Tag: Prisons


The Killing of Robert F. Kennedy


Joseph A. Palermo

The fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Robert Francis Kennedy allows for a moment to reflect on the meaning of that tragic event. Alongside a four-part Netflix documentary, dozens of articles about RFK have recently appeared, some of which raise new questions about the assassin’s motives and whether or not he had acted alone. One historian has tried to place RFK’s killing squarely inside the contemporary U.S. discourse of the “war on terror”; while other commentators cast doubt on the idea that the person convicted of the crime was truly guilty.

The 1968 Democratic primary in California was among the most important elections held in the United States in the 1960s. With its racial and ethnic diversity and its manufacturing, agriculture, technology, and service industries, the Golden State was seen as a microcosm of the nation. The 174 votes of the California delegation that Kennedy won in the winner-take-all primary put him in a far stronger position going into the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that August. Kennedy’s victory brought to the forefront the wing of the Democratic party that called for an end to the Vietnam War, supported the struggle for civil rights (including farm workers), and advocated new programs to alleviate poverty. RFK’s California win was a pivotal moment for his presidential bid both practically and symbolically. More than any other state, it was California that cleared a pathway for Kennedy to win the nomination of his party and possibly the presidency that November.

The 1968 Democratic primary in California was among the most important elections held in the United States in the 1960s.

Having written two books and several articles about the life of Robert F. Kennedy, up until now I have eschewed writing specifically about his murder. But as the fiftieth anniversary drew near I felt compelled to spend some time in the California State Archives in Sacramento combing through Los Angeles County Sheriff’s records relating to the time immediately following the assassination, when the accused suspect was in the deputies’ custody. Until now these deputies’ logs languished in the archives unremarked upon even though they contain illuminating evidence regarding the alleged assassin’s motives and demeanor in June 1968.

My aim in this article is not to draw grandiose conclusions about the motives behind RFK’s killing, but to try to capture the drama of the details of one of the most consequential political assassinations in American history, and to reconsider that dreadful event of 5 June 1968 in light of what I found in the archival documents.


Photo 5 from Bayview Branch Archives: Robert Kennedy in Bayview Hunters Point. Photo possibly taken 10 May 1967 when U.S. Senators Robert Kennedy, George Murphy, and Joseph S. Clark visited San Francisco’s Western Addition and Bayview Hunters Point neighborhoods. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

The Fatal Event in Los Angeles

Packed tightly inside a sweltering ballroom at the Ambassador Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, several thousand people—as diverse as California itself—were euphoric that their candidate had just won the state’s Democratic presidential primary. When shrieks arose from a far corner of the room, people realized something was terribly wrong. The realization that gunshots were fired wafted through the crowd, followed by the human sounds of panic mixed with disbelief.

Could this really be happening? New York Senator Robert Francis Kennedy, the younger brother of the slain President John F. Kennedy, suffering a similar fate?

An ambulance rushed Robert Kennedy to Central Receiving Hospital (where he received last rites) and then to Good Samaritan Hospital for emergency brain surgery. For three hours doctors endeavored to remove bone and bullet fragments from the base of his brain, after which he lay clinging to life in “extremely critical” condition.

Back at the Ambassador Hotel, police detained a “John Doe” and charged him with four counts of assault with attempt to commit murder. A secret arraignment was scheduled for 8:30 that morning where bail would be set at $250,000.

The John Doe was being treated at the jail hospital for injuries sustained during his apprehension when prosecutors added two more charges of attempted murder.[1] The doctor’s memo stated the suspect’s left index finger had been fractured and he had a sprained ankle, adding: “blood pressure 112 over 70, pulse 80, temperature 98.0, weight 109 lbs.” His height was listed at sixty-two and a quarter inches.[2]

L.A. County Sheriffs knew extraordinary measures were needed to ensure the safety of their charge. Witnesses at the scene had already alluded to the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged assassin of President Kennedy, who was murdered while in police custody. “We don’t want another Dallas,” someone blurted out when the shooter was being taken out to a police car. The F.B.I. stationed an agent at the Sheriff’s Department to help protect their detainee from those who would do him harm (or from suicide).[3]

Given the intense interest in the shooting of Robert F. Kennedy and what had transpired in Dallas fifty-three months earlier, L.A. County Sheriffs reassured the public they were taking all necessary steps to keep their famous inmate safe.[4] Sheriff Peter J. Pitchess told the press that no prisoner in the history of the country had ever been held under such tight security. “One deputy remains in the cell with the prisoner at all times,” he said, “while another stands outside in the corridor and watches the cell through a small window in the door; and four more deputies are nearby.”[5]

By noontime 5 June, investigators learned the John Doe’s identity from his brother, who believed his gun was used in the shooting. They were holding Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, whose family immigrated to the United States in 1957 “from Jerusalem, Jordan.” A Sheriff’s Department memo stated that his father, Bishara, had returned to Jerusalem in 1959, and his mother, “Marg [sic] Sirhan,” resided in Pasadena and worked at the Westminster Nursery School. “Pasadena police department [sic] records reflect many calls to the home of Sirhans to settle family disturbances.”[6] The arrest report reads:

Sirhan Sirhan 24 Years

Is not a citizen of the United States and to our knowledge has never applied for citizenship.

Graduated from John Muir High School in Pasadena in 1963. Fellow students like him and called him “Volk,” which means wolf in Russian—Name resulted from his participation in a Russian language class at school.

Has been employed as an exercise boy at racetracks and also as a stock clerk in health food store.

His is Christian, not of Moslem [sic] faith, so diet will not present a problem while he is in our custody.[7]

At about two o’clock in the morning on 6 June, Kennedy’s press secretary Frank Mankiewicz read a short statement from Good Samaritan Hospital: “Senator Robert Francis Kennedy died at 1:44 a.m. today, June 6, 1968. With the Senator at the time of his death was his wife, Ethel, his sisters, Mrs. Patricia Lawford and Mrs. Stephen Smith, and his sister-in-law, Mrs. John F. Kennedy. He was forty-two years old.”

Death threats and rumors of death threats flooded the L.A. Sheriff’s Department. A woman called saying her brother-in-law was “determined to kill Sirhan and will attempt to do so when he is taken to trial.” Another tip warned that members of the Mexican-American militant group, the Brown Berets, “may attempt to assassinate Sirhan during one of his court appearances.”[8] Sheriffs also heard from postal inspectors who “received an anonymous call from a male identifying himself as an employee at the Terminal Annex to the effect that he had overheard Negro employees in the Annex state that they were going kill Sirhan Sirhan when he was removed from the security of jail.”[9] Another police report noted a call from “an unidentified male” claiming there had “been a bomb planted in the Hall of Justice [in Los Angeles] set to go off at 4:00 p.m. to kill the suspect that shot Senator Kennedy”; “a shakedown of the building is underway.”[10] There was even a rumor that an attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union was “going to pass suspect Sirhan a cyanide pill.” [11]


On Tuesday, Robert Kennedy had been celebrating his hard-fought election victory in Los Angeles. By Saturday evening he was beneath the ground in Washington.

For unknown reasons investigators sought information about Robert Kennedy’s friend, movie director John Frankenheimer, whose home Kennedy and some of his family members stayed in while he campaigned in southern California: “A confidential informant reports subject is a movie and television producer of some magnitude. Informant dislikes subject because of his means of picking talent used on his shows and the fact that although married, he openly ‘carries on’ with numerous paramours.”[12]

The Sheriff’s Department also took an unsolicited phone call from a woman who spoke about Mr. Sirhan stalking Kennedy: “On the day preceding the assassination of Senator Kennedy, a young man, whom she recognizes as Sirhan Sirhan, accompanied by a young lady came to the headquarters and represented himself as a member of the Kennedy Headquarters in Pasadena. He was asking information on the Senator’s schedule…. She and another employee can describe his female companion and can identify her.”[13]

About thirty-five hours after his arrest, Sheriff deputies checked out two books from the public library, which Sirhan Sirhan had requested: The Secret Doctrine by H.P. Blavatsky and Talks on ‘At the Feet of the Master’ by C.W. Leadbeater.[14] The next day the Los Angeles Times explained to its puzzled readers that Blatavsky was a Russian-born founder of the theosophical movement who died in 1891, and “Leadbetter’s 522-page book, published in 1923, is a critique of ‘At the Feet of the Master,’ a theosophical work by Jiddu Krishnamurti published in 1895.”[15] The esoteric reading habits of the young alleged assassin (who multiple press accounts called “swarthy”) only fueled public speculation about his motives. The news story led an educator who was familiar with the works from the English Department at Eastern Michigan University to send Sheriff Pitchess a letter imploring him to look into the possibility that “you are dealing with a ritual murder, which the defense might easily use to prove insanity of some sort, religious compulsion, etc.”[16]

At midday on 6 June, Kennedy’s body, inside a casket of African mahogany, left Good Samaritan Hospital in a blue hearse with a cortege of nine limousines and motorcycle police escorts. After the twenty-mile freeway ride to LAX, several hundred onlookers watched as the Kennedy entourage boarded an Air Force 707 jet that President Lyndon B. Johnson provided. Jacqueline Kennedy and Coretta Scott King joined Ethel Kennedy on the plane.

After a four-and-a-half hour flight, the plane touched down at La Guardia Airport in New York at 8:58 p.m. From there a hearse and thirty-four cars slowly made their way to St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. Over the next forty hours, 151,000 people, some of whom waited for up to six hours in ninety-degree heat, made the pilgrimage to St. Patrick’s to spend a few seconds filing past Kennedy’s casket.

The following morning, a grand jury of fourteen women and eight men convened at the Hall of Justice in Los Angeles for a daylong hearing. They heard testimony from twenty-two witnesses before indicting Sirhan Sirhan on one charge of first-degree murder and five counts of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to commit murder.[17]

On Saturday, 8 June, there was a nationally televised funeral service with Lyndon B. Johnson, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Chief Justice Earl Warren, and other U.S. officials as well as foreign dignitaries in attendance. At the close of the forty-five-minute ceremony, Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the thirty-six-year-old youngest sibling of the Kennedy clan who had lost all three of his older brothers, quoted from RFK’s June 1966 South Africa speech as well as from his remarks when Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. He closed his eulogy, voice cracking: “My brother need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life, to be remembered as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”

After arriving at Penn Station, Kennedy’s flag-draped coffin was rested on a bier inside a black-curtained funeral carriage at the back of a twenty-one-car train bound for Washington, D.C. He would be laid to rest near his brother’s “eternal flame” at Arlington National Cemetery. News accounts estimated that a million people had lined the tracks and crowded into stations along 226 miles of railway to bid Kennedy a final goodbye. At the gravesite in Arlington, after a brief burial service, Ethel Kennedy was given the folded American flag and her husband of eighteen years, with whom she had ten children with an eleventh on the way, was interred. On Tuesday, Robert Kennedy had been celebrating his hard-fought election victory in Los Angeles. By Saturday evening he was beneath the ground in Washington. 

The Deputies’ “Lettergrams”

The short “lettergrams” L.A. County deputies filed on carbon forms at the end of their shifts (roughly the size of a half-sheet of paper) reported any and all communications with inmates. While the nation was coming to terms with the consequences of this demur young man’s monumental act of violence, working-class Sheriff’s deputies served as his gatekeepers to the outside world.

In the aftermath of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, Sirhan Sirhan disclosed no interest in voicing any grandiose purpose for his crime. Under California law at the time, if convicted, he could be sentenced to death, which was an incentive not to sound like his actions were premeditated. The majority of the “lettergrams” are routine and institutional, but a few hint at the assassin’s state of mind:

[12 June 1968]

Between 8:00/PM and 9:26/PM I was in room 7058 with I/M [inmate] Sirhan. During this time I/M Sirhan conversed with me about religion. The conversation was light and in generalities.

I/M Sirhan appeared to be rested and in good spirits. Deputy Culver interviewed, stated inmate discussed religious symbols “Egyptian Cross,” “Swastika as cross put to evil use,” [handwriting illegible]

Respectfully submitted,

Dep. William R. Culver #3308[18]

Sirhan generally stayed quiet but when he chose to speak it was about far reaching topics. Under the subject heading “Communication with I/M Sirhan, Sirhan B. #718486” another deputy writes:

[13 June 1968]

During my tour of duty, 3:30/PM-1:30/AM, this day I discussed the following subjects and topics with I/M Sirhan: The French Problem & the gravity of the situation. The essential elements of college & subjects now being offered. Los Angeles & like sister cities, the weather, smog problem & the necessities of automobiles. . . .[19]

On several occasions, Sirhan asked deputies about what the news media were saying about him, but he refrained from using his newfound notoriety to impart any formal statement about his political motivations. He didn’t talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or Kennedy’s pro-Israel views, or his own burning desire to kill RFK that was widely publicized after police found diaries in his bedroom where he wrote repeatedly: “RFK Must Die! RFK Must Die!” Sirhan’s jailhouse disposition was a far cry from the young man who filled spiral notebooks with passionate calls for Kennedy’s death.

In fact, Sirhan comes across as being rather listless with little interest in articulating any public statement at all, even after killing a world-famous political figure:

[13 June 1968]

While on duty in I/M Sirhan’s room between 3:30/P and 11:30/P, the only communication between I/M Sirhan and myself was when I/M ask [sic] me if there was still a lot of publicity in the newspapers concerning his case. I replied that I didn’t know as I hadn’t read the newspapers lately.[20]

Another “lettergram” states:

[13 June 1968]

I entered room + [sic] I/M Sirhan said “Good morning Mr. Davis I haven’t seen you for a couple of days! Have you been off?” I answered Yes. I/M “None of the other deputies are talking to me. I notice none of you are wearing name tags, whats up [sic]. New orders from Pete?” I answered No I don’t think that’s it.

I/M “What are the papers saying about me?” I answered I don’t know, I don’t have time to read them. I listen to the news on T.V. in the evenings. If you are curious why don’t you by one? I/M “Naw, I don’t really want to know.”

Respectfully submitted,

Dep. Davis #219 Daywatch[21]

Throughout the “lettergram” records, Sirhan behaves as a model inmate; he respectfully refers to each deputy as “Mr.” and sounds genuinely interested in their lives. His demeanor was no different than any other twenty-four-year-old inmate in the L.A. County Jail who had just made a terrible mistake.[22]


The Provocateur

On the day Sirhan was indicted, an anti-Israel provocateur from New York City named John M. Lawrence, who headed a small left-wing group called “Federated Americans against Israeli Racism” (F.A.I.R.) sent him a letter on F.A.I.R. letterhead. For Mr. Lawrence at least, Sirhan’s motives were clear: “Our pro-Arab political organization extends our friendship to you in your time of trouble. We are proud of you personally for that part of the showing you made establishing you have great heart for the suffering Arab peoples in and about Palestine. We, of course, regret that in your political naivety, you foolishly used the method of assassination.”[23] Lawrence pledges his assistance: “We want you to know that in us, in F.A.I.R., you will have loyal friends. We want to be in touch with you to be of all the help we can in your hard days ahead. To us you are a soldier in the cause of justice for the Arab people who in good faith made a bad judgment.”[24] He concludes his first of many letters to Sirhan: “Day by day the militancy of the Palestinian freedom fighters grows.”[25] A subsequent letter included a money order for an unspecified amount.[26]

Four days later, an ally of Lawrence’s from New York, Dr. M.T. Mehdi, who was the “Secretary-General” of the “Action Committee on American-Arab Relations,” also inserted himself into the case by issuing a press release where he, like Lawrence, directly tied the killing of Robert Kennedy to U.S. Middle East policy:

Sirhan Sirhan is a Christian Palestinian refugee whose people have been either killed, or expelled or subjugated by the Zionist Jews. It was morally wrong on the part of Senator Kennedy to submit to the pressure of the Zionist and promise sending fifty jet fighters to Israel so that more Israeli Jews might kill more of Sirhan’s people and occupy more of Sirhan’s home…. Senator Kennedy is in a very real sense an indirect victim of Zionism.[27]

Mehdi would go on to write a tendentious one hundred-page essay on the subject that was published later in 1968 titled, Kennedy and Sirhan: Why?

Enclosed with Lawrence’s 7 June letter were three copies of F.A.I.R.’s amateurish newsletter, “Insight.” “Restore Palestine to the Arab People” and “For a Unified and Progressive Arab Nation” are the slogans on “Insight’s” masthead. In the February 1968 edition Sirhan possessed, F.A.I.R. vows never to “abandon its basic principle of calling for the abolition or nullification of the Jewish State and government of Israel.” An article therein recounts the “Deir Yassin massacre” of 9 April 1948 where it claims “254 Arabs—men, women, children and even babies—were slaughtered in cold blood, and their bodies dumped into a well…. Remember Deir Yassin! Remember that Jewishism is Nazi barbarism!”[28]

So impressed with F.A.I.R.’s vote of confidence and the content of “Insight,” Sirhan asked deputies about how he might reply:

… At 12:16/PM Sr. Dep. Montague entered room to remove subj. [sic] plate (noon meal) upon subj. request. Sr. Montague asked subj. if he was finished eating and subj. replied “Yes! Thank you!”

At 12:35/PM subj. asked me “How much does it cost to send a telegram to New York?” I replied that I did not know. Subj. was reading the newsletter (Insight) when he asked about sending (the cost) a telegram [sic].[29]

This “lettergram” of 13 June is the first glimpse within the Sheriffs’ logs that Sirhan had any feelings about what the reaction to his deed might be in the Arab world. At 2:30 that afternoon, he wired a Western Union telegram to F.A.I.R.’s office at 57 West 10th Street, New York:

Respected Sirs: Grateful for $ [sic] enjoyed “Insight” Please send more issues. Anxious about Mideast reaction. Sirhan 718486[30]

Obscured by fifty years of reporting and commentary on the RFK killing, Sirhan chose to transmit his first communication to the outside world to a fringe anti-Israel group in New York City. And he didn’t want the public to know about it:

[13 June 1968]

On this date at approx [sic] 12:40/P I/M Sirhan asked “Can the contents of this telegram be kept from the press?” I assured him that I felt this could be done. In I/M Sirhan’s presence, I stated to Sr. Dep. Montague, “He wishes that the contents of this telegram be kept from the press.” Sr. Dep. replied, “Sure.” When the door was closed again, I/M Sirhan said to me, “You’re a good man, Mr. Greene.” I smiled and said nothing.[31]

Apparently wanting to learn more about Lawrence and F.A.I.R., the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department obtained newspaper clippings from New York. One covered an action Lawrence had held a few weeks earlier at New York University where he set up a table in front of Loeb Student Center to distribute anti-Israel materials that provoked a violent reaction from students. “Lawrence, a regular fixture of the Village,” the Washington Square Journal reported, “set the table up at 11:30 a.m. During his 10-hour stay, he moved almost directly in front of Loeb after some students burned a few of his pamphlets, took some pro-Arab buttons, and tore pamphlets and signs that called for Arab revenge on Israel.”[32] The local newspaper estimated that at its peak, a crowd of one hundred people surrounded the forty-six-year-old and he called police, who set up a barricade to separate his table from the angry students. (Lawrence had previously sued NYU after a similar action when he was forced to remove his table.)[33] The whole event seems to have been aimed at little more than baiting NYU students.

Sirhan had every opportunity to share his political views with the public, but he preferred to keep his mouth shut and his contacts with F.A.I.R. hidden. On 14 June, Jack V. Fox, an editor for United Press International, sent Sirhan a list of seven questions with spaces for him to furnish written replies. Given U.P.I.’s worldwide distribution, this was Sirhan’s chance to display his solidarity with people back home in Jordan and Jerusalem. But U.P.I. got nothing from him.[34] The inspiration he gleaned from the “Insight” newsletters filled with anti-Israel invective prompted him to send a telegram, suggest Sirhan’s politics were more sophisticated than he let on.


Sirhan Opens Up

Some of Sirhan’s dialogues with deputies were ponderous, proving the twenty-four-year-old community college student liked to talk about big ideas and contemporary events. One deputy’s log from 14 June describes discussing “the evolution of man and mankind’s beliefs, the current French crisis and the impact on America and how laymen see it, the Southeast Asia escalation and the questions both pro and con presented by Americans.”[35]

One report stands out from the other “lettergrams” and is noteworthy for its length and detail summarizing a colloquy Sirhan had with an African-American officer, Deputy T.I. Greene, where he expressed empathy with the civil rights movement:

Subject: Sirhan Sirhan; Conversation With

At approx [sic] 11:35 A [sic] on 6-14-68, I had occasion to relieve inside Sirahan’s room. After a period of approx 5 minutes silence, he referred to a pile of publications on the floor and asked, “Have you read any of these?” I replied, “No I haven’t.” “I thought that’s why they were out there, so you could read them before giving them to me,” he smiled. I assured him that I had not seen them. He said he wanted me to read something—sorted through the pile, and handed me a publication containing an article of Malcolm X’s visit to the Arab land. The article hailed Malcolm as a great leader and mentioned how he experienced no discrimination, how the Arab was for the Blackman [sic], and that they supported each other (words to that effect). After reading the article I set it down and said nothing. He asked me, “What do you think of the present Black movement?” I told him, “I’m for it.” He said, “Good.” and seemed pleased to hear that.

Next he asked, “What do you feel about Malcolm X?” I said I thought he was a great leader. “You damn right he was,” replied Sirhan and seemed even more pleased than before. With this he pulled another publication from the pile and turned it to another article for me to read. This one was about the Blacks in New York wearing the African costumes, etc. and mentioned identification. I read it and sat it down on the bunk. He wanted to discuss the articles but I just smiled. He smiled also and said, “I understand.” However within a very short moment he asked, “What do you think about Stokely Carmichael?” I told him that I knew Stokely. (I really don’t) He lit up like a X-mas tree and asked several time, “Personally,… personally?” [sic] To this I smiled and lowered my head.

The next question he asked me was, “Have you ever read or do you know an author named Fromm?” and tried to recall his first name. I asked him if he meant Eric Fromm? He said, “yes, yes, that’s the one!!” [sic] He asked me about some other writer who’s [sic] name I can’t recall.

During the time the dialogue was broken by the lunch that was brought into the room. Regarding the demeanor of the servers he asked, “Why do you think they are being so nice to me?” I shrugged it off as “Just following instructions.” He looked at me again with that funny smile.[36]

The provenance of the two-and-a-half-page, hand-written text is that of a standalone chronicle necessitating more detail at the request of a supervisor. Three days later, Inspector R.C. Welch disseminated a memorandum to his deputies clarifying how they should interact with their famous inmate:

All conversations conducted with subject Sirhan Sirhan by the Deputies on duty shall be at Sirhan’s initiative. Deputies shall give noncommittal answers to questions and make no attempts to elicit information through the prolongation of a conversation.[37]

Thereafter, there are no subsequent records of Deputy Greene having any interactions with Sirhan. The discussion Sirhan sparked up with the black officer in an almost pedagogical way proves his keen awareness of the ongoing social struggles of 1968.

Clemency for Sirhan

Eager to interject himself into Sirhan’s case, either to try to co-opt it or draw free publicity from it, Lawrence reemerges 21 June, announcing the formation of an “Organizing Committee for Clemency for Sirhan.” He decried newspaper accounts that Sirhan’s lawyer might pursue an insanity plea. In prose that is somehow both breathless and turgid at the same time, he accused the counsel of “inciting xenophobic anti-foreigner statements from hatemongering elements in the United States to seek to cause schisms in the Arab-American community now uniting to support a clemency appeal for Mr. Sirhan, and to create antagonisms between the peoples and governments of the Arab states and of the United States.”[38] Lawrence was likely reacting to reports that Sirhan’s lawyer sought a psychiatric evaluation of his client.[39]

To drum up support for clemency, Lawrence sent out press releases to the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Free Press, and to the left-wing radio station KPFK in Los Angeles protesting the “prejudicial conduct against” Sirhan.[40] F.A.I.R. and the “Organizing Committee for Clemency for Sirhan” defended Sirhan’s constitutional rights and conjoined RFK’s killing to the struggle of the Palestinian people (something Sirhan had not done publicly). M.T. Mehdi was listed as a co-sponsor. Lawrence’s rambling, eleven-page, single-spaced letter to Sirhan extolling the committee includes a thumbnail history of the United States. The tone of the letter is heuristic, as if to arm the young assassin with a defense of his deed grounded in history.[41]

When The Washington Post published a front-page story about Sirhan on 24 June 1968 by the journalist George Lardner, Jr., Lawrence was apoplectic and wasted no time firing off a blistering rebuttal on behalf of the “Organizing Committee.” He mailed a copy to Sirhan:

We condemn [the article] as part of the neo-McCarthyite, gutter-tactic campaign being waged by U.S. press media, long partisans of the Jewish racist cause of immolating the rights of Palestinian Arabs, to defame and degrade Sirhan B. Sirhan for the real purpose of demeaning the cause for justice for the Arab people.[42]

John Lawrence ridiculed any attempt to pursue a “diminished capacity” defense (even though such a legal tactic was probably the only way to save Sirhan’s life), and refers to Sirhan alternately as a “Palestinian freedom fighter,” a “moderate Christian Socialist,” and an “anarchist.”[43] It seems Lawrence would be just as happy if the state of California made a martyr out of Sirhan and he flattered him with bizarre historical comparisons:

Sirhan B. Sirhan is the Arab-American prototype of John Brown. As John Brown murdered three U.S. troops to seize weapons to help set free the slaves, and by his act awakened the American conscience against the brutalities of slavery and government suppression of the “Underground Railroad,” so Sirhan, with equal political naivety has foolishly, if successfully, struck his blow for Palestinian Arab freedom. Sirhan B. Sirhan is the Arab cause prototype of the workingman who assassinated President McKinley in protest against McKinley’s avowed policy to increase the brutality and terror against organizing workingmen….[44]

In The Washington Post article, a copy of which was held in the L.A. Sheriff’s files, Lardner had interviewed some of Sirhan’s neighbors and co-workers at a health food store. He had been employed there for seven months as a $2-an-hour stock clerk and delivery boy. They all seemed to agree that Sirhan had “wonderful manners” and was generous, even once paying the bill for an elderly customer who couldn’t afford his groceries.[45]

But some of them spoke about another side of the young Pasadena resident. “He had this attitude of rebellion against society,” the owner of the store, John Weidner, told Lardner. “Most of all, he was anti-Israel,” Mr. Weidner’s wife, Naomi said. She recalled a conversation where Sirhan vented his bitterness about the June 1967 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors and grew angry when Mrs. Weidner brought up Nazi atrocities against the Jews during World War II: “Don’t you think the Jews can be cruel?” he asked. “I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anyone else, not even my parents”; he disclosed that as a young boy he had seen an Israeli soldier mutilate an Arab woman.

From the Christian village of Taibeh, in what the press called “Israeli-Occupied Jordan,” Sirhan’s father, Bishara, disputed his son’s recollection, stating that he had never been near any Israeli soldiers. Yet three days earlier it was reported in another paper that Bishara conceded that his son suffered facial injuries when an Israeli mortar exploded near him and that he witnessed an Arab woman stabbed by an Israeli soldier.[46] From Lardner’s reportage it appears Sirhan might have simply seized an opportunity to act out when RFK began spending a lot of time campaigning near his hometown. He concludes:

But it seems apparent that resentment of Israel and Robert F. Kennedy’s support of military aid for the country is hardly enough to explain the assassination of which he stands indicted. Virtually every Arab and Arab-American waxes bitter about Israel. There is only one Sirhan Bishara Sirhan.[47]

Lawrence also tried to stoke Sirhan’s hatred toward Kennedy. In another letter he wrote about an “encounter” he claimed to have had with RFK in an elevator in the New York building housing M.T. Mehdi’s pro-Arab group:

I was wearing our pro-Arab button on my lapel, which reads: RESTORE PALESTINE TO THE ARAB PEOPLE. [sic] I told Mr. Kennedy I had heard his Brooklyn College statement and that in time he would find out that there are more people in America for the Arab justice cause then [sic] he knew. In typical Kennedy “smart-aleckism” [sic] he beamed: “Thank you for your support. I appreciate your support.” To this I replied that he would never receive my support, nor those any decent people, for we knew a Machiavellian when we saw one.”[48]

The jailhouse records are bereft of evidence that Sirhan disagreed with any of the opinions or content of the materials Lawrence or M.T. Mehdi sent him.



The anti-Israel groups purporting to operate in Sirhan’s behalf—F.A.I.R., the Organizing Committee for Clemency for Sirhan, and M.T. Mehdi’s Action Committee on American-Arab Relations—all sought to bolster the young man’s view of himself as a “freedom fighter” for Palestine. They harped on RFK’s support for giving Israel U.S. jet fighters (even though other presidential candidates in 1968 held the same position) and never missed an opportunity to frame the assassination as an overtly political act, even while Sirhan stayed mum on the subject.

F.A.I.R.’s original statement establishing the clemency committee contains a strident assertion that U.S. actions in the Middle East had led to the assassination. In doing so, the militants from New York had fit Robert Kennedy’s killing squarely into a “blowback” narrative. “The Jewish war on Palestinian Arabs more and more will inevitably be brought to the streets of America to those who in cynical politics nurture it,” Lawrence proclaimed.[49] Yet it’s safe to conclude after a half-century that the RFK assassination had zero effect on the trajectory of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

What Sirhan had done was eliminate Kennedy’s voice in domestic politics at a crucial moment when he was seeking to lead a bitterly divided Democratic Party. Sirhan’s act might have proved irrelevant to U.S.-Middle East policy, but it altered American political history profoundly. Not only did Kennedy’s assassination create a vacuum of leadership at a critical time, it began a decades-long identity crisis for the Democratic Party.

It was no secret that as the senator from New York, Kennedy had championed the State of Israel. He had been a friend of the Jews in Palestine from the time he first traveled there as young man in 1948 and wrote about his admiration for the Tel Aviv Haganah in a Boston newspaper. “The United States and Great Britain before too long a time might well be looking to a Jewish state to preserve a toehold in that part of the world,” he wrote.[50] But Kennedy also strongly defended the United Nations as one of the few international bodies friendly to Palestinian interests. He was committed to the wider mission of the U.N. going back to his law school days when in 1951 he defied the University of Virginia’s racial segregation policies to invite the African-American diplomat Ralph Bunche to speak.[51] We will never know how RFK’s views might have evolved had he lived regarding an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

We will never know how RFK’s views might have evolved had he lived regarding an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

Eleven months after RFK’s death, while California Superior Judge Herbert V. Walker was considering whether to sentence Sirhan to life in prison or the gas chamber, Edward Kennedy felt it was the right time for the Kennedy family to comment. He sent the District Attorney in Los Angeles, Evelle Younger, a hand-written letter:

Dear Mr. Younger,

Since this is now a question of clemency and the trial proceedings have been concluded, I feel I can appropriately convey to you, for whatever consideration you believe to be proper how we feel.

My brother was a man of love and sentiment and compassion. He would not have wanted his death to be a cause for the taking of another life. You may recall his pleas when he learned of the death of Martin Luther King. He said that “what we need in the United States is not division, what we need in the United States is not hatred. What we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but love and wisdom and compassion towards one another.”

Moreover, he was a young man totally committed to life and living. He stood against injustice, poverty and discrimination for those evils lessened life. He grew to despise war for war denies the sacredness of life. And he had a special affection for children for they held the promise of life.

We all realize that many other considerations fall within your responsibility and that of the court. But if the kind of man my brother was is pertinent we believe it should be weighed in the balance on the side of compassion, mercy and God’s give of life itself.


Edward M. Kennedy[52]

After weighing the evidence Judge Walker was in no mood to grant Sirhan the kind of mercy Edward Kennedy encouraged. He handed down a death sentence, thereby sparking an automatic appeal. Sirhan was shipped off to languish with the seventy-seven other prisoners then on death row in California’s notorious San Quentin State Prison.

It’s unfortunate the state of California had the death penalty at the time. When prosecutors sought capital punishment, it forced the hand of defense counsels by giving them no choice but to pursue a “diminished capacity” strategy as the only means to save their client’s life. This policy had the effect of essentially silencing the accused and gave an opening for others to fill in the gaps in the narrative with their own interpretations. Senator Edward Kennedy’s call for sparing his brother’s killer might have complicated matters as well, at least symbolically, because his appeal could be seen as outside meddling by a federal official. But Sirhan was a California prisoner, not a federal one; Edward Kennedy’s widely publicized letter had no legal authority. On death row, Sirhan became the most famous prisoner in the California penal system (until the sentencing of Charles Manson two years later).

In June 2013, on the 45th anniversary of Robert Kennedy’s death, the Canadian historian Gil Troy published an op-ed in The Jerusalem Post arguing that to “honor” RFK’s legacy, we should view his murder as an early act of Arab terrorism on U.S. soil.[53] “The Kennedy assassination tale,” Troy writes, “highlights the high cost Palestinian totalitarian terror has exacted from civilized society. It spotlights the ongoing dangers of ideological anti-Americanism, which continues to mix with anti-Zionism and serve as an ideological glue in the bizarre Red-Green alliance, linking Progressives with regressive Islamists…. To honor Robert Kennedy’s memory most fully, we must see the Middle East conflict more clearly.”

Troy’s argument, which is a mirror image of the “blowback” thesis, contradicts RFK’s legacy as Edward Kennedy presented it in his eulogy and in his 1969 letter to the judge seeking to spare the life of his brother’s killer. Linking Kennedy’s killing to “terrorism” as defined today only legitimizes those who in 1968 gave backhanded justifications for the crime. Both arguments find common ground in yoking the assassination of Robert Kennedy to U.S.-Israel relations.

Fifty years later, it seems inappropriate to wage a “war on terror” in Robert Kennedy’s name, even though the Sheriff’s logs clearly reveal Sirhan was more stridently committed to the Palestinian cause than he let on. The half-century that has passed since that terrible night at the Ambassador Hotel has proven Kennedy’s murder didn’t alter the course of U.S.-Middle East relations one iota. And for all we know Robert Kennedy, had he lived, could’ve become a powerful advocate for a peaceful and just conclusion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.



[1] Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Sirhan Sirhan Case File 1968-1969 (hereafter SSCF68-69), Operational Log, Wednesday, 5 June 1968, 10:15 a.m.

[2] Memo from Marcus Crahan, M.D., Medical Director, to Peter J. Pitchesss, Sheriff, 5 June 1968, “John Doe—Booking No. 718-486,” SSCF68-69.

[3] Memo from Inspector R. C. Welch (Jail Division) to Sheriff Peter J. Pitchess, 6 June 1968, SSCF68-69.

[4] Press Release, “Pitchess Explains Security Measure on Sirhan Sirhan,” 6 June 1968. On some early correspondence sheriffs referred to the suspect as “Serhan Serhan,” noting they were spelling it phonetically, SSCF68-69.

[5] Los Angeles Times, 7 June 1968, p. 18.

[6] Undated summary memo held in Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Sirhan Sirhan Case File, 1968-1969, SSCF68-69.

[7] Second undated summary memo, SSCF68-69.

[8] Intelligence Report (Confidential – Restricted), to Peter J. Pitchess, Sheriff, 6 June 1968, SSCF68-69.

[9] Memorandum, Intelligence Bureau to Peter J. Pitchess, Sheriff, 6 June 1968, SSCF68-69.

[10] Operational Log, Thursday, 6 June 1968, 1:20 p.m. SSCF68-69,

[11] Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, File 3-22, General Subject Files-Memoranda, 7-14 June 1968, (hereafter GSFM3-22).

 11 Intelligence Report (Confidential -Restricted), To: File; Activity: Follow Up; Area: Malibu; Subject: Frankenheimer, John Michael, 6 June 1968 (his wife, Ethel, and six of their ten children accompanied Kennedy in California), SSCF68-69.

[13] Memo from Robert F. Trask, Captain Commander, Temple Station, to Peter J. Pitchess, Sheriff, 7 June 1968, Subject: “Information on the Female Companion of Senator Kennedy’s Assassin,” GSFM3-22.

[14] Memorandum, H.M. Mear, Lieutenant to G. H. Carlson, Inspector, 6 June 1968 (a third book requested could not be found: Divine Cult of Healing by Manley P. Hall), SSCF68-69.

[15] Los Angeles Times, 7 June 1968, p. 18.

[16] Letter from Roger Staples to Sheriff Peter J. Pitchess, 8 June 1968 (on Eastern Michigan University-Ypsilanti letterhead), Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, File 3-28, General Subject Files, June-November 1968 (hereafter GSF3-28).

[17] Francine Klagsbrun and David C. Whitney, eds., Assassination: Robert F. Kennedy-1925-1968, by the editors of United Press International (New York: Cowles, 1968), 163. The others who were wounded were: Paul Schrade, a United Auto Workers official; William Weisel of the American Broadcasting Company; Ira Goldstein, a Continental News Service reporter; Elizabeth Evans of Saugus, California; and Irwin Stroll of Los Angeles.

[18] Los Angeles County Lettergram, Deputy W.R. Culver to Inspector Welch, 12 June 1968, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, File 1-32, Personal Deputies’ Statements, 12-14 June 1968 (hereafter PDS1-32).

[19] Lettergram, Deputy I.B. Mills #3257 to Inspector Welch, 13 June 1968, PDS1-32.

[20] Lettergram, Deputy Ellison #2350 to Inspector Welch, 13 June 1968, PDS1-32.

[21] Lettergram, Deputy Davis #219 to Inspector Welch, 13 June 1968, PDS1-32.

[22] Lettergram, Deputy D. Bridges #1540 to Inspector Welch, 13 June 1968, PDS1-32.

[23] Letter from John M. Lawrence of “Federated Americans Against Israeli Racism” (F.A.I.R.) 57 West 10th Street, New York, NY to Sirhan B. Sirhan, 7 June 1968, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, File 3-26, General Subject Files-Organizing Committee for Clemency for Sirhan, June 1968 (hereafter GSF3-26); Sirhan received the letter on 10 June 1968.

[24]Letter from John M. Lawrence of Federated Americans against Israeli Racism, F.A.I.R., to Sirhan Sirhan, 7 June 1968, GSF3-26.

[25]Letter from John M. Lawrence of Federated Americans against Israeli Racism, F.A.I.R., to Sirhan Sirhan, 7 June 1968, GSF3-26.

[26] Letter from John M. Lawrence and Abdeen Jabara (attorney) to Sirhan, 14 June 1968, PDS1-32.

[27] Press Release from The Action Committee on American-Arab Relations, Secretary-General Dr. M. T. Mehdi, 441 Lexington Avenue, New York, New York, 11 June 1968, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Files-General Subject Files, 3-28; (LASDF-GSF3-28), June-November 1968.

[28] Copies of “Insight,” published by Federated Americans against Israeli Racism, F.A.I.R., 1 April 1968, (Vol. 1, No. 3), New York, N.Y., Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, File 3-28, General Subject Files, June-November 1968, GSF3-28. A copy of Sirhan’s telegram is attached to the copies of “Insight” in the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department records. September 1967 (Vol. 1, No. 1), February 1968 (Vol. 1, No. 2), and April 1968 (Vol. 1, No. 3).

[29] Lettergram, Deputy G.D. Erickson #2332 to Inspector Welch, 13 June 1968, PDS1-32.

[30] Copy of Western Union Telegram, Sirhan B. Sirhan to F.A.I.R., 57 West 10th Street, New York, NY, 2:30 P.M., 13 June 1968, PDS1-32.

[31] Lettergram, Deputy T.I. Greene to Inspector Welch, 13 June 1968, PDS1-32.

[32] Washington Square Journal, Thursday, 16 May 1968, p. 3, GSF3-26.

[33] Washington Square Journal, Thursday, 16 May 1968, p. 3, GSF3-26.

[34] Letter from John V. Fox of United Press International to Sirhan Sirhan, 14 June 1968, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, General Subject Files, File 3-28, June-November 1968, GSF3-28.

[35] Lettergram, Deputy I.B. Mills to Inspector Welch, 14 June 1968, Subject: “Communicating with I/M Sirhan, Sirhan B. #718486,” PDS1-32.

[36] Letter from Deputy T.I. Greene to Inspector R. Welch, 14 June 1968, Subject: “Sirhan Sirhan, Conversation With,” PDS1-32.

[37] Memorandum, Inspector R.C. Welch to Concerned Personnel, 17 June 1968, GSF3-26.

[38] Press Release, Organizing Committee for Clemency for Sirhan, 57 West 10th Street, New York, NY, John M. Lawrence, Executive Secretary, 21 June 1968, GSF3-26. The Committee was comprised of Abdeen Jabara, the attorney for the group from Michigan; Frank Sakran of Maryland; Larissa Nassif of Connecticut; and George Mahshie, Omar Ghobashy, Sayed Farooq, George Aboud, and Majid Tayer, all of New York.

[39] “‘Brain Damage’ Sirhan’s Defense? Top L.A. Lawyer Parsons Takes Case,” Herald Examiner, 21 June 1968, GSF3-26, Russell E. Parsons was Sirhan’s lawyer at the time.

[40] Letter from John M. Lawrence, Executive Secretary of the Organizing Committee for Clemency for Sirhan, to Sirhan B. Sirhan, 21 June 1968, General Subject Files-Memoranda, File 3-26, June 1968, GSF3-26. The letter has nine co-signers representing the committee: Abdeen Jabara of Michigan, Attorney for the group; Frank Sakran of Maryland, Larissa Nassif of Connecticut; and George Mahshie, Omar Ghobashy, Sayed Farooq, George Aboud, and Majid Tayer of New York.

[41] Letter from John M. Lawrence, Executive Secretary of the Organizing Committee for Clemency for Sirhan, to Sirhan B. Sirhan, 21 June 1968, General Subject Files-Memoranda, File 3-26, June 1968, GSF3-26.

[42] Copy of Letter to the Editor by John M. Lawrence to The Washington Post sent Sirhan, 25 June 1968, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, General Subject Files, June-October 1968, File 3-27, GSF3-27.

[43] Copy of Letter to the Editor by John M. Lawrence to The Washington Post sent Sirhan, 25 June 1968, GSF3-27.

[44] Copy of Letter to the Editor by John M. Lawrence to The Washington Post sent Sirhan, 25 June 1968, GSF3-27.

[45] The Washington Post, “Neighbors Recall Sirhan as Shy, Polite,” 24 June 1968, p. A1, GSF3-26.

[46] “‘Brain Damage’ Sirhan’s Defense? Top L.A. Lawyer Parsons Takes Case,” Herald Examiner, 21 June 1968, GSF3-26. The Lardner article also quotes Sirhan’s employer, Mr. Weidner, divulging that Sirhan had told him his father had been a strict disciplinarian who once applied a hot iron to his feet.

[47] The Washington Post, “Neighbors Recall Sirhan as Shy, Polite,” 24 June 1968, p. A8, GSF3-26. Lardner’s piece also recounted Sirhan’s mother’s story that she believed her son had “never been the same” after falling from a horse on 25 September 1966 while “breezing a filly” when he worked at a racetrack in Corona, California. Sirhan had received a $2,000 settlement in his injury case. It was presumed that the $400 on his person at the time of his address was part of this settlement, which he requested from jail that it go to his mother.

[48] Letter from John M. Lawrence, Executive Secretary of the Organizing Committee for Clemency for Sirhan, to Sirhan B. Sirhan, 23 June 1968, General Subject Files-File 3-27, June-October 1968, GSF3-27.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Joseph A. Palermo, Robert F. Kennedy and the Death of American Idealism (New York: Pearson, 2008), 20.

[51] Ibid. 21.

[52] Undated Handwritten letter from Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy to California District Attorney Evelle J. Younger (ca. 18 May 1969), Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, File 3-17, General Subject Files, 24 April to 14 October 1969, GSF1969, 3-17. In 1972, when the California Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional, his sentence was commuted to life in prison.

[53] Gil Troy, “Understanding RFK’s Assassination as Palestinian Terror,” The Jerusalem Post, 5 June 2013.

Joseph A. Palermo
is Professor of History, California State University, Sacramento. He has written In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (Columbia, 2001), Robert F. Kennedy and the Death of American Idealism (Pearson, 2008), and contributed the essay, “Robert F. Kennedy,” to A Companion to John F. Kennedy, edited by Marc Selverstone (Wiley Blackwell, 2014).

Copyright: © 2018 Joseph A. Palermo. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.


Locked-Up Vietnamese California


Tin Nguyen
Bidhan Chandra Roy

Editor’s Note: The Vietnamese diaspora comprises a significant population among California’s immigrant communities. For some of these, the trauma of involuntary migration and the subsequent necessity to negotiate Vietnamese and American identities did not lead to enriching new experiences or cultural formations. A less visible demographic than those currently celebrated by food, literary, or cultural critics today are the Vietnamese Americans currently incarcerated in California’s vast prison system. Not long ago, almost 65% of California’s Asian and Pacific Islander prison population was comprised of either immigrants or refugees, and Vietnamese Americans represented the largest segment of the Asian and Pacific Islander California prison demographic at 22%.[1] This constitutes a significant number of Vietnamese Americans currently incarcerated in California—a fact remaining largely unknown to many Californians.

One such person, for whom the trauma of migration and the negotiation of identities in California produced a path to prison is Tin Nguyen, who is currently serving a “Life Without the Possibility of Parole” sentence at Los Angeles County Prison, Lancaster. As a former Vietnamese gang member, Tin is now a student in Cal State LA’s BA program at Lancaster, as well as a published writer. Boom editorial board member Bidhan Chandra Roy sat down with Tin over three meetings to discuss his childhood experiences of fleeing Vietnam as a child in the 1970s, his role in establishing a new wave of Vietnamese street gangs in Southern California in the 1990s, and his hard-fought transformation into the man he is today. Since recording equipment is not allowed in the prison during the interview, Tin wrote up his responses to the questions following the three meetings.

: Can you tell us about your experiences traveling from Vietnam to California as a child in the 1970s? What do you remember of that journey? Do you ever recall these memories today?

Tin: At 145 pounds and thirty-two years of age, I was standing in front of the ‘C’ section shower in Building 3 on a maximum-security prison yard. A group of muscular, heavyset Crip members surrounded me, disputing for a shower that none of us own; really, the State of California owned the shower. I knew if I didn’t back down, I could expect at the very least a severe beating, and quite likely, a knife to the gut or a sliced throat. Yet I stood there, at the risk of my own life, because this shower was claimed by the Asians; the marking of our territory. At that moment, I thought, “So this is how I’m going to die… this is how my life sentence was going to end….”

In that moment, I couldn’t help but rapidly wonder, “How did I get here? What happened to the once little Vietnamese boy who pulled his small red wagon along the streets of Pomona and sold flowers to help his mother buy milk for his baby brother?” How did that innocent kid become a monster now tagged P24706?

At that moment, I thought, “So this is how I’m going to die… this is how my life sentence was going to end….”

I remember the boat journey in the late ’70s as flashes of images. There is an image of my godparents hugging me tight; through their tears, they tried to act as if everything was normal. I guess, because of the tension in Vietnam, they didn’t want any suspicion of what was going to happen, an attempt to escape Vietnam. Then there are images of my mother under the cover of darkness passing—or should I say, throwing (my mother would disapprove of this characterization)—me from boat to boat. Thinking of how our boat sped away from two other boats, I remember the word, “pirates,” repeated on everyone’s lips and a throng of rowdy men with all sorts of objects in their hands for weapons.

I remember us all on the boat’s roof, bowing our heads, and me trying to look over, seeing for the first time, men with pale skin standing on the deck of a large ship. We begged for their assistance, to no avail; they just passed by leaving us to fend for ourselves in the great ocean.

Then our boat finally landed. At the island where I have the fondest memories, images and feelings of happiness, swimming all day and following my brother on the shore as the tide was low, catching crabs and fishes. After that, I remember feeling frightened on a plane as I encountered people of different ethnicities, on our way to California.

Scan 2017-7-27 22.51.41

: What was it like for you growing up in Pomona during the 1980s and 1990s?

Tin: In Pomona, everything was different. In second grade, I was the only Vietnamese kid in class, and not speaking a word of English, I hated school. Kids can be cruel. Yet, the constant taunts of “ching-chong,” “jap,” and “dirty gook,” were the least of my miseries. Because they wanted to test my kung fu, I was punched in the throat and smacked on the back of my head during long walks home from school. To this day, I still have a vivid memory of being run over by a bike—my books were everywhere, I was facedown, and a BMX wheel was on my back, pinning me to ground, while the guy snickered, “You should’ve gotten out my way,” and spit on me. He then rode over me. I cried as I picked up my stuff off the ground, while other kids walked by and laughed, but no one helped. I cried all the way home, and then some. I thought it was my fault for being in his way, but then it occurred to me that all his friends had rode around me with plenty of room. That’s when a spark of anger ignited within me. But that anger from those physical discomforts didn’t compare to what ultimately fueled my anger with a real hate.

What truly fueled my anger was the thought of my family being subjected to the same abuse and discrimination. I remember my older sister sitting in the schoolyard lunch area crying, while other Vietnamese kids were making fun of her. What made this especially painful was the American kids were laughing about how they’d gotten us to turn on each other for their amusement. When I was nine or ten years old, I tried to help an older Vietnamese gentleman who didn’t speak English. There was a misunderstanding at a store, where the sales clerk was accusing the Vietnamese man, hurling crude comments at him, like, “You gook! You’re a thief, coming to the US just to steal and cause trouble. You should’ve stayed in Vietnam.” I remember a feeling of heavy degradation. With my broken English, I attempted to serve as a translator and tried to explain that the Vietnamese man had a receipt. But it was no use. The clerk kept ranting and ended up reducing the Vietnamese man to tears. From that experience, I had the sinking realization that my parents must be suffering similar indignities.

Once I was sitting outside of my older sister’s bedroom door, I heard her crying as she told my cousin how an African-American woman had mistreated her at the college’s financial aid office. I don’t quite recall the exact words, but I do remember clearly the feelings of anger and hate. Hurting me was one thing, but hurting my family was another matter. What made it worse was the helplessness I felt to do anything about it. This is the reason why I’m very protective of my little sister.

I couldn’t claim I was Vietnamese because I barely spoke Vietnamese, and I couldn’t say I was American because I wasn’t born here and barely spoke proper English.

I suppose all these external hardships contributed to who I eventually became, but no less significant were the internal dynamics of my family. Let me start by acknowledging that my father was a very good man who loved his children and always sacrificed for his family. Yet, there were a number of factors that enabled his violent behavior. First, he was raised in a traditional culture where the father’s words are absolute and indisputable, and corporal punishment was the norm. Back in Vietnam, my father was a person of some importance and social standing, so for him, it was a letdown being in America—after losing everything and making all the sacrifices that he did—to become a nobody who had to rely on his wife and whose children wouldn’t even listen to him. I can only imagine how this ate away at his pride, driving him to the edge. Typical days in our house had fights and arguments; I don’t remember a happy moment at home. The Christmas tree tumbled a few times every Christmas. During the year, my mother would vigorously defend her children from her husband’s wrath, after she’d worked all day to put food on the table. Even though my father never made a fist, he did freely use the backhand, the front smack, the belt, the telephone cord, the clothes hanger, and my own favorite—the chopsticks, with a hand full of them, they hurt like hell. I remember like yesterday… I was huddled in the kitchen corner while my mother used her petite body to shield me from being hit by an inch-thick stick as she told my father in Vietnamese: “you’re not going to hit my son with that.” But this was the Vietnamese way, right? Our culture? In such moments, I envied my American friends.

I think what made things worse was that I didn’t know where I belonged, who I was. I couldn’t claim I was Vietnamese because I barely spoke Vietnamese, and I couldn’t say I was American because I wasn’t born here and barely spoke proper English. I felt trapped between two generations of immigrants, one who knew they’re Vietnamese, and one who knew they’re American. My father pushed me to read more and to keep up with my sister in school, and when I couldn’t, I was “dumber than a cow” (English translation). During times when I could, I wasn’t “dumber,” but merely “dumb as a cow.” Either way, I was always dumb. This wasn’t just my father’s assessment, it was everyone’s. I guess they hoped I’d at least be good with my hands. To my mother though, I was always good and smart, but her opinion wasn’t enough. So I ended up with low self-esteem, insecure, lost, and filled with anger and hate.

Scan 2017-7-27 23.33.19[1]

: How did this childhood trauma pave the way for you joining a gang? How did you see Vietnamese gangs begin to proliferate in South California during your adolescence, and what attracted you to join one?

Tin: In America, the first Vietnamese generation’s youth trend was “New Wave,” with its tight pants, pointy shoes, and spiky hair, and dancing to European bands like Modern Talking, CC Catch, and Bad Boys Blue. With no one I deemed worthy as a role model, I turned to my two older brothers. They were cool, and if someone wanted to test their kung fu, they didn’t have any problem showing that their kung fu was better. Seeing them fighting and winning, I developed a sense of Vietnamese pride, so it wasn’t long before I showed others my kung fu was good too. My first violent act was during a summer camp at Cal Poly. When a Caucasian kid tested me, I didn’t hold back, but instead, I punched him. Next thing I knew, a counselor was holding me and a crowd of kids was cheering me on. The counselor sternly stated that I was going to be suspended, and I replied that I didn’t give a fuck, at which point the crowd got even louder. This was not only my first act of violence, but also my first act of rebellion, and I knew then that this was how I must act in order to be respected, like my brothers. The final straw came when some of my boy scout troop and I were jumped by a group of African-American teens. After the teens’ laughter and us lying on the ground of the parking lot, we looked at each other and decided then that the boy scouts was not for us. We chucked our uniforms and donned blue jeans and chains, going from scouts to hoodlums.

In Southern California, there tended to be two kinds of Vietnamese gangs. The first was the street gang, largely unstructured. But unlike their Hispanic or African-American counterparts, it was rare for Vietnamese street gangs to truly represent a street or neighborhood. Rather, they were just some Vietnamese teens who got together and named themselves, mostly in accord with the city they were from—like “Pomona Boys” or “Santa Ana Boys”—or something to do with Vietnamese pride, like “V-Boys” or “Vietnamese For Life.” Since I was Vietnamese and from Pomona, my boys and I decided to call ourselves Vietnamese Gangster (VNG) Pomona V-Boys. We used the appendage “V-Boys” because we were the V-Boys’ younger association and under their protection. We started with minor things like cracking arcade games for money, and then moved up to GTA. Fighting was the norm now, and I soon landed in juvenile camp. Three months later, I came out bigger because I finally hit puberty. Everyone who mattered to me knew that I’d just come from the “box” and it wasn’t long before I went back to camp. My father still had hope for me, but after this second stretch, I disappointed him again and was no longer welcome under his roof. So with no place of my own, at age sixteen, I reached out to my brother Tony in Los Angeles, where I met the Black Dragon for the first time.

This is the second kind of Vietnamese gang, more exclusive to the LA area. This second kind was more engaged in organized crime, after the pattern of triads, perhaps because of the close cultural proximity of the Vietnamese to the Chinese. Black Dragon (Hac Lun) was one of these, and unlike the unstructured street gangs, Black Dragon had an ordered hierarchy where a soldier could move up the ranks and, if he is lucky and doesn’t land in prison for life or die, become an “Anh Hai” or a “Tai Lu”—the equivalent of a “Capo” in the Italian crime families.

The history of the Black Dragon began in the early 1980s. Its predecessor, the Viet Thanh, actually yielded three successors: Cool Boys, LA V-Boys, and Black Dragon. Since each came from Viet Thanh, these three were always at war with its rival, the Chinese gang Wa Ching. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Chinatown consisted of both Chinese businesses and Vietnamese businesses. But the Wa Ching began harassing Vietnamese businesses, so the youths of the Vietnamese businesses decided to stand against the Wa Ching. That was how Viet Thanh started. But what started out as noble acts eventually were corrupted as the Viet Thanh became thugs themselves. After the three-way split, Black Dragon migrated to the San Gabriel Valley where it established new territories.

I chose to be part of the Black Dragon mainly because of the respect their members received. For example, one time my boys and I were walking into a nightclub associated with the Black Dragon, and a new bouncer stopped us and pointed us to the back of the line, but then the regular bouncer told him to let us through. (We were all still minors and this club was for those over twenty-one.) When we entered, the new bouncer insisted that we walk through the metal detector, which, of course, we weren’t going to do. This was when the older bouncer stepped in and told the new bouncer, “These guys are the real security of this club.” I still remember his words, and the pride I felt then was overwhelming, but it didn’t compare with what happened next. After my boys and I settled in at a VIP table, this new bouncer asked if he could speak with me. Sitting across from me, he asked for my forgiveness, pleading that he didn’t know since he was new. Here was a middle-aged man humbled, apologizing for his mistake and offering me his services. Respect… at long last.

When I became a member of the Black Dragon gang, I was known as Tin Hac Lun, or Tin BD. I carried that name with pride. When others thought of Black Dragon, I wanted them to think of me. When I was twenty-two, the Temple City Sheriff led the Asian Gang Task Force and rounded up my crew, now known as the “gangbanging” side of Black Dragon. I was facing possible of fifty-eight years for numerous counts of extortion and robbery, so I took a deal for two years and did my time at San Quentin. Obviously, I didn’t learn anything, and worse, I was now connected and moved up the ranks because I’d been to the big house. During this time, my crew and I broke away from our Anh Hai, because we no longer wanted or needed to be under his thumb. We could protect ourselves without him, and we wanted to keep all our earnings and not have to give him a cut. No longer a soldier, I had my own crew. However, we still kept the “Black Dragon” name because we’d earned it, and our loyalty was still to the gang.


: Tin Hac Lun sounds like a completely different person to the Tin I have known for the past four years. How did the lifestyle you led as Tin Hac Lun end in a prison sentence of life without the possibility of parole?

Tin: Drugs were a major detriment in my life. At a young age, I inadvertently unleashed a demon so voracious that it consumed me. I started drinking in seventh grade, and met Mary Jane (marijuana) and Coco (cocaine) when I was fourteen. A couple years later, at a party, I was sitting on the bathroom floor across from a beautiful woman in her twenties, and she passed me a pipe with some crack…. Part of me screamed, “No!” But the demon within me seductively whispered, “Don’t embarrass yourself in front of this glorious girl—just take a hit, that’s all.” And the demon was right; that was all. I became the demon himself. Mary Jane, Coco, and later Crystal (Methamphetamine) became the three loves of my life. They destroyed me and brought me to the edge of suicide. Yet for one reason or another, I couldn’t find the nerve to do it myself, so I went crazy with drugs and gangs, hoping to end it all.

In 1996, during a robbery in San Jose, I killed Mr. Stanko Vuckovic. Throughout the years, I have replayed that moment repeatedly. I asked myself, “Did I pull the trigger?” or “Did the gun go off during the struggle?” After years of contemplating, I realized there were other factors just as significant. The point that I cocked the gun, that I chose to use the gun in the robbery, and above all my decision to rob this man and take what was not mine were all what caused his death. Yet, these were not the only factors. Other elements, such as abusing drugs, joining a gang and choosing a life of crime, were all the bad choices I made that led me to that very moment. I was going to kill someone eventually. Thus, I am responsible for Mr. Stanko Vuckovic’s death; I pulled the trigger and my only hope is that I can make amends for my actions and decisions.

I was arrested a year after I killed Mr. Vuckovic, and in late 1998 I was convicted and sentence to Life With Out the Possibility of Parole. Let me express now, with all respect, what I have wanted to say for two decades. I’ve run this in my head thousands of times…. I mean, how do I express my remorse and say, “I am so sorry” to a man whose life and future I took, to a family whom I hurt, or to the community I damaged? It’s not enough, and I realize that I must do this in person, for words on paper can never be adequate to sincerely express my contrition.

Boom: Thank you for saying that, Tin. I know that you want to return to your remorse and desire to make amends for past actions. But before you had this realization, what was your life like in a maximum-security prison? Was there anything unique about it from a Vietnamese perspective?

Tin: At age twenty-six, I began my journey on the gravel yard track at Pelican Bay, California’s most dangerous state prison. On my first day, an elder Vietnamese convict approached me and said, “Welcome to Pelican Bay, we’re the worst of the worst in California. You’re with us. You run Asian.” As we approached a table full of Asians and Pacific Islander, he expounded on the first rule, concerning “the boundaries.” He explained that the Whites, Blacks, and Mexicans have their tables, workout areas, and basketball and handball courts, and approximately ten feet around those areas was an invisible line that I was not to cross without their permission—if I did, my well-being would be at risk. Likewise, I was not to allow any other race to cross over our line; my job (and the job of all Asians and Pacific Islanders) was to stop the other races from crossing over, and if necessary, to “take flight” (i.e., stab them). So, that was the creed I lived by for many years. In prison, racial segregation was (and is) the norm; this was one of the many rules I had to abide by.

Here, there are two sets of rules. One is the Administration’s. As a prisoner, if you violate those, then you’ll be put in “the Hole.” The other set of rules is the convicts’. If you violate them, then you’ll have holes put in you.

As for the Vietnamese culture in prison, we might be small, but we’re no less vicious than the other races. Maybe it’s the pride we have. I’d read in a Vietnam War book that there are two nationalities that never stop fighting: one is the Irish; the other, the Vietnamese. At Pelican Bay, we Vietnamese were a tight group, and we helped each other with most things, like food, clothes, etc. Even though we had divisions among ourselves, such as North Cali versus South Cali, we united when troubles came our way—we bowed down to no one, even at the risk of our lives.

barbed wire

: That life seems a long way behind you now at Lancaster. Tell us about the man you are today, Tin. How did such a remarkable transformation take place?

Tin: This leads me back to the beginning of this interview. I believe there was someone up above divinely watching over me. When I was once surrounded and it looked like it was going to go badly for me, suddenly a big, muscular African American guy and his friends approached the crowd. These guys were Bloods, and they intervened and had a side meeting with the Crips surrounding me. Ultimately, the situation was resolved, and I survived another day. The Good Samaritan’s name was Jimmy, and we eventually became best friends, a big African American and a little Vietnamese. Today, Jimmy and I are both Golden Eagle classmates at California State University, Los Angeles.

Now, during my incarceration, I’ve experienced much pain, and I would shut this pain away, because to feel pain was to be weak, and early in my incarceration I chose never to be weak so that I would not be preyed upon. With this attitude, I felt dead, and in a way I was dead, just a walking corpse with no purpose, hope, or love. Approximately two years ago, I was in a very dark place. I know this sounds cliché, but a dog saved my life. It was part of the Paws for Life Program.[2]

I used to be petrified of dogs— definitely not a dog person. However, all that changed one evening when a Boxer put his head on my lap. Before this happened, my ex-girlfriend had left me. A broken heart is never easy, especially while doing “Life,” and it is not uncommon to feel depressed. However, it should not make one feel hopeless, or even destitute. In hindsight, I realize that this was the pivotal point of my life; whether I was going make it or break it. All the pains of my life, that I had carefully locked away, came rushing out. The pains of my childhood, the regret and remorse of my crime, the loss of my freedom, and the death of my father and brother during my incarceration came back to haunt me. The break up was the key that unlocked my miseries. The pains were excruciating. I wanted to end it one way or another, wanted the pain to go away. I’d kept on like this until I was so broken that I couldn’t deal with it anymore. Once again, I contemplated the forever night, the long sleep. However, an angel came to rescue me. It didn’t come with its majestic wings or divine presence, nor even a halo, but rather with four paws and a mean mug. My angel turned out to be “Vic,” a battered Boxer-breed dog who’d been used as bait for fighting pit bulls. My encounter with Vic happened in a most unusual way.

One evening as I was talking to my friend Bernik, I noticed a Boxer dog full of anxiety. He stood there constantly watching as if something might attack him. Then all of a sudden, he came over and laid his head on my lap. I was scared, yet touched. Then he proceeded to lay down, and Bernik said, “Wow!” It didn’t seem out of the ordinary to me, so I asked why all the excitement. Bernik explained that the Boxer named Vic was a bait dog, who had come here all scarred up with a smashed paw. He had a rough life. Bernik said that since he came in, he hadn’t been able to relax, so lying down and sleeping at my feet was amazing. This broke through me in a way I did not think possible. I knew that I couldn’t help him amid my own pain, but he was offering his pain for me to help with. So I reached down, put my hand on his head, and whispered, “I got your back, bud. No one on this yard is going to hurt you.” From then on, I made sure that I spent as much time as I could to comfort him, train him, and protect him. Through this relationship, Vic got better, and that was the goal. However, though I thought that I was there for him, it was also the other way around; Vic was there for me. He comforted me when I was down and out. He trained me to be strong and get back up, and protected me from my destructive self. The funny thing was that I believed that when Vic came over to me, he was thinking “that guy is suffering like me; maybe I should help and protect him.”

What PFL did for me is extraordinary. PFL not only saved my life, but it also gave me life.


Though Vic gave me love, I was still somewhat lost, still believing that I was irredeemable and doomed to a life of constant bad decision-making. Then through PFL came a second angel—you Dr. Roy. With your kindness and untiring passion to see the good in all, in everyone, you amazed me and became for me the role model that I’d never had before. No words can express my full appreciation for what you have done for incarcerated people, me especially. You looked at us not through the eyes of an enemy or through hate, but through the eyes of love, and with respect for our humanity. As a result, you gave us confidence, hope, and purpose.

Now I’m a student on this extension campus inside this prison, and I’m on my way to attaining my dream of obtaining a BA degree. I once thought I was irredeemable, meaning that I thought I had to die first and be reincarnated or something else if I were to have any hope of ever being a good person again. Now, the professors and faculty and students at Cal State LA have taught me that I can take down those walls that I built around my heart. Even if it’s day by day, I can take down those walls, because I am the builder. I don’t need them to protect me from pain, failure, or disappointment, because I’m not inherently bad. I know now that being good is a choice that I’ll be faced with making every day of my life. I once was an advocate of all that’s dark and hate surrounded me with those walls. I promoted the Black Dragon and Vietnamese gangs’ lifestyles to other Vietnamese youth, but now, I encourage them to get their education, to transform their lives and live with hope and goodness.

I’m serving a sentence of Life Without the Possibility of Parole, which means that if the laws do not change or society has no mercy for me, then I will die in prison. “Life Without the Possibility of Parole” is a death sentence—the only difference between it and lethal injection is that Death Row prisoners get a final meal and a team of lawyers. Still, as bleak as my circumstances are, I find myself happier than at any time in my life since childhood. That little Vietnamese kid with his little red wagon that was imprisoned as P24706, today I walk my dog in the evening on the prison yard, and no longer feel the cold concrete walls with their sharp razor-wire, nor the tower with its gunner and Mini-14. Here, it is just me and my dog… and I feel free.

Editor’s Postscript:
When the interview was completed at the end of the third meeting, without explanation Tin prostrated himself before Dr. Roy in the middle of the prison yard in front of all the guards and other prisoners. He performed a deeply meaningful ritual, later explaining it in the following way, asking that it be included in this interview to honor the family of Stanko Vuckovic—the man whose life he took.

Tin: I may never have that chance to apologize in person, so I’d like to do this now at least.
I would like to do this in the Vietnamese traditional way.
I am on my knees, and bow my head, prostrating myself, three times.
With each: “I am so sorry, please forgive me.”
I promise for the rest of my life, as a living amends, I will do my best to impact others’ lives for the good in homage of you, your family, and your community. Thank you for allowing me to be honest and express my remorse.




[1] These numbers, while a bit dated, are provided by the Asian Prisoner Support Committee, https://apscinfo.wordpress.com/2010/10/06/apis-in-ca-prisons/. More up to date details can be found in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s offender data points demographic, comprising the most recent demographic information for those incarcerated in CDCR, https://www.cdcr.ca.gov/Reports_Research/docs/Data_Points_Dec_2016.pdf. From December 2016, the “Others” population (which includes American Indian, Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and Asians, many of whom are Vietnamese) consisted of 8,907 individuals incarcerated in the state system (6.9% of the total population of incarcerated people). Of this number, 598 were born in Vietnam (in December 2014, it was 660). See pp. 10, 17, 85 of the report.

[2] Paws for Life (PFL) is a therapeutic program and unique partnership between the organization Karma Rescue and the California State Prison–LA County that began in 2014. See http://karmarescue.org/paws-for-life/ and also Jackie Fernandez, “CSP-Los Angeles County launches Paws For Life program,” Inside CDCR, 3 July 2014, https://www.insidecdcr.ca.gov/2014/07/csp-los-angeles-county-launches-paws-for-life-program/.


 Tin Nguyen has been incarcerated for nineteen years, serving a Life Without the Possibility of Parole sentence. A son, brother, uncle, and capable of change. He is a student in Cal State LA’s BA program, as well as a dog trainer in the “Paws For Life” dog program at Los Angeles County Prison, Lancaster.

Bidhan Chandra Roy is an associate professor of English Literature at California State University, Los Angeles. He is the founder of WordsUncaged, a platform for men sentenced to life sentences in California prisons to dialogue and critically engage with the world beyond the prison walls. He is also the faculty director of Cal State LA’s BA program at Los Angeles County Prison, Lancaster, as well co-chairman of the board of Karma Rescue, an organization that runs the “Paws for Life” dog rescue and training programs in prisons throughout California.

Copyright: © 2018 Tin Nguyen and Bidhan Chandra Roy. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.



Black Life in Adelanto


Image adapted from Flickr user Alex Proimos.

Jemima Pierre

My first trip to the GEO Group’s Adelanto Detention Center, the privately-run prison facility located deep inland in Southern California’s San Bernardino County, was to meet with a Haitian asylum seeker, Mr. Clement.[1] Mr. Clement had entered the U.S. from Mexico and had been in detention for nine months. Earlier that summer, he participated in a hunger strike that brought together Central American and Haitian asylum seekers demanding better treatment in Adelanto. It was through this strike that he and some of the other detained Haitian men had garnered some attention. And through a series of legal and activist connections—connections stretching from local immigration rights organizers through Florida, Haiti, and back to Los Angeles—I heard of Mr. Clement and faced, for the first time, the travesty of detention for Haitian immigrants and asylum seekers in Southern California.

Haitian immigrants and asylum seekers are a growing population within detention centers all over the U.S. Southwest. Numbers vary, but there are estimates of thousands of noncriminal Haitians incarcerated, with the largest population in Otay Mesa, Arizona. Haitian migration to these parts is relatively new, beginning with a trickle arriving early 2016 to thousands today. (Mr. Clement said that there were about thirty to fifty other Haitian men, as well as a small number of Africans, detained in his jail block. He was not sure of the numbers held in other blocks, or of how many Haitian women are being held in the women’s wing of Adelanto.) This migration is also unusual. It reflects a new pattern for Haitian migrants, who originally traveled the direct route over the Caribbean Sea to the eastern U.S., and settled in metropolitan centers such as Miami and New York, cities with large Caribbean and African immigrant populations. This new pattern of migration means a more than 7,000-mile trek over land from Brazil through South and Central America, into Mexico and, finally, crossing one of the borders into the U.S. Southwest.

Mr. Clement’s journey to the U.S. was not an easy one. But his story is similar to that of other Haitian migrants in Southern California. He left Haiti for the Dominican Republic and later traveled to Brazil. He was in Brazil for eight months, working odd jobs, barely surviving. Life in Brazil was precarious for Mr. Clement as it was for other Haitian men and women. Brazil, already known for its long history of anti-Black racism, was almost unbearable for Haitians, who are perceived as “too” Black, and often suffered racist violence.[2] Many Haitians have decided to leave Brazil, risking their lives to make the treacherous trek to the United States where they have family. Similarly, from Brazil, Mr. Clement traveled by land through Peru, Ecuador, Columbia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico. The journey took more than three months, interrupted by arrests (for example, Nicaraguan officials arrested Haitians on site and jailed them for days) and a lack of funds. Occasionally, Haitian migrants would claim to be from an African country in order not to be harassed by officials in some Central American states. Mr. Clement spoke of the difficulty of the journey through Central America including having friends and fellow travelers die in the Columbian forests, drowning as they crossed rivers, or being robbed by local bandits. He said Honduras[3] provided something of a reprieve—a small community in Choluteca became one of the first groups to treat the Haitian travelers as family. Tijuana was the only other place in his travels where Mr. Clement felt he was treated with kindness.

He said Honduras provided something of a reprieve—a small community in Choluteca became one of the first groups to treat the Haitian travelers as family. Tijuana was the only other place in his travels where Mr. Clement felt he was treated with kindness.

Mr. Clement spent more than a month in Tijuana, waiting for an appointment date from the Mexican government to cross the border into the U.S.[4] When Mr. Clement finally approached the San Ysidro border crossing he was immediately arrested. He was surprised to find that his initial immigration interview was conducted by a Haitian-American border patrol officer—in Haitian Creole (kreyòl ayisyen). The officer was intimidating, Mr. Clement said. He repeatedly accused Mr. Clement of being a Haitian gang member who was running away from rivals, a claim Mr. Clement denied. After Mr. Clement was processed he was sent to a small holding cell. The cell was not meant for more than three or four people but was packed with at least thirty individuals. The holding cell had no window or bed. Most people slept sitting up while some slept on mats. The prisoners could not shower or brush their teeth. They didn’t know how long migrants were held there, but Mr. Clement believed that it was around five days. (Other Haitian migrants confirmed these facts.) After those five days, they were moved to actual jail cells in another prison—in San Diego (whose name he and the others do not know). After three days there, the migrants and asylum seekers were put in prison jumpsuits, shackled with chains at the waist, wrists, and ankles, and placed on a bus for the more than six-hour drive to the Adelanto Detention Center.

Mr. Clement and his colleagues discussed their treatment in the U.S.—from border guards to prison guards—as condescending and inhumane and they all stated that they were not expecting to be treated like criminals the moment they crossed the border. They described the humiliation of not being able to use the toilet on the long bus trip to Adelanto. Some people urinated on themselves while others asked their fellow prisoners to unzip their pants to remove their penises so they could urinate where they sat.

The men described their months-long stay at Adelanto as torture. The men recounted being kept indoors most of the time, and allowed outdoors once a week but only for a very short period. They were not allowed to sleep more than a few hours at a time. For example, when guards ordered the inmates into their small rooms at 11 p.m., they had to wake up at 1 a.m. for a “head count.” After ordering everyone back to their rooms, the guards woke them up again at 4 or 5 a.m. for breakfast. The lights in the cells were never turned off—which, according to one former Haitian detainee, affected those on the top bunks even more—and the detention center was always freezing cold. In addition, some of the Haitians complained of guards using racial slurs against them, calling them “fucking blacks” and “Haitian trash.”

At Adelanto, Haitians have had larger bond amounts (ranging anywhere from $15,000 to $50,000) placed on them to secure their release than immigrant prisoners elsewhere in the U.S. And until recently, very few Haitians have been able to bond out of Adelanto and few have won their asylum cases. A colleague who currently conducts research at Adelanto suggested that the denial rate for Haitian asylum cases there was almost 100%. At the same time, despite the denial rates, the asylum seekers are forced to serve extended periods in detention before their deportation. Mr. Clement spoke of Adelanto as “sucking us dry.”

I know that this prison is private business, and that this body [he gestures to his chest] is worth $140 per day for Adelanto. So they hold us for as long as they can. They give us high bonds that we cannot pay. They change our asylum hearing dates. They even force those who do not want asylum to claim asylum so they can keep them longer. When they cannot make more money out of us, then they deport us quickly.

Indeed, reporter Kate Morrissey argued that as of November 2016, “detaining Haitians… in immigration holding facilities is costing American taxpayers an estimated $379,380 per day.”[5] That number is greater now. Mr. Clement and some of his friends describe a number of African immigrants and asylum seekers who, having been detained for months without hope, attempted suicide.

Coast Guard Cutter Mohawk interdicts Haitian migrants

The Coast Guard Cutter Mohawk crew interdicts a group of Haitian migrants July 11, 2017, approximately 22 miles south of Great Inagua, Bahamas.

Compared to those coming from Central America and Mexico, the detention of Haitian migrants and asylum seekers in the U.S. Southwest is relatively recent.[6] When Haitian migrants first began in appear at the U.S.-Mexico border in small groups in early 2016,[7] they were allowed into the U.S. through what is called a “humanitarian parole,” given a three-year temporary pass and released to family members. However, by late September 2016, and as the numbers of immigrants and asylum seekers increased exponentially, the Obama administration’s Department of Homeland Security put new arrivals in “expedited removal proceedings,” which means that they could be—and were—detained in prisons, especially if they have asylum claims.

How did so many Haitian people end up at the U.S.-Mexico border and, ultimately, at the Adelanto Detention Center and other facilities throughout the U.S. Southwest? In the increasing coverage given to this recent wave of Haitian migrants, the story seems simple: Haitians traveled to Brazil under humanitarian visas after the 2010 earthquake, and later were recruited to Brazil as a cheap labor source while the country prepared to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics. Since then, Brazil has been beset by severe economic retrenchment, forcing many Haitians to leave for the U.S.

Yet there is much more to this. Migrants leave Haiti for economic reasons, but also because of gang-related persecution, political instability, domestic abuse, and extreme homophobia.[8] The country has also suffered from a long history of foreign military interventions, including ten interventions by the U.S. since the end of the nineteenth century. The U.S. also occupied Haiti twice in the twentieth century, the longest being the nineteen-year military occupation from 1915-1934. Most recently, Haiti has been under a militarized foreign occupation since February 2004, when the U.S., Canada, and France sponsored a coup d’état to oust its popularly elected president, Jean Bertrand Aristide.[9] The coup d’état led to a short military occupation by U.S. forces, which was later sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council when they approved a “peacekeeping” mission in Haiti.[10] The military wing of the mission was headed by Brazil for more than a decade.[11] The occupation of Haiti has also added to the country’s political instability, undermining Haitian democracy and self-determination and challenging sovereignty. It has also led to massive suffering: Fall 2010, not long after the earthquake January of that year that killed hundreds of thousands of people, Nepalese troops brought cholera to Haiti. It induced an epidemic that has sickened more than a million Haitians and killed between 10,000 and 30,000.[12] Accountability has not been forthcoming. The UN has refused to admit its culpability and the Haitian people have had no avenue for redress.

When we met, Mr. Clement was preparing to present his asylum claim before a U.S. immigration court housed not far from the ICE offices within the Adelanto facility. Immigration proceedings in detention centers are considered “administrative” matters and are less formal than regular court proceedings. The usual rules of evidence do not apply and the presiding judges have substantial leeway in their interpretation of testimony and the assessment of asylum claims. Meanwhile, as U.S. immigration policy dictates, he can only receive legal representation at his own expense; Mr. Clement was forced to represent himself.

Yet despite such terrible circumstances, Mr. Clement is one of the fortunate ones. With the help of a bond fund[13] established for the Adelanto hunger strikers by a local organization, volunteers were able to bond him out of the detention center just before his deportation hearing. A regular immigration judge on the outside—rather than within Adelanto—will now hear his asylum case, and Mr. Clement will now have a more normal set of legal set of proceedings. At the same time, he is stuck within the U.S. criminal justice system. He was bonded out on a $17,000 bond with two ankle bracelets (shackles produced by a subsidiary of the GEO Group)—one for ICE, and one for the bond company. The bond company that collateralized his release requires former detainees to pay a $480 “activation fee” for the ankle monitor, and $420 per month service fee for as long as it takes for his case to be resolved. Yet, as an asylum seeker awaiting trial, Mr. Clement is not allowed to seek employment to cover this non-refundable fee, the ankle monitor fee, or his day-to-day living expenses.

Mr. Clement may be out of detention, but he is certainly not free.



  • With gratitude to Peter James Hudson for his brilliant and generous feedback.

[1] All names of asylum seekers are pseudonyms.

[2] “Haitian Immigrants Victims of Xenophobic Attacks in Brazil,” TeleSur, 9 August 2015, https://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/Haitian-Immigrants-Victims-of-Xenophobic-Attacks-in-Brazil-20150809-0002.html; “‘It’s not because I’m black, is it?’—As Haitian immigrants head to the south of Brazil, racist tendencies arise as descendants of European immigrants turn their noses up,” Black Women of Brazil, 29 May 2015, https://blackwomenofbrazil.co/2015/05/29/its-not-because-im-black-is-it-as-haitian-immigrants-head-to-the-south-of-brazil-racist-tendencies-arise-as-descendants-of-european-immigrants-turn-their-noses-up/.

[3] Although, with pressure from the United States, Honduras has begun arresting Haitian migrants traveling through the country (http://www.hougansydney.com/whats-happening-in-haiti/more-than-100-haitian-migrants-arrested-in-honduras).

[4] It turns out that the Mexican government does not allow all who want to cross the border to the U.S. Instead, it passes out appointment dates to cross. Most of these dates require the Haitian (and other migrants) to spend at least two weeks in Baja California.

[5] Kate Morrissey, “ Detaining Haitians awaiting deportation to hurricane-ravaged homeland is not inexpensive,” San Diego Union Tribune, 11 November 2016, http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/immigration/sd-me-haitian-cost-20161111-story.html.

[6] Of course, the U.S. has a long history of detaining Haitian asylum seekers and migrants. Two of the more notorious detention centers are Krome Detention Center (http://thepublicarchive.com/?p=3362) and the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay (http://gitmomemory.org/timeline/haitians-and-gtmo/) before it gained more notoriety as a maximum-security prison for purported suspects of the U.S. “War on Terror.” Both of these detention centers have reputations for the cruel treatment of Haitian immigrants.

[7] Daniel González, “Migrants amassed at U.S.-Mexico border unsure what’s next,” azcentral,13 December 2016, http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/politics/border-issues/2016/12/13/thousands-haitian-migrants-amassed-us-mexico-border-unsure-whats-next/94688238/.

[8] There are also new impediments to social life, including the recent Haitian government’s new anti-LGBT posture (http://www.haitilibre.com/en/news-21838-haiti-politics-what-say-the-law-on-reputation-and-good-life-and-morals.html).

[9] Jemima Pierre, “Haiti: The Second Occupation,” The Black Scholar, 14 August 2015, http://www.theblackscholar.org/haiti-the-second-occupation/; Anthony Fenton and Dru Oja Jay, “Ottawa’s “Secret Memo”: Canada’s Role in Haiti’s February 2004 Coup d’Etat,” Global Research, 26 February 2013, https://www.globalresearch.ca/declassifying-canada-in-haiti-canadian-officials-planned-military-intervention-weeks-before-haitian-coup/2225; “When Canada plotted to overthrow Haiti’s government,” 24 January 2014, https://yvesengler.com/tag/ottawa-initiative/.

[10] According to Dady Chery, Haiti’s UN mission is the only UN Chapter 7 force in a country that is not at war. Chapter 7 of the UN Charter gives the UN Security Council the power to “determine the existence of any threat to the peace” and take military and nonmilitary action to “restore international peace and security.” Participating countries have boasted about Haiti being a place where they could test their police methods and military equipment for urban warfare on an unsuspecting population” (“10 Reasons Why UN Occupation of Haiti Must End,” Haïti Liberté, 19 April 2017, https://haitiliberte.com/10-reasons-why-un-occupation-of-haiti-must-end/).

[11] Jemima Pierre, “Brazil’s Haitian Training Ground,” Black Agenda Report, 4 May 2011, https://blackagendareport.com/content/brazil’s-haitian-training-ground.

[12] Gina Athena Ulysse, “30 Thousand Haitian Lives Lost to U.N. Cholera,” HuffPost, 6 June 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gina-athena-ulysse/30-thousand-haitian-lives_b_10299692.html.

[13] https://cluela.nationbuilder.com/Adelanto.


Jemima Pierre is Associate Professor jointly appointed in the Departments of African American Studies and of Anthropology at UCLA. She is the author of The Predicament of Blackness: Postcolonial Ghana and the Politics of Race (Chicago). Her research focuses on race, political economy, transnationalism, and the politics of knowledge production.

Copyright: © 2017 Jemima Pierre. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/




The Other LAPD

by Catherine Gudis

Homeless and formerly incarcerated people making art in LA’s Skid Row

From Boom Summer 2016, Vol 6, No 2

Based in Los Angeles’s Skid Row and comprised largely of the area’s formerly homeless, the Los Angeles Poverty Department creates performances from the writings, stories, and experiences of its participants. The mission of LAPD (yes, their acronym is purposeful) is to illuminate the social forces that shape the lives and communities of people living in poverty. For thirty years, LAPD’s creative body of work has included theatrical productions, street parades, a museum and archive, and educational programing, all aimed at the problem of “poverty,” a word that too often elides what is actually a constellation of some of the most intractable social problems of this era: institutionalized racism, the criminal justice system, the failed drug wars, crises in mental healthcare, and the forces of capital, which separate people from basic rights of citizenship. Yet what LAPD achieves is ultimately at human scale. The group brings back into view those who are most often forgotten (the disenfranchised, the impoverished, the mentally ill); the players make you feel what you might never otherwise know, even if you’ve lived it (audiences are often Skid Row residents); and the performances create ruptures in master narratives in order to supersede the social divisions between us, to allow understanding and even regeneration. In the words of its founder and director, John Malpede, LAPD allows “ripples of thought” to permeate the hard edifice of capital.1

State of Incarceration is an LAPD production that taps the inside knowledge of core company members, including Kevin Michael Key, Riccarlo Porter, Anthony Taylor, and Ronnie Walker, and roomfuls of other participants, some from parolee reentry programs in the area. Virtually all Skid Row citizens can claim firsthand knowledge of the criminal justice system. It’s hard to escape the system once you’ve hit Skid Row, given its long history of aggressive policing, criminalization of poverty that renders illegal the daily actions of homeless people—actions such as sleeping on sidewalks and carting one’s belongings—and ticketing for minor infractions, such as jaywalking, with $100 fines or more that go to warrant and then arrest when unpaid.2

One of every five people released from incarceration back into Los Angeles go directly to the streets, many taking their “gate money” (money given upon release from incarceration and reentry into society) to Skid Row when they leave state prison or county jail.3


With no paucity of experience to work with, LAPD’s process is as important as the performances themselves, particularly in aiding street-level truth and reconciliation. In workshops, the group collects data about our carceral state, recounts and improvises counter-narratives, derives new insights, and perhaps even founds a new and more egalitarian way of understanding how to comprehend the complex social reality of disenfranchisement. In its process and performance,State of Incarceration offers an affective historical accounting and cataloging of the pieces of personal experience that are rarely part of the publicly accessible record, but which comprise the experiences of significant populations and are essential to any collective reckoning with mass incarceration and the cycles of poverty and violence at its base. The performance creates a space for formerly imprisoned people to share experiences as well as strategies of survival, and it “creates a moment of exchange and reflection on how they and we, the people of California, can recover from living in a state of incarceration.”4

When performed, State of Incarceration (2010–present) lines cellblock bunk beds wall-to-wall for audience members to sit on, mimicking California’s overcrowded jails and prisons. It begins with the “History of Incarceration” song, a spiritual performed by the entire cast, whose combined voices forge a sense of the communal, across historical time and space, as the song connects the prison-bus journey to slave routes and chains. “This history is like used-up water to me; it flows in my veins, in my blood, in my community,” they sing. Similarly poetic are monologues expressive of interior lives born out of the memories of LAPD performers, two of whom landed back in prison between productions of State of Incarceration (one for stealing toothpaste).5 Doing jumping jacks in one’s cell becomes liberation (“rhythm moves my spirit. . . lost in freedom”). A prisoner intones his upcoming fate—”thirty days in the hole” (solitary confinement) with “four walls, no TV, no books, only me,” and repeats a chant that includes, “I walk. I sit. I look. I think. I cry. . . time rises and falls like the ocean. . . I exist.”


At the performance’s end, the players ritualistically clean “one wall at a time,” “one brick at a time,” “washing down for the addicted, weak, and sick,” enacting a baptism of forgiveness and release. Finally, they prepare for communion, using “the spread,” another prison ritual. Ramen, Cheetos, and plenty of garlic are base for the communal meal, added bit by bit to a giant garbage bag opened on the floor. Audience members are invited to share the “spread,” as actors put plates of food into our hands. Thus, we too take communion, joined together with both those acting as prisoners and guards, and perhaps together we feel some of the responsibility of living in a state that is supported so fundamentally by the policing and incarceration of our most vulnerable members.

Taken in its entirety, State of Incarceration is a litany of the rituals of incarceration, from the ride on the bus—termed the Slave Ship in the performance—to the state prison, to therapy and passing the time, to release and the Kafkaesque struggle to remain out of the control of the criminal justice system. What follows is a short excerpt that illuminates a few of the struggles the newly released face.


Excerpts from State of Incarceration by the Los Angeles Poverty Department.

Performance directed by John Malpede and Henriëtte Brouwers.

RONNIE: Relapse + JIMMIE: Johnny Mack (two texts inter-cut)

RONNIE: I am being released from prison soon. I have no money and nowhere to go, and on my release my addiction will start fighting for control of my thoughts.

JIMMIE: I committed a crime that, you know, I’m not proud of. I got out of the penitentiary and the government don’t have too many places where a fellow like me can get a job.

RONNIE: All of my good ideas will go straight out of the window if my addiction wins over my thinking. However I have too much pride to leave jail and go straight to a program. How could I even think of embarrassing myself like that?

JIMMIE: They tell you to be honest on an application. I can guarantee you that the moment I walk out of that door, they throw my application in the garbage.

But on the other hand I don’t have a problem with getting high in jail—only when I’m on the streets. But I need money and clothes and the only way to get that is to sell dope.

JIMMIE: Years ago, when you got out of prison you could get on welfare. Nowadays, you can’t go on welfare, unless for three months, or sometimes you even can’t get on welfare. So, you are out on the street, in a shelter, or you are back to what you were doing. You know what I’m saying? No way out of it.

RONNIE: Nobody is going to hire me because of my record. So I am going to have to find a way to stay out of jail, take care of myself and stay off drugs.

JIMMIE: Because like I was saying, the government does not have a lot of places where a guy like me could go. It is totally up to you to get out of the situation.

RONNIE: And the reality is: I hit downtown at 6 PM, and by 9 PM I was high with my girlfriend.


My First Job

DEBORAH: The first chance I had to get a job, I had to go down to the office and get a print out of my record. I had to do it that day—or no job. I had one dollar to my name. When I got there, they told me the record was free.

WORKER: If it don’t take longer than 10 minutes to print out, it’s free. After that it cost $5 a minute.

DEBORAH: I didn’t say anything, just nodded. I didn’t care. I wasn’t gonna let anything stop me from getting that job. I wasn’t gonna put the brakes on myself.

WORKER: I asked you, do you want to have me print it? After 10 minutes it cost $5 a minute. You understand?

DEBORAH: If it came out too long, then I’d deal with that, somehow. But I wasn’t gonna give up, get hopeless. Walk away. No way.

WORKER: “Yes? You want me to print it?” That girl didn’t have a dollar to her name.

DEBORAH: I stood there while it was printing and every guilty thought came back into my head. How I was guilty of this, and that and some more this and that. How they were gonna find things out. How I’d messed up, messed up, couldn’t help but mess up. How they hated me, knew I was stupid, knew I would mess up and always keep messing up. The longer I waited the more hopeless my situation was.

WORKER: The whole time it was printing she stood there scared to death I was gonna ask her to pay something she couldn’t.

DEBORAH: What was I waitin for? You know they’re not gonna give it to me. I’m not gonna get the paper. What is wrong with me thinking I was gonna get that job? Get real. What the hell you waiting around for? Just to be humiliated. You like that. Being humiliated. You like that. That’s what feels good to you. Feels right. You like it, otherwise you’d get the hell out of here right now. You wouldn’t have come here in the first place.


WORKER: I came back with the print out. It came out to eleven minutes. “All right Miss Anderson, here you are.” Eleven minutes, but I just gave it to her and didn’t say anything. Didn’t ask her to pay.

DEBORAH: While I was waiting for those papers, it all came back to me. I was nearly overwhelmed by the stigma, the stamp of being a criminal—a convict. I was overwhelmed by the fear.


Photographs from a performance of State of Incarceration courtesy of the Los Angeles Poverty Department.

1. Malpede uses this phrase in connection with a discussion of Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 poverty tour through Eastern Kentucky. Lynda Frye Burnham, “When Kennedy Came to Kentucky,”American Theatre (July/August 2004), 33.

2. “Homelessness is not a Criminal Activity,” public education statement developed by the Los Angeles Community Action Network, November 2003, accessed 13 October 2009,www.cangress.org; John Thomason, “Can a ‘Homeless Bill of Rights’ End the Criminalization of LA’s Most Vulnerable Residents,” The Nation, 13 October 2014, accessed 1 December 2014,http://www.thenation.com/article/can-homeless-bill-rights-end-criminalization-las-most-vulnerable-residents/.

3. Robert Greene, “From Jail to Skid Row, Where ‘All Healing Needs Are Met,’” Los Angeles Times, 4 February 2016, accessed 1 June 2016, http://www.latimes.com/opinion/opinion-la/la-ol-starks-los-angeles-homeless-20160203-story.html; Abby Newell and Cindy Chang, “Ex-Inmates Want L.A. County to Stop Dumping Mentally Ill Inmates in Skid Row,” Los Angeles Times, 28 September 2015, accessed 1 June 2016, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-jail-skid-row-releases-20150928-story.html.

4. “Radar L.A.: State of Incarceration,LA Stage Times, 10 June 2011, accessed 1 June 2016,http://thisstage.la/2011/06/radar-l-a-state-of-incarceration/. Also see “State of Incarceration” project descriptions at Los Angeles Poverty Department’s website, accessed 1 June 2016,http://lapovertydept.org/projects/state-of-incarceration/.

5. Conversation with LAPD members Walter Fears and Henriëtte Brouwers, 2 February 2014.


Proposition 47

by Marisa Arrona

Reimagining justice, opportunity, and healing

From Boom Summer 2016, Vol 6, No 2

Rochelle Solombrino was sixteen when she got her first DUI, the same age as her first suicide attempt. A year later, she nearly died from alcohol poisoning. When she was twenty-four, she almost died of a heroin overdose.

“I was on a suicide mission,” Solombrino, now forty-nine, says ruefully. “It wasn’t normal to think like that, but, back then, it was hard to understand what ‘normal’ was.”

She had her first drink at age six and was encouraged by an uncle to start smoking marijuana at a young age. Her stepfather sexually molested her.

She also knew she was gay, but because her family was conservative, and included an uncle who was a conservative pastor, she was scared to be true to herself. Alcohol and drugs were the only things she knew would numb her pain. By fourteen, she had tried not only marijuana but also PCP, LSD, and cocaine.

It should be little surprise, then, that Solombrino’s story includes a period of incarceration. After being arrested a number of times for nonviolent crimes such as petty theft, drug possession, and disorderly conduct driven by her addictions, she was sentenced to eighteen months in state prison. Solombrino became a victim of California’s misguided prioritization of incarceration over crime prevention programs like drug treatment.

“It never made any sense to me that people like myself who were convicted of nonviolent crimes were serving time in the same place as people serving twenty-five-to-life sentences for violent crimes,” she says.

Solombrino’s story is not unique.

Over a three-decade period from 1981 to 2011, the money California spent on prisons and on incarcerating people increased by more than 1,500 percent. During this time, the state also reduced the number of behavioral health treatment beds by nearly half. Meanwhile the recidivism rate skyrocketed to nearly 70 percent, meaning two out of three people released from prison committed new crimes landing them back in prison within three years.



At a fair in South Los Angeles, people get help applying to have their records changed.

Much of our criminal justice system has proceeded aggressively with the idea that locking up criminals for as long as possible is the most effective way of dealing with crime. But it has become increasingly clear over the years that this approach has failed.

No matter how tough we made the punishments, too many people have cycled in and out of our justice system, But we know now there are much better ways to improve public safety than locking up people like Solombrino in our jails and prisons where they not only don’t receive rehabilitation services but then, upon release, are prevented from successfully reentering society because of their criminal records. After decades of soaring prison costs and recidivism rates, it is imperative that California does whatever it takes to improve our approach to safety and justice.

We have learned a lot over the years about how to deter crime and change criminal behavior. While prison is the proper punishment for the most violent criminals, it often does more harm than good for people convicted of nonviolent offenses, increasing the chance they will keep committing crimes, perpetuating the cycle.

Many California voters believe this, which is why 60 percent of them in November 2014 approved Proposition 47, a measure that changed simple drug possession and five petty-theft crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. Polling done a year after the law went into effect shows that support for Prop. 47 has grown to 67 percent.1

In strong complementary ways, the law helped continue to address the severe overcrowding in the state prison system that the Supreme Court ruled in June 2011 was unconstitutional, and which led to a court-ordered population cap. In the eighteen months since the law went into effect, the population of the state’s overcrowded prison system has been reduced by more than 5,000 people.2 Similarly, California’s overcrowded county jails have also seen their populations reduced as a result of Prop. 47: a recent report by the Public Policy Institute of California found that in the first year after Prop. 47 was approved, jail populations decreased by about 9 percent.

The initiative has also saved the state and counties tens of millions of dollars—money mandated by the law’s language to be reallocated to community-based crime-prevention programs like drug and mental health treatment that help break the cycles of crime, risk prevention, education programs for at-risk schoolchildren, and trauma recovery services to help victims of crime. Now that Governor Jerry Brown’s Department of Finance has calculated the savings generated by Prop. 47 during the first full fiscal year the law has been on the books, the money will be put into the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund and dispersed early next year to local jurisdictions by the Board of State and Community Corrections as part of a grant process.

To be sure, Prop. 47 did not decriminalize misdemeanors, nor did it take away law enforcement’s ability to hold defendants accountable. Law enforcement and the legal system can still arrest, detain, and jail for up to a year someone convicted of a misdemeanor—including the six crimes impacted by Prop. 47. If someone is convicted of multiple misdemeanors, that person can be sentenced to multiple years in jail.

Significantly, the law is also retroactive, meaning that anyone in California with a felony conviction on his or her criminal record for one of the six low-level crimes impacted by Prop. 47 can apply to the courts to have that felony reduced to a misdemeanor. It’s the largest opportunity in the history of the United States for people to change past felony convictions on their records—indeed, as many as one million Californians may be eligible.

In California today, nearly 5,000 restrictions are placed on people with felonies on their criminal records, and more than half of those restrictions are employment-related. Someone with a felony conviction on his or her record, no matter how old it is, cannot obtain a cosmetology license or receive college grants, for example. As a result, many people find it hard or impossible to secure and maintain employment, housing, financial aid to go back to school, and other factors that are key to achieving economic security and family stability.

Solombrino knows this well. Upon being released from prison, she was enrolled in a twelve-step program at Fred Brown Recovery Services in San Pedro, which helped significantly as she found her feet back in society. After successfully completing the program, she started working for Fred Brown, first as a sober-living manager at one of its residential homes and then as an office manager. Today she is the operations coordinator for the entire organization.

Having experienced sober living for seven years now, Solombrino is saving to buy her first home. Four years ago, she achieved a major milestone: getting her driver’s license back. She bought herself a used Jeep—her dream car.

But her criminal history became an issue last year when Fred Brown applied for a county contract. To qualify, no one on the organization’s staff could have a felony conviction on their record. Suddenly, despite all the work she’d done to turn herself around and get her life back on the right track, Solombrino was in danger of having all of it taken away.

But then, at a job fair, she met Prop. 47 advocates who told her about the chance she had to reduce her old felony convictions to misdemeanors. She confirmed that she was eligible and immediately filed an application for relief under Prop. 47. Hers was one of nearly 250,000 applications that have been filed to date.

“I was feeling completely defeated before Prop. 47,” Solombrino says. “Even though I’d done all of this positive stuff in my life, the county could’ve taken away my job even though I’d already paid my debt to society.”

The experience was reminiscent of one from years earlier, when Solombrino applied for Section 8 housing but was denied because of her criminal history.

“That was another defeat,” Solombrino says. “That was just another reason to get drunk.”

Increasingly, policymakers are recognizing the futility of sitting around and waiting for crime to happen and then going after the people who commit those crimes. They’re beginning to invest more into programs that seek to prevent crime from happening in the first place.

In Los Angeles County, for example, the Board of Supervisors has created a task force comprised of officials from the Probation and Sheriff’s departments, as well as other key county representatives. They were tasked with developing a plan for reaching out to as many people as possible in Los Angeles who are eligible to change an old felony on their record to a misdemeanor. County leaders are also working to create jobs and provide services to people once they have received Prop. 47 relief. They’re keeping tabs on the amount of money Prop. 47 saves the county, and they are engaging community members to help decide how that savings will be reinvested.

But in Los Angeles and jurisdictions across the state, more needs to be done.


Rochelle Solombrino


Proposition 47 requires new approaches, and everyone in the justice system needs to be committed to adapting to the change in state law.

Local justice agencies should be expanding best practices in diversion, targeted deterrence, supervised probation, treatment, collaborative courts and neighborhood problem solving, and other strategies that can help protect public safety without wasting costly state prison beds.

Prop. 47 is a historic opportunity to get smart about our justice resources. Adapting to reform is what Californians voted for, what they expect, and what needs to happen now. The old way of doing things busted our budgets and didn’t do anything to improve the health and safety of our communities. Returning to the ways of the past will only waste resources and fail to stop the cycle of crime. We can do better than we’ve done in the past, and Prop. 47 is beginning to show the way.

“I can positively say that although I began my road of recovery from active addiction the day I entered treatment at Fred Brown Recovery Services, it wasn’t until I embarked on Prop. 47 that I started to truly believe I wasn’t a bad person trying to get good, but a good person trying to get well,” Solombrino says. “I began to feel real hope that I could clear the wreckage of my past, redeem myself, and restore my future.”


1. The California Endowment, Californians Back Prop. 47; Want Investments in Prevention,November 2015 (available at www.calendow.org/survey-californians-back-prop-47-want-investments-in-prevention/).

2. State of California, Office of Governor Edmund G. Brown, California State Budget 2016–2017(available at www.ebudget.ca.gov/FullBudgetSummary.pdf), 44.


The Road to Private Prison Divestment

by Anthony Williams

Inside the University of California student campaign

From Boom Summer 2016, Vol 6, No 2

My first encounter with the Afrikan Black Coalition—the largest California-wide Black youth organization, with chapters on fifteen University of California and California State University campuses—was at its January 2015 annual conference at the University of California, Irvine. I was one of forty delegates from the University of California, Berkeley, and joined more than 600 Black students from California’s public universities attending the conference. The Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend event was full of introductions, workshops, caucuses, dancing, and food. It was one of the first times in my twenty-six years of life that I had been surrounded by that many Black people, and I did not know what to do with myself. Blackness is not monolithic: in skin tone, physical build, personality, and presentation, our diversity was wonderfully evident at the conference.

Each year the conference is held on a different campus; but given the demographics of the University of California system, such a large gathering of Black students always attracts undue attention. Merely existing as a Black person can be an isolating experience, particularly when UC campuses maintain a less than 4 percent Black student body1. While we enjoyed each other’s company, we also felt under perpetual surveillance by non-Black students, campus visitors, and campus police. While grabbing In-N-Out during dinner, we were stared at; while walking the campus UC Irvine, students pointed out an increased police presence; at the hotel we felt like unwelcomed guests. This constant policing of Blackness was a reminder that our work to improve the deplorable admission and retention rates of Black students is far from complete. At UC Berkeley, my alma mater, I was one of 911 Black undergraduate students enrolled in Fall 2015 out of a total of 27,496,2 making up 3.3% of the total student population. To combat this isolation, the Afrikan Black Coalition (ABC) connects the work Black students do on campuses to the wider struggle that people of African descent experience throughout the world, not just in North America. I felt compelled to do more for fellow Black folks as I entered my final year of undergraduate education at Cal, and joined the Afrikan Black Coalition as a writer that summer.


Members of the Afrikan Black Coalition in February 2016. Photograph by Charlene Macharia.

The year 2015 marked one year since the murder of Michael Brown, Jr. in Ferguson, five years since the “accidental” murder of Aiyana Stanley-Jones in Detroit, and six years since the murder of Oscar Grant in Oakland. The budding #BlackLivesMatter campaign brought to public prominence—for the first time for many Americans—the link between mass incarceration and the brutal overpolicing of Black communities across the United States. That same year, the Afrikan Black Coalition—led by ABC Political Director Yoel Haile, a University of California, Santa Barbara, alumnus and University of California, Berkeley, Goldman School of Public Policy master’s of public policy graduate—launched a campaign to educate staff and students on the mass incarceration of Black people. As an organization fighting for Black liberation, we want to abolish the prison industrial complex. We want political prisoners released; we want private prisons gone; and, ultimately, we want to live in a world without prisons. ABC seeks the abolition of all forms of slavery in their entirety, and we believe that begins by recognizing that prisons are a form of legal slavery.

United States history proves helpful for animating this argument for prison abolition. The Thirteenth Amendment was ratified 6 December 1865 and is often celebrated as the end of American slavery. Yet the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution reads:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

The caveat, “except as punishment for a crime,” suggests that the Amendment never intended slavery to end necessarily, but rather for it to merely mutate into something more easily countenanced—or ignored—by the public. In his study of the California prison industrial complex, calling this “the sedimentations of slavery,” Brady Heiner identifies California’s situation, with convict labor producing significant profit for prisons, as a functional substitute for the plantation.3 Bryan Stevenson has made this argument on a more popular level, highlighting that American slavery has evolved, with the racializing of criminality effectively becoming an extension of chattel slavery, chain gangs, and the convict leasing system that was meant to maintain cheap labor by treating Black people as less than human.

Incarceration, like enslavement, is a temporary condition that is often extended and exacerbated by housing discrimination, occupational discrimination, social stigma, and disenfranchisement after release. Private prisons and those who invest in them seek to profit from this grotesque state of affairs. They represent only a small portion of mass incarceration in the United States, but they are the portion that is the most symptomatic of the American justice system. University of Wisconsin School of Business Professor Anita Mukherjee reviewed data from private prisons in Mississippi—where California has sent inmates to ease overcrowding in its own state prisons—and found that, though they are advertised as money-saving ventures for the states that house them, “prisoners in private facilities had an increase in their sentence of 4 to 7 percent, which equaled 60 to 90 days for the average prisoner.”4 At $50 per bed occupied, sixty days adds around $3,000 per prisoner without any guarantee of fair treatment. It’s a system that must be fed constantly not just with taxpayers’ money, but with taxpayers’ bodies.

For these reasons, the Afrikan Black Coalition hopes to see a world without private prisons—and eventually all prisons—so we started where we had presence and, as students, leverage: the University of California. Based on research by Enlace, the Afrikan Black Coalition began an investigation into the connection between the University of California and private prisons.5 We focused on three of the largest private prison corporations: Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), Geo Group, and G4S. Through conversations with the University of California’s Chief Investment Officer, Jadgeep Bachher, Afrikan Black Coalition members began a campaign of phone calls and emails to put pressure on the university to determine exactly how much the UC invested in the three corporations. Initially, we were stonewalled; so, we filed a public records act request to obtain the necessary information, but Bachher provided the information before we received the records in response to our official request.


Anthony Williams. Photograph by Jasmine Curtis.

As a coalition of nine UC campuses, we released a statement in November 2015 that exposed for the first time that the University of California was supporting the three largest private prison operators with $25 million in investments using student and taxpayer money. During that same month, all nine UC chapters of Afrikan Black Coalition voted unanimously to demand an end to these investments immediately. This vote was in support of an internal document, the Prison Divestment Resolution, which spelled out eight demands. The primary demand was simple: divest the $25 million sum in CCA, the Geo Group, and G4S.

After two meetings with high-ranking UC officials, Yoel Haile, Terron Wilkerson (UCSB alumnus), and I had our first meeting with the Chief Investment Officer, Jagdeep Bachher in December. We made the moral and ethical case for the UC to stop investing in private prisons based on evidence compiled by researchers across the country, including the Responsible Endowments Coalition. I shared the experiences of my older cousin, who is in his mid-thirties and has spent half of his life in prison. He made mistakes—and it is important that he be accountable for his actions—but it’s also important to recognize the way the system of mass incarceration disenfranchises him outside of prison, even after he has served his time and experienced the abuse he faced inside of prison.

In arguing that divesting from private prisons was an imperative, not an option, we were pleasantly surprised when Bachher told us that he agreed and wanted to partner with us to reach our goal. In the days that followed, we met repeatedly with University of California representatives but received no guarantee of divestment. As we waited for the CIO to follow through, we published the campaign demands on the ABC blog. As the director of communications for the campaign, I sent hundreds of emails and made dozens of phone calls to drum up press coverage on the university’s investment into private prisons to make sure that public pressure would keep the CIO and the UC true to their word. Finally, in our second and final meeting with Bachher, he informed us that the University of California would sell the shares by 31 December 2015. There could be no greater holiday gift for ABC and me than a fulfilled promise from Bachher, who had kept his word. On 17 December, we issued a press release about the unanimous vote for prison divestment. The day after that, our most triumphant win yet—prison divestment—occurred. It was an important victory for our campaign and for a simple moral truth: no one should profit from the suffering of others—but it was only a first step.


Photograph by Jasmine Curtis.

The Afrikan Black Coalition is still campaigning. We spoke at the February 2016 UC Regents Committee on Investments meeting and the March 2016 UC Regents meeting about the university divesting its shares of Wells Fargo. The University of California has publicly stated that they do not intend to sell their shares in Wells Fargo.6 Wells Fargo, however, is a major lender for private prison corporations and has a history of discriminatory lending lawsuits.7 Although Jagdeep Baccher issued an April 2016 memorandum informing UC foundations that they sold their holdings in private prisons, the Afrikan Black Coalition is still awaiting quarterly investment reports from him, as we have requested. The sum that was invested in private prisons has not been reinvested in education and companies that are owned or controlled by the formerly incarcerated, also as we requested. Finally, the Afrikan Black Coalition still seeks for the UC regents to create a Socially Responsible Investment Committee, with representatives of the Afrikan Black Coalition and UC Students Association, that actively researches whether future corporations the UC invests in are held to ethical standards.

Yet even with these unresolved concerns, I often think back to a particular moment in our first meeting with Chief Investment Officer Jagdeep Baccher. I was skeptical when he offered to partner with us. Although the University of California has not officially declared divestment from private prisons “as a matter of policy,” and $25 million of an almost $100 billion UC investment profile is small in relative terms, it is still a major organizational win. And for a student like me—Black, queer, with formerly incarcerated family members—the support from fellow Black students, staff, and a high-ranking UC official felt enormous. When I stepped onto UC Irvine’s campus over a year ago for my first conference, I had no idea that my efforts could have such an impact. We made it clear that to invest in private prisons is to invest in the enslavement and dehumanization of Black, brown, and migrant lives. Our Black existence is not disposable, our university degrees do not make us any better than incarcerated individuals, and we are making it plain that all Black Lives Matter.


Photograph by Jasmine Curtis.




3. Brady Heiner, “Excavating the Sedimentations of Slavery: The Unfinished Project of American Abolition,” Death and Other Penalties: Philosophy in a Time of Mass Incarceration, Geoffrey Adelsberg, Lisa Guenther, and Scott Zeman, eds. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015), 13–42.


5. Enlace is an organization that calls itself “a strategic alliance of low-wage worker centers, unions, and community organizations in Mexico and in the U.S.” They were vital to the success of our campaign, and they also supported activists and students at Columbia University who successfully campaigned for their school to divest from private prisons. They were the first private university to do so.


7. “Banking on Immigrant Detention: Wells Fargo’s Ties to the Private Prison Industry,”http://public-accountability.org/2012/09/banking-on-immigrant-detention/.


Greystone Chapel

Jason S. Sexton

Finding freedom inside Folsom Prison’s walls

From Boom Summer 2016, Vol 6, No 2

Johnny Cash’s May 1968 album, At Folsom Prison, revitalized his career. Recorded live before two audiences of 1,000 inmates in a Folsom Prison dining hall on Saturday, 13 January 1968, the final song of both sets—and the eventual album—was “Greystone Chapel.” Cash had heard it for the first time just the day before his visit to Folsom. Floyd Gressett, a pastor from Ventura and a long-time minister to prisoners, had passed along a cassette to Cash ahead of the band’s Friday rehearsal. Gressett happened on the cassette tape from a Folsom prison worker earlier that day. The tape contained the track, written and sung by Folsom inmate Glen Sherley, whose deep voice, like Cash’s own, boomed from the tape to introduce it: “All right, this is a take on Greystone Chapel.”1

Made famous through Cash’s romantic mythologizing,2 the chapel itself has an unusual place in the life and history of Folsom. Folsom Prison was founded in 1880 to ease overcrowding from San Quentin. As with San Quentin, Folsom’s original blueprints show no sign of a chapel. It wasn’t until a decade later that Chinese convicts began constructing Folsom’s chapel, each several-hundred-pound granite stone cut by hand. Both prisons were modeled on the Auburn system, which used labor and discipline to instill respect for work and for others. America’s earliest penitentiaries carefully designed meaningful space for religious worship. Yet despite California’s emergence as a simultaneously secular and religious modern utopia,3 a secular vision dominated the design of California’s first prisons. Professor of Law and Literature at Columbia University Robert Ferguson calls today’s American prison a “peculiar version of hell . . . that the American separation of church and state has imagined” for its inhabitants.4


Folsom Prison’s Greystone with main yard workout area in the foreground.

Set amid the wider prison buildings, designed in the Gothic style, Greystone Chapel was designed by Protestant prison officials as an austere space. When it was finally completed in 1903, it primarily served Catholics before taking on a life of its own. In 1909, along with religious chapel activities, it also functioned as a theater for the prison’s motion picture showings.5 It later became the site of a 12′ × 21′ replica mural of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, painted between 1938 and 1939 by Hollywood set designer Ralph Pecor, who served time at Folsom for manslaughter.

Today, the chapel is used by religious and nonreligious groups that each rearrange the space to suit their needs. Muslims cover Pecor’s painting when they gather, and Mormons use the smaller rooms in the back. Sometimes inmates wander in during one of the multiple Sunday services, not entirely sure what they will find, or what they are there for. The chapel’s worn-out piano got a free tuning courtesy of John Legend and his crew when the prison hosted him on 20 April 2015 as part of his #FREEAMERICA campaign.6

Due to security issues, events like this aren’t advertised; inmates were invited to the chapel for a special concert performance, and those who had not already entered were shut out once they realized what was happening and who was performing inside. Events like this in Greystone Chapel or in prison chapels up and down the state provide a space for transcendence within penitentiary walls. Whether that transcendence is of a spiritual or more prosaic nature depends on many factors at play within the prison walls.


The chapel was completed in 1903.

Religion has had a role in prisons for as long as they have existed in the modern sense. Even the word “penitentiary” has roots in the Christian concept of penance. Showing commitment to this idea, the British Parliament appointed and gave a salary to prison chaplains beginning in 1773—two years before even jailers received a salary. Today, Folsom prison employs chaplains from several different traditions: Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Native American. Only these chaplains get hired for full-time positions. No Buddhists, which is odd, this being California. No Hindu. No Sikh. No Eastern Orthodox, despite a rich California heritage of Greek, Armenian, and Russian immigrants. Even the best chaplains function largely as facilitators now, both for the informal activity among members of their own religious faith traditions and the mundane services they provide when chaplains for other faith traditions aren’t available to open chapel doors and provide resources essential for material worship. This is much different from earlier eras.

None of this is intended to suggest that Greystone Chapel has known only transcendence. The place has seen its share of vice and violence. Heroin has been shot up there, drugs and sex bought and sold, and murders committed. When the late Irish Catholic chaplain Father Denis Keaney, referred to by the inmates as the “Pope” of Folsom, saw Mexican Mafia member Mike Ison standing over an inmate he’d just stabbed in the Greystone Chapel, Keaney stated, “You’re in the House of the Lord!” To which, Ison replied, “The Lord won’t have to come far to get this one then.”7 Keaney was known not to take “any guff from anyone,” and once threatened to beat Charles Manson within an inch of his life.8

These sorts of things, however, are certainly exceptions in the life of California prison chapels, which are commonly understood to be “off limits” by inmates. By all accounts, the chapel is an altogether different space within the prison, set apart by a range of outside volunteer activity, and internally organized impulses of genuine reform, reorientation, and transformation focused on the moral and spiritual lives of inmates. It’s hallowed, treated as sacred space—a calm within the storm that exists nowhere else within the prison. This is not because the chapel is governed strongly by guards, chaplains, or even volunteers, although they are present. Instead, the space is regulated by the informal governance of “the brothers” (in male facilities)—those whose lives have begun a strange process of transformation, renewal, and redemption.

The space of the chapel, open to all inmates, is a great beacon of hope for everyone in a place that is, by all definitions, a massive failure of a social engineering experiment. Yet within the structures of the prison and deeply embedded into the life of the chapel are opportunities for renewal, and people who offer themselves and their lives in audacious ways—and at incredible risk—for the good of all. This is true when inmates break ranks from gang affiliations in pursuit of a lifestyle change, bonding together with members of other races from the newfound community, seeking a way out of the intense life on the yard, however deep they may be into the prison dynamics. In some cases, prisoners who have found a new life in the chapel, sometimes after significant personal debt from gambling or other activities, have found the incarcerated religious community willing to sacrifice and vouchsafe for the prisoner’s well-being and spiritual development, if indeed this pursuit is deemed genuine. Occasionally, when these individuals, sometimes major players in prison yard politics, make a genuine new commitment to chapel life, their former companions from the yard attend their rites of religious initiation (for example, baptism) or participate in other special religious services such as Ramadan, Hanukkah, or Easter.


Greystone Chapel Interior during Catholic Mass, with Ralph Pecor’s The Last Supper in the background.

The prison chapel is a place of redemption for so many and fills this position in ways that resist the repression that the mechanisms of power within the prison are intended to generate. Indeed, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, since adding “Rehabilitation” to its name in 2004, professes to believe in therapeutic restoration and reintegration. Most prisoners will get out one day and, hopefully, will be able to contribute meaningfully to society. At Folsom, Greystone Chapel is a place where music, art, leadership development, repentance, penance, hope, and transformation take place—instantiations of what Michel Foucault called a “local situation” counting as “the contradiction to the whole.”9 It is the place where the contradictions of the corrections plus rehabilitation model are transcended. It is the place for renewal and even a kind of re-creation with new possibilities that Hannah Arendt argues only come by forgiveness.

The political struggle to reform the prison today often yields the kind of gridlock that can be subverted only through practices that radically respond to a vision of freedom not extant in any of the formal structures built by the prison, including the chapel. This kind of transcendent resistance gives rise to extraordinary action deeply foreign to the carceral setting: joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control. The theologically minded might call it the fruit of the Spirit, or the beginning of a truly transformative healing process. Often, it is the experience of this kind of renewal lived out in the chapel that becomes the basis for wider involvement in prison transformative life. Here is where love is, where the members of the prison community pray for those inside, those outside, and those inside headed outside—perhaps the most fearful scenario. But here is where love, forgiveness, imagination, pardon, and grace become the only thing that can see this through in California, which has had a far stronger penal outlook than most care to realize.

The vast majority of California’s prisoners will eventually gain their freedom from the prison’s walls. Many will face enormous hurdles, from a lack of family and connections on the outside to a lack of skills that would enable them to find jobs—even if they were first able to find employers willing to hire someone with a felony conviction. To varying degrees, these challenges can be mitigated by programs both inside and outside the prison. What these programs cannot provide, however, is a lesson in what it means to be free. The denial of freedom is, of course, one of the purposes of the prison. But knowing how to be free, how to find joy and peace and kindness, and understanding the responsibilities that come with them are vital for life outside—and staying outside—of prison. There must be a place to learn them. For many in Folsom, as at many other prisons across the state, that place is the chapel. It is where incarcerated folks can see and find hope, even as the prison’s formal and informal structures and the world outside of the prison struggle to deliver an imagined rehabilitative vision still purported as possible, although often remaining elusive.

The prison chapel is a place of redemption in ways that resist the repression that the mechanisms of power within the prison are intended to generate.

Johnny Cash made music in the den of darkness. Many others bring their own kind of inspiration into the den and with it hope for the freedom experienced within the Greystone Chapel, inside the walls of prison. If hope and freedom can grow there, they can grow anywhere.


Photo courtesy of Dan Poush, provided by Gene Beley with permission.



All photos courtesy of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation unless otherwise noted.

1. Eyewitness details of Cash’s visit are chronicled in Gene Beley, “Folsom Prison Blues,” Virginia Quarterly Review 81/1 (2005): 218–27.

2. There’s some question about whether Sherley actually wrote the song, which Cash began to doubt after advocating for his release from prison; Sherley later committed suicide, 11 May 1978. See Robert Hilburn, Johnny Cash: The Life (New York: Back Bay Books, 2013), 326–31, 438–40.

3. Kevin Starr, Americans and the California Dream: 1850–1915 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 74.

4. Robert A. Ferguson, Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 1.

5. April Moore, Folsom’s 93: The Lives and Crimes of Folsom Prison’s Executed Men (Fresno: Craven Street Books, 2013), 37.


7. Jim Brown, Folsom Prison (San Francisco: Arcadia, 2008), 105.

8. Ibid., 104.

9. Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972–1977 (New York: Vintage Books, 1980), 144.



Juvenile in Justice

Richard Ross

Introduction by Danielle Moss

From Boom Summer 2016, Vol 6, No 2

The United States is the only country in the world to sentence juveniles to life in prison. A majority of juveniles sentenced to life serve their time in just five states, California among them. While many breakthroughs are still needed, California has begun to right the wrongs it has committed against the state’s most vulnerable population.

In 2014 and 2015, Governor Jerry Brown signed two bills that give California inmates who were under the age of twenty-three at the time of their crime and were given a “lengthy or life sentence” a chance for a parole hearing after serving fifteen, twenty, or twenty-five years, depending on the length of the original sentence. Parole is not guaranteed, and it is not an option for those sentenced to life without parole, but SB 260 and SB 261, as the bills are known, give youthful offenders hope where none has previously existed. Over 10,000 inmates meet SB 261’s eligibility requirements, meaning that in light of the nature of their crimes, they are not disqualified from receiving a parole hearing.

SB 261 recognizes that, neurobiologically, young adults between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two share more characteristics with teenagers than they do with adults. In terms of judgment and impulsivity, the young brain simply hasn’t had enough time to fully develop.

“If you take a fully mature adult and a friend says, ‘let’s go rob a 7/11,’ an adult is more likely to recognize that if you have guns when you do that, something even worse than the robbery is likely to happen,” said Elizabeth Calvin, senior advocate of the Children’s Rights Division. A juvenile is “less able to think into the future and recognize that A plus B will equal C in all likelihood.”

SB 261 ensures that people who were younger when committing serious crimes have possibilities more closely aligned with juvenile justice concerns, giving them more opportunities to earn their way home if they can demonstrate they are no longer a public danger. More than that, Scott Budnick, founder and president of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, explained that the bill exists to give hope to people who come from hopeless environments. These inmates “think they have no chance of ever regaining their freedom; then all of a sudden a light turns on and they have a chance at parole,” Budnick continued.

According to Calvin, it is impossible to know who a sixteen-year-old person is going to be twenty, thirty, or especially sixty years from now. So to give them a life sentence, this final, irrevocable punishment, “it makes no sense,” she said. At its heart, SB 261 requires the parole board to give great weight to the fact that these people were very young when they committed their crimes. At its essence, this bill requires the board to say, “Let’s see who you are now,” rather than “This is who you’ll be forever.” In no way does SB 261 alleviate responsibility for criminal actions; it simply recognizes that due to where they were developmentally, they had diminished culpability in comparison to fully developed adults, Calvin explained.

In passing SB 260 and later SB 261, California has taken great strides toward improving the criminal justice system. Still, America’s prison system is incomparable to any other penal system in the world, so we must not idle.


Moving forward, the Public Safety and Reform Initiative, which can be found on the November 2016 ballot as Proposition 57, will build on the victory of SB 261. This measure will change the process for how kids under the age of eighteen are tried in the adult system. Currently, California is one of fifteen states that grant prosecutors, rather than judges, the authority to file a child’s case directly into the adult system. Prosecutors must make their decisions within 48 hours of the crime, typically without having considered any school reports, any psychological disabilities the child may have, or what their home life is like—really, without any analytical information whatsoever.

Conversely, if a judge were making the decision—”the single most important decision the state can make in a child’s life,” Calvin called it—the judge could consider all aspects of the case in order to make an informed decision. “It’s not hyperbole to say that when we throw kids into the adult system, we’re giving up on them.” These decisions must be made with the utmost care.

“At its essence, these initiatives are about how we treat children and young adults,” Calvin said, and so far, our treatment should be viewed as failure. These laws are about recognizing that we, as a society, have been neglecting our responsibility to take care of young people. While we cannot lose sight of how monumental our failure has been, now it is time to focus on what needs to happen next, because more can always be done.

The following photographs from photographer Richard Ross’s widely hailed Juvenile in Justiceproject documents men and women in California’s prisons who were sentenced to life in prison for crimes they committed as children.


Kimberly Gutierrez, age 28. “Our victim was a man. Just a careless act. I had a gun because I ran on the streets. I felt safe with a gun. The man didn’t do anything to merit his life being taken. I was angry. . . I want to be a woman and stop acting like an animal. I am sincere about the changes I want to make and not just saying it because it is expected.”


David Kuns, age 54. “Did my crime at 17, was incarcerated at 19. Murder.”


Frank Barker, age 47. “I was 16 when I committed a murder. . . They tried to give me the death penalty so they pushed it over to adult charges. I got 15 to life. I have had two parole hearings. Last time I got seven-year denial for lack of parole plans. . . I have been clean and in programs since—for the last 21 years, I’ve had no write ups.”


Raylene Brooks, age 44. “I was incarcerated since I was 17. I was in CYA [California Youth Authority] until I was 25 and then here on my 25th birthday. . . I came here from South Central LA. I have two life sentences. . . For those who want to improve themselves we have the luxury of all that here. . . not on the streets. These groups are not the normal for me. In South Central LA the norm is you just survive. Improvement is not an option.”





Niki Martinez, age 38 Illinois.


Reflections from Inside

Carlos Adrian Vazquez, Jr.

Editor’s Note: Tucked away in the northern part of the San Fernando Valley at the intersection of the 5 and 210 freeways sat sixteen-year-old Carlos Adrian Vazquez, Jr. in Sylmar’s Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall. He was facing thirty-five-years-to-life for a gang-related murder.

His is an all-too-common story of California youth living fast and dangerous, searching for identity, causing trouble while hoping to survive, and getting caught up. Nearly two years in, he eventually pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, giving him an eleven-year prison sentence that he’s begun serving in state prison now at age eighteen.

While in juvenile hall, Carlos benefited from a stream of volunteers including some of California’s leading juvenile justice reform advocates—Scott Budnick of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition and Javier Stauring among them. Rev. Michael Kennedy with the Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative encouraged Carlos through Jesuit meditation practices, which helped Carlos begin to transform his life. Through these things, and by taking responsibility for the pain he caused, Carlos began actively seeking forgiveness from a number of places—society, his family, the family of his victim, God, and even Pope Francis, to whom Carlos wrote after encouragement from Kennedy. To Carlos’s surprise, on 21 January 2016, the Pope wrote him back.1

The forgiveness Carlos sought was something he’d already begun to experience inside, in part through the writing with help from volunteers with InsideOUT Writers. Through self-reflection, he began recounting his story, pinpointing major disappointments, and resketching his narrative in ways that have helped him cultivate humility, understanding, and empathy. Carlos’s writing provides a unique look at restorative justice in action from the perspective of one young offender trying to turn his life around in prison. What follows are excerpts from a twenty-two-page autobiographical essay by Carlos, written in his own hand.




Carlos writes that, in elementary school, he was “surrounded by positive influences” that enabled him to learn and grow, understand his limits, and become “a less self-centered child.” He started to change when, as a preteen, he was confronted by what he calls “bubble poppers,” people who put him down and told him he would never achieve his dream of becoming a professional soccer player.


The magnet program Carlos was in would not graduate a student who failed any class, and Carlos managed to pull his grades up in all but one: English. The teacher told him that no matter what he did, he would never pass the class. He did not graduate from high school.



Carlos had a few minutes with his lawyer before being ushered into court, where, in a brief hearing, he learned his case would be filed to adult court. He never had a hearing to determine whether he was likely to rehabilitate himself in the juvenile system.




In his first months in jail, Carlos fought repeatedly with the other incarcerated juveniles and was put in “The Box” as punishment. Scott Budnick visited him there often, and he told Carlos he believed in him and that he would not give up on him. Carlos writes that “not only did he give me my life back, he gave me hope again.” Later he writes, “If you’re reading this Scott my boy, I got nothing but love for you.”


Carlos credits Rev. Michael Kennedy for beginning to heal his “corrupted soul” through prayer and meditation. Kennedy also sparked Carlos’s interest in reflecting and writing about his own life by giving him pamphlets asking him to consider the pain of his childhood and the pain he inflicted on others.


Through conversations with Javier Stauring, Carlos learned to take responsibility for his role in the murder. He explains that he and many of the people he is incarcerated with defend their actions by saying “it wasn’t me,” because they weren’t the ones holding the knife or the gun that caused the fatal injury. But now he understands that that is not a valid defense, legally or morally.



With the help of his therapist, Carlos explored his early childhood and the rage for which he could find no outlet other than violence. For a time, Carlos blamed bad parenting for his violence, until a conversation with a friend helped him see things differently. “People stop feeding you and you start feeding yourself these lies. It’s your mind and mentality that has you thinking like that,” the friend told him. Carlos writes that “reality felt like a slap in the face. My mind wanted to deny it because it’s always been use to denying the truth.”



1. “Pope replies to letter from juvenile gang member jailed in Los Angeles,” cnn.com, 4 March 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/03/03/us/pope-francis-mercy-letter-los-angeles-juvenile-inmate.







Healing the Broken

by Javier Stauring

From Boom Summer 2016, Vol 6, No 2

In more than two decades of working with incarcerated children, their families, and victims of crime, I have seen a lot of change in American crime and punishment. Recently, the chant of “tough on crime” has become “smart on crime” and a bipartisan issue. It is now politically safe to advocate that those with nonviolent and drug-related offenses be released from prison. I am profoundly grateful for the positive changes that allow some of our brothers and sisters to come home. However, some of these people should never have been in prison in the first place. Passing laws to give them a better chance of being released from prison is less an act of generous humanitarianism than an attempt for society to regain its sanity and correct some terrible legislation.

The United States is the only country in the world that sentences children to life in prison without the possibility of parole, but that horrifying practice is beginning to wane. Over the past five years, state and federal Supreme Courts have ruled that mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles is unconstitutional, and California has enacted legislation that allows most of those sentenced to life as juveniles to petition for a new sentencing hearing. The hope generated by these efforts, giving a second chance to those who committed serious crimes at a young age, is transformational. This pendulum shift is the hard-won result of the organizing and advocacy efforts of passionate, resilient people who have lived with the ramifications of the gross failures of our justice system.

When a teenager is sentenced to life in prison with no chance of ever securing release, it is a signal that society has given up on that person. But what good does that do the wider community from which he or she came? It creates a new family destroyed by crime, ripped apart by loss. When you consider that most victims and perpetrators of crime come from the very same communities, it compounds the tragedy. I have met too many moms who visit one son in prison on Saturday and another son in the cemetery on Sunday. Instead of inflicting further injury on already traumatized communities, we must find a way to help them heal. This has been my life’s work, first as a chaplain at Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles, then as a minister at the Office of Restorative Justice of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and finally as executive director at Healing Dialogue and Action.

Juvenile Justice in Los Angeles

Photograph of Javier Stauring by Joseph Rodriguez/Redux.

David hardly ever gets any visitors. All his relatives have moved back to Mexico. But Javier comes to visit, and that means a lot.
“I never had a father, so Javier filled that spot. At first I was suspicious, but he didn’t give up on me. He kept in contact. He tells me things I never heard before. He gives me hope and has the expectations of me that I don’t even have for myself. Javier makes me feel that I have not been forgotten.”
Calipatria State Prison, Calipatria, CA 10.14

In our society, some try to reconcile a fixation on extreme punishment by making simplistic claims such as, “I stand with the victims.” The implication is that, in the name of justice, we should pick a side: the victim or the offender, the good person or the evil one. But it’s not that simple.

At Healing Dialogue and Action, we bring together the families of murder victims and the families of youth who were tried as adults and given lengthy adult prison terms; the two groups that every written and unwritten rule says should never meet. Every convention asserts that they have nothing in common; the criminal justice system reinforces the belief that they have only opposing interests.

Healing Dialogue and Action starts with the idea that families of victims and families of offenders have experienced loss, violence, trauma, disenfranchisement, and being voiceless in a system that affects their lives. We believe those experiences harm people emotionally and physically. Our model is grounded in the concept that both personal interaction and the opportunity to act for the greater good through advocacy create pathways of healing.

At a recent Healing Dialogue and Action gathering, I sat in a small circle with six mothers who shared stories of loss, pain, and the desire to heal. Three of the mothers had children who were murdered, and the other three had children who were sentenced to life in prison for participating in a murder. Juana described the unimaginable day in which her life changed forever when her twenty-three-year-old daughter and four-month-old granddaughter were murdered. Next, it was Monica’s turn to share, although she could barely speak after listening to Juana. Monica said, “I feel like I don’t deserve to cry because my son murdered someone; you, Juana, deserve to cry because your children were taken from you.” Monica went on to talk about the paralyzing guilt she felt, which made it impossible for her to leave her house for two years following her son’s trial. Juana then got up, embraced Monica, and said, “Of course, you deserve to cry. You lost your son as well, and I want to do whatever I can to help you bring your boy home one day.” Two mothers, connected by shared pain, listening to each other with open hearts, leaning on one another and finding a piece of themselves in each other to become the best version of human beings we could all aspire to be.

Despite the inconceivable pain shared by Monica, Juana, and our brothers and sisters in prison, I have hope. My hope comes from accompanying young children who grow to realize they are more than the labels placed on them. It comes from attending to the families of homicide victims and being inspired by their ability to transform their loss and help others heal. It comes from accompanying resilient men and women who have spent decades in the most dehumanizing places ever built and who refuse to give up on their humanity. It comes as a product of the many lessons learned from the people who’ve taught me who God is.

These lessons include a number of principles that have shaped my work in seeking justice in California among both victims and offenders, so called. They may indeed serve as theses for our future as we seek a more just California.

Crime plus punishment does not equal justice. While vengeance and retribution might show the measures of our resolve, compassion and love are the measures of our humanity.

The greatest impact crime and our systemic response to crime have on our society is immense human suffering.

The severe effect of our justice system on both the offender and the victim parallels the pain and trauma that is endured by family relationships and communities of both.

Communities cannot regain health simply by throwing people away when they violate laws.

The government is responsible for maintaining order; it is the communities’ responsibility to build peace. The moral turf of justice cannot be left to law enforcement and politicians.

The cliché is true: hurt people hurt people. But similarly, healed people also heal people.

To build a justice system that promotes healing of people that are hurt by crime, we need to move into closer proximity to the individuals who are wounded.

There is no “us” and “them.” There is only us.

In closing, my greatest hope comes from praying that our society will one day realize the gift that people who have suffered the most have the greatest potential to teach us about our own humanity. If crime hurts, justice should heal.