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LOCKDOWN: Jimi Simmons spent 2 1/2 years in solitary confinement at Walla Walla prison in Washington state.

Beyond the River

The documentary 'Making the River' looks at how one man survived a prison ordeal

By Richard von Busack

SARA DEL SERONDE'S documentary Making the River gives a Native American man named Jimi Simmons what he nearly didn't get more than 20 years ago: a fair trial. Simmons' life was a long streak of violence, discrimination, abandonment and bad luck. The losing streak climaxed with a sentence for assault and robbery in the infamous Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla. At one point taken over by the feds for unconstitutional cruelty, the prison in the late 1970s was a cauldron of race hatred. Native Americans and Chicano inmates were at each other's throats. One count has 100 stabbings in two years, and rebellions led to a 129-day lockdown. When a guard named Bill Cross was shanked in the yard, Simmons and his brother, George, took the rap. They were accused with the help of an informer who was looking to shave some time off his sentence. Go into your bathroom and close the door, advises Ed Mead, ex–Walla Walla inmate and the founder of the website. Now stay there for the next two years for 23 hours a day. While Simmons was serving some 2 1/2 years of solitary, his case was taken up by civil rights lawyer Leonard Weinglass, as well as the San Jose activist who later became Simmons' wife, Karen Rudolph.

Like Dead Man Walking, Making the River is less about the matter of guilt than the matter of punishment. We do find out who the murderer was and the excellent reason why Jimi didn't inform against him. The prosecution tried to try Simmons in shackles. He was put before the jury in the mostly white city of Walla Walla, where the prison was one of the main industries. The Simmons brothers' murder trial was at one, then, with the dubious trials of Leonard Peltier and Mumia Al-Jamal.

Interviewees include 30-year vet of the prison Lt. Gary Edwards, who got two concussions and a broken jaw from his time working inside the gates of Walla Walla. In the film, Jimi Simmons, today a solemn, quiet, mountainous man, goes on tour with Karen and his two children to visit the places where he suffered. One location is the MacLaren School for Boys, of the Oregon juvenile justice system. Simmons often tried to escape from there and was just as often held in an isolation unit. There was a river nearby, and Simmons claims that the boys thought if you could reach it before the guards got you, you'd be free. Making the River is debuting in our area in a longer cut than the version that played at the American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco last year. The documentary is a benefit for the Bill Wilson Center dedicated to aiding at-risk youth. The center proves Frederick Douglass' point that it's easier to build up a child than repair a broken man; Simmons' life outside the walls proves there are some men who can't be broken.

Movie Times MAKING THE RIVER (Unrated; 83 min.), a documentary by Sarah Del Seronde, shows March 20 at 7pm (with a reception at 5:45pm) at Camera 12 in San Jose. Simmons, Rudolph and the filmmakers will participate in a Q&A afterward. Tickets are $45. (408.850.6132)

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