to know someone who’s served life in prison. Walk a mile in someone’s shoes. You never hear anyone say ‘PTSD,’ but the entire film is dealing with under-addressed trauma. It underlies everything.”
When I ask Perkins what exactly she hopes the film will accomplish, she falls silent for a moment and shakes her head. I think she’s worked on it for so long, her hopes are massive — and complex. But then she speaks. “If the audience just came out of the film and said to themselves, ‘This is a public health issue! Oh my god, we need healing and mental health-care for young people! In the prison! For everyone transitioning home! And we should provide resources for communities to provide this care!’ That would go a long way.”
But as Harrison reminds us, his eyes scanning the horizon, “There is an expectation that for children of color, that prison is unavoidable at some point in their life. It’s ridiculous.”
But if we don’t address the racism and systemic oppression that comprises the very foundation of our society, if we don’t address the racism that continues to prey on those who most need our protection, this expectation feels less ludicrous than it does logical.
Want to get involved?
August 29 Screening, Panel and Resource Fair
Please join us for the Sacramento debut of Life After Life, followed by a panel discussion featuring Noel Valdivia Sr. and Harrison Seuga from the film, along with the filmmaker and local community leaders. This event is co-presented by The California Endowment, Anti-Recidivism Coalition, and Sierra Health Foundation.
September 15–17, Justice on Trial Film Festival
Loyola Marymount University | Los Angeles, CA
The Justice on Trial Film Festival speaks to the challenges of people caught up in the judicial system. But their voices are often unheard beyond their own communities. The film festival creates an opportunity to project their voices to a world deafened by the negative images and stereotypes presented by the media.The Justice On Trial film festival grew out of a conversation between award-winning author Michelle Alexander and Susan Burton, founder of A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project.
Interested in hosting a screening? Contact the filmmakers at email@example.com.