On April 8, 2009, 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 important, 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 with 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 re-entry 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 word "PIRU" tattooed across the knuckles of his right hand belies his hard-knock youth. The tattoo references Piru Street in the Los Angeles County city of Compton, 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 LA 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 duffel bag and walked 30 miles to a 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 the 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 a housing project 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.
“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 associate 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 world outside of prison.
“Lifers haven’t traditionally been much of the re-entry 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.”