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A man in prison holding binoculars stands tall among his peers and looks to the future
Illustration by Teresa Tauchi. Source: Depositphotos

In California prisons we all wear blue — chambray blue, to be exact. Blue shirts, blue pants, blue jackets: Everything is a sea of blue on the recreation yard. With all of that uniformity, individuality gets a little lost. But Tin Nguyen stood out with his decorative sleeve of tattoos, a collage of Asian dragons floating, flying, menacing: beautiful designs that served as a departure for friendly, interracial dialogue between the new guy at work and the seasoned employee.

As Tin trained me, he was always patient and always smiling. In 2007, I had just begun what would become a rewarding leadership role in the Men for Honor academic group, one of many peer-to-peer self-development programs in which experts in one field teach others their talents on a rotating basis. The only qualification was proof of knowledge, a certificate, a degree or an employment history.

On the recreation yard, bravado, superficiality and a tough-as-nails facade comprise the fear-based prison code for: “Don’t mess with me, I’m not the one.” It was from this warped foundation that Tin and I grew up together behind bars.

Our saving grace was that we were on the honor yard together, a facility where positive programming was the norm, and we were not tempted by the very real distractions of violence, weapons and drug dealing. The honor yard promoted personal and mutual accountability, respect based on mainstream values and the well-being of others. Through collective resource sharing, group brainstorming and a little creativity, we successfully invited outside volunteers, a K-9 dog training group and even community college programs to our facility.

Overtime, Tin was attracted to the prospects of earning an AA degree, while I was pulled by the lure of self-development. Still, our lessons were the same: humility, interdependence and, perhaps best of all, discipline. 

For decades, we relied on prison to dictate our lives: when to get up, what to eat, what to wear. Now, we were presented with avenues of self-determination, a huge departure from the punishment-only paradigm that deprived us and taught us nothing.

My first Men for Honor class was debate, while Tin practiced Venn diagrams. Our conversations at work matured from vain and exaggerated war stories to academic concepts such as dialectical theory and ontology. After testing the waters for each other in our respective learning journeys, I eventually enrolled in college, while Tin incorporated self-development to balance his academic pursuits. 

As time went on, we learned pro-social expressions, along with positive coping skills. And we were beginning to see how our bad decisions earned us sentences of life without the possibility of parole — the wide-ranging negative ripple effects of our actions. This insight was our first step in taking responsibility for our offenses, and being willing to make amends.

Over time I came to appreciate Tin for so much more than his body art and infectious humor. Tin also had an amazing talent for telling stories and persuading the criminally minded to go with their better angels. 

And Tin was patient, really patient. Imagine spending months on one acrylic painting. Tin was hands down one of the best artists at the facility. His patience extended from his talented hands to the canvas, and eventually to those of us blessed enough to fall under the umbrella of his friendship.

The opportunity of higher learning in prison was probably the single most transformative experience for those of us sentenced to life without parole. Formal education was a game changer for all of us, and Tin was one of the first to be courageous enough to take the plunge. 

Our ascension from community college to the Cal State LA prison program was a wonderful shared experience. But it was Tin who went on to enroll in an MBA after the rest of us graduated. Tin became a role model, a peacemaker and a mentor to many, myself included. 

It is for this reason that the commutation of Tin’s life without parole to a parole-eligible sentence was bittersweet. We cheered heartily at the prospect of Tin getting a second chance at life, at the prospect of him finally reuniting with his family after decades, and at the prospect of him contributing in a larger capacity to society. 

But for me and the rest of us, Tin’s freedom meant … no more Tin. The awe-inspiring paintings, the personal encouragement, the contagion of his humor would be no more — or so we thought. 

Not only does Tin continue to contribute to our lives as he did inside. Now we get the joy of watching him expand his wings of compassion to be a model for society as well. My friendship with Tin is a friendship that never stops giving, and now I get to share him with you all.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Delbert Williams is a writer, who holds a B.A. in communication studies from California State University, Los Angeles. He cares about empathy and healing to solve America's many divisions, hate and injury. He is incarcerated in California. Delbert Williams is a pen name.