Photo: Eddy Zheng talks to students about investing in their education at the Asian Pacific Islander Youth Summit he helped start.
by Sabrina Holcomb
Mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline have sparked a national conversation on prison reform, but until now, few Asian-American voices have been part of the discussion. Eddy Zheng is working to change that. Zheng became the youngest inmate in California’s infamous San Quentin prison after he was tried as an adult for a home invasion robbery at the age of 16. Sentenced to life with a possibility of parole, Zheng spent the next 20 years in prison.
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Determined to turn his life around, Zheng focused on education—his own and fellow prisoners’—as the key to rehabilitation and reconciliation. He earned his GED and associates’ degree; co-edited a literary anthology by Asian and Pacific American prisoners; started the first poetry slam at San Quentin; and tried to launch an API ethnic studies program, for which he was punished with an eleven-month stint in solitary confinement. Today, Zheng is a Soros Justice Fellow and community activist who raises awareness about the immigration-to-prison pipeline and the impact of criminal justice polices on API youth and families.
Why do you believe in the power of education to change the lives of immigrant students?
School was a nightmare for me, and I was put out in the ninth grade for truancy. I spoke very little English when I went to prison, but once I learned to read and write and think critically, I was able to take responsibility for my actions. I could reason out how to pay forward and make amends for the harm I’ve done to my family and victims. I’m not excusing my crime, but I believe that young people who are involved in school and who feel good about being there are less likely to get in trouble on the streets. Over 70 percent of prisoners can’t read above a fourth grade level, but prisoners who participate in educational programs are more likely to find employment and less likely to get locked up again.
What were the challenges of being a Chinese immigrant in prison?
There is no official category for APIs throughout much of the prison system. We’re labeled as “Others.” When I tried to start an API ethnic studies program at San Quentin, I was put in solitary confinement for 11 months. Because of our efforts, there is a ROOTS program about API culture and history at San Quentin today. Many men in the ROOTS program started as juvenile lifers, dating back to the mid-90s prison boom, when the API prisoner population grew by 250 percent. At the time, Asian juveniles in California were more than twice as likely to be tried as adults, compared to white juveniles who had committed similar crimes.
Is that what inspired you to become an advocate for young people?
I didn’t want other immigrant children—especially the ones living in poverty, wrestling with language barriers, and struggling in school—to fall into the same trap I did and end up in the immigration-to-school-to-prison and deportation pipeline.
Is there an immigration-to prison-pipeline?
Some API immigrants had access to nurturing environments when they came to the U.S., but others, especially refugees from war-torn countries, ended up in poverty-stricken, violent neighborhoods. Can you imagine carrying the trauma of war, then dealing with cultural barriers and language barriers, and bullying and discrimination in school? Some immigrant students who experience school as a hostile environment may be more vulnerable to getting caught up in activities that lead to the criminal justice system. People point out that other immigrants came to this country in similar situations, and they were able to excel, succeed in school, and get good jobs. That’s true, but it shouldn’t be used as an excuse not to provide young people with access to the resources they need to survive.
How can educators support policies that dismantle the immigration-to-school-to-prison pipeline?
They can help immigrant children feel welcome in their classrooms and advocate for strong English Language Learner programs in their schools. They can promote Restorative Practices and other healing school discipline programs. And they can support prison education programs, including culturally relevant ethnic studies classes. As a youth mentor, it’s satisfying to run into my “kids” who are now successful adults. You know the first thing they tell me? “You never gave up on us.”