Meet Phoeun. Phoeun thought he would die in prison after being sentenced to 35 years to life - starting his time in a maximum security prison. Due to the complete lack of programming at his prison, he recalls being in a state of mental incarceration. When he came to San Quentin, he enrolled in college courses through the Prison University Program and graduated before his family. It was the first time he had seen them in over 20 years. #FirstWatch


I started my time in a maximum security in Salinas Valley State Prison. It's a level 4 yard and it is really, really intense there. These facilities just opened and what that meant for us prisoners coming into the system is there is a lot of people vying for positions on the yard for territories, for tables, for exercising areas, and there are a lot of riots and fights that happened that I witnessed. I seen on multiple occasions guys get cut with razors. I mean I seen one not to far away from me, a guy get cut from the head all the way to his chin. Freedom was nowhere near. I was just sentenced to 35 to life and I thought that I would die in prison. That feeling is like waking up everyday just feeling really defeated. It is like getting up and feeling like the air is not even fresh. On the maximum security yard where I was at, there was no programs, I don’t remember any programs at all. San Quentin is interesting because once I came here I saw volunteers come in so it kind of piqued my mind, why do you come in here and help inmates? Growing up from my parents, my mom and my dad, they always told me the one thing that you can never go wrong with is education. So for some reason that stuck in my head, and when there was a college course here through PUP Prison University Program, I owe it to myself to just check it out. It helped free my mind. I don’t no longer have to be incarcerated mentally anymore even though I am physically and that makes a huge difference. So I went from feeling defeated to being a little bit more liberated. I been really distant from my family for a long time and in 2/15 when I graduated it was the first time I’ve seen them in over 20 years. I wanted to honor them with this certificate, with this diploma, that this is not only for me, this is for you guys too. I was a gang member, I was active. This degree showed them that I’m no longer that person. When I received my diploma I came down the steps, the stage, and gave each one of them a hug. It was a perfect way to show them that I have changed.


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