The video opens to a stark image of a guard tower and a wall topped with coiled razor wire.
Inmates in blue prison-issue pants and T-shirts mill around in dusty exercise yards at Richard J. Donovan state prison in Otay Mesa.
A prisoner speaks as the images roll. not going to go around and share with everybody my personal feelings because – it prison.?/p>
But for four years, he and scores of inmates at Donovan did just that.
They shared their deepest fears, insecurities, hopes and honest reflections in a creative writing class organized in 2011 by L. Paul Sutton, then a criminal justice professor at San Diego State University.
When Sutton decided to retire in 2015 after 24 years at SDSU, his wife, Lori Sutton, started filming his final writing class for a documentary.
The result was traight from the Pen,?an up-close look at some of the 25 inmates and 12 students who discovered that as they learned to write short essays, they learned even more about their shared humanity.
t the content of the writing that drives the movie,?Paul Sutton said in an interview.
A theme that emerged from the essays was, as one ex-con would later say, 淓veryone is redeemable if they want to be.?/p>
The Suttons are taking their documentary on the road this year, showing it in film festivals in Florida, New York City, Oakland and Los Angeles, with Laughlin, Nev. and Chicago ahead. In New York, Sutton said, the film won the 渕aking a difference?award.
This weekend they traveled to the 18th annual Ojai Film Festival, where their 52-minute feature documentary was to be screened on Saturday and again on Nov. 12.
As part of the festival, they will take part in a 90-minute panel talk on crime, prison, and personal change. Joining them will be some former Donovan classmates and Kansas author John Brown, who helped teach the writing classes.
think it an opportunity for us to share with people who may not know the struggles of life some men and women went through prior to their crimes,?said Robert Gullet, 42, an ex-渓ifer?who was paroled in 2015 and will be one of the Ojai panelists.
Gullet was barely 16 when he was sentenced to life plus 16 years for two attempted murders in the course of kidnapping for robbery, and residential robbery in Los Angeles County.
Now, he and his wife run a non-profit correspondence course to help inmates prepare for parole board hearings. He also works as a motorcycle mechanic and holds other jobs in Riverside County.
Gullett credits Sutton class for bringing about personal changes that impressed the state parole board and enabled him to leave prison sooner than he once expected.
For each of the 14 weeks of class, the SDSU students would file into a prison room and sit on one side of a semi-circle of tables, facing the inmates. Brown would fly in from Kansas to assist at the start and end of each course.
Sutton tossed out a new essay topic each week: Growing up. Pain. Parenthood. Loss. Struggles. Breaking free.
In addition to making the documentary, Sutton compiled several dozen essays into a book.
asked them to talk about their weaknesses, things that could get them killed,?Sutton said. e started from the premise that you all have a story. But you need to write effectively. Not about bad prison food, but to be understood as a person.?/p>
Taking the challenge to heart, the inmates started helping each other with their compositions during free time.
s each week went by, I was learning more about myself. I started gaining confidence. I had a better understanding of why I became an angry person, why I became violent,?Gullett said in a recent interview.
In one essay, Gullett wrote about his birth to parents who were drug and alcohol abusers.
n innocent baby boy, a struggle for life from the start: my first day, and high on heroin,?he wrote.
On the other side of those tables in 2011, Taryn Borsch was an SDSU social work major. She saw Sutton class as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see life through inmates?eyes.
Now a high school guidance counselor trying to keep kids out of trouble, Borsch recalls the class as ne of the most enlightening experiences Ie ever had.?/p>
he authenticity of their work surprised me,?said Borsch, She plans to be on the traight from the Pen?panel in Ojai.
淧eople see (inmates) as degenerates who are a waste of resources,?she said. s a result of my experience, I see prison as a wasteland of human potential.?/p>
Robert Brown, community resources manager at Donovan, recalled the writing course as having a positive influence on inmates.
lot of those who participated earned their way to lower levels of security. A lot of them were paroled,?Brown said. But, he noted, once the Suttons ended the course, no one has come forward to restart it.
There is, he said, a popular playwright course that in the past four years has attracted more than 200 inmate participants. They write plays under the tutelage of professional playwrights. Professional actors stage the plays at the prison.
In an advanced class, inmates collaborate on a play with drama students from San Diego State, where it is performed by the students, not inmates.
The Suttons have produced several other award-winning prison documentaries. The first in 1980 wasoing Time,?about life inside the Penitentiary of New Mexico, with a sequel,oing Time: Ten Years Later.?Next came 淧rison through Tomorrow Eyes,?chronicling how Sutton took criminal justice students on weeklong tours inside several California prisons.