Former San Quentin State Prison resident and Bay Area native, Adamu Chan, has created a documentary film about the SQ Covid-19 outbreak.
The film, entitled What These Walls Won’t Hold, is about 40 minutes long and details the relationships, struggles, and connections that transcended prison walls during the deadly outbreak.
“This film tracks the origins of Covid-19 inside the California state prison system and a newly formed coalition led by currently and formerly incarcerated people,” Chan wrote in an email.
Chan is referring to the #StopSanQuentinOutbreak coalition that was formed in the summer of 2020. The coalition brought forth an “abolitionist framework to a life or death situation,” according to Chan.
The film was screened at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco on June 5, 2022. It follows Chan’s relationship with his best friend Isa Borgeson and formerly incarcerated person Lonnie Morris as well as Rahsaan “New York” Thomas, current co-host of SQ’s Ear-hustle.
Chan spent 13 years in California’s prison system, the last two at San Quentin. He was fortunate to be moved during the outbreak from the West Block housing unit to H-Unit’s dorm living, which was unaffected by Covid at the time. During the Covid lock-down, he stayed connected to friends and family via phone calls and letters.
While at SQ, Chan joined a media center program called First Watch, which helped him develop skills for documentary filmmaking. First Watch has since changed its name to Forward This Productions.
As part of First Watch, Chan walked around the prison with film crews to make short clips about prison life. These clips were broadcast at prisons throughout the state. Chan also wrote several articles for outside publications that detailed the dismal conditions inside the prison system during the outbreak.
“It was there that I learned the technical aspects of film-making,” he said, “but also formed my commitment to serving and representing the community of incarcerated people across the state with this powerful platform.”
He was eventually granted a Penal Code Section 1170 recall of sentence while the surge was ongoing and paroled. Chan started working at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, went to school and continued pursuing his passion of studying film.
In 2022, Chan became a Mellon Artist Fellow at Stanford’s Center for the Comparative Study in Race and Ethnicity. The fellowship provides funding for a year of filmmaking projects.
“Being a person who has been impacted by harmful narratives and representation in the media, it informs my purpose and fuels my desire to create work that shifts perspectives,” Chan said. “I want to help reverse the harms of the Prison Industrial Complex.”
To date, Covid has killed over 200 incarcerated people in California and more than 50 correctional officers. It has also affected the lives of tens of thousands of incarcerated people and their families.
Chan’s goal is to make films that open up avenues for people who have also been impacted by incarceration. He hopes system-impacted people can tell their own stories and share their experiences in a way that feels true to them — rather than allowing these narratives to be shaped by the state or the biases of outside media.
Chan hopes that his film will be available for screening t SQ in the fall of 2022.
“My work is rooted in the belief that cultural strategies can drive political transformation, and to do this, directly-impacted people must have the resources and opportunities needed to tell their own stories,” said Chan.
Chan wants to inspire people to overcome the violence and pain of incarceration. He encourages incarcerated people to stay closely connected to outside communities and the loved ones that help hold them together.
“This film is a testament to the transformative power of our relationships, which reach across prison walls and beyond separations of power to actualize the world impacted communities are fighting to create,” he said. “I see my art as a commitment to communities who are fighting for their very existence.”
Chan is referring to communities around the Bay Area that are either undergoing gentrification or facing the threat thereof.
“I see my role as maintaining a collective memory of the people, places, and experiences that make up the Bay Area that are under threat of disappearing,” he said.
Chan’s next project will be to direct a short documentary about a local activist for PBS.