Parole Agent I Ernest Williams, left, paroled lifer Vaughn Shade, Parole Agent I Xavio Tong and Unit Supervisor Maryanne Larios during a Lifer Support Group meeting. Courtesy photo.

Parole Agent I Ernest Williams, left, paroled lifer Vaughn Shade, Parole Agent I Xavio Tong and Unit Supervisor Maryanne Larios during a Lifer Support Group meeting. Courtesy photo.

Southern California parole agents help ‘lifers’ transition

By Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer
Office of Public and Employee Communications

A lot can change in 5,431 days.

That’s how long Quan Huynh spent incarcerated in California state prisons. Huynh was found suitable for parole and released from California State Prison-Solano (SOL) in November 2015. From his first day back home, he has been drawing upon the tools he learned in prison to help others find the same peace he has.

The changes in the way people act were apparent on his very first day out, when Huynh noticed, while watching a gorgeous sunset at the airport, that everyone around him was staring at their phones instead. Sixteen years after leaving his community, Huynh is dealing with the challenges of technology, employment, relationships and communication that are very unique to the growing population of life-term inmates re-entering society.

Huynh does not shy away from speaking about his past. Now 41, he was convicted of second-degree murder in 2000 and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison with the possibility of parole. Instead of hiding his past or avoiding the subject, he instead chooses to own it, acknowledging the consequences his crime had on his victim, victim’s family, his family and society.

Quan Huynh serves as a facilitator at a weekend-long Alternatives to Violence Project workshop in Oakland. Photo by Krissi Khokhobashvili.

Quan Huynh serves as a facilitator at a weekend-long Alternatives to Violence Project workshop in Oakland. Photo by Krissi Khokhobashvili.

It was through the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) that Huynh learned how to speak openly about not only his past, but also his deepest emotions. He said when he first got involved with AVP it was for the wrong reasons, including getting a certificate of completion (known as a “chrono”) to go in his file, to show the Board of Parole Hearings that he was programming.

“It was really superficial for me at the time,” he remembers. “But I think there were little seeds planted that were never really developed until six years later, when I started going down the right path.”

After several years of rule infractions, Huynh found himself on “C Status,” and was labeled a program failure. He was transferred from his dorm of four years, and as he was preparing to leave he realized that, out of the 14 lifers who had started with him there four years ago, only two remained. As he had been focusing on negatives, life-term inmates around him had been positively programming, developing life skills and returning home. If something didn’t change, neither would his circumstances.

“That got me to drop everything and say, ‘Quan, you are using all your gifts in some very bad ways,’” he said.

He joined a self-help group and began to participate in rehabilitative programs. He began reflecting on the reasons he was in prison, and the factors in his life and self-esteem that led him to make devastating choices. He started to read extensively, became immersed in his faith, and began to reach out to others.

“What better way to practice this stuff than to do it in here?” he said. “I’m at a monastery of sorts, and there’s a chance for me to remake myself. But I had to go back and dismantle everything about me that was fake and false.”

His quest for self-awareness led him back to AVP. What started in New York state prisons in 1975 has grown into a worldwide program both inside prisons and in communities. Trained volunteers hold workshops for people from all walks of life “who would like to reduce the level of unresolved conflict in their lives and the lives of those around them,” according to avpcalifornia.org.

Workshops focus on communication, from deeply personal exercises about regrets, hopes and fears to “light and lively” games to keep the group engaged and connecting with one another. Those who wish, like Huynh, may become facilitators, helping lead workshops and spreading the word about nonviolent communication. He shared that his past behavior had caused some of his peers apprehension when he started AVP, but they quickly embraced his contributions, as did the staff and volunteers at SOL who offer the program.

In addition to AVP, Huynh became involved in fundraising for the Special Olympics, and joined the Defy Ventures entrepreneurship program, in which offenders work with business experts to develop real-world business plans and employment readiness skills.

“There are all these people around us willing to help,” he said. “They were there all along; I just wasn’t willing to accept them.”

Coming home

Huynh’s efforts, and honest commitment to change for the better, led to a finding of suitability in 2015. He has since returned home to Orange County, where he is working at his brother’s real estate business, spending lots of time with his family and rediscovering his love of nature, including snowboarding.

He knows he is lucky, in terms of having a home, family and job. Not all lifers have it so easy. Two agents from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) Division of Adult Parole Operations (DAPO) have made it their mission to help long-term inmates through the difficult transition back into the free world.

Parole Agents Ernest Williams and Xavio Tong (now working in the GPS unit) developed the Orange County Lifer Support Group, a monthly gathering of paroled long-term offenders that provides a safe space to share struggles, accomplishments and advice.

“Some of them have had a tough time reintegrating into society because they feel like nobody out in the community understands what they went through,” said Tong, adding that even the most basic of choices, like what to put on a cheeseburger, can be monumental to someone who has been told what to eat every day for the past 20 years.

“Basic stuff that you and I would take for granted, like going to the grocery store and picking out certain items – they couldn’t do that themselves because they’re so used to having such narrow choices. When they get to the grocery store and see there are options, that anxiety kicks in.”

The group covers changes in technology and new laws and policies that affect parolees. Former life-term inmates who have successfully discharged from parole share their stories and tips with the group. Guests have included experts on education options for former inmates and employment-readiness experts, and parolees’ families are welcome to attend. Most importantly, the group allows parolees to build a community of people with an understanding of what it’s like to come home after so long.

“By having these groups, they are able to just be themselves,” observed Enrique Gonzalez, Parole Administrator for DAPO’s Southern Region. “They can really talk about their underlying concerns, issues and overcoming barriers.”

Tong, who started with CDCR as a Youth Correctional Counselor in 2006, stressed that the program is voluntary for participants, and that is what makes it successful.

“This group was designed for them by them,” he said. “If you force someone to do something they don’t want to do, they’re not going to put in the effort. We wanted to seek out who among that population actually wants to take a vested interest in themselves, do something more for themselves, to have a better parole adjustment.”

Williams, who has been with CDCR for just over 20 years and with DAPO since 1999, commented on the uniqueness of paroled lifers. Supervising them, he said, is not typical. One of the biggest challenges is scheduling, as most of them have two or three jobs or community service projects they are working on. But that’s a good thing.

“Another way to put it is that they really respect their time,” he said. “They take it very seriously that they have been given a second opportunity, and they are determined not to be any further burden on the system.”

Paying it forward

Huynh continues to expand his support system, including joining the Lifer Support Group. Almost immediately after paroling, he was asked to continue his work with AVP by facilitating community workshops. A few months after coming home, he got involved with AVP Orange County’s first event, helping facilitate his first-ever workshop outside of prison. His experience as both a longtime AVP participant and as a former inmate offers another layer to the workshops, in which members share openly about their pasts and embrace the similarities and differences between one another. He said he is deeply grateful to experience the transformations people can go through in the span of a weekend session.

“It’s like witnessing the rebirth of somebody,” he said. “To see someone peel off a gruff exterior and suddenly show a gentler, more human side. I’m able to genuinely connect with them.”

Huynh’s AVP work inside and outside prison led to him being named one of AVP’s first-ever Peace Follows, a program that recognizes young people around the country working to build peace in their communities. He has been invited to speak at the AVP-USA national conference, where he will share his story with thousands of people. He’ll speak about his vision to make AVP available to not only all people in prisons, but also staff throughout correctional systems.

He also continues his work with Defy Ventures and recently spoke to a group of 1,400 Google executives at the Engage America conference. Standing alongside founder Catherine Hoke, Huynh made his pitch, not for people to invest money, but to invest their time into current and former offenders, mentoring them to succeed.

“I think every person is worth salvaging,” he said. “If I was able to be salvaged, I think everybody can be salvaged.”