SCHOOL DAZE: How COVID Impacts Education — Prison Literature Club Adapts During COVID Lockdowns

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The last graduation ceremony of the Asian Prisoner Support Committee’s ROOTS program at San Quentin, on June 9, 2019. (Hien Nguyen)

(This is the second in a series of articles produced in partnership with journalists from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle in collaboration with the nonprofit Solutions Journalism Network.)

By ANNAKAI HAYAKAWA GESHLIDER

“Through our brokenness, we have found community. Through the collective, I have found individuality.”

Part I

How can education in prisons continue when faced with the limitations of the COVID-19 lockdown?

For the past five years, the Oakland-based Asian Prisoner Support Committee (APSC) taught ethnic studies at San Quentin prison in Marin County. The weekly program was called ROOTS — short for “Restoring Our Original True Selves.”

In response to the way prison denies incarcerated people agency in their lives, the ROOTS model invited members to take charge of their own education. Instead of a traditional lecture format, ROOTS classes took place in a circle. Rather than dictating the curriculum, APSC would invite discussion, and ask participants what they wanted to learn next. Classes focused on personal reflection and relationship-building, creating an environment of trust and community.

APSC Program Coordinator Hien Nguyen said ROOTS used this healing-based education to build relationships with incarcerated people, and aid in their re-entry after release.

“Our communities know what they need for healing,” said Nguyen. “And to allow that healing to start, you have to give folks agency.”

APSC’s use of agency in education lies at the heart of the ROOTS program. In 2002, when APSC member Eddy Zheng and his peers advocated for classes in Asian American and ethnic studies while incarcerated at San Quentin, the prison retaliated by placing them in solitary confinement for almost 11 months.

Eventually, Zheng was released from prison. But because he was not born in the U.S., the state of California followed his release with a deportation order, said Nguyen. Through advocacy from Asian Pacific Islander youth in the Bay Area and a community rallying support, Zheng fought his case in court, paving the way for what a community response to the threat of deportation could look like. After the state pardoned Zheng and he was allowed to remain in the U.S., he fulfilled his original vision by creating the ROOTS program.

ROOTS participants in a scene from the 2020 PBS documentary “Asian Americans.”

During ROOTS, APSC staff, volunteers, and guest speakers led discussions on colonial and migration histories, intergenerational trauma, and the history of mass incarceration. Participants learned about the transatlantic slave trade, anti-blackness, and the Third World Liberation movements of the ’60s and ’70s.

Many ROOTS members were sentenced for crimes committed when they were just coming into their teenage years, including life sentences without parole (LWOP). According to the Equal Justice Initiative, the U.S. is the only country in the world that sentences youth to LWOP.

“Almost every one of our members has faced or lived in crippling poverty,” said Nate Tan, APSC’s co-director and a ROOTS facilitator for the past five years. Many members immigrated to the U.S. as children, having survived war and genocide in Cambodia, Vietnam, or Laos, or U.S. imperialism in the Pacific Islands.

Because of this, Tan said, ROOTS classes examined “all these compounding effects and compounding traumas” — which members then got to see “reflected in their own lives. I think it really informs the decisions they make from that point on,” he added.

* * *

When the COVID-19 lockdowns closed prisons to visitors, ROOTS could not continue in person.

Enter the APSC Literature Club. Instead of sending volunteers into prison, APSC now sends books. The Lit Club is made up of nine partner pairs — each with one person in prison and one APSC volunteer. Pairs choose from a list of books to read together, and then discuss the book via email.

Partners Tien-Hsiang Mo and Shelley Kuang chose “The Best We Could Do,” a 2017 national bestselling memoir of growing up during the Vietnam War, by Thi Bui. “I truly enjoy participating in this reading/writing program,” wrote Mo in an email. “With just the first book Shelley and I read together, I felt a connection with the author.” Mo is incarcerated at the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) in Madera County.

San Quentin’s strict rules surrounding correspondence prevent APSC from contacting members on the inside. For the new Lit Club, APSC decided to focus on women’s prisons. Eight members of the pilot program reside at CCWF and the California Institute for Women (CIW), also in Madera County. One member lives at New Folsom Prison in Northern California.

The Lit Club kicked off in August 2020, after five months of planning. Like the ROOTS program, the Lit Club’s curriculum uses personal reflection and mutual support to build caring relationships. And like ROOTS, Lit Club members make decisions about their own education.

Rather than assigning a book, APSC developed a list of titles that partners choose from to read. The curriculum is split into three modules, each centered on a theme. The Lit Club’s first module, which wrapped up in January, featured books involving personal reflection and memoir.

Some pairs read Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”; others chose Yuri Kochiyama’s “Passing It On.” “Yuri was notorious for writing folks inside,” said Nguyen. “Her model of thinking is: you have to build relationships, to learn what community solutions look like.”

APSC did outreach at different prisons to gauge interest in the Lit Club and find participants. Most of the nine Lit Club members living in prison identify as Asian Pacific Islander (API), followed by Latinx and white. “We highly encourage API-identifying folks, queer folks, and folks who may have immigration issues, but virtually it’s open to anyone who feels like they need that support,” said Nguyen.

The response to the Lit Club has been enthusiastic. While many of the partners initially committed to writing each other bi-weekly, most have been writing weekly, Nguyen said. Mo and Kuang exchange around four to five emails per week. In the majority of the partnerships, the reading partner living in prison has surpassed the pair’s reading goals, reading more than the agreed-upon number of pages. “Folks are excited for the content; they’re excited to discuss,” said Nguyen.

“Initially, I didn’t know what to expect,” wrote Mo. After meeting her reading partner via email, she added, “I felt completely at ease and at peace with my decision to participate in this program.”

“It feels special to have such an intimate lens on [Mo’s] day-to-day, and to be able to share a little of that myself too,” said Kuang, Mo’s reading partner.

Kuang has been volunteering with APSC for the past two years, and helped coordinate the Lit Club and plan its curriculum. For Kuang, the most powerful part of the Lit Club is the fact that there aren’t “any deliverables we’re trying to meet — we’re not trying to produce a product. It’s purely a program for the sake of relationship-building and connection.” Because of this, “the room to go deeper is so much more possible.”

Instead of having to complete a certain number of pages per week, partners first discuss their reading capacities and which book to read next.

“It’s like this journey of accountability,” said Nguyen. When the Lit Club began, partners asked each other over email: “How many pages can we read?” “How would you like to communicate when something inspires you?” “How would you like to reflect on these things?”

“To be able to give agency in education like that is extremely important,” said Nguyen. “To be able to create an educational experience for themselves — it’s a model that proves to be extremely successful, because a lot of the [participants]actually have ownership of what they get to learn.”

The value of these communication practices reaches beyond the club itself. “It’s really good practice, in terms of being able to communicate with people, practicing accountability in this way,” said Nguyen. “With someone, quite frankly, you’ve never met. Which is kind of amazing.”

APSC believes that by building trusting relationships, folks can create space for personal and community healing.

For the Lit Club, healing-based education means “trying to identify: what is it we want to heal for ourselves?,” said Nguyen. Lit Club partners asked each other this question when they began corresponding, and it continues to guide their discussions.’’

“I believe healing has no boundaries, no restrictions and that is so amazing and revealing,” wrote Mo. “Through our shared experiences and readings, we are both slowly healing our wounds. Through our brokenness, we have found community. Through the collective, I have found individuality. And that is just with our first book! :).”

Like the ROOTS program, the Lit Club aims to address the sense of isolation from community, family, and self experienced by people in prison. “The kind of systems and society that we get socialized in serve to disconnect and destroy relationships, and to isolate folks,” said Kuang, Mo’s reading partner. “Whether that’s through incarceration, whether that’s through the different conditions people have to go through in order to live and survive.”

Kuang added that a program centered on relationship-building responds directly to this isolation. “Two individuals who have such different lived experiences can take time — just for the purpose of building with each other,” she said. “That in itself is a healing act, an antidote to these systems we have to operate within.”

Like many book clubs, the book serves merely as a starting point for conversation. APSC provides guiding questions to jump-start discussion. From there, partners have opened up personally, sharing stories of their families, upbringings, and day-to-day lives.

Nguyen said the Lit Club has sparked “a lot of organic conversations that don’t even relate to the book, which is exactly what we wanted.” More than a reading group, it’s a supportive space where emotions are openly discussed.

“Books and readings are a great vehicle to start conversations, and also to have insight on the world and our personal experiences,” said Nguyen. “People are really digging deep, really reflecting on how those stories resonate with them.”

Nguyen added that the highlight of the program has been witnessing how comfortably the partners have begun to correspond. “[They’re] not emailing to say, ‘Please see attached.’ What I’m seeing more is, ‘This is bringing up my own experiences in this way’ and ‘Thinking about how this relates to my relationship with my family, and it really hits home,’ and ‘I’m feeling really seen.’ Those are the moments that are really special to me.”

Nguyen says that the Lit Club’s limitations are mostly administrative. Prisons require books to be sent from an authorized vendor, so APSC partners with Eastwind bookstore in Berkeley to mail books to incarcerated Lit Club members. Prisons also charge fees for electronic communication: each email costs around 25 cents to send. To keep the Lit Club accessible to participants, APSC sends a digital stamp with every email sent to prison.

After seeing what works and doesn’t from this pilot run, APSC hopes to expand the Lit Club to include more participants in the future. Nguyen envisions current volunteers becoming leaders in the program, who could manage multiple cohorts of reading partners. She hopes to develop a remote space to share excerpts of participants’ personal reflections with a wider audience.

One of the reading partner pairs is using a Chinese translated copy of “Beloved,” provided by Eastwind bookstore. APSC wants to expand the Lit Club’s language accessibility, making sure that books are available in the language most comfortable for each participant.

Nguyen is excited for the potential of the Lit Club to support incarcerated folks in their re-entry, after being released from prison. “I really want to see incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women and queer folks thrive in this movement and space,” she said. Through its correspondence, the Lit Club is helping make this possible. “I think the main goal is building this connection, so folks can come home quicker.”

Kuang envisions the connection with her reading partner lasting long. “Ideally I would love to meet in person, share space with her, hear her voice,” said Kuang. “I hope that we continue our relationship out of this program.”

The Lit Club is just one of APSC’s efforts to support individuals and families dealing with the impacts of imprisonment. In addition to in-prison programming, APSC also focuses on anti-deportation organizing and re-entry support. Former ROOTS members serve as reentry coordinators, who guide peers in life outside of prison — in obtaining important government documents, finding employment, and navigating new technology.

“We try to look at re-entry as a community effort,” said Nguyen. “What advocacy or support does that person need? [ROOTS] at its core feels like home and a family.”

To keep up with APSC or donate to support their work, visit asianprisonersupport.org.

Kuang recommends anyone interested to join a prison pen pal program. While the Lit Club is not yet seeking more volunteers, other organizations currently host pen pal programs. Power Blossoms and Black and Pink run programs for incarcerated people who identify as queer and trans. Visit https://www.powerblossoms.org/become-a-penpal or https://www.blackandpink.org/penpal-newsletter/ for more information.

 

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