I see my life passing, and I’ve learned

San Quentin Prison

I grew up in the rough part of San Jose; the east side. I ran with the local crew and began to participate in gang activity. My first encounter with the law was at the age of 13. I was arrested for burglarizing my middle school. Because of my age and the degree of the crime, I was released to my mother.

Four months later, I was rearrested; but this time it was for a strong-arm robbery. I ended up serving 16 months. After my release, I was placed in an aftercare program. By that time, I started hanging out more and going to a lot of parties, not realizing I was drifting toward the fast lane.

I unconsciously broke my aftercare agreement and went on the run. I ended up turning myself in six months later, right after summer break. I did a minor three weeks before getting release on EMP (Electrical Monitor Program), aka house arrest.

My max time was 120 days and if I did good, 90 days. During those 90 days, I was arrested twice. The first time was for possession of drugs with the intent to sell, but due to the lack of evidence, I was released the next day. The second time was for too many unauthorized hours out. I got love from my PO [probation officer] because she only gave me two months hall time.

I got out and came back 10 months later for possession of drugs again. And once more, I was let home with a slap on the wrist. I was given 90 days house arrest and with good behavior, only 60 days. I’m glad to say I made it through this time around. I didn’t get the good behavior time but the way I see it, I was off.

At 17 years young, feeling fresh and free off of house arrest, my plan was to stay out for good. I started talking to a local pretty female. Next thing I knew, we became a couple. Everything was going to plan. I was heading to school and was hanging out a little less. The relationship got serious fast so now my time was all on her.

My life was going good … until one day my roll dawg got viciously stabbed to death. Right in my neighborhood.

The next thing I remember, I became numb. It was summer 2011, and by the end of it, I was right back to the place I planned not to be. This time I was charged with two counts of first-degree murder, a conspiracy to murder, three attempted murders and with a gang enhancement on every count. Plus, a string of first-degree burglaries tied in. This is not including the seven attempted murders still being suspected. The combined years of time I was looking at was 300-plus years to life; three life sentences.

Due to my age, I was sent to the maximum-security unit in juvenile hall; B-9. Both my co-defendants went next door to B-8. The DA (District Attorney) decided to direct file us as adults. With me being the oldest out of the three of us, I was the first transfer to county jail.

Fast forward five years later, on the brink of trial, our DA made a surprise move, due to the lack of evidence in our case. He offered us a group deal. The deal agreement came down to one of us getting 40 years to life and the last two getting 11 years.

By next Monday morning, we all signed on the dotted line and pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter with a gang enhancement. Except for one of us, who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder with a gang enhancement and a 25-year gun enhancement. Lucky to say, I was one of the two who got 11 years.

Now I’m sitting here writing this letter in San Quentin State Prison, the oldest and most historic prison in California. I’m currently going on my sixth year, at the age of 22.

I came to realize a lot about myself … salient things I wouldn’t have if not for this journey. As you can see, prior to coming to prison, my background and history made it seem inevitable that this would be my fate.

And with most of my “loyal” homies and the girlfriend I started this journey with, I’m sure you guys can guess correctly where they are now in my life. As time passes, things change and people change.

Not to forget, you change. Nothing stays the same and if I would’ve asked you how would you feel if in 10 years you would be the same person as before, I’m sure you wouldn’t like that.

What made me change myself for the better was seeing my life passing right before my eyes. Having to be placed in a situation where the realization of not coming home is as real as it gets. And witnessing those less fortunate people around me getting wash and never going home.

I’m humble to have a release date and, most importantly, to realizing the value of freedom. At the end of the day, we only have one life to live and it’s too precious to waste it on anything else except for happiness. Finding happiness in prison is possible within oneself. But this environment happens to perpetuate anything far from happiness.

This letter is as much for you guys as it is for me. If I can reach one person then the time invested is well worth it. Please take a moment to stop and re-evaluate your life.

Reflect and think of what truly matters to you and how you can obtain happiness. I’m talking about the real happiness and not the false illusion of it.

Try hard to learn from my many mistakes so you would never have to be placed in the same situation. They say a smart man learns from his mistake; but a wise man learns from other people’s mistakes.

I send my utmost love and respect to all of you. Stay strong and remain positive. And remember, you have the power to transform your life; nobody else does. Try to slow down from this high speed and listen to The Beat Within. One love.

— Cuong, San Quentin


This piece is from The Beat Within, whose mission is to provide incarcerated youth with consistent opportunity to share their ideas and life experiences in a safe space that encourages literacy, self-expression, some critical thinking skills, and healthy, supportive relationships with adults and their community.

For more info, visit www.TheBeatWithin.org.