At a time when ethnic studies programs are struggling to survive or are missing at universities across the U.S., one group is determined to run a program regardless of the circumstances, for the sake of its students.
Restoring Our Original True Selves (ROOTS), run by the nonprofit Asian Prisoner Support Committee, is an Asian-American studies program. But its participants aren’t your typical college kids: They’re inmates at California’s San Quentin State Prison.
The program, which launched about five years ago, is so popular that the course has a long waitlist every cycle, with many students of Asian heritage, as well as those from other backgrounds, looking to heal with the help of education.
“They participate in other programs in the prison system, but ROOTS is really the only culturally competent program that focuses on Asian-American and Pacific Islander history, culture and identity,” said program co-founder Eddy Zheng, who was once an inmate at San Quentin.
Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) inmates are frequently left out of the criminal justice conversation but account for a sizable portion of the prison population — 9 percent, according to an AAPI Beyond Bars study. From 1990 to 2000, as incarceration boomed nationwide, the AAPI prisoner population increased 250 percent in the U.S. In areas with large Asian-American communities, the criminalization of immigrant-heavy populations was particularly evident, with Laotians and Vietnamese, for example, among the four most arrested groups in 1990 in the San Francisco Bay Area. What’s more, compared with white juveniles who committed similar crimes, Asian juveniles were more than twice as likely to be tried as adults.
Zheng, who spent around 20 years in prison for kidnapping and robbery — crimes he committed when he was 16 — said that because of the Asian model-minority stereotype, the stories and needs of AAPI prisoners often go overlooked. So the course gives Asian inmates a rare forum to delve into their backgrounds and reclaim their heritage along the way.
About 40 inmates take part in each nine-month ROOTS program, with a significant chunk of the class consisting of Southeast Asian refugees who were juveniles tried as adults and given life sentences.
The students look at factors that contributed to their incarceration, including the migration to school to prison to deportation pipeline. They also discuss a range of topics, from the history of the Vietnam War and forced migration to the perpetual foreigner stereotype to the roots of violence and trauma that people in refugee communities often face. Sometimes classes go beyond the AAPI experience and touch on other issues like gender and sexuality. A leadership group made up of former and current students help facilitate and organize classes each week. Experts are often invited to speak on various topics, Zheng said. Guests have included members of Southeast Asian civil rights groups, immigration lawyers and Asian-American hip-hop artists.
“One of the most memorable moments was seeing this Southeast Asian lifer-term prisoner in tears sharing his family’s journey to escape genocide, to come to this country and the challenges they faced assimilating.””
There’s a storytelling portion of the course, in which the AAPI inmates reveal their experiences. It’s a safe space, he said, where the prisoners are able to share their sometimes painful stories without being judged or minimized.
“One of the most memorable moments was seeing this Southeast Asian lifer-term prisoner in tears sharing his family’s journey to escape genocide, to come to this country and the challenges they faced assimilating,” Zheng said. “He has been in ROOTS for two cycles but hardly spoke. He’s in his early 40s. He found the courage to be vulnerable in front of a group of his peers.”
Throughout the course, the students — among them, people of Southeast Asian, East Asian and Pacific Islander heritage — not only find a great deal of pride in their own cultures but also identify commonalities with and relate to the struggles and experiences of other ethnicities.
Ke Lam, a Vietnamese refugee and former ROOTS participant, joined a gang when he was a teenager as a way to grapple with the bullying he experienced for being an immigrant. He spent more than two decades in prison for a gang-related murder that he committed when he was 17. The program helped him further value his culture and find unity with people of other AAPI backgrounds.
“Part of the course is about educating our different Asian communities about each other and breaking down different stereotypes. The ROOTS program helped a lot about that,” said Lam, who currently works as a re-entry coordinator for APSC. “It brought our community closer together because we were able to talk about the different struggles that we had and really find out that the difference we thought were between each other were really not that different. It bridges gaps.”
For the prisoners who are released, the ROOTS program extends beyond its educational component. The Asian Prisoner Support Committee offers ROOTS 2 Reentry, in which released graduates have access to resources and support systems that help them re-enter society. Zheng said the group helps ex-inmates enroll in health insurance, get work permits and obtain housing and food, among other forms of support.
With their newfound knowledge and healing as well as that support, the vast majority of ROOTS graduates who are released from prison are able to steer clear of the criminal justice system. Zheng said just one of the 46 participants who have been released has reoffended. That’s in stark contrast to recidivism rates in general.
“[ROOTS students start with] cultural shame from hearing ‘You’re never American enough, you’re not part of this country.’ The shame is a result of the bullying. It’s a lot of self-loathing. When someone doesn’t understand their roots and their culture, then they don’t have that self-confidence and self-esteem.””
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than two-thirds of released prisoners in 30 states were arrested for new crimes within three years. Within five years of release, over three-quarters were arrested.
Zheng said much of the program’s success lies in the transformation of how the AAPI graduates see themselves. Many dealt with bullying and discrimination in the past, which led to self-esteem issues and anger toward their cultures.
“[The students start with] cultural shame from hearing ‘You’re never American enough, you’re not part of this country.’ The shame is a result of the bullying. It’s a lot of self-loathing. When someone doesn’t understand their roots and their culture, then they don’t have that self-confidence and self-esteem.” he said. “We use the ROOTS curriculum to empower people and for them to find value in themselves. The way you do that is really focusing on learning your culture and history. It’s how you find value. It’s how you find belonging ... When they’re empowered, they can start on a path of healing. And when they’re healing, that’s how you can reduce [the chance of reoffending].”
Several former inmates who finished the course have returned as volunteers for ROOTS. They serve as role models and motivators for the students, Zheng said. Lam went back to San Quentin to give a speech for a ROOTS graduation. Zheng said Lam’s presence at the event spoke volumes for many of the inmates.
“When Ke was able to go back inside for graduation, they saw him as a beacon of hope. They thought, ‘Wow, he was just here with us a couple years ago, but now not only does he have a full-time job, but he’s also helping the same people he was doing time with,’” Zheng said. “When Ke went back in, that’s empowerment right there. That’s inspiration right there. So that peer-to-peer model is very important both on the inside and out here.”
Though there’s a great deal of enthusiasm about the program, it’s being bankrolled by various foundations, without a stable funding stream. But Zheng said that even if ROOTS runs out of money, the APSC won’t discontinue the initiative. It will ensure that its passionate volunteers, who believe in the work and see its impact, keep it going. And his goals extend beyond the program. He hopes that more prisons will begin to listen to the needs of AAPI prisoners and offer similar culturally competent curriculums. He has launched a pilot program at the California state prison in Solano County, and hopefully, other institutions will follow suit.