WHEN YOU FIRST MEET Eddy Zheng, you think of him as the sort of guy you'd want to bring home to your mother. He is smart, down-to-earth, and exceedingly polite. His lanky frame assures you that he is harmless. And his calming voice puts you immediately at ease.
He is also a tireless do-gooder, serving as the project coordinator for the Community Youth Center in San Francisco, where he works with kids in the Asian American community to keep them off the streets, and more importantly, out of jail.
At 38, Zheng looks and talks and acts as if he has already lived a lifetime. But much of that lifetime has been spent behind bars.
"I grew up in prison," says Zheng, who was released in February 2007 after serving more than 20 years.
Hardly what you would call the stereotypical "model minority" before he entered jail, Zheng completely transformed himself by the time he got out, teaching himself English, earning a college degree, and even publishing a book of poetry, essays and sketches collected from fellow Asian and Pacific Islander inmates called Other: An Asian & Pacific Islander Prisoners' Anthology.
When I met Zheng for the first time at the Community Youth Center, I almost mistook him for the receptionist. Not that I was expecting a tatted-up, muscle-bound thug, but I also wasn't expecting what I found. I could hardly believe he was capable of committing a crime, let alone one that kept him locked up more than half his life.
Zheng's is a rare voice to emerge from the Asian American community, which readily showcases its doctors, lawyers and engineers but fails to acknowledge the ones who have slipped through the cracks. Part of the reason may be because the Asian American prison population is still so small-a tiny sliver of the overall US prison population-which makes it easier for the community to ignore the problem rather than try to fix it.
"The Asian population hasn't had to address the issue." says Angela Oh, a former defense attorney who now does mediation work.
But neither has it wanted to. In the hierarchy of problems within the Asian American community, dealing with the prison population ranks pretty low. Oh says the community is more focused on what it sees as more pressing issues like immigration and housing. Add to that the shame that goes with committing a crime, and API prisoners are more apt to be cast aside.
Nevertheless, the Asian American prison population is growing at an alarming rate, far faster than any other minority group. And so it is only a matter of time before the problem becomes too large to avoid.
Zheng's own mother kept her son's imprisonment a secret from relatives, saying he was busy at school when he did not show up to either of his grandparents' funeral.
"Surely, Mom didn't expect the relatives to believe that I was too busy in school and couldn't get away again," Zheng wrote in an essay included in his anthology. "Why would Mom go out of her way to lie about the fact that I'm in prison? Did she do it out of love or out of shame? Is she in denial?"
Strangely enough, the place where Zheng's past did not alienate him was in jail, where he lived among other Asian and Pacific Islanders who shared his fate.
There, he was accepted, and with time respected, almost like a prison elder.
"All the APIs, we would all stick together," Zheng says. "Because we had a small number, it was necessary to stick together as a group to fend off any attacks. It was well known by the prisoners that if you mess with one Asian, you messed with all of us so people wouldn't mess with us."
Ironically, it was within the prison system where Zheng found unequivocal support from his Asian American brethren. Once released from jail, it was a different story.
BORN IN THE Guangdong province, China, Zheng moved to Oakland, CA, with his family in 1982 when he was 12, upon his grandparents' urging.
Zheng's mom was a live-in babysitter and his dad worked as a cook for a restaurant before he took a job at Burger King. Zheng was the youngest of three siblings.
"When I was in China, the family was well off and my sole responsibility was to go to school," he says.
In Oakland, life dramatically changed. Zheng hardly saw his mom, who came home only once a week. His dad knew just three words of English: "mayonnaise, lettuce and tomato."
Zheng's English was not much better. In seventh and eighth grade, he was getting by, still learning to adjust. In ninth grade, he started cutting classes and eventually got kicked out of school.
He ended up enrolling in a continuation school, which he also got kicked out of when he started cutting classes, choosing instead to spend his days with his friends at Denny's or hanging out in Chinatown until 7 or 8 at night.
"My parents didn't like it but they couldn't do anything because they were never home," he says.
Zheng got locked up a few times in juvenile hall for stealing, shoplifting and attempted burglary. But what got him sentenced to jail for seven years to life was when he and his friends staked out the house of a couple who owned a convenience store, tied them up as well as their two children, and robbed them.
At 16, Zheng was sent to the California Youth Authority Prison in lone, CA, where he was expected to stay until he turned 25. From there, he was supposed to be moved into an adult penitentiary.
But when he turned 18, the state's policy changed and Zheng was shipped off to a holding center in Vacaville, CA, before landing in San Quentin in 1987.
At both the California Youth Authority and in San Quentin, there were hardly any Asian Americans within the prison population, and what few there were would end up assembling a sort of welcome wagon for newcomers.
"Someone would give you an orientation, like Prison 101," Zheng says.
IN 2004, the API prison population in the United States totaled 12,799, up from 9,825 in 1999, according to the most recent information available through the Justice Department's Bureau of Statistics.
Asian Americans were less than 1 percent of the country's total prison population, which in 2004 was led by blacks, who made up 41.7 percent, followed by whites, who made up 39.8 percent, and Latinos, who made up 13.2 percent.
What's more striking is that from 1999 through 2004, the API prison population soared by 30 percent while the white prison population rose by only 2.5 percent. The black prison population dipped by 1.9 percent.
California and Hawaii held the highest API prison populations in the country. In Hawaii, the jail cells were heavily dominated by the state's own natives. According to a study by the Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy in 2005, about 41.2 percent of Hawaii's state prisons were comprised of Native Hawaiiens, a disproportionate representation of the state's overall Native Hawaiian population of 28 percent.
"The problem of disproportionate minority confinement among Native Hawaiians cannot be separated from the lasting effects of colonialism and displacement of Hawaiians from their native lands," the study observed. "Like other indigenous peoples, Native Hawaiians score lowest on the major indicators of economic and physical well-being among the various ethnic groups in the state."
In California, the study found that 64.6 percent of the API prisoners were made up of immigrants and refugees. The largest populations among them were the Vietnamese and Filipino, followed by Pacific Islanders and Laotians.
Oh, the former defense attorney who also helped author the study, notes that the API prison population has been increasing in tandem with the overall US Asian population, which is the fastest growing minority group in the country.
It is no coincidence that the largest concentrations of API prisoners reside in the same states where the Asian American populations are the highest.
But despite all this information, there still seems to be a profound lack of understanding about API prisoners themselves. In a separate study by the Asian Americans/ Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy released in January of 2006, the organization noted that "the Asian Pacific American prison population, in particular, often a byproduct of the convergence between immigration policy and the criminal justice system, remains invisible as a public policy issue even as this population slowly grows."
The study further pointed out that "many states do no disaggregate this population in their reports, yet most Asian Pacific Americans face significant barriers in correctional settings including language and cultural barriers."
In California, about half of all incarcerated APIs were 27 or younger in 2005, compared with 37.8 percent for blacks and 28.3 percent for whites. The study maintained that "Stressors such as racism, difficulties with the English language, the inability to meet the 'model' minority standards, war trauma and cultural conflict, served to facilitate a youth gang subculture.
"When youth cannot attain their versions of the American dream via the traditional pathways of education and hard work, they turn to acting out as means of acquisition without assimilation."
Indeed, Mike Ngo, who is currently serving prison time, reflects this very problem. From his cell, he wrote an essay for Zheng's anthology describing the weight he shouldered as the son of an immigrant: "When my father and our family crowded into the US embassy's gates during South Vietnam's collapse in 1975, I wonder if in his wildest nightmares, he imagined a future like this for his son ... I try to imagine what his life would've been like if he had stayed in Vietnam. Could it be much worse than my life now?"
In jail, Ngo's loneliness was palpable: "I soak in my surroundings as the last traces of the streets wear off. My cell: two beds, one on top of the other, a sink, a shitter, and two lockers, all inside a space eleven feet long, four and a half feet wide, and eight feet high-from one coffin to another. I crawl off the top bunk and get ready for work in a lifeless, gray twilight."
RICO RIEMEDIO, 47. spent 24 years in prison for a crime he committed in his youth. Born in the Philippines, his family moved to San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood in 1973 when he was 12.
His father was a dishwasher and his mother was a babysitter. Riemedio had three brothers and two sisters, and all of them grew up in a predominantly Filipino neighborhood.
"As we grew older, the neighborhood became our territory," Riemedio says.
He and his friends spent their days smoking cigarettes, then smoking weed, then guzzling alcohol.
"Once we messed with alcohol, we stopped going to school," he says. Instead they started carrying pistols and robbing cars while they looked for rival gangs.
At 19, Riemedio got caught in a gang fight, which left two people dead. He was arrested for murder and convicted for being an accessory to murder. He was sentenced to 15 years to life.
Riemedio, who was released from prison in 2005 and now works for United Playaz, a nonprofit in San Francisco, describes his first experiences at San Quentin, which in 1981 was still a Level 4 maximum security prison. There he saw very few faces that resembled his own.
"Most of the APIs at Level 4 at that time were doing life sentences," Riemedio says, noting that the majority of them were Chinese, Filipino, Samoan, or Vietnamese.
In San Quentin, Riemedio observed the immediate bond between APIs given their small numbers. Other races followed a similar pattern of segregation, with blacks lumped together with blacks, whites with whites, and Latinos with Latinos. However, these groups divided themselves further based on their gang affiliation or the neighborhoods they came from.
Many whites tended to align with the Aryan Brotherhood, which originated in San Quentin in the 1960s as a means of protection against blacks and Mexicans in prison. Blacks flocked to the Black Guerilla Family, also originally formed in San Quentin. The Mexicans were either affiliated with the gangs like the Mexican Mafia or the Texas Syndicate.
In California, segregation had been imposed by the prison system itself. Inmates were assigned to cells according to their race in order to prevent violence between rival gangs. This practice went on for 25 years before the US Supreme Court ruled against it in 2005.
In Riemedio's day, APIs were thrown together in the "other" category-which included everyone from Chinese to Cambodians to Russians to Middle Easterners. However, the APIs splintered off to form their own group.
It was only when the API prison population grew bigger that more of them started to break off and form new alliances. The number of Vietnamese prisoners, for instance, became large enough for them to support themselves. The same was true for the Chinese and the Cambodians and the Laotians.
"When there were more Vietnamese, they would gravitate to each other and form their own group," Riemedio says. "Only the old timers knew to stick together."
Such fractures made it difficult for the API prison population to maintain their same strength in numbers.
"When I came, during my early years, it was like solid," Riemedio says. "We really looked out for each other and there wasn't separation."
There were times when APIs cast aside their differences and came together as a group. Racially-motivated attacks, for instance, would automatically unite them.
Riemedio also noticed that with each heightened level of security in prison, there was a tighter bond between APIs. At the lower levels, where violence was less prevalent, APIs let down their guard. But at the maximum level, where threats were taken more seriously, they would watch each other's back, even guarding their fellow inmates while they showered.
Zheng, who met Riemedio in prison, observed the same pattern.
"The higher the levels of security, the more protection from APIs but you are always aware of the threat," Zheng says. "The moment you relax, you might be the next victim."
In the early 1980s in San Quentin, to prevent riots, no three racial groups were allowed to congregate in the same area together. For the most part, however, the protocol among racial groups was to let each one discipline their own if someone would act up.
"If anyone is going to discipline, it's going to be corrected by someone in the API population," Zheng explains.
For instance, if a black prisoner or a white prisoner had a beef with someone in the API group, he would have to approach the group as a whole and leave it to them to sort out any punishment.
"I rarely saw an API problem get solved by another group," Riemedio says.
THESE DAYS when Riemedio talks about his prison experience, it is almost with nostalgia-not in the sense that he ever wants to go back there again, but with regard to how APIs used to treat each other. Today, he sees a lot less cohesion and far more division.
"When I see something like that, it breaks my heart," he says. "Why can't we be together?"
For Zheng, the division is between former API prisoners and the ethnic communities from which they originally came. Many of those communities still feel ashamed of the past crimes committed by APIs, even if they have done their penance.
In more extreme cases, some ex-API prisoners face deportation after being released from jail, which was something that Zheng himself fought off with the help of the Asian American Bar Association.
A study by the Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy found instances where offenders would arrive to the United States as an infant or a young child but theirparents never sought naturalization for them. Upon being released from jail, "those individuals face deportation to a country to which they have no family ties, no knowledge of the language and no means of support."
Today, Zheng's new cause is to help smooth the reentry of API prisoners into society and to keep kids from following the same path that led him to jail.
Inside the prison's walls, Zheng took comfort from his fellow API inmates but as a free man, he often finds himself standing alone.
Oh has seen this happen a lot in her years as a defense attorney. The Asian American community is often reluctant to forgive and forget one's past crimes.
"The thinking is an ex-convict is an ex-convict is an ex-convict," Oh says.
For Zheng, he has already paid a price for his past, but he knows it will always haunt him. At the same time, he is coping with all that he lost while he sat in prison for two decades. He still laments the loss of his grandparents, who he never got to see before they died.
"I wanted to have a relationship with Grandma and Grandpa," he wrote in an essay for his anthology. "They were the ones who traveled all the way to China and arranged for my family to come to America so we could have a better future. I never had a chance to bond with them when I was a teenager. By the time I was sentenced to life with a possibility of parole in prison, it was too late for me to get to know them.
"I was only sixteen years old."
Writer Pia Sarkar
Pia Sarkar has been a journalist for more than a decade, working for the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as newspapers in New Jersey and Rhode Island. A graduate of Columbia University's Journalism School, she currently writes about the Internet for TheStreet.com. She is a law-abiding citizen, for the most part.