Q: How long were you incarcerated? When did you parole?
I was incarcerated for nearly 16 years; my original sentence was 26 years to life. In 2018, I was given a commutation by Governor Jerry Brown, and my sentence was reduced to 16 years to life. This gave me an opportunity to appear before the Board of Prison Hearings 10 years early and demonstrate my rehabilitation and fitness to parole. I paroled on Oct. 9, 2019.
Q: How are you adjusting to the real world?
A: It’s been a bit weird. Not too long after I paroled, while I was still in transitional housing, the global pandemic struck, and so I have been quarantining and social distancing for about 18 months. The quarantining has been a bit of a blessing in disguise, as it allowed me time to focus on myself, spend time with family and really work to establish a strong foundation for the next chapter of my life. I was able to use the time to work on things I always wanted to, but didn’t have the opportunity to do in prison. I learned to code and created an app to trade crypto currency, took some classes online and applied and got accepted to all the universities I applied to.
Q: Talk about being accepted to Cal Berkeley?
A: Shortly after getting accepted to Berkeley, I also got accepted to UCLA. UC Merced offered a full ride, but Berkeley had always held a strong appeal to me. Growing up I was influenced by my parents, who gave me the impression that if someone made it to Berkeley, they will have become successful. Also I think it would be pretty cool that I finally get to see for myself what a Berkeley education is. When I took classes at Patten at San Quentin, the teachers from Berkeley often said, ‘you guys try harder than students in Berkeley,’ which left me with the impression that maybe we can become successful students there one day.
With that said, it still feels a bit surreal that I got accepted into Berkeley and will be living on campus and attending school there in a month.
Q: What is your major and why did you choose that?
A: My major is political science, but I’m thinking about switching my major to computer science, but for sure at least a minor in computer science. My passion for criminal justice reform was born in San Quentin. The opportunities and people I met during my time there taught me that anyone’s voice can have the power to create systemic change. As I write this, I think about Rahsaan Thomas, who inspired an organization to advocate for a bill that became law which allows me — a felon — to vote. Being surrounded by guys like Rahsaan really inspired me and lit a passion in me to pursue a path toward becoming a leader in creating systemic change.
Q: When you were at SQ were you involved with Kid CAT? Explain what the program is about. What was your role? How long were you involved?
A: Kid CAT was one of the first groups that I became involved with. It had a very special mission and was made up of members that were unique in the prison system — youth offenders serving life sentences. I came to prison at the age of 17 and didn’t have any realistic hope of ever coming home. In the mid 2000s, no lifers were being paroled. Being a part of Kid CAT taught me there was value in my experience; it gave me a platform to be heard and be empowered. Through Kid CAT we created a hygiene drive that collected hygiene products from inmates to donate to homeless youth in San Francisco. We held symposiums with legislators to advocate for criminal justice reform, and held workshops and teaching curriculum to help incarcerated folks learn about childhood trauma.
When I joined Kid CAT I was one of the first members recruited outside of the founding members in 2013. Over the next six years, until I paroled, I served in a variety of roles. One of the most fulfilling ones was being a writer for the Kid CAT Speaks page in the San Quentin News.
Q: Did Kid CAT have any influence on you when you made parole?
A: I absolutely attribute the success of me becoming who I am today, and the start of my process toward rehabilitation to Kid CAT. At one of the first meetings with Kid CAT, I witnessed a member who talked about why he was in prison. That was a very pivotal moment because it was the first time I have ever heard anyone in my incarcerated experience up until that point speak with authenticity, take accountability and being remorseful about the crime they committed. It was also a conviction moment, because that day, I knew that the person who spoke was no longer the 14-year-old who committed the crime. Yet I couldn’t have said the same thing about me. That was the start of my journey toward rehabilitation. So me walking out of prison six years later was absolutely impacted by Kid CAT.
Q: What kind of activities or organizations that are youth-related are you involved with?
A: Since my parole, I have been very fortunate to have helped lead a leadership program for the brightest underprivileged Asian Pacific Islander (API) high school students in Southern California through my sister’s non-profit organization, APIs Mobilize. Through that program, I was able to help facilitate and introduce students to lectures by the top API lawmakers in California. Through that program, we provided more than 33 scholarships to students and mentorship with top executives of non-profit and for-profit organizations all the while exposing them to a career in public service. In addition to my work with the youth, I have been involved with two organizations, one in Southern California called API RISE, and the other in Northern California called Asian Prisoner Support Committee. Through both programs, I help provide assistance with reentry, such as job leads, resources and education.
Q: What are your living arrangements and job?
A: I am currently with family in Sacramento, but will be transferring my parole to Berkeley to attend school and live on campus. I also work a full time job with Asian Prisoner Support Committee leading special projects like publishing an anthology of prisoner writings and leading an internship program for system impacted individuals.
Q: Favorite foods?
A: There’s a saying by my friends about the “COVID-15,” representing the 15 pounds they gained during the quarantine. I feel like I’ve gained three times that amount. The food is soooo good out here. I am very fortunate to be with a family that loves to cook and try new dishes every Friday. I haven’t encountered anything I disagree with yet. But I’m really loving sushi right now.
Q: Any other information you wish to provide, please feel free to do so.
A: I was once a youth offender serving a life sentence, never knowing when I will ever go home. I used to see guys parole and wished so badly it was me. Tomorrow was never certain; freedom was an abstract concept. Yet I lived as if I would go home tomorrow by focusing on school, staying out of trouble, giving back, and giving it my all in my self-help groups. If you have the opportunity, take the Victim Offender Education Group, if there is a coding program at your prison, please do yourself a favor, TAKE it! It is true what they say: They can never take away your education. I would actually go one step further and say you can build on your education and draw from your experiences when you come home. You can achieve your wildest dreams, things you cannot even begin to imagine. Learn to own your story and believe in the power of your personal narrative; your freedom and your future depends on this.
When you come home, there will be a group of us that will be there to support you, so don’t fear not having anyone to come home to. Don’t think you’re too old or too young to start your process of change. Don’t waste your time; make the most of it and believe in yourself. I will see you when you get out.