Eddy Zheng works for the Community Youth Center in San Francisco as the Senior Project Coordinator for the Community Response Network–Asian Pacific Islanders, where he helps at-risk youth understand the importance of education, self-respect, individual responsibility, and community awareness. Mr. Zheng and his family emigrated from China when he was 12 years old. When he was 16, he and his friends participated in a home invasion robbery that led to a kidnapping. Arrested and charged as an adult, Mr. Zheng pled guilty and was sentenced to seven years to life. In prison, he attained fluent English and earned secondary and college degrees. Mr. Zheng served more than 19 years as a model prisoner before being granted parole in March 2005, at the age of 35. Immediately after his release, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detained him for deportation because he is not a US citizen. He spent two years in ICE custody. Altogether, Eddy Zheng was locked up for 21 years. His deportation status remains uncertain.
DH: When you were arrested and sent to prison, you spoke very little English. What was that experience like for you?
EZ: Not understanding the English language allowed the system and other prisoners to take advantage of me. It was like I had ears, but I couldn’t hear, and like I had a mouth, but I couldn’t speak. When I pled guilty to the charges of my crime, I did not understand fully what I was pleading to. When the judge sentenced me to life with the possibility of parole, I thought I had to do nine years. I was not able to express my feelings. I was not able to participate in programs or utilize resources that were available to me. I was not able to defend what rights I had.
DH: Did you receive any contact or help from the Chinese consulate? If so, what kind of help did you receive?
EZ: No, I did not receive any contact or help from the Chinese consulate. There was no policy that the Chinese consulate would be notified if a Chinese immigrant had been arrested or sent to prison. But, if an American gets arrested and sent to prison, the whole world seems to know about it. My family was too ashamed to tell people that I was arrested and sentenced to prison, let alone ask for help from the consulate.
DH: Did you feel that you faced any unique challenges as a Chinese citizen in prison in the United States? What were they?
EZ: I experienced some challenges as a Chinese prisoner at the beginning of my prison term. Language barriers and cultural differences were two things that created mental stress for me, besides the conditions of being in prison. Also, due to the small population of Chinese prisoners, I was a minority among the minorities. Sometimes I found myself alone, without anyone who spoke my language. There were no cultural and language competency programs to help me change my behavior. Racism was another issue I had to face. I often became a target of racial slurs and intimidation.
DH: Did you interact with other Chinese or Asian inmates in prison? If so, can you describe that community for us?
EZ: I did interact with other Chinese and Asian Pacific Islander (API) prisoners. Because we were limited in numbers in the prison, we supported each other in order to survive. We created a close-knit community through our similar cultural customs and diet. We would come together quarterly and during special holidays to have a spread, similar to a potluck. Everyone would chip in money to buy food to cook. No one was turned away if he did not have funds. We would play recreational games or just talk. Therefore, it was known that if anyone messed with one API, he would have to deal with all the APIs.
DH: After serving your sentence, you spent two years in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility. How did that experience differ from your time in prison?
EZ: The major difference was the lack of space and programming. Because ICE contracted different county jails to serve as detention centers, they were not designed to house many of its detainees. There were no programs in the detention center. I was locked up in a confined space with hardly any activities. Sometimes I did not get to see daylight for a week. Time went by super slowly. Plus, not knowing the status of my immigration or how long I would have to stay locked up took a psychological toll on me. In prison, I had a set of structured routines to keep me active. I had a job. I had access to a big exercise yard regularly. I lived close by the Bay Area, where my family and friends are.
DH: You run the Asian Prisoner Support Committee. What kinds of support does your organization provide, and what other services, if any, are available for Chinese prisoners in the United States?
EZ: The Asian Prisoner Support Committee (APSC) works with API prisoners to educate the broader community about the growing number of Asians in the US being imprisoned, detained, and deported. We support the API prisoners by creating a space for dialogue, establishing relationships and trust, providing opportunities to tap into their creativity, developing curriculums to encourage transformation of their past behaviors, and connecting them to culturally competent social services upon re-entry. We accomplish this support through letter-writing, visiting, sending them stamps, publishing zines and anthologies, conducting presentations to educate the community, and recruiting volunteers to join the committee. APSC is open to providing support to anyone who needs help. (For more information on the Asian Prisoner Support Committee, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
DH: It is often said that the most difficult part of a prison sentence comes after release. Do you feel that Chinese convicts face any unique legal or social challenges when they try to re-enter US society?
EZ: Chinese convicts returning to society face a unique set of legal and social challenges. If they are not citizens, they face mandatory detention and deportation after they are released. They may not be able to afford attorneys to fight their cases. Socially, the Chinese community is less receptive to giving Chinese convicts a second chance. Culturally, the community does not talk about bad things that happen. The community often turns a blind eye on the people who went to prison and those coming out after they have served their time. It does not provide the necessary resources to help prevent prisoners from re-offending and returning to prison. There is also a lack of job opportunities for formerly incarcerated Chinese prisoners due to language barriers and the lack of life skills. They are limited to working in restaurants and construction. Most importantly, the community does not acknowledge that there is a problem.
DH: Although you have spent your entire adult life in the United States and are married to an American, you are not a US citizen and still risk deportation. How does this situation affect your life and work?
EZ: The uncertainties of my immigration status hinder me from living my life fully. The thought that ICE can pick me up at any time to deport me back to China haunts me subconsciously. As I am awaiting deportation, I do not know when I will be separated from my family. I cannot commit to buying property or a new vehicle. It alters my life commitment and passion to utilize my experiences and knowledge to serve youth and their families.