APEX Express

Incarceration: An Asian American Crisis

A weekly magazine-style radio show featuring the voices and stories of Asians and Pacific Islanders from all corners of our community. The show is produced by a collective of media makers, deejays, and activists.

Hosts Nate Tan and Hien Nguyen join Apex Express. On tonight’s show they interview cinematographer, music artist, and organizer with the Ella Baker Center, Thanh Tran. They touch on the topics of incarceration, freedom and the COVID pandemic inside prison walls. Listen in!


 Incarceration: An Asian American Crisis Show Transcripts  July 2022

[00:00:00] Nate Tan: Good evening. You are tuned into APEX Express. We are bringing you an Asian and Asian American view from the Bay and around the world. We are your hosts, Nate Tan and Hieu Nguyen. And tonight we are talking with cinematographer, music artist, and organizer with the Ella Baker Center, Thanh Tran. Tonight, we’ll be touching on incarceration, freedom, and the COVID pandemic inside prison walls.

[00:00:59] Hieu Ngeyun: Stay locked in APEX express!

[00:01:05] Nate Tan: Hey Thanh welcome to the show. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

[00:01:08] Thanh: Absolutely. Thank you for having me on the show. My name is Thanh Tran. Like you said, I’m a cinematographer, I’m a music artist, and a organizer with the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. I’m formally incarcerated. I’ve been free for about two months now, like almost two months. And it’s been an amazing experience. Just learning how to live again.

[00:01:32] Hieu Ngeyun: Yes. And on that topic. I’m curious to learn what does freedom mean to you, Thanh?

[00:01:37] Thanh: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think it’s bananas, you ask that because I’ve been asking myself that a lot too, since I’ve been quote unquote free. And one of the blessings that I got to experience fresh out was that like right after month mark, I was able to fly to Norway and when I was in Oslo, Norway, like I was just shocked, just being in a whole nother country for the first time ever.

Like I’m meeting people and I don’t have any restraints or like expectations of me. Like I get to just be myself, nobody knows I’m formally incarcerated. Nobody knows my past. And my history, like I get to be like who I want to be. And I think that feeling right there was the closest thing to the word freedom I’ve ever felt. Because I’ve never, ever been able to travel. I’ve never, ever been able to leave California really Sacramento. I was never really able to leave Sacramento because of like the choices I’ve made. So like now that I was like fresh out and I’m in a whole nother country. And I remember being on this ferry and the ferry was actually operated by currently incarcerated people, like bananas as that sounds, but I’m on this ferry and I’m feeling the salt on my lips and I could feel the wind in my face and I’m looking around and I’m seeing like this beautiful scenery of this water and like landscape.

And I was like, wow, like I’m really free I’m not in prison right now. Like I’m not in a four by nine cage wondering when’s the next time I get to shower. I think to me that was what freedom felt like when I was sitting on that ferry in a whole different country, feeling the wind in my face with no obligations or restraints holding me back or expectations, or even like a past history.

I think to me that was like, that’s freedom.

[00:03:36] Hieu Ngeyun: That sounds very blissful. You know, when you say, ” I was on a ferry for the first time,” I always think about how specifically formerly incarcerated, Southeast Asian men come home and their favorite activity is fishing. I feel like Southeast Asian people, salt water, and just being by the ocean that just like feels nostalgic just from childhood.

[00:03:58] Thanh: Yeah. Nah there’s something special about it. Like I haven’t gone fishing since I’ve been free yet. It’s only been, about two months. But I like, I loved it before I was incarcerated. I used to love going fishing. So, and like all of my closest buddies Bun, Ton, all these other fellas, Tith Ton to be specific, like all of my buddies love to go fishing and me, I just love being by the water.

[00:04:20] Hieu Ngeyun: They haven’t taken you fishing yet?! That is so rude of them. It is. I know.

[00:04:26] Thanh: It’s so rude. Nah, Imma let them have that. Cuz I’m in Sacramento and they’re in the Bay so I’m gonna give em a pass for this one.

[00:04:32] Hieu Ngeyun: No, we’re not gonna act like there’s not any lakes out there.

[00:04:36] Thanh: for real, huh? They slip me. Matter of fact, I’m gonna call him right after this. I’m like, what you doing? What’s wrong with you boy.

[00:04:43] Nate Tan: You know, there’s this material freedom, and I think that’s really important, right? There’s freedom that we experience in the physical world, like the wind in our hair and the salt on our lips and this blisfulness. And I also think there’s this idea of freedom beyond the material. I think the material is important, right? When you talk about we need to be material free, like that is just bottom line. Everyone needs to be free from cages free from bars free from these things that materially keep us confined. I was wondering if you had thoughts or feelings about freedom, what it means emotionally or freedom, what it means mentally or freedom as a spiritual belief – ritual belief. if you have any takes on that.

[00:05:31] Thanh: Absolutely, like I mentioned a little bit about it, when I first went on my rant on freedom, but I forgot. Like the other night I was watching this movie there was a person and they were talking about traveling. And they’re talking about like how traveling is like the ultimate freedom, because there’s nothing holding you back from being your truest self. When you’re out traveling in the world amongst people you don’t know, and nobody knows you, that is like the greatest freedom.

And I think how that translates for me is that being a formerly incarcerated person dealing with all the stigma that comes with being formally incarcerated, or even when I was currently incarcerated, dealing with that stigma, it’s like a wave. It’s like a chain, a yolk that, that holds you down. And even now that I’m free being on parole, like I still have this invisible chains around me. And I feel like for me being able to travel and just being able to be in the world that was like the greatest freedom I ever felt internally. And it wasn’t even about the physical, it wasn’t necessarily the fact that like I was out in a different country. It was just more so like the fact that I didn’t feel the chains of like parole during that time. I didn’t feel even the chains of my past when I was out there, I felt truly just free to be this genuine human being that I’ve grown into. I get to be myself.

To share a quick story, I remember the other day I was at a supermarket with my little sister and my nephew, and I seen someone from my childhood that I used to gang bang with. And he was like, what’s up, man? Like how long you been out? Like, why the hell? Why didn’t you tap in with the homies? Like you not checking in with the hood? I’m like, nah, bro. I’m not checking in with the hood. I’m not doing none of that. But I bring up this story because in that moment I felt like I was chained to this past. I was chained to this person that I used to be. And like I’m still to this day, like 10 years, 10 and a half years removed from when I left the game till now there’s still these forces trying to pull me back.

That’s not freedom. Even though I might be physically free, the fact that I still haven’t passed the fact that I’m on parole, like these are things that still confine me and still like attempt to hold me back. And that’s what I think is important to find a way to find that spiritual freedom. Cuz like you said, it’s not just enough to have a physical freedom to be like physically unconfined. But there’s other things that confined us too. Like our expectations of self, our self limited beliefs. There’s so many things that I’m breaking free of like generational curses, generational poverty.

There’s so many like layers to the things that now that I’m out, I’m trying to break free from. And I’ve been able to just taste the piece of what it means to be free.

[00:08:21] Nate Tan: Mm. I like the way you put it freedom is this constant work, right? This work that we have to undo in our mental as well as our physical. You did mention something that I think our listeners might being curious about, which is, being formerly incarcerated and having the name Thanh Tran.

I don’t know if a lot of people know about the Asian American experience and incarceration. Are there a lot of Asian Americans in the carceral system? And what is something that listeners should know about Asian Americans and incarceration?

[00:08:56] Thanh: Well, first off there’s so many Asian people incarcerated. Like you wouldn’t expect that. You wouldn’t expect to see so many Asian people, especially when I was incarcerated in county jail in Santa Clara, like there was a large API community in there and it kind of just blew me away. It caught me by surprise. And I was like, whoa, so many of our people are being swept into this system of incarceration.

And that doesn’t downplay any harm that they’ve committed and any wrong do they might have done. But you just reality is that so many people are being swept into this carceral system, starting from childhood like me, like I was incarcerated at the age of 12 and ever since I couldn’t get out of the system.

So, the first thing that really caught me by surprise was just the amount of a API people that are incarcerated. And then from county jail to prison, there’s just a large population. And I think if I can tell people anything about the API community on the inside, I feel like we’re really harming ourselves.

And when I say we, I mean, like just the community in total. Because for example, like my parents, when I was incarcerated, they were so ashamed. I just got out a month ago and come to find out for the past 10 years, they told everybody I moved to a different city to do some work. I was out at a different job in a different city. And that’s why they didn’t see me for 10 and a half years. Like, they’re just so ashamed of the fact that I was incarcerated, that they hid it from people for 10 years. And that’s like an example of the stigma that the Asian community puts on each other when we suffer incarceration when we are impacted by this system.

So I feel like a lot of the currently incarcerated API communities, we get isolated from our families because of the stigma of incarceration and also because, old beliefs of ” oh, you’re a bad person, then it’s just over for you, the cut ’em off mentality.

Like I get, I would say that Asians invented cancel culture. So basically essentially being canceled by our own family members. There’s so many people in there just like we who want to be rooted in family, want to be rooted in community, people who wanna be a son or a father, an uncle, and who are not given that opportunity.

Because whether it be old beliefs, old, outdated beliefs, or a lack of understanding in the API community. So I feel like there’s a lot of social isolation that occurs when you’re an API person and you’re incarcerated. So I feel like that’s one thing I definitely want people to know

[00:11:33] Hieu Ngeyun: Yeah. Thanks for sharing that. Yeah. I think, Asian American incarceration is very secretive. In a lot of different ways. I have family members that are currently incarcerated. And I’ve always known family members that have been in and out of prisons for my whole life. And it’s always been kind of one of those things where, no one knows what they’re in for and when they come home, it just, it’s pretty normal.

So the interventions for healing, I feel like is never really there, right? Thanks for sharing that just reminded me of those aspects of my life.

So Thanh, for as long as I’ve known you, you’ve always advocated for multicultural solidarity. But you have a very unique perspective on this because of your mixed race identity. Can you share more on how that plays out in your life and during your incarceration?

[00:12:27] Thanh: Yeah absolutely. So I’m Vietnamese and Black, my mom is Vietnamese and Black. She was a product of the Vietnam War, came to America, gave birth to me and I’m proud of being me. So I’m proud of my culture. But because of that I’ve experienced a lot of racism in my life from all parties. Like to Asian people I was the Black boy and to Black people I was the Asian boy. And, because of that, I never felt like I fit in anywhere. And no matter how hard I tried to fit in anywhere, it still wasn’t enough. So I reached the point where I had to figure out my own identity and figure out like, who am I truly?

And I was able from that position to create relationships with all types of people. And so despite of being an API person incarcerated and dealing with all the prison politics that comes with being API, I was still able to connect with people of all races while I was in prison.

And because of that, being able to utilize my advantages of being mixed, I was able to really understand, how similar we all are. Whether you’re Latinx, Black Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, it doesn’t even matter. We all have similar stories, we all have generational trauma and we’re all trying to figure out how to deal with it. And so I feel like we have so much more in common than we don’t. And unfortunately there’s a lot of people who are misinformed and even ignorant. Who really push like anti-Blackness or Asian hate. And I’ve been on the receiving end of both those things. I’ve been on the end of like Asian hate and anti-Blackness. So after experiencing the negativity on both sides of the fence and also experiencing the strength and beauty from both sides of my culture, I just came to the conclusion, there needs to be more bridge building than burning bridges. So that’s why I really live by that nowadays. I really push for people to grow and be open minded and expand and don’t hang out with just people that look like you hang out with people that from all over the world, be interested, you know, be curious about another person’s journey. You’d be shocked about what you may learn, but just a little bit of listening.

[00:14:36] Nate Tan: Yeah, I really like your response and Hien’s question. And I think a follow up question that comes up for me is what does solidarity look like? Right. Like you shared a little bit about, that we all have intergenerational trauma that in your experience, given prison politics, something that you had to maneuver.

But what I also hear is there is hope for solidarity that solidarity looks like something, right? Especially at this point where you brought up there’s these moments in history, there’s the “Stop API Hate” moment of history. And then there is the “Black Lives Matter” moment of history.

And we are at that point where these two things are existing. So I was wondering if you have a take on what does solidarity look like? What can it look like? What has it looked like? What are some stories that come up for you around solidarity?

[00:15:26] Thanh: For sure. I could speak specifically, for example, when elderly Asian people were being robbed and assaulted and there was this huge, stop, the Asian hate movement and Black people were being villainized. And on the news, I would watch the news and I would see Asian people, young, Asian people at that, making threats against Black communities. And, I would see, I would understand a lot of the anger. However, that said, that’s exactly what we’re trying to fight against. Right? What solidarity looks like is literally the exact opposite of it. When the Asian hate thing was going on, when there was people being hurt, when elderly people were being robbed or just beaten, I felt like we, the Asian community, we should have extended to hand. We should be like hold on let’s understand what’s going on. There’s a population of people who are addicted to drugs. There’s a population of people who are homeless, who are acting out of maybe a mental health issue.

Versus trying to understand what was going on. I saw a lot of people just say, oh yeah, it’s Black people hurting Asian people and we need to lock them. And essentially we became no better than all the systems that we’ve been trying to fight against for so long. So for me, like what solidarity looks like was instead of saying, oh, we need more police to keep our people safe. We should have took that opportunity, and some people did, shout out to the people who did take that opportunity, to extend a hand because that did happen. For example, I saw, a community event. It was a Black Asian solidarity community event actually in Oakland, I believe it was. And I think Nate and Hien you might know about it, but there was an event and they had people, Asian people and Black people come out and say, you know what, we need to stop all this silliness. We need to stop all this wildness. And we need to figure out solutions together. Let’s create a dialogue. That was one event during the whole Stop Asian Hate movement. That was the only Black and Asian solidarity event that I saw, that I witnessed. And I’m sure there was more, but just the lack of it and the lack of coverage, and the lack of that being highlighted, I feel like that is the opposite of what we should have been doing.

For example, another thing that I witnessed was that I would see all these forums about Stop the Asian Hate and it would have all these zoom meetings and all these forums and all these guest speakers. And it’ll be like five Asian people talking about how to stop Asian hate, how are we gonna stop those Black people from hurting us? That’s essentially what those meetings were. And I feel like that’s exactly what we should not have been doing. Those zoom meetings, all those community events, they should have been Black and Asian people sit together, having conversations. If you wanted to create solutions, that was the way to do it. And I felt like we missed a mark by a longshot. In regards to solidarity and what solidarity looks like, it was taking those opportunities and inviting people to have a conversation together. And when I say people that’s Black people, brown people, Asian people, like we were supposed to be having a conversation together about how we, as a community can keep each other accountable. How can we keep each other safer and how we can work together? So, I feel like that’s what solidarity looks like, extending the hand for conversation, extending the hand to understand each other better versus criminalizing each other and passing laws on a national level to lock people up like that. I don’t think that was the way to go.

[00:18:41] Hieu Ngeyun: No. I agree with you. I like how you mention things like really complex issues for houselessness, for poverty, for just even being hungry. They’re more complex issues that can’t be responded by just locking someone up. Like we actually have to respond to those issues before anything else. And those are often the issues that are hardest. I think you’re right. I previously worked in the middle of Chinatown where a lot of that happened and where we worked there was a lot of houselessness. We worked right by the 880 freeway.

And there is a lot of encampments there, it is a highly criminalized area. Just because of the population. And so I think the way that everything was positioned didn’t lend itself to say ” Hey, not only is violence occurring, but there are layers of violence that is situated here.”

Right? People are hungry. People are living in poverty. People are, living without so much and in desperation.

[00:19:48] Thanh: Thank you for naming that. I think it’s really important to name that cuz there’s violence occurring on multiple levels, there’s absolutely the violence occurring against the Asian community, but then there’s violence occurring to people like who are houseless there’s violence occurring for poverty and the criminalization of poverty.

So there’s just so many levels of harm going on and it’s so complex. And that’s why once again, I feel like it’s absolutely pivotal that we have these conversations because on a, these are not things you can address on a surface level. You can’t just watch a news clipping of a robbery going on and be able to create or develop a full understanding of the situation, right? To be able to say, this is the solution. If you don’t fully understand the problem, how can you fully understand the solution? Get there’s people jumping at the gun saying, you know what? I know the solution lock ’em up. Thank you for naming that Hien, I appreciate that.

[00:20:44] Nate Tan: Yeah, I think there’s a few things that come to mind and a few topics that we’ve talked about to, to this point, we’ve talked about freedom and we’ve talked about incarceration and we talked about Asian American incarceration. And now we’re talking about this intersection of, Stop API Hate and Black Lives Matter and how it’s such a complex moment.

And we talked about solidarity being something that can come through dialogue, that includes people from all parties like Black folks, Asian American folks. I think what I wanna know more about is every time there’s violence, systemic or interpersonal, there always is a pursuit of justice. So whenever there’s inequality, there’s always a need for justice.

And I think for us, Hien and I, and you Thanh who work intimately with people who are incarcerated, who are formerly incarcerated who know people who are formerly incarcerated. We understand that incarceration isn’t for a lot of people, justice, right? It doesn’t solve violence. We know this because if prisons were an indicator of safety, California would be the safest state in the country. California would be the safest place in the world, which we know is not true. So I was wondering if you had a take, or a vision of what justice looks like, what freedom looks like for people who have committed harm and for people who are harmed. Because people who endure incarceration may have committed harm, but are also in a perpetual state receiving harm and that’s harmed by the institution itself. So I was wondering if you had any thoughts on those points?

[00:22:35] Thanh: I think first I want to name that even just talking about people who commit harm and people who been harmed, I feel like we have these clean cut names. Like we call one an offender. Or a criminal and call the other survivor or a victim. And I feel like first thing I want to name is that it’s not always so black and white. It’s a very gray area because for example, before I ever committed a crime, I was a victim of many crimes. I was robbed. I was beaten. I experienced a lot of harm before I ever decided, you know what, I’m gonna go commit a robbery. Just the delineations between offender and victim or offender and survivor is a very gray area. So I wanted to name that first and foremost, but to move on to your question, when I was incarcerated, I did a lot of restorative justice work. So I spoke to many survivors of crime and I asked them I talked to them, I was like, what type of needs did you have as a survivor? And what are some of the things that you wanted? And more often than not, what I heard wasn’t the need for revenge or punishment. It was a need to feel safe again, or a need to be cared for, or a need to make sure that this person doesn’t hurt anybody else. So I feel like in regards to what justice looks like for a survivor, I don’t believe that giving a person 50 years to life because you did a robbery and it’s your third strike. That’s not justice. And I feel like for survivors that I’ve spoken to, that’s not justice for them either. Like they don’t get satisfaction out of that, especially like going through the court systems. I could speak specifically for my partner Lupe. My partner Lupe is a survivor of crime, her child’s father was murdered and died in her arms. And she told me about her experience as a survivor and going through the court systems and how essentially as a survivor, she was weaponized in the courtrooms to incarcerate the two men who committed the shooting. And after she was weaponized against them as a witness, she didn’t receive any services. She didn’t receive counseling, she didn’t receive help. And a matter of fact, when she tried to get some services for being a survivor, the process and the paperwork involved took years before she could receive any support or funding as a survivor of crime. So actually as a survivor, what justice looks like is very far from what’s being served right now. So now speaking as a person who committed the crime as a person who’s committed harm, I can speak for myself and the thousands of men and women that I was incarcerated with during my time. For them getting a sentenced to say, 20 years and sent down in prison. That’s not easy to do, but that’s not as hard as telling them like, Hey, you have to figure out why you committed this harm. It was a lot harder for me. To learn myself. It was more painful for me to look at myself honestly, and take the time to change myself than it was to just be able sit on a tier playing chess all day when I was playing chess and Scrabble all day, like time flew by, like I was just doing time and that wasn’t helpful for me. And it wasn’t helpful for the victims that were harmed.

For people who committed harm, I feel justice, what that looks like is giving these people the resources they need to address. Why did you commit this echo harm? Like how were you harmed before that led, that influenced you to committing harm the future? Giving them opportunities and programs to be treated humanely. Because if you treat a person like an animal and they come, they get returned to society, acting like an animal, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise why they’re acting this way. They be throwing a person in a violent environment and this person also becomes violent.

That shouldn’t be shocking to you. But still that happens with our prison system right now. Like we throw people in these dangerous environments and tell them to become better people without giving them the resources to do it. So I feel like what justice looks like even for the side of a person who commits harm is give them the resources to do the very hard work of healing. The very hard work of understanding and the very hard work of reparations, because that is infinitely more difficult than just sitting in a cell, playing chess all day. I’ll promise you that.

[00:27:10] Hieu Ngeyun: yes. Thank you so much for sharing that. The funny thing about the carceral system is that there is such a high focus on surveillance and punishment towards people, but at the center of it, there’s not a principle that says let’s heal, let’s work on the healing and safety of everyone actually, but for survivors and thank you so much for sharing Lupe’s story. And I think that is so horrible what you went through, but wishing her healing.

[00:27:43] Nate Tan: We’re gonna take a quick little break, stay tuned in to APEX Express on 94.1, KPFA and 89.3 KPFB in Berkeley and [email protected] This is 7,000 miles by Ruby Ibarra featuring, and Anne one.

You just listened to 7,000 miles by Ruby Ibarra featuring Anne one. So Thanh thank you for all the wisdom that you bestowed upon us before the break. And I think you’ve given us a lot to digest and to think about in terms of justice, freedom.

I am also really curious to know about your experience with the pandemic. You were incarcerated during the pandemic and the pandemic had devastating effects on the outside world.

[00:31:48] Hieu Ngeyun: We’re here with Thanh Tran, cinematographer, music artist, and organizer with Ella Baker Center, talking about incarceration, freedom, and the COVID- 19 pandemic inside prison walls.

[00:31:58] Nate Tan: Can you tell us a little bit about what was it like experiencing the pandemic from inside?

[00:32:04] Thanh: That’s a lot. I don’t know if I got a little bit to give, I got a lot to give you.

[00:32:07] Nate Tan: Yeah, you can give it all.

[00:32:09] Thanh: I remember. The first time I stepped outta my cell after being locked down for eight months during the pandemic, it was around eight months. I remember it was around like September, October. So it was like seven, eight months of just 23 to 24 hour lockdown in a four by nine cage. And of just me staring at a ceiling for like months. And I remember when I finally was able to step outside, the weirdest thing was going on. Like when I stepped outside, I seen like everybody, like there was at least 20, 30 people on the small yard and everybody was looking up and I was like, what the, what is everybody looking at?

It’s like a, is it a plane is a UFO. So I step out and I look up too. and I saw what it was they were looking at. They were looking at the sky and I started to tear up a little bit, cuz I realized I haven’t seen the sky in about seven, eight months. And that really highlighted what it was like at the very beginning of this pandemic, because we were slammed.

I’m talking about, we were literally locked into a closet size cell and there was barely any officers or nurses. And I remember when I contracted COVID for the first time ever and I was extremely sick, I was throwing up. I was in a bad way. I couldn’t even stand up fully. Like I had to lean against the wall because of how dizzy I felt.

And I remember begging every single nurse that walked by my cell for medicine. I said, please give me some medicine. I feel terrible. I’m throwing up. They said, you know what? You need to talk to the pill call lady, not me. I can’t help you. So the pill call lady comes by. I’m like, Hey pill, call lady. I’m super sick. I feel like I’m throwing up. Like I need medicine help. She said, oh, I’m the wrong person to talk to you. You need to fill out a form and give it to the next nurse that walks by. I fill out a form. I give it to the next she’s like, oh, I don’t take forms. You need to give it to the officer on the tier and he’ll take the form.

So this was what it was like to a point where I think it was probably the fifth nurse. I asked the, I asked nurse. I was like, look, I have this form. I have COVID I’m throwing up. I’m just the sickest I’ve been in my life. Please help me. She said, I can’t help you. And I remember I just lost it. I was like, what the F do you mean you can’t help me?

Like I’m in here dying. All I’m asking for is some medicine. Just please help me. And I’m begging this lady. I just want some medicine. I’m not asking you to break me outta prison. I’m not asking you to give me a PlayStation five. I’m just asking for some medicine, I’m asking to be treated as a simple human being.

And I think after that fifth nurse, she just saw something in me and I seen her in her eyes like she started to tear up a little bit and she took my forms and said, I’ll be right back. And she came back with a doctor and she finally gave me some medicine, but that was another experience that I had during the lockdown to, to highlight how difficult it was to just receive care during the height of the outbreak at San Quentin.

And, oh God, I’m telling you, there’s so many things I remember probably six months into the lockdown, five, six months into the lockdown. I remember just every day has just become monotonous. We’re just, I’m just stuck in the cell and I’m just watching TV and I’m like, it’s just monotonous. And outta nowhere, I just hear someone screaming, shrieking.

The word is shriek he was shrieking a high pitch shriek.

“Ah, I just want some air, let me get some air.” and this grown man began to shriek and just break down and cry. And I just heard him crying and the whole tier was just dead silent. As we heard this man, just begging just to be let outside of his cell. And he just cried and the tier was like, you can feel the heaviness on the tier and like these are memories I’ll never forget, like even just talking about it right now. Like I want to tear up cuz I can’t believe that I was subjected to that. I don’t know how that was legal.

And I remember even as the pandemic carried on after the first outbreak, we thought everything was good and things resumed to a semi normal program in prison, but with COVID in mind. And then another outbreak happens and then I catch COVID for the second time. This time I was vaccinated and I still caught COVID. And after that outbreak happened, we were led up again and there things seemed to be getting normal again. And then we go back down on a lockdown because another outbreak happens. This is all within the two years. Within two years, three COVID outbreaks, three different strands imploded through San Quentin.

And I catched COVID again for the third time, even while I’m vaccinated. And the day I was released from prison, I actually was COVID positive. So I was released back to our community sick because of what prison inflicted on me

And it’s bananas. Because even after that, after I was released, I was like, I’m getting phone calls from people on the inside at San Quentin. And I’m out here on the outside now. And I see how the world has moved on. I see how we learn to quote unquote, live with COVID right. And I talk to the fellows on the inside and what living with COVID out here means that we’re a little bit more relaxed. We might not have too many mass restrictions. We get to go to large crowds and events. If we’re socially distancing, life is becoming easier and more comfortable out here. But learning to live with COVID in prison, what that looks like is 23 hour lockdowns. What that looks like is no education opportunities, no self-help opportunities, no therapy.

What that looks like is being confined to a cage all day and being let out occasionally to be able to shower. That’s what learning to live with COVID looks like in prison. And as a matter of fact, San Quentin just recently went down for a fourth outbreak. That’s what learning to live with COVID. They are literally living with COVID all around him on the inside.

So we, it might be a distant memory or it might be, oh, he caught COVID down there, but he’d be right.

Not in prison. Learning to live with COVID means learning to live with death in prison. And I think that I wanna, highlight that, if I could talk about my COVID experience, like learning to live with COVID in prison means learning to live with death is becoming used to hearing that one of your friends died because of COVID it’s used to being, it’s becoming familiar with hearing one of your closest friends was hospitalized again for COVID it’s becoming familiar with just being in a cell all day, solitary confinement, losing your mind. That’s what living learning to live with COVID is like in prison and that’s what’s going on right now. And we’re not talking about that because we’ve learned to live with COVID in a different way out here. And we learned how to be comfortable with COVID.

So I think that’s something that I really want to highlight when we talk about like my experience of living through COVID like my brothers are still in there living with it, literally living with it. So I just want to highlight that if I could talk about my COVID experience and what it’s like, that’s what it’s been like.

[00:39:59] Hieu Ngeyun: And there hasn’t been a protocol or anything to address a pandemic inside of a prison, right? Because we haven’t had one to address, this situation is very unique, in particular to San Quentin, which is one of the oldest prisons in California, and one of the oldest buildings, infrastructure can’t possibly really support anyone.

Just for a little context for listeners out there, San Quentin was the pinnacle of a huge COVID outbreak due to a very deliberate transfer from what I know. Right? But it’s not even just about transferring people from different prisons, it’s actually about, all of the guards coming in with COVID, because programs haven’t been happening it’s the guards that are just continuing transferring COVID inside. Right?

[00:40:57] Thanh: Yeah. Thanks for that context too. I was there when COVID first hit San Quentin, when CDCR infamously transferred about a hundred people from a COVID- ridden prison to San Quentin who had zero cases. And it exploded into the worst outbreak in California that killed over a dozen people.

And I was there throughout that entire experience. And I was also there when the world forgot about it, when the world moved on because of vaccines, there was this belief that, all right, we’re gonna vaccinate as many people in prison as possible. And magically that is supposed to just solve the COVID problem.

Well, it didn’t. Four outbreaks later, there’s still people dying and being hospitalized and filling up the outside hospitals because the prisons are uncapable. Of taking care of these people. Prisons are not health facilities. Prisons are facilities to punish, to debilitate, to break down. So I don’t understand why there’s so much surprise when people feel like, oh my God, there’s all these people dying in prison because of COVID.

And I think I wanna highlight also that people gained a false sense of security about the incarcerated population when vaccines came. They felt like the vaccines were the silver bullet. It was gonna make sure we were safe. And it wasn’t the case. It wasn’t the case. Like we’ve been educated about COVID.

Now at this point, we know that the virus mutate have become stronger, especially in small environments when it’s passing amongst people. And that’s exactly what prisons are. Prisons are Petri dishes for diseases. So we’ve had weird strains that we can’t even name that are killing people, dozens of people.

And we’re wondering why these vaccines aren’t enough when these new strains keep coming and coming. And like you said, the officers are bringing it in. Because the officers are refusing to take the vaccine. So now we have this whole nother dilemma of officers bringing in new strains and introducing it to the population and that strain now mutating in the incarcerated population.

And once again, sparking more outbreaks, sparking more people, dying, more people hospitalized. We have a terrible cycle of complacency and misinformation that’s going on right now when it comes to COVID and prisons. And what exactly is happening right now.

[00:43:34] Hieu Ngeyun: Mm-hmm yeah. Mass incarceration in prisons are a public health crisis, and I think your experience tells it all. I know through just reading research and public health documents that incarceration does deteriorate your health, it puts you at high health risk. So a lot of people who do get sick are probably either immunocompromised or at high risk.

[00:44:06] Nate Tan: Yeah. What I think what I’m hearing and what you specifically Thanh is how freedom is so necessary. Like it’s not a luxury that is afforded to people that it’s necessary for human life. Right? Cause I feel like when California said,” we have vaccines for the incarcerated population.” It sounded like to me, California was saying “we have vaccines so we can continue incarceration as usual,” Where the emphasis wasn’t on public health or the health of people inside, it was on, how do we continue incarceration in the most minimally humane way possible.

And I think it speaks to how freedom is needed on all fronts. Right? We need freedom from prisons. We need freedom to be with our loved ones. We need freedom to be healthy, right? That’s a necessary freedom and we need freedom to determine the outcomes of our own lives, which prison under COVID and even before COVID took all that away. So I think you provide great insight and I was wondering if you can answer one more question about COVID and I’m curious to know if there was something that you wanted the world to know that they haven’t yet heard about the COVID outbreak, San Quentin, what would you want them to know?

[00:45:30] Thanh: Hmm. That’s a hard question. I think I said it already. I definitely want the world to know like what, what living with COVID looks like for us out here is very different from what living with COVID inside of prison is like, And what’s going on in San Quentin right now.

They’re currently on lockdown right now for the fourth outbreak. In one facility, I feel like that’s mind blowing, like, how is that? How are we okay with that? How are we as a society in the community okay with that? And say, you don’t care about, let’s just say, for example, you don’t really care about humanity.

Say like, oh, they’re all inmates. And they deserve to be in prison. Say that’s your mind state. All right. But still my question to those people who think that way is like, how do you justify the hundreds of thousands of dollars we’re spending per person to try to give them vaccines and emergency medical hospitalization care.

And how do you justify your community hospitals being filled with people who are currently incarcerated because of the COVID outbreaks? How do you justify all the wasted, taxpayer dollars that’s being spent on ineffectively, keeping you safe. How do you justify that? I feel like everybody has the stake, regardless of political belief or leaning.

You can be completely against incarcerated people, but I still feel like this is an issue that affects everybody all the way across the board, especially in a time now where we have so many schools shutting down because of a lack of funding. And if all of this money is being wasted in prisons, shouldn’t you as a concerned citizen, be like, you know what, maybe we should stop spending all this money, ineffectively locking people up and killing them.

Instead invested in our children that you say you love so much. I just challenge everybody who’s listening, like regardless of your political leaning and whatever, like you believe, to think about what’s going on in San Quentin right now about a fourth outbreak and flooding the local hospitals in ER rooms with incarcerated people. And I want them to think about how living with COVID for us is completely different than living with COVID on the inside. I challenge people to critically think about that and to take action around that because there’s so many, because the only answer we’ve learned that vaccines are not enough. We learned that telling the guards to wear a mask is not enough. We’ve learned that the only thing that works is to decarcerate. We’ve learned. That’s the only thing that works. If this prison is only meant to have 2000 people housed there, then it’s a bad idea to have 3,500 people housed there. It’s a bad idea to be over the population by over a hundred percent like that doesn’t make sense.

If you know that this capacity is only built to house, this certain amount of people, why do we feel the need to house thousands of more people there? And we wonder why when we pack so many people into such a small filthy confined space, you wonder why all these people are getting sick and you wonder why we’re spending so much money to try to put a bandaid on it and brush it under the rug. So I feel like everybody, we all haven’t invested stake in this.

[00:49:03] Hieu Ngeyun: You know, before the vaccine, everyone was really for mass decarceration, and then when the vaccines hit, it just seemed like not as much. And we saw elected members on it, but I feel like that’s another topic for another day.

Hey, so if we haven’t told you for the thousandth time, welcome home, dude. yeah, I know. It’s been really exciting. I know you touched on a, touched on it a bit but how’s life after incarceration? What are some amazing highlights? I know you shared about Norway, but yeah, any challenges as well?

[00:49:45] Thanh: For sure. There’s plenty of challenges. so I’ll share some challenges and I’ll share some highlights too. I think one of the biggest challenges I’m facing that I wish there were more services around and I wish there was more education around for currently incarcerated people is credit. You need credit to rent a house, you need credit to finance a car, you just need credit.

I was never taught anything about credit. So I get out and I’m like, Hey, I want to go buy a car cuz I need to get to work. And then they’re like, you got credit. I’m like, no, it was like, well brother, you better figure that out. I’m like, what am I supposed to do? And thank God, I had a lot of friends to help navigate it a little bit. But I feel like credit is one of those things that is not emphasized enough for currently incarcerated people. Even while you’re incarcerated there’s actions and steps, you could be taking to improve your credit. So that when you come home you have access to credit and you’re able to live life because everybody out here has to do with credit. And, everybody out here knows how your life is affected when you have either no credit or bad credit. And I came out here with no credit at all. So I feel like that’s been one of my struggles is figuring out the credit.

I feel like another one of my struggles is definitely financial. Thank God I have people to support me financially when I came home. Thank God that Ella Baker Center did a GoFundMe to make sure I had a few grand to return home to but honestly, if I didn’t have that, all I was given at the gates from the prison was $200 and that’s it. $200 can give me a hotel room, like $200. Can’t do nothing for me.

One thing that I’m starting to see, is really big, is like having a good job, like being able to become employed, even to take care of yourself financially last, like that’s a tremendous struggle. And for people who’s like fresh out, you need at least a month or two to just reintegrate. You need a month or two just to be in awe. I spent the first month just, wide-eyed just, whoa, look at that. It’s a car. You know what I mean? For example, my little sister helped me set up a TV and I remember she picked up the remote controller and she hit the little button that had a microphone on it and she started talking to it. She said Netflix and it went to Netflix and it blew my mind. I was like, hold on. How long have you had this technology and why have you had me living like a caveman for 10 years when y’all got all this technology? So I feel like the first month or two should be just those moments for people. However, I was blessed to have a little bit of money coming out, but most people don’t have the luxury of having a little bit of finances to return home to.

So like even now, like I struggle financially a little bit. I feel like that’s been one of the struggles for just anybody returning, but I will say some victories for me, some highlights for me. For example today, one of the biggest things that I dreamed about doing when I got home was just to help my parents. Just clean up around the house, help my help, do whatever they need me to. So today I was able to just be at my foster parents’ house, the people who raised me and just clean the tires, mop the room, like little things, you know what I mean? Like that brought me so much joy. I’m like, man, I remember dreaming about being a good son and here I am being that good son.

So I feel like that’s been one of my highlights, just reconnecting with my family and just being that person that I know I am. Because like during my 10 years incarceration, during my growth and transformation, like my family was skeptical and understandably, so they’re like, all right, he’s talking a good game right now.

He’s saying he changed his life. He’s saying he’s this person. And he believes in this and he wants to do this, but we’re gonna see when he gets out. And let me tell you now nothing feels better than walking the walk. Like I’m not just talking to talk, I’m walking in and I’m shown to my family and everyone around me. Like I am who I say I am. And just that feeling that’s one of the greatest feelings and highlights for me, it is to show people like the consistency between my speech and my action. So I feel like that’s been one of the highlights for sure. Just being around my family and confirming in their eyes that I am the brother that they always wanted me to be.

[00:54:27] Nate Tan: Mm, beautifully said, you know, between Hien and I, we are big fans of freedom, freedom stories, and of course you, big fans of you being free. And we know freedom can be contagious and the responsibility of a free person is to get someone else free. According to who said that? That was a famous quote. a famous person said it.

[00:54:52] Thanh: I thought it was Nate who said it

[00:54:53] Nate Tan: no, no, no. I didn’t say it. But that’s all to say. Can you share whose freedom are you fighting for?

[00:54:59] Thanh: I love that you said that I just wanna highlight real quick too I wouldn’t be here today, if it wasn’t for all of the formerly incarcerated people who got out and pulled me out with them. Sincerely my freedom today is a combination of 5 to 10 formerly incarcerated people advocating like crazy for years to get me out.

So I just wanted to highlight that fact. And now that I’m free, like the people, one of the main people I’m advocating for is Greg Eskridge. Shout out. Greg Eskridge is an incredible podcaster. He’s an incredible journalist. He helped me create the podcast “uncuffed” while I was incarcerated.

He was part of KALW and then helped create the podcast. Became a lead hosts for uncuffed, just an incredible human being through and through. So I’m definitely advocating to get Greg Eskridge home. I’m like making calls on a regular, I’m reaching out to people I’m seeing who knows who and who can do what, because that’s exactly what was done for me.

And that resulted in me being here right now, speaking to y’all. So shout out to Greg. I love you. My brother, I’m coming for you. We coming for the victory. I’m gonna be at the gates, holding a big old sign with your picture on it

[00:56:08] Nate Tan: That’s beautiful. Love that. Well, thank you for your time, Thanh, and, it was such a pleasure to get to talk to you on the radio.

[00:56:17] Hieu Ngeyun: Yes, always. And you know, we’ll be seeing you around soon. And listeners here, we will probably know more about your work as you get into your organizing, so I’m really excited about that. Because I know you as a great organizer from the inside, so I’m really excited to see what you’ll be doing out here.

[00:56:36] Thanh: Absolutely. Thank you. I appreciate the pressure

[00:56:43] Hieu Ngeyun: no dude, no pressure. We rely on interdependence here. So we work together and I always seek your wisdom in my own work. So I’m really grateful for you.

[00:56:55] Thanh: Absolutely. I appreciate you. And I’m excited too. I’m excited. We gonna shake it up.

[00:57:00] Hieu Ngeyun: Please check out our website, kpfa.org to find out more about Thanh Tran’s work as a cinematographer, music artist, and organizer with the Ella Baker Center.

We thank all of you listeners out there, keep resisting, keep organizing, keep creating and sharing your visions with the world.

Your voices are important.

[00:57:18] Nate Tan: APEX Express is produced by Miko Lee, Jalena Kean Lee, Preeti Mangala Shakar, Nate Tan, and Hien Nguyen. Tonight’s show is produced by Nate Tan and Hien Nguyen.

Thanks to the team at KPFA for their support. Have a great night.

[00:57:31] Hieu Ngeyun: You know, Asian monks. They be killing you with kindness, dude. They be looking in your eyes with smiles and they’ll be like, can you help me with this? It will be like a 500 pound Buddha they want you to carry… I’m like, all right.

[00:57:49] Thanh: I love them though. I love them. So I do it with love. I told ’em they couldn’t people couldn’t pay me to do this work. Like this is a labor of love period.



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