Finding Peace and Compassion at San Quentin

By Tracy Nguyen

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Every Monday afternoon, Asian Prisoner Support Committee (APSC) holds a class with Asian, Pacific Islander, and “Other” prisoners at San Quentin State Prison. The ROOTS (Restoring Our Original and True Selves) program seeks to increase knowledge about API culture, history, community issues, and healing practices. With guest speakers, group discussion, personal sharing, and leadership opportunities, ROOTS is a unique program that enhances opportunities for transformation and reentry.

This past winter, API Equality – Northern California was invited by APSC to co-facilitate an LGBTQ workshop for ROOTS. After our workshop, I left feeling very emotional because I came out to a room full of predominantly straight men I didn’t know and was received with the greatest love and acceptance. To this day, I don’t think I’ll ever experience anything so deeply grounding in the outside world.

In the workshop, I asked them to share with a partner what it feels like to hide a part of their identity or who they are. I asked them to talk about why they hide. Some of them came out to each other about their crimes while others talked about hiding from their families. After they shared, I asked them to describe the emotions that came up:

“Liberating”
“Acceptance”
“It was hard”
“Empowered because they came to terms with their reality”
“Fear of rejection”
“Avoided the question”
“You have to find the right words”
“It was easy because we knew each other”
“If it’s something you’re not proud of, it’s hard to share”
“There are no words to describe how I feel”

After jotting their words on the board, I told them these are the exact same feelings I grapple with as a queer Vietnamese woman. It was how I felt about my own coming out process. With the moment of silence that followed, we were instantly bonded by the experience of feeling ostracized by our own families, communities, and society. It was a moment of genuine empathy across completely different lived experiences. The ROOTS guys also got to hear some stories of coming out as transgender, to which they responded with loving curiosity.

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Afterwards, I met my pen pal. I wrote to him for two years but dropped the ball once I graduated college. I held on to that guilt for years, fighting with myself to just pick up a pen and write again. When he heard I was inside as a guest facilitator, he came and found me. Three other Vietnamese guys followed him because they were all very excited to hear that there were two Vietnamese guests visiting the yard that day. I greeted him by profusely apologizing for being a poor penpal. He just smiled really big and said, “Don’t even worry about it. It meant a lot for me that a stranger from the outside was willing to write to me. It gave me a sense of worth during my time here.” 

Each time I go back to San Quentin to visit the ROOTS guys, I find a deep sense of peace and compassion. It feels like I’m visiting my family. I see older Vietnamese men my dad’s age who are serving life sentences. Many of them recite the same story: they were born into war, escaped as refugees, resettled into poverty, and were tracked into the school to prison pipeline. Many of them have been inside for more than two decades. Many of them were convicted as teenagers. Many of them, thanks to programs like ROOTS, have now earned degrees and are ready for a second chance to make a difference in society.

The Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) spends billions of dollars to minimize the humanity of individuals who were tracked into the system. However, the ROOTS program is a prime example of how community-based history and education can transform the lives of incarcerated Asian and Pacific Islanders. It is the access to knowledge that uplifts and empowers those who are most impacted. The more opportunities the guys have to learn about each other’s stories, the more they understand that their situation wasn’t an accident. Had they received alternative ways of dealing with inherited trauma as young men, they would’ve been able to better process their experiences of being bullied and feeling alienated in a new country. Had society embraced gender diversity, they wouldn’t have resorted to violence to prove their masculinity. In order to dismantle the PIC, we must continue to listen to their raw and honest stories, because they are crucial to understanding what our collective liberation looks like.

I have gained so much by connecting with the guys in the ROOTS program. I’ve been moved and inspired to become a better person because they set an incredible example for what it means to love with an open heart and an open mind. I will go back again and again to be a messenger of the peace and compassion they offer to the world. I will continue to envision a world without prisons, where I can experience my brothers’ peace and compassion in the free world.

“Yet for all those who struggle, a few succeeded, and it is the light from those who succeeded – those who remind us that our communities have not forsaken us, that gives us […] hope that we, too, can succeed. This is a true power and inspiration behind R.O.O.T.S whose message is that our past shows us that together, we can build a better, safer community.” – Lee Zitzue

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Pictured: Lee Zitzue