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When Dawn Meza Soufleris arrived at college in the 1980s, she was on her own. Today, she spends her days ensuring that no first-generation student on her campus ever feels alone.

‘I Don’t Have to Hide’: After Prison, 2 Students Begin Again

About This Project

This photo essay is part of a yearlong Chronicle visual series that highlights the challenges facing first-generation students and others. The series is part of the Different Voices of Student Success project, which is supported by the Ascendium Education Group.

The photo essay was written and photographed by Mark Leong. Erica Lusk, the senior photo and media editor, edited the photographs.

Two disrupted lives started in the same place.

From the late 1970s through the 1980s, a huge influx of Vietnamese refugees came to the United States to escape the Vietnam War and the Sino-Vietnamese War. In California, thousands settled in Sacramento County. Most arrived with next to nothing and, in neighborhoods beset with poverty and gang violence, faced years of grindingly hard work to provide security and opportunity for their children.

Between 1980 and 2000, the Vietnamese population of Sacramento County grew by over 600 percent. Many refugee immigrants achieved the archetypal dream of sending their children to college. But even the most protective, diligent parents could not always keep their families on the paths they had tried to build for them. Over this same period Vietnamese Americans were also becoming the largest Asian American Pacific Islander ethnic group in California’s state prisons.

These are the stories of two second-generation sons whose choices made them lose their way. Now they are getting the rare chance to start again.

Lessons Behind Bars

In a maximum-security prison, your first teacher is your cellmate. At the age of 19, John Lam started serving his sentence at California’s Corcoran State Prison. He was put in a cell with a Vietnamese American like himself, an older, small ox of a man with a shaved head. Lam had noticed the similarly shorn scalps on a number of other inmates and asked why. “So they can’t grab your hair in a riot,” his new cellie told him.

Doing time in five different state facilities, Lam learned many such lessons. Excessive respect avoids conflict — don’t bump into others in the corridors or pee on the toilet seat. Never meet prison staff members without another inmate, who can see that you are not snitching. Keep track of who and where your rivals and allies are — the yard is a political arena, where stabbings are public spectacles.

John Lam is one of twenty undergrads in the highly selective Haas Scholar program at U. of California, Berkeley, and meets with his fellows to share their independent, mentored research projects.  John is researching barriers to leadership positions for former incarcerated people.
John Lam, one of 20 undergrads in the highly selective Haas Scholar program at the U. of California at Berkeley, meets with fellow students to share their research projects. Lam is researching barriers to leadership positions for formerly incarcerated people.

Lam still has no hair, but since his parole, in 2019, he is no longer studying how to survive. Now a 37-year-old senior at the University of California at Berkeley, he is completing his undergraduate degree in political science. While he was growing up as the son of refugee immigrants in a middle-class Sacramento suburb, no one in his family asked him if he planned to go to college. “It was always, which college are you going to?” That was the reason they came to America. After a long, difficult detour, he’s making good on those expectations.

Double Life

Kim Do’s parents arrived in the early 1980s in Sacramento, where they scraped out a living recycling cans and delivering newspapers. Eventually they were able to afford a food truck and started serving eggs, sausages, and microwaved burritos for breakfast. Shortly after Do was born, in 1991, his father, a skilled, motivated man, began running a small commissary yard for other food trucks to park at night. Nine years later, the business had grown to become the home base for over 100 vehicles, with a 16,000-square-foot warehouse filled with a huge variety of food-truck supplies, including propane, tortillas, and frozen coffee drinks.

Kim Do manages the family food truck commissary yard and supply warehouse.  He recalls how valuable a jar of mayonnaise or a bottle of sriracha was in prison, to add some flavor to the lunchmeat sandwiches they might have three times a week.  Now he is surrounded by pallets of condiments.
Kim Do manages the family food-truck commissary yard and supply warehouse. He recalls how valuable a jar of mayonnaise or a bottle of sriracha was in prison, to add flavor to the bland lunch-meat sandwiches he might eat three times a week. Now he is surrounded by pallets of condiments.

At first the family lived in a part of town with a large Southeast Asian immigrant population, but in 2000, Do’s parents moved to a more rural area to keep him and his younger sister away from gang crime. Later they enrolled him in a Roman Catholic all-boys school for greater discipline and less distraction. “I wanted to go out and have fun like the other kids,” Do says. “But I had to go home and study.”

Do’s mother had big plans for her son. When he was in seventh grade, she gave him a set of medical encyclopedias. He was more interested in becoming an engineer or a firefighter, but followed her wishes that he pursue a career as a doctor. He chose to study biology at Sacramento City College and planned to transfer to one of the University of California institutions as a pre-med major.

Preschool photo of Kim Do.  (The camera date is wrong, as he was born in 1991.)
Kindergarten photo of Do. (The camera date is wrong, as he was born in 1991.)

But in November 2011 he and three friends decided to rob a drug dealer’s house. Do had never done anything like that before. He waited outside as the lookout and driver while his friends broke in. They were running out when another car rolled up. Shots were fired, the dealer was hit, and everybody scattered. Two weeks later, a police tactical unit arrested him and one of his friends on their way to get some pho. He was 20 years old.

“Since my last year in high school, I had been leading a double life,” says Do. Throughout his teens, his parents had said no sports, no job, no girls. Just focus on education. He didn’t complain, so there was never a confrontation — rather, his rebellion began with lying about going to parties or having a girlfriend, and grew from there. He helped plan the robbery because he felt he couldn’t ask his parents for money to buy new sneakers and hats like his friends’. His parents found out about the other side of their studious son when the police served them with a warrant to search his bedroom for evidence.

Do was charged with home invasion and attempted murder — the dealer survived — and was offered a plea deal of 13 years and two strikes. A third strike meant another violent crime would put him away for life. The other choice was 19 and one. He says, “I was done. I didn’t want to do anything like that again.” He took the 13 and two.

‘I Was the Epitome of a Black Sheep’

John Lam’s father and mother, members of Vietnam’s ethnic-Chinese minority, had fled in the late 1970s, when hostilities broke out between the two countries. When they came to America, they started selling fruit on the streets, and over time shifted to wholesaling to local supermarkets. Lam was the youngest of their five kids.

“I was the epitome of a black sheep,” says Lam. “Smart, but super lazy.” He started cutting classes when he was 12, but managed a 3.0 GPA in high school by bribing classmates to help him take tests and do his homework. His parents had moved the family to suburban Elk Grove, to get away from violence in South Sacramento, but bullying and gang encounters had given him a deep sense of insecurity. He says, “I found other Asian misfits like me and became the aggressor, and people stopped messing with us.”

Teenage John Lam (far right) with his Elk Grove friends.
The teenage Lam (far right) with his Elk Grove friends.

Lam started dabbling in drugs and shoplifting. Occasionally he would gather a group to rough up someone and “teach them a lesson.” When he was 17, he helped organize a dozen friends to beat up Matthew Seivert, a 19-year-old who had allegedly made some anti-Asian remarks to a young woman Lam wanted to impress. On December 24, 2003, they ambushed him in a park. He tried to get away in his car, but one of Lam’s friends pulled a gun and shot him in the head and chest. Seivert died the next day.

At the time in California, all accomplices to a violent felony were legally held responsible, so the shooter and four of the ambushers, including Lam, were convicted of first-degree murder. He was given a sentence of 26 years to life.

Sticking With the ‘Others’

Kim Do saw himself as a sheltered kid suddenly thrown into a harsh, unforgiving adult environment. “But I couldn’t let other people think they could bully me. I worked out every day in my cell.” He would do 300 push-ups and 150 pull-ups. Then he would lift garbage bags, each filled with 40 pounds of water. “I portrayed myself as strong and disciplined. I wasn’t going to be a violent tough guy causing problems.” The thought of going home was a light that burned inside him; his biggest fear was any mistake might extinguish that hope.

During the hour or so between finishing work and heading to his evening classes, Kim Do takes a break in his truck, smoking a cigar.  He picked this habit up from his fire captain when he was working as an inmate firefighter at CMF Vacaville.
During the hour or so between finishing work and heading to his evening classes, Do takes a break in his truck and smokes a cigar.

Prisoners typically band together along racial lines, and so for protection Do joined with other Asians and Pacific Islanders, who make up such a small part of the correctional system that they are classified as “Others.” There were about 30 of them — Filipinos, Samoans, Vietnamese, Laotians, Tongans, Hmong, Chinese — among over 2,000 total prisoners. They would sit together in the cafeteria and sometimes share Asian delicacies like Chinese sausages on rice or fried Spam. But they were mainly together for survival.

Kim Do, 33 years old.
Do, now 33, was determined to stay out of trouble while in prison, so he could finish serving his sentence and go home.

Confrontations between his crew and other groups were a source of stress, Do says. No matter how disciplined and well behaved he wanted to be, he would have to back up his crew in a fight, which could result in a “115” rules violation that would extend his sentence, a third strike and life without parole, or serious injury or death. Fortunately, during Do’s time inside, none of these situations ever escalated to serious violence.

Read, Pray, Strategize

“It is the land of fear. You wake up to fear. You go to sleep to fear. You can’t trust anybody.” In his first month in prison, Lam saw three inmates get stabbed. He hadn’t been religious before, but he started praying to God three times a day, just to cope. His sister started sending him paperback novels, and he discovered that reading gave him moments when he could forget the sadness and confusion, and imagine new horizons.

He kept a list of more than 700 books he had read. Mysteries, historical fiction, science fiction, romance novels, and biographies led to personal-strategy titles such as The Art of War and especially The 48 Laws of Power, which had become a popular how-to manual for the mind games waged among inmates daily.

A letter John Lam received from California Senator Mark Leno upon completion of the Guiding Rage Into Power program.
A letter Lam received from a California state senator, Mark Leno, upon completing the Guiding Rage Into Power program. It is addressed to his birth name, “Chan.”

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation eventually banned the book, in 2021, for spreading Machiavellian tactics like “Law #17: Keep others in suspended terror.” But Lam adapted some of its ideas, like appealing to others’ self-interest and making himself indispensable. They increased his odds for survival.

John met one of his APSC co-workers, Peejay Ai, at San Quentin where both had been juvenile offenders with life sentences   A Cambodian refugee, Ai has been under ICE supervision ever since getting out of prison, and has been wearing an ankle bracelet for five years.
Lam met one of his co-workers, Peejay Ai, at San Quentin, where both had been juvenile offenders with life sentences. A Cambodian refugee, Ai has been under supervision by federal immigration authorities ever since getting out of prison, and has been wearing an ankle bracelet for five years.

He began serving as a voice of moderation within his part of the prison community. Like Do, he aligned himself with AAPI prisoners. In a tightly wound environment, where a misinterpreted word or gesture could quickly snowball, he would quietly talk tempers down when his group got agitated. He would remind them that Obama-era reforms to reduce prison overcrowding gave even lifers a chance at early parole. They could do easy time or hard time. They could keep family visits and recreation access or lose them. They could stay in the general population or get solitary confinement.

A Way Out

By 2007, Lam had received his high-school diploma and enrolled in Coastline Community College’s in-prison distance-learning program in general business. This was the first of seven associate degrees he has accumulated, including American studies, science and math, and sociology. His family helped him order textbooks, and he wrote all his work by hand in his cell.

In 2013, Lam earned a transfer to San Quentin State Prison, a lower-security facility that offers many development opportunities. He got certified as a drug and alcohol counselor, wrote for the prison newspaper, and organized donation drives for unhoused youths. He took in-person classes at the prison’s on-site Patten University (now Mount Tamalpais College), eventually totaling over 200 college credits during his incarcerated time, while not getting cited once for a 115 rules violation. He saw how educational culture, like trading textbooks or casual chats about homework assignments, helped dissolve prison barriers between individuals of different groups and races.

John Lam (back row, 7th from the left) at a 2013 gathering for the prison ministry group Kairos at San Quentin
Lam (back row, seventh from the left) at a 2013 gathering for the prison ministry group Kairos at San Quentin.

The 2010s saw a national movement to decrease mass incarceration. California’s then Gov. Jerry Brown promoted Proposition 57, which passed in 2016 and included incentives to shorten prisoners’ sentences for good behavior, community activities, and educational achievement — for example, attending a self-help group for anger management was worth two weeks off. Completing a college degree gave back six months.

The initiative gave credit for only one college degree, though, so Lam did not get three and a half years off for all seven of his associate degrees. But in 2018, Brown authorized the corrections department to identify inmates for pardons or commutation. This time, all of Lam’s degrees and activities did count, as did the fact that he had committed his crime as a juvenile. He submitted a 192-page clemency application, which included hundreds of certificates for completed courses and workshops, letters of support, awards, and articles he had written.

From 1991 to 2011, three California governors issued a total of 28 pardons and 14 commutations. Between 2011 and 2018, Brown issued 1,332 pardons and 283 commutations. One of those commutations went to John Lam, dropping 10 years off his sentence and making him eligible for parole in a year.

‘It Took Me a While to Remember What Is Normal’

The end of Kim Do’s time behind bars was more straightforward. Starting with the original 13 years, he was able to subtract time for good behavior, getting a science and math degree from Coastline Community College in 2017, and serving as a firefighter to combat the 2020 wildfires near Vacaville. His time was reduced to nine years, and he came home on August 27, 2020, a date he calls “my second birthday.”

Left: 2019 photo of Kim Do on the day he received his diploma for his Coastline Community College Science and Math associate degree.  He was working as an inmate firefighter at the time so the photo was taken in front of a fire truck. Right: Taped inside a small photo album his sister sent him, Kim Do has picture of himself taken the day he was transferred from county jail to state prison after his 2014 conviction.
Left: A 2019 photo of Do on the day he received his Coastline Community College diploma for his associate degree in science and math. He was working as an inmate firefighter at the time, so the photo was taken in front of a fire truck. Right: Do taped inside a small photo album from his sister a picture of himself taken the day he was transferred from county jail to state prison after his 2014 conviction.

Following his release, Do went to Costco for the first time. Being surrounded by people encroaching on the personal-boundary limits he had developed in prison made him paranoid. He sensed a presence behind him, and quickly spun around, his hypervigilance ratcheted up. “It was an old lady reaching over to get a bag of coffee off the shelf,” he says. “It took me a while to remember what is normal out here.”

Photo of Kim Do with his younger sister Mai taken when she visited him in prison.  The photo is burned because Do forgot to turn off the state-issued hot water pot that he had jerry-rigged (as per common prison practice) into a hot plate, setting his cell on fire.
Do with his sister, Mai, during a 2015 prison visit. The photo is burned because Do forgot to turn off the state-issued hot-water pot that he had jury-rigged (as per common prison practice) into a hot plate, setting his cell on fire.

Do is now back at Sacramento City College. With a felony record, he recognized a medical career was no longer realistic. Instead, he is getting a second associate degree, in mechanical-electrical technology, to balance helping the family with his own professional independence.

Kim Do, left, with his classmates and professor (in yellow) in the refrigeration systems class at Sacramento City College.
Do with his classmates and professor (in yellow) in the refrigeration-systems class at Sacramento City College.

Computers and the internet are highly restricted in California prisons, so Do says the biggest challenge in continuing his education has been catching up with a decade of tech advances, like learning how to draw wiring diagrams in Google Docs for online homework assignments. There is also much more information available online. “Now if a refrigeration unit makes a high-pitched noise, I can search the part number and teach myself to troubleshoot on YouTube.”

In Kim Do’s electrical controls class at Sacramento City College, the professor first talked about electrical transformers, and then turned to business law, ethics and morals in the context of fairly charging a client, or not putting effort into a job.  Law means the rules governing what we must not do; ethics means the code of what we are obligated to do.  So what are morals?  Do raised his hand, “Morals are personal.”
In Do’s electrical-controls class at Sacramento City College, the professor first talked about electrical transformers, and then turned to business law, ethics, and morals in the context of fairly charging a client, or not putting effort into a job. Law means the rules governing what we must not do; ethics means the code of what we are obligated to do. So what are morals? Do raised his hand: “Morals are personal.”

Industrial heating and refrigeration skills, of course, dovetail with his full-time job managing the commissary yard and warehouse. His father, now 66, has high standards, Do says, and has yet to say that he is pleased that the family business will stay with his eldest son. “But recently he has begun to tell me, ‘I think I’m going to retire soon,’” says Do.

His mother has come to terms with the way things turned out. Do’s sister, Mai, got her master’s degree in biomedical sciences in 2019 and plans to take the MCAT in January 2024. So it appears there will be a doctor in the family after all.

Kim Do and his younger sister Mai Do play with her dog Yoda.
Do and his sister, Mai, play with her dog, Yoda.

‘The World Was Mine’

John Lam was paroled on October 9, 2019. He says, “It was like an entirely different stress level — no more constantly worrying about personal safety or crossing any lines. I could make a steak, sleep with the lights off, play basketball whenever I wanted to. The world was mine.”

John Lam regularly plays basketball at U. of California, Berkeley’s rec center.
Lam regularly plays basketball at the rec center at UC-Berkeley.

He spent his first year living with one of his sisters and working at her consulting company, teaching himself Python coding, and sheltering from Covid. Then he started applying for college with the assistance of Berkeley Underground Scholars, a nonprofit dedicated to getting formerly incarcerated individuals into higher education.

Lam received a number of acceptances, including UC-Berkeley, but was initially tempted by an offer to continue coding for a data-management company. After 16 years in prison, the need for financial security felt especially urgent. But the draw of a top college — the kind of opportunity that meant so much to his family — was strong. Ultimately he accepted admission to Berkeley, noting that, ironically, he would never have gotten in had he not been incarcerated.

John Lam at UC Berkeley Sproul Plaza.
Lam at UC-Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza.

One of the first classes Lam took covered how voters and politicians react to crime. Lam told his story to the professor, who suggested he share it with the whole class. As he spoke before more than 100 classmates, a few left the room, but others came up to thank him afterward. He had felt socially stigmatized because of his background and age difference with most of the students, but he realized at that point, “I don’t have to hide, or live by how others perceive me.”

Other than a delay in getting his parole residence transferred to Berkeley, Lam’s transition to traditional college has been exceptionally smooth. Patten University’s in-person classes at San Quentin, taught by high-level instructors connected to UC-Berkeley and other Bay Area universities, had built his self-confidence. “They did a fantastic job of preparing me for education at Berkeley,” he says. After graduating, in the spring of 2024, he hopes to get his master’s in public policy.

In addition to being a full-time student, Lam works at the Asian Prisoner Support Committee, or APSC, a nonprofit in Oakland that advocates for prisoners and counsels them when they reintegrate with society. It’s a job, but it is also a way for him to give back to the community. Many of the committee’s clients, like Lam, went to prison when they were young, so he mentors them in day-to-day adult skills that others take for granted, like setting up a savings account or renting an apartment.

One of John’s duties at APSC is to make care packages for former prisoners who have been sent back to their mother countries by ICE after prison despite having grown up in the US.  These packages include items like snacks, coffee, clothes, books, toothpaste and Chromebooks that might not be so readily available in places Cambodia or the Philippines.  Fellow former prisoner Chanthon helps him bring in the purchases for the care packages.
One of Lam’s duties at APSC is to make care packages for former prisoners who have been deported to their mother countries by immigration authorities after prison despite having grown up in the United States. The packages include snacks, coffee, clothes, books, toothpaste, and Chromebooks – items that might not be so readily available in places like Cambodia or the Philippines. A fellow former prisoner, Chanthon Bun, helps him out.

Recently, Lam volunteered to meet a newly released prisoner at the gate of Valley State Prison and drive him 150 miles home. When his passenger mentioned he was thinking of going to college, Lam lit up. They spent the next three hours talking about colleges, majors, applications, managing parole, and financial aid. “Knowledge is the biggest thing I can offer people leaving prison,” he says. “Because I’ve been through it.”

Lam’s family — his parents, most of his siblings and their own families — on a recent vacation at Lake Tahoe. John is at far left.
Lam (left) with his family — his parents, most of his siblings, and their own families — on a recent vacation at Lake Tahoe.