You may already know about Duc as he was featured in Juvies, Leslie Neale’s eye-opening documentary about the juvenile in/justice system that tries minors as adults. (Check it out at www.juvies.net)
In 1999, when he was sixteen, Duc drove the wrong kids home from school--gang members who lived in his neighborhood. They asked him to stop for a friend of theirs, a boy he didn't know. This kid fired a gun out the window. No one was hit. No one injured. Duc was arrested, tried as an adult, represented by an indifferent public defender, and sentenced 35 years-life.
I thought an “enhancement” made something more attractive, but in Duc’s case it meant the mandatory imposition of additional years for his presumed gang membership. Though he’d grown up in poverty and in a gang-infested neighborhood, Duc had always resisted and refused to join any gang. He got another “enhancement” – more years because of the presence of the gun. What I later learned when I got to know him better, the court heard he used to ditch school but didn’t hear he spent that time not getting in trouble in the streets but rather wandering the galleries at LACMA and the Norton Simon. The court heard from a “gang expert” who knew him, but didn’t hear she had met him not as a banger but as a child who’d suffered severe abuse from his father.
The first time I went to Corcoran State Prison to see him, I got up before dawn for the 180-mile drive up 99, the gulag highway, where almost every town has a prison. So I drove three hours-grateful that I own a car–hoping I would not arrive to find everyone on lockdown and visiting privileges canceled. The guard at the gate told me I was in the wrong place. “You want the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility.” Strange. Duc doesn’t drink or uses drugs but it turned out the “Substance Abuse Treatment Facility” is actually a “level 4-180 yard,”-maximum-security prison for California’s most violent felons. That made even less sense than Duc being in for substance abuse. The inmates there are “cell-fed,” because it’s too dangerous to let them in the same room for meals. To prevent prisoners from signaling one another, all the windows have been painted black and not a single ray of natural light enters.
I asked, “What are you doing here?” It turns out Duc actually requested a transfer to Corcoran in order to get out of Tehachapi, also maximum security, because of the pervasive racism. As one of the few Asians, he was a constant target of racial violence from inmates while guards harassed him for having white visitors. He spent a year in the Security Housing Unit for his “own protection,” where he was kept in solitary confinement and protected–from books. During those twelve months, Leslie Neale helped keep Duc’s mind and soul alive by photocopying whole novels and mailing them to him, pages at a time, in envelopes thin enough that they wouldn’t be confiscated. She sent origami paper and he folded more cranes than I can count.
During his years in prison, Duc has been beaten and stabbed and has witnessed countless acts of brutality, but he says, “If I survived the SHU, I can survive anything.”
Though the California Department of Corrections is now the CDCR, with the “R” standing for “rehabilitation,” there are no programs to assist prisoners like Duc with higher education. For years, the authorities even blocked his attempts to take the high school equivalency exam. Friends on the outside raised money to pay his tuition for a college correspondence course-an opportunity most prisoners don’t have. Now, the Guvernotor has canceled even those prison programs that are run by volunteers and cost the state nothing.
Here’s another “R” word: “restitution.” At Corcoran, I found Duc was working double shifts at his prison job, at 18 cents an hour to raise the $4,000 he owes. I used to think “restitution” meant compensation paid to a victim. There was no victim in the incident which led to Duc’s arrest but the State automatically takes 55% of his earnings to pay back the cost of prosecuting him.
Since Duc was featured in Juvies, people have rallied round him. Mark Geragos took his case pro bono and got the “enhancements” thrown out. More than two years ago, Duc’s sentence was reduced and he was ordered to be transferred out of maximum security, but two years later, he was still there. As the sentence remains indeterminate, the State can still keep him for life. Statistics show that youths who are tried as adults tend to get harsher sentences than real adults for comparable crimes. Duc has already served more time than some adults who’ve actually killed people.
Of course, his friends all waited and hoped he’d make parole. A small problem arose: Duc was told he had to complete an anger management class before going before the Parole Board-a date that keeps getting postponed–but at Corcoran, only inmates on psychiatric meds are allowed into the class.
Duc’s supporters finally managed to get him transferred out of max so that he could fulfill the anger management requirement. He was moved to Pleasant Valley State Prison, famous because the disease Valley Fever is endemic in the institution. Almost all inmates contract it after which they either develop immunity or suffer permanent organ damage. Asians are particularly susceptible. Duc contracted it, sure enough, and spent three months shackled to a hospital bed undergoing a toxic regimen of drugs that left his immune system permanently compromised. And because he was in the hospital, his scheduled parole hearing was canceled.
Duc finally went before the parole board in October 2009, represented by Keith Wattley, the best there is. He had letters of support from family and community members. He had firm job offers. He had a place to stay. The board commissioners sent him back to prison and told him he couldn't be considered again for parole for another three years.
It occurred to me that Duc has done too good a job counseling other inmates. I know of at least two instances when prison violence was averted because Duc stepped in to talk someone (or more than one guy) down and keep the situation from exploding. I guess the State can't afford to lose him.
The good news is that yesterday I got word that Keith convinced someone in the system that so many legal errors were made by the commissioners in his case, Duc is being granted a new hearing soon. That doesn't mean he'll be released, but at least he's got another chance. And it makes me think about what happens to all the people who don't have the best parole lawyer in the business.
It's because of Duc that I decided to take a closer look at what's happening to young people in LA who are being stigmatized, pathologized, and criminalized. More on that later.
(The book is not available yet but you can find advance word at the Lantern Books website as well as the sites of various booksellers who decided to post it in advance.)