The struggles of APA prisoners

One inmate’s call for APA community support


Asians do not go to prisons. When people mention the word prison they usually conjure up images of hard-core criminals — murderers, kidnappers, drug dealers, gang members and sexual predators. Prison also brings to mind the mass incarceration of African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and poor whites. Rarely do people associate prison with Asian Pacific Americans.

I am an APA prisoner who has been incarcerated for over 17 years. If I have to write about all the struggles APA prisoners have to endure, I can write a book. Since I am writing an essay, I will share with you some of what it is like to be an APA in prison.

The first thing an APA prisoner is subjected to is the surrender of his ethnicity. The prison system promotes racial segregation by grouping prisoners as “Black,” “White,” “Mexican/Hispanic” and “Other.” It is a means of control by creating a separation of culture between races. As soon as an APA is processed into the prison he is categorized as an “Other.” He is no longer Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipino, Japanese or any other ethnicity. Once he is labeled, for the rest of his stay in prison he will be living, showering, eating and hanging out with those who are in the same category.

The APA prisoner automatically seeks out other APAs as a means of survival. He has to stick with his own kind. That way, if other prisoners want to take advantage of him, he will have allies. It is known in prison that if you mess with one APA, you will have to deal with all the APAs. The solidarity among APA prisoners minimizes violent confrontations. However, if an APA prisoner chooses to be a loner, he risks the threat of being preyed on by other prisoners: Any sign of weakness can lead to unsolicited harassments.

Another thing an APA prisoner has to deal with is racism and stereotypes. Because most prisoners and prison staff are ignorant of other cultures, APAs become the target of racial slurs. It is common for APAs to be called “slant eyes,” “chinamen,” “gooks,” “chinks,” “dog eaters,” “viet congs” or “japs.” It is crucial for an APA prisoner to decide how to handle the name calling. If he ignores it, the racial slurs might continue. If he confronts it, he has to be prepared for the consequences when things escalate into violence.

APAs are often stereotyped as gang members by staff and prisoners. They also think that all APAs know some form of martial arts. The advantage of that is people do not mess with you. The disadvantage is when they decide to mess with you, they will come prepared with weapons or as a group.

One of the biggest struggles for an APA prisoner is the language barrier. There are many APAs who are immigrants and do not understand English. A non-English speaker may be able to pick up some basic phrases to communicate with others. However, he is often subject to ridicule and humiliation due to his accent. He does not know what rights he has as a prisoner. Therefore, he cannot ask for help or file complaints to defend himself. When an APA prisoner is in the mental health service, he is not able to communicate with the doctors about his problems. He has no idea what kind of medication he is taking. The prison does not provide him a translator, as the law requires, because the APA population is too small and it is too difficult to find a translator. An APA prisoner who cannot comprehend actions taken against him is often helpless and voiceless.

The struggles of an APA prisoner extend beyond his confinement. His family suffers with him. When you ask a prisoner who has been there for him throughout his incarceration, he will unequivocally say his family. He is constantly reminded of the pain and suffering he had caused his victims, family and himself. He regrets taking his freedom for granted. He realizes his parents cannot lift their heads up in front of friends and relatives because their son is in prison. His parents cannot express to others the pain they are experiencing or ask for help because they do not want to expose their secret.

For the APA prisoner who is not an U.S. citizen, his imprisonment does not end with the completion of his prison term. It does not matter how long he has been in America. If he is not a citizen, he faces deportation. Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) will pick him up immediately once his prison term expires and detain him in its facilities. He is deported as soon as possible. For those countries that do not accept deportations, a prisoner may be detained in INS facilities for years or until he can set bail out. After that, he has to go through hearings to determine his resident status.

Those are some of the struggles an APA prisoner has to deal with. To survive in prison is a daily challenge.

APAs in prison are a fact, not a misnomer. There are 34 prisons in the state of California, with a population of 159,000. In 1983, “Other” made up 3.1 percent of the prison population. Today, that percentage has doubled. While the APA population is low compared to other racial groups, it has been growing consistently.

There is a dire need for the APA community to recognize the growing population of APAs in prison as a problem. It needs to raise consciousness and learn about issues dealing with APAs in prison. Most importantly, it needs to create programs for crime prevention, victim and offender reconciliation and prisoner outreach, to reduce recidivism. The majority of APA prisoners will go back to their communities after their prison terms. It is a fact that most crimes committed against APAs are by APAs. With their continued apathy and practice of “hear no evil, see no evil” in dealing with APA prisoners, the community is ignoring a ticking time bomb.

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