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Reflections from Solitary Confinement

Jun 13, 2011
» Reflections

How time flies!? Nine years ago today I was locked up in San Quentin State Prison’s solitary confinement, also known as The Hole. Yes, June 13, 2002 started my life in the hole for exactly eleven months. It all started when my friends Rico, Mike, Stephen and I signed a proposal requesting classes on Asian American history and literature, ethnic studies, a student body, a faculty body and that our rights be honored in the San Quentin college program. It’s a long story.

Few people understand what is like for a prisoner to be locked up in solitary confinement, which it’s a prison within a prison. The psychological effects that  long term isolation has on prisoners are often detrimental. However, I was able to get out of the hole and remain sane. I kept a journal of my time in the hole. I will share it with the world in hope to shed some light on the conditions of solitary confinement and how I had survived that ordeal. I will use the initials of people I identified for confidentiality purposes. Let’s see how folks feel about my time travel back to the past.

6/13/2002

“Evening. I don’t know what time it is right now, but it really does not matter. I’m in the hole. There is no difference if I know what time it is. I have nowhere to go. I’ll be in this cell for a while. I’m by myself.

My companions are noises from people yelling, talking and the echoes of my voice when I hum a few bars. I’m feeling extremely peaceful. There is no feelings of anxiety, regrets and hopelessness. I’m bathing in peace. I don’t know why I’m feeling this way, but I’m grateful. I’m in the hole. My reaction and feeling about being in here is totally different from my first time in the hole.

It was on October 26, 2000 that I was in the same situation. I had everything going for me then. This time I don’t seem to have much. The extreme of having so much to having nothing was too much of a shock for me last time. This time I’m mentally prepared. That made a huge difference. Also, I have faith that I will win when this is all over.

I was at work this morning when Officer R came picked me up. He informed me that I’m going to get locked up. I said goodbye to all the library workers. S cried as he hugged me. He’s a very emotional person. He has a lot of good qualities. I was allowed to pack my things up. When I got to the cell, it was searched by a squad Officer D. He took some books, photographs, writings, letters and misc paperwork. It took me some time to pack up my stuff, mostly books. I much have a hundred books. I ended up with 8 boxes 1 bag and the TV. L helped me carry them to the storage room. He told me that he loves me and that we will win. I believe him. It’s sad to leave him by himself. He’ll have to stay strong and fight for us. I didn’t take a lot of food, only some can goods and rice. I felt calm and peaceful when I was packing.

After I signed my lockup order, C/O R to infirmary and to C section “the hole.” I yelled to Rico while in the cage to let him know I’m here. I stood in the cage for almost three hours. Boy, do I have patient!? I was able to talk to Mike for a bit. he was going to the law library. After I was escorted to my cell, I took time to clean the cell with a piece of rag. Someone left a bible, half of a Stuff magazine and a book in the locker. At least I have something to read if I want to.

My neighbor “Little” gave me three envelops and 3 pieces of paper. I appreciate his help. I wrote a letter to Mom and N. It’s a short letter just to ask them not to worry. I also wrote to K and sent him the copy of 114, (the code for lock up order.) I also sent a 602 as a citizen’s complaint again Lt. N. I hope to hear from the court soon. Dinner was hot doges and beans. I was hungry so I ate them. B sent me a couple of stamped envelops and paper. It was nice of him to do that. Mike gave me some stamps shampoo and toothpaste.

During mail pick up, I received 6 pieces of rerouted mail. They were all inspected and read twice. My mail are flagged. I was happy to receive those letters. I got letter from J, A, M, K and O. I got a fan mail response from the SF Weekly story. K was very vocal about the injustice done by the governor. I want to write her back. A shared a lot with me. He talked to Yuri about me. I’ll read J’s letter before I go to sleep. I wrote her a short letter, but didn’t make it out. I’m still feeling good right now. I hope all is well with Rico, Mike and L.

We will win.”

Autobiography @ 33

Mar 07, 2011
» Poetry

I am 33 years old and breathin’

it’s a good year to die

to myself

I never felt such extreme peace

despite being mired in constant ear-deafening screams

from the caged occupants – triple CMS1, PCs2, gang validated,
drop-outs, parole violators, lifers,
drug casualties, three strikers,
human beings

in San Quentin’s 150 year old solitary confinement

I don’t want to start things over

 

@ 33

I am very proud of being who I am

I wrote a letter to a stranger who said
“You deserve to lose at least your youth,
not returning to society until well into middle age…”

after reading an article about me in San Francisco Weekly

I told him
“A hundred years from now when we no longer exist on this earth of humankind the seriousness of my crime will not be changed or lessened. I can never pay my debt to the victims because I cannot turn back the hands of time…I will not judge you.”

whenever I think about my crime I feel ashamed

I’ve lost my youth and more

I’ve learned that the more I suffer the stronger I become

I am blessed with great friends

I talk better than I write
because the police can’t hear my conversation

the prison officials labeled me a trouble maker

I dared to challenge the administration
for its civil rights violation

I fought for Ethnic Studies in the prison college program

I’ve been a slave for 16 years under the 13th Amendment

I know separation and disappointment intimately

I memorized the United Front Points of Unity

I love my family and friends

my shero Yuri Kochiyama and a young sister named Monica

who is pretty wanted to come visit me

somehow I have more female friends than male friends

I never made love to a woman

sometimes I feel like 16

but my body disagrees

some people called me a square

because I don’t drink, smoke, or do drugs

I am a procrastinator but I get things done

I’ve never been back to my motherland

I started to learn Spanish

escribió una poema en español

at times I can be very selfish and vice versa

I’ve never been to a prom, concert, opera, sporting event

or my parents’ house

I don’t remember the last time I cried

I’ve sweat with the Native Americans, attended mass with the

Catholics, went to service with the Protestants, sat and chanted

with the Buddhists

my mind is my church

I am spoiled

in 2001 a young lady I love stopped loving me

it felt worse than losing my freedom

I was denied parole for the ninth time

I assured Mom that I will be home one day

after she pleaded me to answer her question truthfully
“Are you ever going to get out of prison?”

the Prison Industrial Complex and its masters attempted to control my mind

it didn’t work

they didn’t know I’ve been introduced to Che, Yuri Kochiyama, Paulo Freire, Howard Zinn, Frederick Douglass, Assata Shakur, bell hooks, Maurice Cornforth, Malcolm X, Gandhi, George Jackson, Mumia, Buddha,

and many others…

I had about a hundred books in my cell

I was internalizing my politics

In 2000 I organized the first poetry slam in San Quentin

I earned my associate of art degree

something that I never thought possible

I’ve self-published a zine

I was the poster boy for San Quentin

some time in the ‘90s my grandparents died

without knowing that I was in prison

 

@ 30

I kissed Dad on the cheek and told him that I love him
for the first time

I’ve written my first poem

I called myself a poet to motivate me to write

because I knew poets would set us free

in 1998 I was granted parole
then it was taken away

the governor’s political career superseded my life

some time in the 90s
I participated in most of the self-help programs

in 1996 I really learned how to read and write

I read my first history book “A People’s History
of the United States”

my social conscious mind was awakened

in 1992 I passed my GED in Solano Prison

I learned how to take care of my body from ’89 to ‘93

in 1987 I turned 18 and went to the Pen from youth authority

the youngest prisoner in San Quentin’s
Maximum Security Prison

I was lucky people thought I knew kung fu

 

@ 16

I violated an innocent family of four and scarred them for life

money superseded human suffering

I was charged as an adult and sentenced to life
with a possibility

no hablo ingles

I wish I could start things over

I was completely lost

 

@ 12

I left Communist China to Capitalist America

no hablo ingles

I was spoiled

in 1976 I went to demonstrations against the Gang of Four

life was a blur from 1 to 6

on 5/29/69

I inhaled my first breath.

 


1 Correctional Clinical Case Management System Mental health condition of prisoners
2 Protective Custody of Prisoners

New Year at the Q

Feb 03, 2011
» Reflections

Different cultures have different superstitions. One of the superstitions in Asian culture is it’s bad luck to go visit a prison. It’s one thing if you have loved ones locked up and you’re visiting them. It’s all bad if you just go visit a prison.

In the past, I had encourage some youth to go visit San Quentin so they can get an ideal what life is like so they won’t do things that land them there. However, most of the Asian youth don’t want to go because of superstition. Their parents don’t approve of them going for the same reason.

For me, I would like to think that I transcend all superstition. Therefore, I went to visit San Quentin this afternoon to brainstorm on setting up a culture competent program to help the Asian and Pacific Islander prisoners. One of the prisoners showed me a “lai shi” he received from an older prisoner. “lai shi” is good luck money that married people or elders give to the youngsters in a red envelop during new year celebration. Since there’s no red envelop in prison, they guy use a paper towel and shaded with red color pencil to make the envelop. For money, he put a prison photo ducat (Photo ducat is used in the visiting room to take pictures with visitors. It’s sell through the Prison Canteen.,) which worth two dollars, inside the envelop. I asked the guys whether all the Asians are going to have a spread to celebrate the new year. They said everyone’s too busy working and going to self help programs. They may do something over the weekend.

Culture is important. For those who are incarcerated, they still observe their cultures as much as they can. Therefore, it’s important to have cultural specific programs cater to their needs to reduce recidivism.

Again, I’m grateful that I can walk out of the prison each time I visit. Each visit gives me perspective and makes me more appreciative of freedom.

Letter from the Pen

Jan 21, 2011
» Reflections

I maintain contact with a few people in the Pen. Whenever I have time I would write to them. I still remember how good it felt to get a letter from the “free world.” Receiving letters from family and friends is one way to maintain contact and ties with the community. It also means that people in prison are not forgotten.

Today, I received a letter from a life term prisoner who I had done time with. I met up with him during my visit to Vacaville Medical Facility with the San Francisco Reentry Council a few months ago.

I just want to share an excerpt of what he wrote:

“I was denied parole because of weak parole plans. What a bummer, I took them 29 1/2 years [with] 25 years of that was clean time, no write ups, or disciplinary action and I was denied parole for three more years under a law that became active literally about a week before I went to the parole board on 4-3-09. Marsey Law, huh, what a rip off. Here it is 2011 and I go back to the board next year 2012, so really have to dot my i and cross my ts.”

Well, it’s good to know that he has not given up hope.

Reversal of Roles

Jan 10, 2011
» Reflections

Many years ago when I was still in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody, I was locked up in Yuba County Jail in Marysville, California. ICE contracts with different county jails to keep people who are going through the deportation process in their custody. Out of boredom and a need for outside human connection, I would call some of my friends using the prepaid telephone card to talk to them. One of my male friends was always there to pick up the phone and happily chatted with me about any random things. He would also send me money to buy food and load up on my phone minutes. I always appreciate him for being there whenever I needed him.

Tonight, I received a call from Yuba County Jail. It’s my friend who was always there to pick up my call. ICE detained him and ordered his deportation to China after he lost his case. He has a wife and two toddlers at home. He doesn’t know whether when he will be deported or when ICE will release him on supervision. He’s waiting for luck to come.

We talked about the most random things for thirty minutes so he can kill some boredom. I’m grateful that he called.

UC Berkeley, Guest Speaker

Nov 04, 2010
» Engagements

University of California, Berkeley
Berkeley, CA
Presented at Dr. Siri Brown’s Ethnic Studies class on “Other: an Asian Pacific Islander Prisoners’ Anthology” and prison life, to approximately 150 students.

Other: An Asian & Pacific Islander Prisoners’ Anthology

Apr 14, 2010
» Books

This anthology of work by Asian & Pacific Islander (API) prisoners is the first book to highlight the unique stories and perspectives of this growing prisoner population in the US. Through original poetry, vignettes, essays, first-hand narratives, interviews, and drawings, 22 contributors cover topics such as the factors that led to their incarceration, the cruelty that occurs in prisons and immigration detention jails, and the harsh reality of deportation that awaits many API prisoners. By offering readers a glimpse into their innermost fears, regrets, and dreams, these prisoners contribute an important voice to our society’s discussion around race, immigration, and prison issues.

OTHER includes a preface by Helen Zia. It is edited by Eddy Zheng and Ben Wang, designed by Joy Liu, and is a project of the Asian Prisoner Support Committee (APSC).  Available for purchase at Eastwind Books of Berkeley.

Preview below:

San Francisco State University, Guest Lecturer

Oct 19, 2009
» Engagements

San Francisco, CA
Spoke about deportation and the experience of API prisoners, at Professor Russell Jeung’s classes “Chinese American Personality”, “Social Class and Low Income Chinese Americans” and “Asian American Public Policy”, to a total of approximately 150 students

SF State University, Guest Speaker

Feb 13, 2009
» Engagements

San Francisco, CA
Spoke about the importance of community service, the API prison population, and struggles in the Prison Industrial Complex, to approximately 200 freshman students

Reformed Convict Tells of Prison Experience

May 10, 2007
» Articles

by Philip Martin, The Paly Voice

excerpt:

Eddy Zheng, a former felon from San Quentin Penitentiary, who was recently featured in the most recent edition of Verde, spoke to Paly students last Friday about his transformation in prison.

Zheng, who spent nearly 20 years in prison for kidnap and robbery, is now an educated poet with a GED credential and associate of arts degree. Even facing impending deportation to China, Zheng says he is still fighting to claim his rightful place in America.

After going to jail at 16, Zheng taught himself English and graduated from the college program at San Quentin.

“When I first went into prison, I had to learn survival skills.” Zheng said. “Once I learned those, I wanted to educate myself.”

( read full article online here )

An Unlikely Friendship

Apr 09, 2007
» Articles

One teacher’s lasting friendship with a convicted felon and her involvement in his transformation from prisoner to poet

by Loretta Sheng and Zack Kousnetz, The Paly Voice

excerpt:

When Palo Alto High School teacher Jeanne Loh was a fourth grader living in Huntington Beach, Calif., then-16-year-old Oakland resident Eddy Zheng was committing armed robbery and kidnapping. Thirteen years after he was sentenced to seven-years-to-life, the two met in San Quentin State Prison where Loh was volunteering as a teacher’s assistant.

So began what would be an eight-year friendship that would see the two share hundreds of letters and her volunteering as the transcriber and caretaker of Zheng’s online blog. During this time, Zheng would emerge as one of the Bay Area’s most celebrated reformed convicts. A poet, published author and supporter of prisoners’ rights, Zheng converted himself — in part with Loh’s help — from a troubled teenage immigrant into a dedicated and selfless contributor to society.

The more Loh got to know Zheng, the more she believed in the strength of this transformation. “If you think about your own suffering there’s always someone else who’s suffered more than you,” Loh says.

( read full article online )

the Jail Generation

Apr 18, 2004
» Articles

Prisons have become the primary institutional interface for more and more youth, informing everything from pop culture to worldview and life expectations.

by Dan Hoyle, AlterNet

excerpt:

If so many young people are growing up in prison, what exactly are they being taught?

“In prison, you learn to talk less, listen more, and observe — and you learn patience,” says Eddy Zheng from a pay phone in Solano State Prison in Vacaville, CA. In 1982, when he was 12 years old, Zheng came to America from Canton, China, with his family. His parents worked full time — “my Dad worked at McDonalds; all he memorized was how to say ‘mayonaise, lettuce, tomatoes.'” Zheng didn’t adjust well. In 1986 he was convicted of kidnapping with intent to commit robbery, and was charged as an adult at the age of 16. “I grew up in prison,” admits Zheng. Still learning English when he was admitted, Zheng took ESL classes and got his GED, and then went on to receive an Associate Degree of Arts through extension classes at San Quentin State Prison (he has since been relocated to Solano State). He plans on starting a youth guidance center for new immigrants when he is released. Zheng realizes his story is unusual and praises the “huge support from family and friends beyond the community of incarceration” that have helped him make the most of his time in prison.

( read full article online here )

Throwing Away the Key

Jun 05, 2002
» Articles

Why Gov. Davis’ just-say-no parole policy is wrong, Exhibit No. 1: Eddy Zheng has earned a college degree in prison, sings in a church choir, works with at-risk youth, has the support of clergymen, college professors, his prison counselor…

by Bernice Yeung, SF Weekly
excerpt:

Zheng has spent more than half his life in prison since the crime. When he first entered the correctional system, he was a gangly teen who looked younger than his age. Now he is trim, tall, and bespectacled; his choppy buzz cut is beginning to gray.

As Zheng sat before the commissioners, he felt confident about his prospects. With every question the panel asked him about the crime, his incarceration, and his parole plans, he tried to show that he was a model inmate who had remade himself in prison. A recent immigrant when he committed the crime, he had since mastered English and earned an associate of arts degree from the San Quentin college program. He took part in several self-help, educational, and religious programs. He had letters of support from dozens of people, from college professors to clergy. He had no major disciplinary infractions, and his prison counselor and psychological reports said he was qualified for release.

After Zheng delivered a closing statement, the commissioners left the room to vote on whether to grant Zheng a release date or not. Thirty minutes later, they filed back into the room, and Zheng was led in to face them. As Zheng readied himself for another denial, a commissioner told him that they had voted unanimously to grant his parole.

Zheng stared at them with stoic disbelief. Only about 1 percent of lifers in recent years have managed to get a release date from a California prison. Zheng had just beaten the odds.

( read full article online here )