By John Lam
Borey “PJ” Ai may be one of the most accomplished persons you will ever meet. He also happens to be one of the youngest persons to be given a life sentence for murder, at age 14. After spending 20 years in prison, he was found suitable for parole at his first hearing, and was released from San Quentin in November.
“In my observation, I have found that PJ not only talks the talk, he applies the things he learns in the group and puts it into his life. That is the ingredient to success, not only in getting out of prison but out in society as well,” said Raphaele “Raphy” Casale, chief sponsor of SQUIRES.
Self-described as being “stateless,” Ai was born in a refugee camp in Thailand to parents who escaped the genocide in Cambodia. “Almost 98 percent of my family were butchered in the genocide,” said Ai, during an interview.
When he was 5, Ai and his family immigrated to America, settling in Stockton in a neighborhood Ai described as “infested by gangs, prostitutes and violence. Some nights we could hear gunfire and people screaming; it was like reliving the war again,” said Ai.
Life in a dangerous neighborhood combined with the scars of war created turmoil within Ai’s household. “Both my parents suffered from PTSD; my dad was addicted to drugs and gambling, I saw him only once or twice a month. My mom struggled to raise six kids on her own and did not speak English,” said Ai. “It was a dysfunctional household, though everyone loved one another.”
Despite the chaos at home, Ai sought stability in school, but it too proved elusive.
“I was in the first grade when I watched my 7-year-old cousin get murdered on the playground,” said Ai.
This horrendous crime happened in the 1980s and made headlines all over the country; a crazed gunman opened fire at the Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton.
“It was a massacre. I remember being on the playground with hundreds of kids around, when suddenly someone appeared on the rooftop and began shooting at us…That day, five kids and one teacher died, with 29 more students wounded,” said Ai. “I never felt safe in America, but now I was numb to everything.”
“In school, bullies were another problem, I got beat up all the time and this happened in the neighborhood as well,” said Ai.
Left to fend for himself, Ai turned to gangs. Ai dropped out of school in the seventh grade and began committing burglaries, assaults and carrying guns. He was 14 years old when he committed murder during a robbery.
“I didn’t know I had killed someone until my co-defendant told me,” said Ai. “When I found out the police were looking for me, I turned myself in.”
Ai was sentenced to 25 years to life for second-degree murder with a gun enhancement. Initially he continued his involvement with gangs while in prison.
“In 2004, I was invited to the sweat lodge community through a friend of mine, and it changed my life,” said Ai. “After a while, I began to step away from my gang, and stopped drinking, and joined the Red Road program. There, I learned about victim impact, and it solidified my commitment to change.
“Solano State Prison gave me the opportunity to build my foundation for change,” said Ai. “In San Quentin, I used those skills to flourish.”
Of his many achievements, Ai is most proud of becoming a state certified counselor for domestic violence through the Guiding Rage into Power (GRIP), Addiction Counselor through Addiction Recovery Counseling. Rape and Suicide Prevention through Bay Area Women Against Rape.
As a testament to his dedication, work ethic and knowledge, the GRIP program director Jacques Verduin offered him employment with GRIP upon his release.
“Some of the most meaningful programs that I have been part of are Kid CAT, CGA and SQUIRES…One of my proudest moment happened when we (Kid CAT) spoke to lawmakers about the importance of passing AB1276 into law, which allows young men to come to places like San Quentin instead of being sent to maximum security where there are no self-help programs.
“If it were not for these self-help programs,” Ai said, “I would have never got to know myself, and I would still be stuck in my old ways and never considered how much harm I caused my victims to endure because of my actions.”
Borey Ai was found suitable for parole on July 22. Upon being released from state custody in November, Ai was immediately detained for deportation, which is likely to occur within three to six months. Ai may try to seek political asylum in the U.S. due to his prior status as a refugee from the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia.