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Oakland man determined to find a way home after 21 years in San Quentin

By Lauren Wilson | 2 Jan 2011

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After being released from this cell and his life sentence in San Quentin State Prison, Harrison Seuga is trying to adjust to normal life. (Photo courtesy of Harrison Seuga)

On April 8, 2010, Harrison Seuga stepped outside of San Quentin State Prison’s black metal gates for the first time in 21 years. He was wearier and more wrinkled than the rebellious teen who threw his future off-course all those years ago.

Two decades is a long time to dwell on the past, enough to cripple your sanity if your life is peppered with as many what-ifs as Seuga’s. What if he’d never left Hawaii at age 13 with his father? What if they’d moved anywhere but LA? What if he’d stayed home at the projects that cold January night, instead of running out with gang member friends when he heard another friend was in trouble? And perhaps most importantly, what if he’d shot the Uzi into the air?

These are ruminations that have plagued him since he was convicted of murder more than two decades ago. Now, even after a year and a half outside, Seuga, 39, still struggles the biggest what-if of all: what if, after 21 years in jail, he can’t make it on the outside?

“Very few lifers get out of California prisons,” said Joan Petersilia, a Stanford law professor and expert on prisoner reentry into society. “Only 100 people sentenced to life get out each year, so it’s a very, very small sample. And they usually  do quite well because they’re usually quite older and have sort of aged out of crime.”

Despite the hardships in his past and the challenges that await him, Seuga is remarkably good-natured. He’s got one of those gentle faces – kind eyes, easy smile. His shaved head is hidden under a beige cap, his stocky build clothed in a black long-sleeve shirt and cargo shorts. He speaks slowly and carefully, sincere but reserved. Goofy giggles frequently break his calm veneer. He seems like a nice guy you wouldn’t mind having for a neighbor. However, the PIRU tattooed across his right knuckles belies his hard-knock youth. The tattoo references Piru Street in Compton, Los Angeles where the infamous Bloods were founded.

Seuga’s childhood story could belong to plenty of other ex-cons – divorced parents, a violent alcoholic father, constant moving. Seuga was born in American Samoa and raised in Hawaii until his dad relocated him to Los Angeles when he was 13.

“In Hawaii, I was a square. I went to school, did well in school,” said Seuga. “Everything in L.A. was moving fast. It was difficult to make friends. You act up. You want to stand out. You want to be viewed as someone cool and someone cool meant being someone not very good at following the rules.”

When his father moved them again, this time to Orange County, Seuga decided he’d had enough. He stopped going to school, packed a duffle bag, and walked 30 miles to his friend’s house in Wilmington. Ignoring his dad’s attempts to lure him home, Seuga soon realized he could make a living by dealing drugs. He began using and pushing.

Soon after, he made his first of many trips to juvenile hall. At 14, he sold drugs to an undercover agent. “Being locked up for the first time was the worst incarceration experience I ever had,” said Seuga. “After that, it was all the same. The first time was the scariest.”

As Seuga recounts his past, he’s completely unaffected. It’s like he’s rattling off the Wikipedia page for Harrison Seuga.

He’s equally detached as he describes the night he killed David Ryan.

Seuga was 17. By then, he’d become entangled with the Bloods. “It was expected if you sold drugs,” said Seuga of his involvement.

It was a cold winter night in January but alcohol kept Seuga warm. He’d been drinking at the projects with friends when some older gang members ran in. A member of a rival Mexican gang from Torrance had picked a fight with one of Seuga’s friends at a party and thrown a bottle at his car as he left. Although his drinking buddies tried to dissuade him, Seuga hopped in the car and drove back to the party with the gang members. At the party, the scene was chaotic. People were running and chasing each other through the streets, brandishing sticks, trash can lids, and – in Seuga’s case, a 9 mm Uzi he’d borrowed from a friend.

Seuga found himself in front of the metal doors of the party. His companions started pounding on the door. Seuga stayed behind, overwhelmed.

Seuga's friend Noel Valdivia Sr. (left), was paroled four months ago after doing 30 years in San Quentin for murder and attempted robbery. The two help each other cope with life on the outside. (Photo courtesy of Harrison Seuga)

“The guys at the door were still banging on it, and they started yelling ‘shoot the door, shoot the door’ so I turned and shot,” Seuga said. “For a split second I thought about shooting in the air. They kept yelling ‘Shoot the door! Shoot the door!’ I just turned and fired. I thought I just shot two, three times but it was probably about 11 or 12.”

As soon as he shot, everyone scattered. Seuga ran too, hugging the heavy weapon to his chest. To this day, Seuga is shocked he didn’t shoot himself by accident. His friends scrambled over a wall; Seuga followed but the gun weighed him down. “When I jumped over the wall with it, it was so heavy it made me fall, so I fell on the ground and rolled.”

Seuga got away, but a few days later, the police showed up to arrest him. Night security guard David Ryan had been standing behind the doors when Seuga shot. The gunfire killed him. For Seuga, the magnitude of what he had done – along with his subsequent prison sentence – took years to sink in.

“My sentence was 17 to life, but what is that to a kid who dropped out of school at 14, was locked up several times before? It was just another block of time, locked up somewhere,” said Seuga, “It didn’t really hit me until my 20s when I started to think mature and understand what I’d done.” In 1993, his father died. Although he and his father didn’t have the best relationship, losing someone that close made Seuga realize the gravity of his actions.

Now, more than 20 years after that January night, Seuga is slowly trying to put himself back together. While in San Quentin State Prison, he earned his GED and AA degree. He served as a trustee of the San Quentin T.R.U.S.T. program which helps rehabilitate inmates and train them for life on the outside.

But for all that training, Seuga is still struggling with the transition back to the real world.

“Lifers haven’t traditionally been much of the reentry movement,” said Petersilia. “They’re likely to be older. Their family connections are likely to have been severed. Their work skills will be out-of-date and their institutionalization and imprisonment will have been much lengthier.”

Fortunately for Seuga, his family has provided him with a support network – he has a sister in Washington who visits when she can and more family in Hawaii who surprised him in July for his birthday. He also has his best friend, Noel Valdivia Sr., who was paroled four months ago after doing 30 years in San Quentin for murder and attempted robbery.

“We keep each other fighting because, you know, we’ve been together forever,” said Valdivia. “We’re facing the same challenges.”

However, Valdivia lives in Stockton, over an hour away from Seuga in Oakland. With no immediate family nearby, Seuga often has to cope alone.

“I was scared to death,” said Seuga of his first time back out. “I was at the corner walking and the traffic – I just wanted to run back inside the house. I just had this fear of everyone knowing I was a murderer.”

Seuga still tries to maintain a low profile when he can. However, he forces himself to make an effort and speak about his experiences for audiences ranging from criminology students at the University of San Francisco to at-risk youths.

“I see myself as undeserving of any reward of any kind,” said Seuga. “I do what I do – trying to help others, working with kids, working with addicts, going to school – I do it because of what I did.”

As for the out-of-date work skills, Seuga is slowly working to change that. Earlier that day, he had spent several hours in his apartment futilely trying to graph on Microsoft Excel for a class he’s taking at San Francisco State.

“You just have to try again,” he said with a sigh.

Conquering the computer is just one of many small steps Seuga must take. Even little things took time like adjusting to the supermarket or learning how to use BART.

Seuga celebrated his 39th birthday with friends and family in July.

“Lifers are not used to this much freedom of movement and this much choice,” said Kim Richman, associate professor of sociology and legal studies at University of San Francisco.

“They’ll go to the supermarket and see 50 different kinds of cereal and feel totally overwhelmed. They’ll walk out with nothing. They haven’t been given the ability to make a choice in over 20 years.”

When crossing the street, Seuga had to make an effort to pay attention to the crosswalk signs.  “When you’re trying not to break the rules, you have to pay a lot more attention,” he said with a laugh. He must report to his parole officer anytime he comes in contact with a police officer. Even the tiniest infractions count – recently a cop approached someone in a group Seuga was with for not having a headlight on his bike.

At 17, Seuga’s life was put on hold. He never did normal 17 year old things. He never went to senior prom, never applied to college, he never even graduated from high school – he quit at 14. Now it seems like he’s picking up where he left off. He was recently admitted into San Francisco State University. He regularly commutes to Options Rehabilitation Facility in Berkeley to continue training to become an addictions counselor. It would appear his life is back on track. However, unlike most 17 year olds, he’s not itching to move away to school and start a new life – he just wants to return to Hawaii, the island paradise of his childhood. It’s a simple wish but one that could take years to happen. Seuga’s parole prevents him from going beyond a 50-mile radius of his residence and, without a set date, it’s unclear when his parole will end.

As he walks into a diner for lunch, a hobo begs for some change. “Anyone got some change? Anybody, change? I’m just trying to get home, man,” the beggar says.

Seuga walks by, modestly shrugging his shoulders. He lets down his guard for a brief second. With a world-weary smile, he passes  and chuckles to himself, “So am I, man. So am I.”

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