A glimpse into the lives of three men following their release from a California prison has helped spark new conversations locally about the need for criminal justice reform.
In Florida, about 90 percent of prison inmates eventually return to their communities, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. But only a minority of those inmates receive basic rehabilitation services while in prison.
As a result, the transition back into the community can be difficult without a change in that person’s way of thinking and the collateral damage is far reaching — affecting loved ones, the community and even the economy.
“No one is useless,” Harrison Suega said. “We have just not found a use for that person as a community.”
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Dozens of local residents and advocates gathered at the Manatee Performing Arts Center for the screening of “Life after Life,” which tells the stories of Seuga, 47; Noel Valdivia Sr., 57; and Chris Shurn, 37, following their release from San Quentin State Prison in California.
The screening, hosted by the ACLU of Florida, was followed by a panel discussion led by the film’s director Tamara Perkins, Valdivia, Seuga and Neil Volz, political director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.
Valdivia and Seuga were arrested and charged with murder by the age of 17. Later convicted as adults, they met at San Quentin and the film introduces them at the time of their release.
Adjustment to life outside prison is especially difficult for many such as Valdivia and Seuga, who at that time had spent more years of their lives inside prison than out, as the film shows. The depth of this difficulty is demonstrated with the most basic daily tasks such as when Seuga allows his roommate to board a public bus before him and explains why.
“I didn’t know where the money went,” Seuga said.
The film shows how they both struggle but rebuild their lives, and how they continue to pay the consequences of their convictions long after they have paid their debt to society.
Seuga went on to get certified as a substance abuse treatment counselor and later graduated from San Francisco State University. Today he works at a re-entry program for Asian and Pacific Islander prisoners in California.
After the marriage to the mother of his eldest two children ended while in prison, Valdivia rebuilds the bonds with his family and goes on to meet someone new and today is happily married with two small children.
Shurn, who was paroled after serving prison time for a strong-armed robbery conviction, was not present for Tuesday’s screening. Demonstrating a real-life example of why recidivism rates are so high in the United States, his story in the film has a different ending — being arrested on new charges that include armed robbery, grand theft and imprisonment.
With his girlfriend approaching the end of her pregnancy with his youngest child, Shurn becomes overwhelmed and commits a home invasion. He has since been released from prison and is getting settled into life at home again, according to Perkins.
Before being shown in Bradenton, the film was shown in more than 50 locations across the country in hopes of promoting the need for reform and reframing the conversation.
At a time when there is a shift in criminal justice reform, Perkins didn’t shy away from using the experiences of violent offenders in the film, she explained before the screening. But it was Valdivia and Seuga who approached her about telling their stories.
“This is all started when I was asked to teach a yoga class at San Quentin,” Perkins said.
She undertook a project that lasted more than 10 years after that yoga class at the inmate-organized health fair.
Some in attendance questioned the men on how they could best help loved ones who will be returning from prisons. Others spoke of local efforts to get reform.
There are collateral consequences of having a felony conviction, Harrison explained, which include access to employment, education and medical services.
“These are all services that have these collateral consequences in which even after you paid all your fines and time, you’re still paying for it in some ways, never allowed to really truly experience what it is to be a citizen in this country,” Harrison said.
Even natural-born citizens can be stripped of their rights, he reminds the crowd, and he used Volz as an example. As a convicted felon, Volz — until recent enacted legislation in Florida went into affect — could not register to vote.
“So in some ways, he got his citizenship back,” Harrison said.
Through his work with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, Volz was part of the effort that got Amendment 4 on the ballot in November 2018.
“I registered to vote for the first time in a long time on Jan. 8,” Volz said. “I got my voting card Saturday in the mail.”