We Believed We Were Untouchable

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BANG, BANG, BANG!!! With no regard for human life, I recklessly shoot four times into a group of my rivals and Phung Thanh Nguyen is lying bloody on the floor.

I wake up startled as the reality of what I have done hits me. I open my eyes and I’m back in my tiny cell sweating from the nightmare I had caused. Serving 23 years into my incarceration I try to gain insight into why I became this monster. And I start to reflect …

I was born on Jan. 24, 1975, in Saigon, the capital of Vietnam, in the midst of a Communist war between North Vietnam and South Vietnam. In 1979, my parents had no choice but to pack up their belongings, whatever essentials they were able to carry on their backs, while also carrying my baby brother (2 years old) and I (4 years old) in their arms.

Luckily, through my parents’ perseverance, determination and sheer will power, we stepped across the borderline that separated Vietnam from Thailand. By luck, I mean being captured by Thailand’s military personnel and thrown into their refugee camps and interrogated intensively.

Sometimes in my dreams, I sneak under the prison fence with few other kids in search of fighting crickets, listening for their chirping in the tall grass fields. Not being aware of the danger that awaited a little boy like me in this kind of environment. But somehow, I’d always found my way safely back home and do battles with the few crickets that I had accumulated. These reflections and dreams are always the same and they seem so real to me. However, they are just vague memories of what was, in the back of my tiny mind.

We were like inmates, trapped within their compound, and we were at their mercy. Background checks were done to verify that we were not spies (my dad having served for the Southern Vietnamese military). They concluded their investigation that we were harmless, handing us over to the United States Embassy.

Now, all I can recall is my new home in the United States. I can only remember living in Orange County (in Southern California). I was raised in a good and loving home; I felt safe. I remember always jumping into my parents’ bed and hugging them as we watched movies, until I fell asleep.

My parents groomed me to the best of their ability. Through culture and nurture, I was taught in the same way my parents had been taught by their parents. My dad was a military man, therefore he was disciplined, and my mom was strict; they resorted to severe spanking and physical/verbal abuse to maintain control in their home.

Because of these causative factors, at the age of 12 to 13, my young mind led me to develop “false negative thinking” and I no longer believed that my parents loved me as they should or understood me. I held on to resentment towards my parents every time they spanked/yelled/hurt me. I did not want to forgive them so I became rebellious and I seeked acceptance and guidance elsewhere.

I was no longer content at home. I made a decision to choose my friends/gang over my family, choosing to leave the sanctuary of a good home. Because of my “false beliefs,” I believed that my friends cared for me and loved me more than my own family did.

My friends fought and willingly placed their own safety on the line for me. Whenever I needed them, they were always there for me and my parents were never around.

Within my gang, I felt accepted and I felt important. My friends didn’t need to understand me, as with my parents; I was always right in their eyes. They had my back regardless if I was right or wrong. However, this came with a cost; I also had to have their backs at all costs.

At the age of 13, I didn’t really understand what I was getting myself into and I didn’t care. All that I’d cared about was being accepted and getting people to like me. Everything that I was taught to value — life, health, family, love, integrity, trust, security, privacy and freedom, I had traded away to be involved in a gang.

Having conflicting values with how I was raised and being a gang member, I had to deceitfully hide who I was at all times in front of my parents. I didn’t want to hear how I would have disappointed them again and again … I became two different people with two personalities; I was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

At first, being in a gang was cool. I just hung out and kicked it with the homies and the girls that wanted to hang around us. The girls were attracted to our gang because we gave them security in numbers and they thought this was tough.

However, with big ego came selfish pride and things were going to change. I wanted higher recognition and I was willing to recklessly do anything to gain this status; I wanted to be known and respected by everyone, especially the girls.

It seemed like my friends were always getting into trouble and I was on call to back them up. The more people I’d beat up and hurled the more I was praised, and the more recognition I’d received, the more enemies I made. As a kid, I started fighting with my fists, which eventually led to using any weapons that I could find.

Now imagine me beating someone down with a baseball bat or a lead pipe and seeing that person on the ground bleeding; however, not stopping until I was satisfied. It took a lot of courage, anger and rage for me to do what I did. Most of the time, I didn’t want to look weak in front of my friends; I had a tough image to uphold. Therefore, showing weakness or losing a fight/battle was not an option for me. I was in it to win it …

As I gained in age, structure and size, my ego also grew along with me. With teenage girls fighting for my affection, I had to constantly impress them. … lifting, stealing and burglarizing innocent people’s homes when they weren’t around. As a selfish and an arrogant gang member, I thought I was entitled to whatever I wanted. I didn’t care about other people’s financial problems and burdens. All I’d cared about was myself.

Now that I had the money and the girls, I had to hold on to them. I became obsessed with my possessions; I beat up people who looked and fancied my girls. Making a name for myself, I had many enemies hating me because I had to beat up a lot of people to get where I was.

And as I became more involved with other gangs for added security, I made rivals as a result. Now, everywhere I went I had to watch my back and I became insecure. With money in our hands, my gang brought guns and whoever became a threat to our boundary, they had to be dealt with. Now, everywhere I went with my friends, we had to have a gun in the car. This gave us “false courage” and we believed we were untouchable.

Now that I was 18 years old, I thought I knew it all. I thought I knew everything that life had to offer and no one could have told me otherwise. I thought that my friends/gang loved me and through thick and thin, they were always going to be there for me, therefore, I was willing to do the same for them. They became my family and I would have done anything to not disappoint them and uphold the gang’s name.

And that’s exactly what I did. On July 7, 1993, I went after my rivals and shot at them inside Westminster Mall. I did this as a result of feeling disrespected, and my pride could not allow these people to get away with it. At the time, I had no regards for anyone, or the law; I just needed to hurt the people that made me look weak in front of my homeboys and my girlfriend. I was mad at myself for allowing these people to get away with disregarding me and I didn’t care what happened to anyone.

At the age of 18, I was arrested and convicted on four counts of premeditated attempted murder and two enhancements (gang allegation and inflicting great bodily injury) and sentenced to 68 years to life. My future and my life was over with. I had no hopes of ever being with my family and my friends ever again.

However, being a gang member, I could not rid myself of my gang mentality and I brought it with me into prison. I contributed and I made it worst when I adapted prison gang politics. For the first 15 years of my incarceration, no matter how hard I tried, I went back to the same lifestyle that had brought me to prison. I continually harmed people and my victims list was growing. I wanted to stop what I was doing but I couldn’t. I was addicted to my gang lifestyle.

As I’m sitting here writing you this letter, for the last 23 years I have been doing dead time. I’ve been locked away in this hellish place I now call home; treated worse than an animal, shunned and deterred from the community I have hurt. I’m away from my family, friends and loved ones, and I miss them so much. Distances and concrete walls trap me on all corners of my life.

The things that I didn’t appreciate and value before are the things I miss the most. And what I come to realize is my family is the most important thing in my life; my so-called friends/homeboys/gang associates and the girls that had promised me forever, are all gone.

I come to see the harshness of reality that the other people I’d trusted and was willing to die for had never loved me or cared for me. Every one of us were selfish and we had our own agenda to be who we were. They had used me, just as I needed them to make a name for myself. A name that has now vanished behind prison walls.

I had fought and was willing to die for my associates back then, which I now realize was meaningless. I regret all my bad choices and decisions. I wish I was never a gang member; I have renounced my gang membership and given my life over to Christ as my lord and personal savior. With the help from my higher power Jesus Christ, I am finally able to let go of my destructive behavior and lifestyle.

I now live a new life, still making amends for the wrongs I had done. I can’t change my past, but I can change the way I now live my future. I will never forget the role I played in hurting so many lives. This will be a lifelong reminder to me that my negative actions have consequences.

I was taught values; I was taught better than this, my parents didn’t raise me up to be this way. Therefore, I have no one to blame but myself. I hate the fact that I had brought suffering to so many lives because of my bad choices and decisions, and I want to apologize to all the families and the community that was affected by my negative actions.

In 1979, my family risked our lives to escape the war in Vietnam and I went and voluntarily placed myself into a war of a different kind; a war that consists of myself and gangs. We faced so much hardship to get out of Thailand’s refugee camps and I went and ended up in prison. My parents gave up all they had to seek freedom for our family and I went and lost what little freedom I had.

I, alone, have destroyed my parents’ hopes and dreams; I am their failure. Because of me, our struggle to get out of Vietnam was in vain. My own choices and decisions was my own self-destruction and misery and I contemplate all the time on why I ever left home …

Having had a spiritual awakening, I want to carry my message out to you and others. I, myself, wish I could have known this before I chose gangs and crimes over my family. Although it may be too late for me, it’s not too late for you. Please don’t let my regrets ever be yours.

So whoever that is that’s reading my letter, please understand that you are our future generation and that lives matter. Gangs and crimes only lead towards path of hurt, prison and death …

Don’t waste your life away in misery behind prison walls like I did. Time is the most precious gift that one’s higher power has given to us. No matter how much money you have, you cannot buy more. Therefore, use it wisely and productively, living life free and to its fullest, bringing honor to your God, your family and yourself. With this I now end my story with love and tears. …

Phong Dang is serving a 68-year to life sentence at Folsom State Prison in Represa, California.

The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth, was founded by David Inocencio in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in California, six other states and Washington, D.C. Submissions and new partners are welcomed. Write to him at dinocencio@thebeatwithin.org.

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