In April 2000, Eddy became one of the first inmates in the program to earn an associate’s degree. He continued to take classes. That year, students from Berkeley arrived in San Quentin with yellow armbands. One of them explained that there had been a strike on campus to defend Berkeley’s Department of Ethnic Studies against the proposed cuts. âI think that’s where I first really tried to better understandâ the history of Asian Americans, said Eddy. These students were free, and yet they wanted more. He read doorbell hooks and encouraged young inmates to do the same. He exchanged writings with poets like Ishle Yi Park and published his own zines. He had achieved the status of OG – original gangster – defusing tensions with other cars. Anmol Chaddha, an undergraduate student at Berkeley, taught in an apartheid-era South African prison. A student asked why blacks, who made up the majority of South Africans, joined the minority regime. Eddy turned to the student. âLook at us,â Chaddha remembers, saying. âLook at our situation. There are many more of us than the guards. But we’re sitting here, generally happy with the situation.
There has never been a golden age of incarceration. However, there have been times in the recent past when institutions have taken greater steps in favor of rehabilitation. By the early 1990s, nearly 20 percent of federal inmates had taken a college course while incarcerated. But a provision in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, 1994 prohibited inmates from accessing Pell Grants. By 2004, that number had fallen to about ten percent, as programs offering associate’s or bachelor’s degrees to inmates closed.
Eddy wanted more of the San Quentin classes, so in 2002 he and three other inmates, Stephen Liebb, Viet Mike Ngo, and Rico Riemedio, circulated a petition to make ethnic studies a part of the prison curriculum. Eddy had managed to stay out of serious trouble for sixteen years, but now he, Mike and Rico have been put in isolation. Eddy was guilty of sharing his writings with strangers without the approval of the prison.
Eddy sent a letter to hard boiled, the Berkeley newspaper, inquiring about its submission policy. Chaddha, a publisher, agreed to print anything Eddy sent. He asked if there was anything else he could do. Eddy asked for help finding a lawyer.
Chaddha admitted that Eddy needed not only a lawyer, but also a political campaign. Chaddha founded the Asian Prisoner Support Committee with Yuri Kochiyama, a longtime activist who had been a confidant of Malcolm X in the sixties. The committee’s immediate goal was to support Eddy, Mike, and Rico, who became known as the San Quentin Three. Mike and Rico were eventually transferred from solitary confinement. But Eddy, who was technically still eligible for parole, remained in segregation for eleven months.
Chaddha consulted Victor Hwang, a civil rights lawyer he had heard about in an Asian-American studies class. Hwang introduced him to a network of lawyers, community leaders and local politicians, all of whom were, in a sense, alumni of the social movements of the Sixties that gave birth to the original American identity. Asian. Chaddha needed to persuade state lawmakers to support Eddy the next time he was on parole.
In May 2003, Eddy was sent to California State Prison in Solano. As a teenager, he had been treated in a reception center for detainees; from the courtyard he could see Solano under construction, just across the street. Since joining the system in 1986, California had built three new universities and nineteen new prisons. The state’s prison population had more than doubled.
A campaign slowly arose in support of Eddy. Paul Dosh, a Berkeley graduate student who had taught Eddy in San Quentin, performed poetry in the streets to raise money for Eddy’s lawyers. Eddy wrote up to ten letters a day to friends, former volunteers, politicians, activists and students. Ben Wang, an undergraduate student at the University of California at Davis, who began to correspond with Eddy, said: âFrom inside a state prison he was able to network and build a community. . Jeanne Loh, another tutor at Berkeley whom Eddy had approached in the late 90s, helped him start a blog. In his posts, he meditated on prison food, yelled at his friends, shared poetry, and even campaigned for political candidates he befriended by mail. At one point, he asked people to stop sending him books; he had received more than he could read.
âWe didn’t tell anyone at first because we lost face,â her father recalls from the family home in Oakland. âWe were ashamed. We couldn’t face the Chinese community. But, after hearing Kochiyama speak at a rally, he realized he had to do the same. Chaddha took Eddy’s parents to Sacramento, where they went door to door speaking to lawmakers. âThey were the closest,â Chaddha told me. He recalls a meeting of Asian American community leaders where Eddy’s mother, once too mortified to admit her son was in prison, gave an impromptu speech to a ballroom full of strangers about of his family’s trip from Guangzhou to San Quentin.
Eddy began to study meditation. In one exercise, he had to count to ten. If any thoughts entered, he had to start over. The exercise resembled his struggle for parole; he applied more than a dozen times. In November 2004, the board voted in favor of his release. Gray Davis had been recalled by California voters, and the governor was now Arnold Schwarzenegger, who did not object to the board’s recommendation. One day in March 2005, a prison official summoned Eddy and said, “Hey, Zheng, hit that ducat” – a pass that inmates need to move around freely. It was for Eddy’s release.
But the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Liability Act broadened the categories that made non-citizen criminals liable to deportation. When Eddy was released from Solano, he was handed over to ice agents, who drove him to a field office in San Francisco. As the van drove through town at lunchtime, Eddy looked out the window. He hadn’t seen so many free people in nearly twenty years.
He spent almost two years detained by ICE in Marysville, north of Sacramento. While in detention, he married Shelly Smith, the volunteer he befriended in the late 1990s. “There is nothing traditional about our marriage,” he said on his blog. âWe are just two pieces of a giant puzzle that find our places to accomplish and accomplish our mission. “
As more and more people learned of Eddy’s situation, the movement to free him intensified. The family he had victimized had remained largely silent throughout the parole process. But, while Eddy was in Marysville, the daughter, Jenny Tam, submitted a letter to immigration court. âMy family is no different from hers,â she wrote. “It saddens me to see so many people rallying around Eddy.” Tam went on to describe the isolation and paranoia that had come to define their life at home: âPart of me is afraid to feel like the one who has done something wrong. . . . To me, all of the accomplishments he claims were made to influence the tribunal to rule in his favor. My firm wish is that Eddy be kicked out.