Former prisoner Eddy Zheng came to the Student Union Theater last night to tell his story of turning over a new leaf and breathing a “new breath” after 21 years in prison.
After his film “Breathin’: The Eddy Zheng Story” was shown, Zheng turned to the audience and said, “Happy new breath.” He believes that “we often forget to breathe mindfully and appreciate our lives.” He hopes all young immigrants like him will begin to breathe a “new breath.”
Zheng moved to San Francisco from China when he was just 12 years old. As a young Chinese immigrant, he faced ridicule and pressure in school. Zheng said that it was this that caused him to lack self-esteem, self-confidence and an education. To cope, he turned to other troubled immigrant youths like himself. When Zheng was 16 years old, he and two friends robbed a house at gunpoint. Zheng was charged as an adult on 16 counts and sentenced to life in San Quentin.
Zheng was one of the youngest prisoners in San Quentin. He reflected that he must have been only 120 pounds. To protect himself from being attacked by other prisoners, he and the other “Others” (Asians and Pacific Islanders) formed a pact: If anyone messed with any of them, then all of them would come to that one member’s defense.
As the years went by, Zheng became increasingly involved in the prison. He was a member of the prison band, he took classes and became known as a kind of peacemaker. At one point, he was put into solitary confinement for 11 months because he had tried to petition for Asian American Studies to be added to the curriculum in the prison. Local community members who heard of this were outraged and sued the prison for breaking Zheng’s first amendment right to petition.
He ended up getting his diploma in 1999 and eventually wrote a poetry book called “Other: An Asian & Pacific Islander Prisoners’ Anthology.” He even held crime prevention workshops for immigrant youths who visited the prison.
He began applying for parole in 1992, but despite being a model prisoner, he was denied parole until 2005. Looking back, Zheng said, “If we have hope, that’s when we can persevere and be resilient.” While his hopes for freedom were dashed time and time again at his many parole hearings, they were kept alive by a number of other factors in his life. He got hope from his family’s endless support and his community’s overwhelming belief that he could change. Most of all, he got hope from his education. Getting his degree in prison gave him hope for a future in the outside world.
After leaving San Quentin, Zheng was put into Immigration Detention for an additional two years, making his total imprisonment 21 years. Once free, he was soon appointed to the San Francisco Reentry Council. He also opened a new branch in the Community Youth Center in San Francisco, which worked to help end youth violence. He got married and now has a young daughter. He was fully pardoned in 2015 and earlier this year, he was granted citizenship. Today, he continues to work to keep young immigrants from following in his footsteps.
Young immigrants across the country face a “pipeline” of “immigration to school to prison to deportation,” Zheng said. He says this is due to three barriers that young immigrants face in American schools: language, culture differences and a generation gap. His program, “Restoring Our Original True Selves” (ROOTS), helps to empower and teach leadership and social engagement to prisoners like Zheng. According to Zheng, it is “a curriculum to tap into where we’re coming from.” It fights that pipeline by granting peer support, case management, paid job training and cultural community immersion.
It would be much better, though, if young immigrants didn’t face this pipeline in the first place, Zheng said. He charged the audience with the task of taking an Asian American Studies class. If no one makes the attempt to understand their own or other people’s cultures, the pipeline will continue. In Zheng’s words, understanding must be found in order to “engage people in a way that they feel validated.”
Rebecca Maher is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.