While serving a life sentence, Nighiep Ke Lam promised to help restore the community. Now on parole, despite several struggles, he is keeping that promise.
Lam overcame incarceration, deportation, the daily struggle, and other barriers the formerly incarcerated face, to become an Asian Prisoners Support Committee (APSC) reentry coordinator. He helps people acclimate back into society after years of incarceration.
“The ability to look back and help those who are going through that struggle helps me find some healing in my own life,” Lam said.
While serving life for an aggravated felony he committed at 17 years old, Lam met the APSC group at an annual health fair at San Quentin State Prison.
“Together with APSC community, we actually founded the SQ Roots group (Restoring Our Original True Selves),” Lam said. “It’s the first prisoner ethnic studies class in the state of California that focuses on Asian/Pacific Islander issues. Part of that program is a cross-cultural/cross-healing model. People think, ‘Well, you’re all Asian,’ and they clump you into one category, but that’s so not true; there are over 30 different countries in Asia, and everyone has different languages and different cultures.”
ROOTS teaches cross-cultural historical trauma, imperialism and colonization. ROOTS also addresses the migration from school to prison to deportation pipeline, gender identity and gender roles, hyper-masculinity and violence.
“According to a RAND analysis, every $1 invested in such [inmate] education generates at least $4 in economic return,” reports Fast Company.
“The state typically spends $71,000 a year to house an inmate. It costs about $5,000 total to help put one [incarcerated] student through community college”, reports Fast Company.
Formerly incarcerated person Eddy Zheng, who also started APSC, initiated the ROOTS program by requesting Asian ethnic studies be taught at San Quentin. His demand landed him in the hole, but the program came about with the help of other founders like Tung Nguyen and APSC. It has now graduated four cycles of students.
ROOTS taught Lam do something he didn’t learn from his culture while in society – talk about his feelings and seek healing.
“We don’t talk about ourselves, because that would bring pain to the family,” Lam said about how he was raised to deal with emotional issues. “That limits our community from really healing a lot of those traumas and perpetuates the harm.”
Lam learned how to heal. He also learned more about his heritage from ROOTS than by living in Vietnam because he had migrated to the United States in 1980 as a 4-year-old refugee.
“I thought I was born here,” Lam said. “I only found out I had an immigration hold when I was incarcerated two years. I was desensitized; I didn’t know what that meant.”
After serving 23 years of a 27-to-life sentence, he paroled in December of 2015 right into the custody of ICE.
“It was scary because I didn’t know what was going to happen; what was the process?” Lam said. “I thought they were going to send me to a country that I don’t even remember, where they murdered my grandparents.”
A U.S.-Vietnam repatriation agreement that limits the removal of individuals who came to the U.S. prior to 1995, according to Asian American Press (AAP), saved Lam from deportation.
Afterward, he faced a new challenge: society.
“Oh my God, things are so stressful out here. It’s so fast-paced in society; in prison, things are really slow,” Lam said. “We know we have food coming in there. Out here, you have to work to eat; you have to work to live; you have to work to survive.
“I had to learn so many things: to budget, what it means to be an adult, the political landscape. There are so many barriers to being formerly incarcerated, at least 40,000 barriers to someone who has a felony. I’m formerly incarcerated, with a felony, and not a citizen. When I went to get my Medi-Cal, the scope of services was cut in half.”
“Don’t ever give up on hope, stay focused, and know you have a ton of support here to help you”
His high school sweetheart and what he learned from programs in prison helped Lam make it in society.
“She’s been super supportive of my reentry,” Lam said. “She’s patient with me when I don’t get something. She helped me open up the bank account and learn how to drive.”
Victim Offender Education Group (VOEG) and Kids Creating Awareness Together (Kid CAT) taught him how to do social justice work.
As captain of both the SQ A’s baseball team and the Hardtimers softball team, Lam learned how to unify people for one common goal. Baseball also taught him about diversity and relationships.
“Even off the field, I developed a lot of relationships,” Lam said. “I have the support of my fellow brothers on the team. I still play on an over-40 team in San Rafael.”
Now Lam helps people on parole get through reentry challenges, including getting a work permit, driver’s license, California ID without a birth certificate, Medi-Cal and other county services.
He also does advocacy work, like a recent trip to Washington, D.C., to strategize about immigration and deportation reform.
“Another thing we try to do is community engagement and immersion work,” Lam said. “It’s getting to know the community, getting to know the social landscape, and also providing a platform for them to share their life experience.”
Despite barely making enough money to keep the lights on, Lam said he is driven to do the work.
“For so many, the model-minority myth has been perpetuated for so long,” Lam said. “It affected me personally.”
Lam enjoys freedom.
“I love the ability to just walk around and not feel like I have to get down on the ground when there’s an alarm,” Lam said. “Plus I get to go to the bathroom and close the door.”
To his brothers still incarcerated, Lam said, “Don’t ever give up on hope, stay focused, and know you have a ton of support here to help you.”
UC Berkeley Student Kate Wolffe contributed to this story