Borey Ai was 14 years old when he shot and killed a storeowner during a 1996 robbery. It made him the youngest juvenile lifer in California’s prisons. When he appeared before parole board commissioners in 2016, they said he was no longer a danger to public safety and recommended his release from prison.
Waiting at the gates, however, were Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents who took him to a detention facility.
Ai said his plans about how he was going to live his life “all went crashing down” when he was put in a “loud, open dog cage.” He said the next 18 months were spent using conflict resolu- tion skills to promote peace among his fellow detainees—skills he learned through San Quentin’s Guiding Rage Into Power (GRIP).
“There was so much oppression,” Ai said last November to about two dozen San Quentin inmates taking GRIP. “The guards used us against each other. People were flipping out. I was sit- ting there uncomfortable—physically, mentally, emotionally.”
Ai and his fellow detainees, some “straight off the streets,” struggled with being separated from their families. Others, including Ai, who was born in a refugee camp, were subject to deportation to countries they never knew.
He said that he sought to “create an environment where they respected each other and worked together. I went to the shot-callers (gang bosses) to ask them how can we exist and be able to go back to our families. We created The House Man, who had to do conflict resolution.”
All during his detention, he said he thought of “the eight guys who saved my life, referring to the Red Road Program peer educators who guided him through his past and allowed him to self-reflect and understand his violent, gang-infested background. He said that the peer educators shared “very deeply, how they lost loved ones,” which made him say to himself, “This is real life.”
One man, who told his story in tears, described how he lost two daughters to crime. Ai said the emotions made him look inward and say, “That’s what I did.” He added, “At that point, I chose to be open, to be accountable to the people I’ve harmed. I’m very, very mindful of the eight people who saved my life.” He added, “The GRIP curriculum is a big part of my life. When I was in ICE, I used it.”
While in detention, GRIP Executive Director Jacques Verduin supported Ai. Ai is currently out on order of supervision by ICE, pending the outcome of his application for pardon. He wears an ankle bracelet.
The day Ai was slated for deportation, more than 40,000 letters and postcards were sent to the governor’s office, asking him to stop the deportation.
At the hearing the district attorney and victim’s family, who sat directly behind him, spoke about the impact that Ai’s murder had on their family.
“I really connected to their pain,” Ai said. “I heard their story. It was so humbling. This is why I do this work. Then, there was a miracle. They invited my family to speak—they were late. My mom shared her life story and half the people in the room, including commissioners, were crying. She’s speaking in Cambodian, and it’s being translated. The security guard at the door had his hands in his face, heaving.”
Verduin added, “It was very powerful to see his mother, who folded her palms together and begged for her son. Everyone knows a mother’s heart. That was very powerful.”
“It’s great to have him back; He’s very talented as an administrator,” Verduin said, referring to Ai’s work as a GRIP counselor.
In the twisting nature of the pardon process, the board recommended that Gov. Brown grant Ai a par- don, which the governor then did. The California Supreme Court was then required to sign off on that decision. The Court, however, rejected Brown’s pardon, making Ai, once again, subject to deportation.
In a subsequent phone conversation with Ai, he told San Quentin News that he has not given up fighting against the deportation.