San Quentin Can Rebrand, But Prison Is Still Prison

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Filmmaker Adamu Chan stares into the distance while holding his camera.
Filmmaker Adamu Chan was released from San Quentin in 2020. This month, his new documentary 'What These Walls Won’t Hold' has its local premiere in San Francisco.  (Courtesy Adamu Chan)

Behind the concrete walls and steel bars of San Quentin State Prison sit more than 3,000 people, currently serving time. The facility itself sits on 432 acres of land in Marin County, one of the top five wealthiest counties per capita in the United States, where well-off residents walk their dogs and take in gorgeous views of the San Francisco Bay on a beach that’s just a stone’s throw from the 171-year-old complex.

While the natural environment surrounding San Quentin is a reminder of why so many love this region, inside, the prison exemplifies one of the largest issues plaguing this country: a failed carceral system.

A man gazes toward a large concrete complex that sits near a bay of water.
San Quentin State Prison, the subject of Adamu Chan’s new documentary, ‘What These Walls Won’t Hold.’ (Courtesy of SFFILM)

In 2020, San Quentin was home to one of the largest COVID-19 outbreaks of any prison in the country. Since then, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, San Quentin has been the site of over 3,000 confirmed cases and 28 total deaths directly related to the virus.

Just a few months after the initial outbreak at San Quentin, filmmaker Adamu Chan was released from its gates. And in April, the San Francisco Film Festival will screen Chan’s latest film, inspired by his experiences, titled What These Walls Won’t Hold.

Taking viewers into the United States’ massive prison system, the film focuses on how people rely upon each other in order to navigate the dehumanizing elements of a system that controls them and the facility that confines them.


Throughout the story, Chan shares personal reflections about the circle of friends he developed inside of San Quentin, as well as the community outside of its walls. He details the contradictions between the harsh reality of being behind bars and the intrinsic beauty of the natural environment around the facility.

Driving the story are written letters to and from Chan. Through these notes, viewers gain an understanding of Chan’s friendship with poet and organizer Isa Borgeson. And just as viewers see Chan’s own reentry process, the film covers the homecoming ceremonies of San Quentin News editor Richard “Bonaru” Richardson, Ear Hustle co-host Rahsaan "New York" Thomas and longtime San Quentin resident and restorative justice practitioner Lonnie Morris.

A man with graying hair and a plaid shirt embraces a shorter woman, burying his head in her shoulders.
San Quentin News editor Richard ‘Bonaru’ Richardson comes home in Adamu Chan’s documentary ‘What These Walls Won’t Hold.’ (Courtesy of SFFILM)

Morris’ scene is especially poignant; after making his way out of San Quentin’s gates, he’s embraced with congratulatory hugs, comments of love, and praises of “you did it.” (He’s quick to correct people, saying “we did it.”) Addressing the crowd with a speech that toes the line of a prayer, Morris speaks on the importance of living in the present moment, valuing those around you, and honoring the creator. As his speech winds down, someone in the crowd says “Now let’s get away from San Quentin!” — to which Morris vigorously agrees.

But just because you’re home doesn’t mean you’re free, as Chan explains to me. When we talk, Chan — a 2022 CCSRE Mellon Arts Fellow at Stanford University — lets out a laugh of frustration and tells me he’s just gotten word that he was denied the ability to travel to New York, where he was scheduled to attend and present at a conference at Columbia University.

Chan’s disheartening call came days after Governor Gavin Newsom announced plans to change the model of San Quentin: from California’s oldest functional prison, with the largest death row in the nation, to a restorative facility largely based on prison models in Norway. The idea came after stakeholders, elected officials and people who’ve spent time in prison visited the Scandinavian country last year.

“Norway does a better job in certain senses,” says Chan, who was part of the Norway trip. He saw firsthand how prisons in the European country differ from the ones in the United States. But ultimately, he says, one thing remains the same: “It’s a prison system.”

Chan recognized that he was on a guided tour, he tells me, and adds that “they will only show you what they want you to see.” San Quentin, which also offers tours to visitors, similarly offers a selective view.

“(San Quentin) is like a living museum, a show prison. They’ll show carceral practices of the past so they can show you how far we’ve progressed,” Chan tells me, using the example of the prison’s relatively new hospital, which sits atop a defunct dungeon.

Filming ‘What These Walls Won’t Hold.’ (Courtesy of SFFILM)

Inside of San Quentin, a wide array of programs are available, such as coding, theatre, restorative justice, and an award-winning newspaper. But space within those programs is limited, and not every person can benefit.

Chan, who did benefit from San Quentin’s programs, is in support of people inside having greater freedoms and access. But he questions the overall notion of rehabilitation coming from state-sanctioned isolation.

While the stuff he saw in Norway was moving — a full grocery store, spacious bunks — people there are still isolated, separated from friends and family, and controlled by a governing system. Fundamentally, Chan says, it’s no different than what people experience in the States.

“What we need is better prisons?” Chan asks rhetorically, questioning the philosophy behind the proposed changes. “No,” Chan answers, “What we need is something that deals with the larger issues we’re up against. We need to question where violence comes from. We need to question, what is violence?”

In the face of the sweeping natural hills that surround San Quentin, big claims of rehabilitation from elected officials, and resources permitted to San Quentin residents that aren’t accessible to folks in other prisons in California, Chan is clear about how he survived while incarcerated: community.

“The people that I was privileged to be around,” Chan tells me, “we benefited from building our own community, smaller systems of care and accountability, and supporting each other.”

Now, Chan is looking to share this story beyond the prison’s walls.


‘What These Walls Won’t Hold’ screens as part of the San Francisco Film Festival on Saturday, April 15 at 12pm and Sunday, April 16 at 2pm. Details here.