Lots of little things were different outside prison. Personal space wasn’t as big a deal, and direct eye contact wasn’t considered aggressive. Even ordering off a Denny’s menu was overwhelming to Brandon Wong when he first got out.
“I was basically institutionalized from being in there 10 years,” remembers Wong, who went to prison for manslaughter at 16, he says, for shooting someone who pulled a knife on him at a party. He kept a journal of his struggles to adjust to life after incarceration and shared it with friends still doing time.
“I just wanted to continue to give back in there [prison] and also help them when they get out,” says Wong, now 34.
From that desire to help came F.I.G.H.T., or Formerly Incarcerated Group Healing Together, a group of Asian and Pacific Islanders working to provide mentoring, support and political education to hundreds of such men in Washington state prisons.
“We’ve got Stafford, we’ve got Coyote Ridge, Clallam Bay, Monroe …,” says Wong, ticking off the prisons that F.I.G.H.T. works with. The program, which he co-founded with two other men a little over a year ago, has helped organize book drives and cultural events, as well as provide re-entry support for those being released.
But they are particularly passionate about political education in prisons.
“In the beginning, we didn’t know what to do,” says Many Uch, 40, another co-founder of F.I.G.H.T., who went to prison for armed robbery at 18 for driving the getaway car. “We wanted to do something different.”
To F.I.G.H.T., that has meant helping to organize workshops on domestic violence, visits to prisons by youth in the local Asian and Pacific Islander community, and even offering an upcoming Asian-American studies class. It’s also meant hosting discussion groups about political issues, from Islamophobia and homophobia to the Black Lives Matter movement and the upcoming elections.
“Anything that is the type of conversation these men don’t have inside the prison at all,” says Uch, who adds that limited or no access to the Internet makes staying informed of current events challenging for inmates.
And current events often impact the lives of Asian and Pacific Islanders in prison, something Uch knows all too well.
He came to the U.S. from Cambodia as a child and became a permanent resident, but not a citizen. After he served time in prison, he was sent to immigration detention and threatened with deportation.
He was released after 28 months and is still technically on a deportation list, despite getting a pardon from former Gov. Chris Gregoire.
F.I.G.H.T. offers a know-your-rights deportation workshop for prisoners, but Uch says deportation is just one example of issues faced by current and formerly incarcerated Asian and Pacific Islanders. They also often struggle with poverty, racism and the “model minority” myth that suggests all Asians succeed in America.
“Our families are shameful when we go to prison, because we’re supposed to do well,” says Uch, whose mother escaped war in Cambodia and then raised their family in a local housing project. “We came from a Third World country, and you make it to America and you should be able to do well. And when you don’t, it’s like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ ”
An event Saturday at the Khmer Buddhist Temple in Seattle hopes to tackle some of these issues, as well as provide a chance for community members to hear stories of current and formerly incarcerated Asian and Pacific Islanders through letters and audio recordings.
Wong says his work in prisons has been a source of healing for him, a belief that inspired F.I.G.H.T.’s name, and a chance to offer others opportunities he wishes he’d had as a teenager in the prison system.
“Going that first time to Clallam Bay … except now I get to go lead” says Wong, remembering his return to a prison where he once was incarcerated as a facilitator with F.I.G.H.T. “It’s like a closing for me.”
And an opening for so many others.
The outreach group plans to meet with the community this weekend.
- When: Saturday, 1-4 p.m.
- Where: Khmer Buddhist Temple, 3006 S. Juneau St., Seattle
- Purpose: Offer people an opportunity to hear stories of current and formerly incarcerated Asian and Pacific Islanders through letters and audio recordings.