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Inmates walk through the exercise yard at California State Prison Sacramento
Photo credit: AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

Much attention has been paid in recent years to the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes around the country, with particular focus on victims who were physically attacked. 

But in my more than 26 years of incarceration, I have never seen anyone attacked because of racial animus — not that it has not happened or cannot happen. I am also not implying that violence in prison does not exist; it does, at high rates, and causes one to be hypervigilant of their surroundings and to cultivate a strong sense of situational awareness. 

Outsiders may find it hard to believe, but racist hate is spread evenly in California prisons in a way that may neutralize its violent charge. The mechanism for this precarious peace is self-segregation — an almost automatic sorting of groups. It occurs along gang ties and other identity lines, especially race. What holds it all together is a certain kind of respect one must develop inside. 

Once it is understood that an individual or a group has established boundaries, for reasons of hate or otherwise, it’s up to others to respect it — to keep some distance and keep the peace.

In nearly three decades inside, I’ve learned this: Racial hatred is acceptable in prison; acting on it is not.

Assaults in prison are typically motivated by other underlying causes. By its very nature, prison is a violent place that operates according to unwritten, sometimes contradictory codes of conduct. The politics of prison violence — something you only begin to understand after serving years behind bars — dictate that, when violence occurs, it’s usually done for so-called “legitimate” reasons.

“Unlike in the street, everyone in here is a convicted felon, so we’re cognizant of the fact that we can do violence,” said Kevin Rojano-Nieto, who is part-Mexican and part-Japanese. “It’s a weird thing. You know to be respectful in prison.”

Hate from outside

Mainstream media often present images of Black-on-Asian assaults, which fuel an us-against-them sentiment. But the Black people in prison who I’ve spoken to — most in their late 50s, like me — have other thoughts. Many of the men recall the words of boxing champion Muhammad Ali when he refused to fight in the war in Vietnam: “Ain’t no Vietnamese ever called me a nigger.”

I was born in 1963 in San Francisco, where I lived the first 10 years of my life. Chinese and Japanese people were everywhere in the city — as were Hispanic and white people, and Black people like me. When the derogatory term “boat people” was used to describe refugees from Southeast Asia, I thought it was a way to “other” them, so I never used it.

Phoeun You is a Cambodian American who paroled last year after nearly three decades inside. Once a refugee, his family had escaped the genocidal oppression of the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s. Blind rage, vengeance and fidelity to family brought him to prison nearly 30 years ago.

He and I worked together at the inmate-run newspaper at San Quentin State Prison, the San Quentin News, and often discussed current affairs as they related to life inside. During the pandemic-era rise of anti-Asian hate, I told him that the Blacks I know in prison expressed no hatred toward Asians. “The [Asian community] needs to know that,” You said then.

According to a 2022 report by the Pew Research Center, 63% of Asian Americans said violence against them in the United States was increasing, which was down from 81% the previous year, but still significantly higher than any other racial or ethnic group. “far surpassing the share of all U.S. adults (56%) who say the same.” The 2021 report had noted that after the coronavirus pandemic, 27% of Asians surveyed said “people acted as if they were uncomfortable around them.”

Some people worry that the hate outside has spilled over behind bars. 

Chan S. Park, who is of Korean descent, said he believed the hatred against Asians was a “redirection.” Discontented people need a place to direct their anger and fear, he said, which can be easily inflamed by political leaders (recall President Donald Trump referring to the coronavirus as “kung flu”).

A 2021 report on racial disparities in California prisons found that between 2010 and 2019, the percentage of incarcerated Asian men in California rose 7%, and for Pacific Islander men, 44%. Meanwhile, Black and white male populations saw drops — of 25% and 36%, respectively. (Black and Latino populations still comprise well over half of the state’s incarcerated population, according to the Vera Institute for Justice.)

Park, who has been incarcerated for 30 years and done time in 10 California facilities, said the Asian community has become increasingly visible in recent years. “For the most part, we used to be ignored,” he said.

That increased attention seeps into the prison context, Park said. “You catch that glance, but you don’t know what’s on the other side of it,” he said. “You see certain people look at you in a way that they’ve never looked at you before.” 

Thomas Tongpalan, a Filipino who has been incarcerated more than 20 years, agreed. “All things in culture out there affect culture in here,” he said. He added that everyone hates everyone in prison, but when it comes to racial animosity, “it doesn’t manifest itself into action.” That can change, however, when certain transgressions occur, especially those that signal a lack of respect.

Tongpalan described how the incarcerated are arranged, in part, through a system of racial bias. People are classified within the population as Black, Mexican, Asian, white, Native American and “other,” while the California prison system officially classifies prisoners as Black, Latino/Hispanic, white and “other,” which includes Native Americans, Asians and anyone else who doesn’t belong in the first three categories. According to a 2019 CDCR report, “others” comprised 6.7% of the total population.

In some ways, the racialized systems in prison are not unlike those in the world prisoners left. This is especially true of society’s underclasses. Racial segregation remains a fact of life in most California prisons — and that’s despite a 2005 Supreme Court case that ruled race could not be the determining factor when considering prison housing assignments. 

Like others interviewed for this story, Tongpalan thinks racism is simply respected inside. “That’s why we get along. Ain’t nobody walkin’ around here having to say ‘Black Lives Matter,’” he said.

One way to think about this fragile harmony: Imagine a white prisoner wearing a swastika. More than likely, he’s on some type of racial superiority trip. According to the unofficial prison code, you have to respect where he’s coming from and allow him to live his truth of white supremacy.

Some white prisoners don runes — letters from an alphabet used by ancient Germanic peoples — on the backs of their arms or elsewhere that look like two lightning bolts. The symbols are on par with the swastika. They were used by the Nazi Party during World War II to represent the word “Schutzstaffel,” meaning protection squads, or the elite guards of the Nazi Reich. 

Read the tats, register the hate, know the man, give him space.

Kevin Sample, a Black man who has been incarcerated more than 20 years under California’s three-strikes law, offered a slightly different theory: Racial tension is kept in check by the threat of retaliation — in other words, by respect for the consequences of violence. 

“Violence will beget violence in prison,” he said. 

Sample grew up in Los Angeles and lost his father to the Vietnam War in 1969. That changed the trajectory of his life, but he said he did not harbor hate against Asians.

R. Sherman, a Black man from Los Angeles, had been at San Quentin for 15 months when I spoke to him. He described what he referred to as the “ARC” of crime: anger, response and consequences. 

Before his incarceration, Sherman served three years of active duty in the Marines, where he traveled to countries such as Guam, South Korea and the Philippines. Like many Blacks I talked to, Sherman viewed attacks on elderly Asians by young men as cowardly. “Just because he’s old and Asian — find someone else to get down with,” he said.

Violence, retribution, discipline

In general, the unwritten rules of prison do not sanction certain types of violence, especially against the elderly. But that does not guarantee perfect compliance. 

In prison, the consequence for attacking anyone — especially someone from another race — will solicit the inquiry: “Why?” If the answer is, “Because I hate Asians,” that community is likely to want some form of retribution. 

Generally, the racial group of the attacker will get the first opportunity to clean up the problem and deal with the “wrongdoer.” To right a wrong — real or imagined — is to earn respect in prison. If the wrongdoer is not available, anyone in his racial group is subject to being attacked, especially if the wrongdoer’s group has not taken disciplinary action against the inciting offender. That non-action signals that the wrongdoer’s attack was likely sanctioned. This is the point at which serious tension spreads across the yard.

Here’s another scenario: Say a 25-year-old Black man attacks a 70-year-old Asian man. People frown on that, and the youngster earns no stripes. But since he’s so eager to fight, the Asian prisoners may find someone else his age in the larger AAPI community. They may get a 25-year-old Samoan who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 235 pounds of solid muscle. Now the Black man has to take the challenge, or the “fade” as we call it inside. 

If the young Black man turns it down, he’s considered a coward — for declining the fight and for jumping on the old Asian man in the first place. But the prison codes dictate that he has to take the fade, or else. If not, his own race could beat him down, or “roll him up,” which means to “remove” him from the yard. Once someone is made an outcast for messing up, that reputation will follow him to the next prison.

Prison officials in California are quite aware of “removals.” It’s how some prisoners end up in protective custody or on sensitive needs yards, where they are placed for safety reasons. 

In many cases, one race will not expose other members of the race to danger — by means of a removal, for example — because of one person’s stupidity or recklessness. If a melee or riot were to transpire, there would be more to lose, including visits, canteen, phone calls or the myriad contraband that flows through the underground economy. It’s why violence must occur for a “legitimate” reason; the stakes otherwise are just too high.

‘We have to learn how to coexist’

Violence in prison has to be justified by some contrived human activity. Some examples include unpaid debts, disrespect, snitching or case factors, including the severity of crime that got a prisoner convicted. Those most often subjected to violence based on their convictions tend to be in for sex crimes against children. 

According to Tongpalan, the Filipino, violence is also the result of small power struggles over drugs, security and real estate. The latter refers to territory on the recreation yard, such as access to space, telephones or showers. At San Quentin, Asians have their own area on the lower yard. In more than 11 years, I’ve never set foot on it — out of respect.

“Whatever [society] thinks about how we’re living in here, we’ve got something to teach the world about how we navigate in here with each other,” said Tongpalan. 

Kamsan “Rascal” Suon, whose family immigrated in 1981 to the U.S. from Cambodia as refugees, agreed. He said that men inside, as a sign of mutual respect, learn to “not overstep each other’s boundaries.”

“This is a community in here, and we have to learn how to coexist,” said Suon, who has been incarcerated for more than 24 years. “It’s set in stone, so we know how to survive.”

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.

Kevin D. Sawyer is a contributing editor for PJP; a member of the Society of Professional Journalists; and a former associate editor and member of the San Quentin News team that won SPJ’s 2014 James Madison Freedom of Information Award. His work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland Post, California Prison Focus and others. He was a 2019 PEN American Honorable Mention in nonfiction and a 2016 recipient of The James Aronson Award for community journalism. Prior to incarceration, Sawyer worked in the telecommunications industry for 14 years.