Breaking Down Walls

creative writing program
Criminal justice student assists a Creative Writing Program participant. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Paul Sutton)

More than 30 years ago, criminal justice professor emeritus Dr. Paul Sutton had a vision – to break barriers between his students, inmates, and prison systems far outside their classroom walls. This led him to guide his first prison tour in 1978 for sociology students at the University of New Mexico at its state penitentiary. The eye-opening experience led him to create the first prison documentary in the country one year later: Doing Time. It won three Emmy Awards and aired across the globe including Belgium and Australia. It is still used in classrooms across the U.S.

“When Doing Time aired in Chicago, the audience was in the millions. I thought to myself, I can write an article and maybe a hundred people will see it. Or, I can make a movie and millions will see it,” said Sutton.

After joining the SDSU faculty in 1982, Sutton went on to create additional award-winning documentaries, innovative rehabilitative prison programs, and new teaching strategies at San Diego State University connecting the university to the community, including the California PrisonTour program for students.

“It was really a mind-changing and world-changing event for them,” said Sutton. “They came back thinking and believing nothing like what they thought when they started the trip. So I thought, well let’s try to capture this. Maybe it will affect the rest of the world the same way… and we made Prison Through Tomorrow’s Eyes.”

Sutton’s latest work Straight from the Pen reveals SDSU students mentoring inmates at Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego for several years in a creative writing class. It just received a merit award, selection for the Socially Relevant Film Festival this March in New York City, and selection for the (In)Justice For All Film Festival this April in Chicago.

“This story is one that screams from the hilltops that we are relevant (as a university) and we can help to make our world a better place,” said Sutton.

Sutton has taken more than 3,000 students over the last 30 years on week-long tours of eight to ten prisons in California. His teaching strategy not only breaks barriers – it continues to broaden opportunities for students post-graduation.

“I wanted more students to have that experience, exposure, and opportunity to put themselves in a position to make a difference. My credo is ‘whatever you make of your life, make a difference.’ That is what it is all about.”

For more information, check out the Straight from the Pen trailer and California PrisonTours website. – Jayla Lee

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