Photography by Aaron Huang
editor's letter
The Enemy Territory Within

During my second year of law school, I got the last spot for a winter clinical course that allowed students to represent a prisoner with a life sentence before the Massachusetts Parole Board. The client I was paired up with for the next three months was supposed to be one of the toughest on our roster — an inmate notorious for his capricious temper, set to face his third parole hearing.

At our first class, we went around the room, sharing why we wanted to take the class. When my turn came, I awkwardly blurted out, “I’m here, because I believe empathy has a role in this profession. If I can let one person know that their story matters, then that’s all that matters.” While some of my peers nodded in agreement, our two clinical supervisors soon got to the heart of the matter and explained recent changes made to the Board in the wake of a controversial tragedy a few years before. The revamped Board brought on new members with predominantly prosecutorial and law enforcement backgrounds, upsetting any attempt for balanced decision-making. By the time our quarter began, essentially every prisoner who had stood before them had been denied parole. 

As I walked home that night, I began to feel impassioned about the season ahead of me. I started to realize that indigent people of color have remained misunderstood by society, left without access to vital opportunities or resources, while relentlessly exposed to abuse, drugs, violence, and other forms of trauma. This new Board represented the state’s growing distrust in the already misunderstood — with no desire to understand. 

Indigent people of color have remained misunderstood by society, left without access to vital opportunities or resources.

Such disregard for the imago dei within these souls is utterly foreign to the Jesus I know. The Jesus who acknowledged the presence of women and children, whose society would have preferred they remain invisible. The Jesus who willingly touched and healed those considered unclean. Jesus not only understood the misunderstood, but He made sure they knew He understood them. I looked into the heart of God that night and saw it breaking. This season became important to me, because I saw how important it was to Him.

By December, two of my classmates and I began our weekly visits to the state prison. After undergoing security clearance, we waited in a holding area, where a security camera stared down at us until a buzzer went off, letting us into the visitor center — an open space with chairs where loved ones could sit and talk, a children’s play area, and a few attorney-client rooms that could barely fit a desk and two chairs.

The Enemy Territory Within

When I finally met my client, I found before me a heavyset man with hair nearly reaching the shoulders and oversized glasses from the 80s. For a brief moment, my client looked a bit incredulous to see me standing before him, but he quickly broke into a smiley “hello” and wanted to get straight to work. He had brought with him a stack of paperwork and certificates earned from his programming over the years. My client began telling me about the programs he had done, what had gone wrong at his last parole hearing, and how he wanted to prove the Board wrong. After listening to him for a while, I caught wind of his impressive work ethic, contending with the memories of his past that would often fan the embers of his anger back to gold. 

• • •

With the new year upon us, I began role-playing with my client, cross-examining him on topics the Board would undoubtedly cover. He had to be able to relay the details of his underlying crime in a way that reflected genuine remorse, insight into what caused him to do what he did, and a traceable growth related to the programs he had completed while in prison. Over time, I learned about my client’s familial experiences of loss and abandonment. His aggression had unfortunately been borne out of a youthful protective instinct that had gone unchecked. 

My supervisor, TA, and I immediately discovered that he had trouble staying consistent with the facts of his case. He would get longwinded about unimportant facts and defensive about anything that made him look worse than he believed himself to be, showing he had yet to make a connection between the lessons from his programming and his behaviors that led to the crime. We had two months to work out decades’ worth of emotions; it seemed that God was bypassing the pruning and going straight for the uprooting process. 

My client was not trying to lie about what happened — he was scared of being honest with himself. He was being human, a common truth we often forget when it comes to prisoners. The deeper we went, the more these questions stirred within me: How often do I do the same thing with my broken past, especially when something is my fault? How often am I truly honest with myself about my own narrative? My TA and I had to help my client set foot into his own enemy territory — the truth about how his past behavior had affected others — so he could overtake this muddied landscape and reclaim a soul-level liberty. 

How often am I truly honest with myself about my own narrative?

His first step into this enemy territory became a first step into my own unconquered enemy territory. When my TA joined me on a visit to role-play his cross examination, she went after him unabashedly, the way the Board would. Her merciless questioning not only left him bewildered, but she also made me see the caliber of zeal and bravery required to truly advocate well for my client. She essentially held a mirror to my face, and I crumbled before the reflection. I had to contend with my unbelief in my own humanity. 

Much like my client, I had undergone personal loss and abandonment, yet my variation of a protective instinct came in the guise of perfectionism. Here I was, wholeheartedly believing in the dignity of my client’s humanity, when all the while, I was in full denial of my own. This did not make me selfless or noble; this made me a hypocrite. With new eyes for the truth, I found God already standing in my enemy territory, this marshy pit of the past, full of lies, shame, and invisibility, that disconnected me from who He knew I could be. 

My TA told me that I had a way of communicating with my client so that he actually listened and applied what I said, but the confidence I showed on the outside needed to match what was on the inside; I needed to believe in myself as much I helped others believe in themselves. I could not ask my client to tell his story truthfully or believe me when I reminded him of his value if I could not do the same. I could not give what I did not possess. 

The Enemy Territory Within

Yet, I did not possess this sort of grace for my past because of my fear-driven self-preservation. Relinquishing the right to protect myself would mean dethroning my past’s power over me and crossing over into a new, uncharted identity. I was mortified at the thought of trusting the scope of my God-given potential, but my client was waiting for me. I realized I could not keep protecting myself at my client’s expense. I had to climb out from under my covers and shield him with a solid defense. 

I did not possess this sort of grace for my past because of my fear-driven self-preservation.

A few weeks later, another classmate came to role-play with my client. We discovered that my client not only struggled with factual consistency, but he would tell his narrative with almost no emotion regarding the victim, yet with great emotion regarding his own family. This important revelation allowed us to explore his lingering bitterness toward the victim and his need for insight and empathy toward this individual — to see him, too, as a human being with dignity, who did not deserve the consequences of his actions, no matter how much my client felt wronged by him. Debriefing this revelation with my client would ultimately help him reclaim his enemy territory.

• • •

With less than a month to go before the hearing, my TA came back to cross-examine my client. She drilled him again with even tougher questions. This time, when asked to speak about the victim, my client choked up in tears. He was able to articulate the victim’s perspective and legitimate fears at that time that led to their destructive exchange of pain. Transformation had finally entered the room, and my TA commended him for finding genuine remorse. 

My client later explained to me that he had begun thinking about the victim more after being cross-examined by my classmate. Reflecting on his memories of the victim allowed him to consider what this person, this human being, might have been doing or feeling in the present. This was no longer about preparing my client to answer the Board’s questions; he was becoming a true student of himself. He took the initiative to internalize what we had worked on and proactively think about a painful part of his past, an untouchable personal triumph that would outlast the hearing. 

The night before the hearing, I could feel how much I had changed since first signing up for this class. After surviving a three-month whirlwind, I felt ready to go into what would be the most crucial hour of my life. I was so unnaturally calm that night, I was able to rest in prayer and worship, feeling God smile as I smiled. I even went to bed early and slept well, something I never do. In fact, I do not believe I have ever slept as well as I did that night, before or since. 

• • •

On the day of the hearing, my client showed up in a button-up shirt with his hair pulled back. I prayed that God would shield my client with peace as the Board began their harsh questioning and made some searing remarks. My client did well despite the circumstances and his nervousness, to the point where the chairman of the Board told him he had made significant progress and showed much more candor than he did at his last hearings. For the chairman to say anything positive to an inmate at a hearing is close to unheard of and truly remarkable. 

I could not have been more proud of my client for communicating as clearly as he could, apologizing when he misunderstood something, clarifying what he thought they were asking, and explaining why he gave certain answers. 

Right before my closing argument, the chairman interrupted me twice during some preliminary points I had to make, creating a bit of a back-and-forth between us until I finally said, “If I may continue now ... ”. He responded with dissatisfied resignation. Although some of the Board members started packing up their things before I had finished, I gave my closing statement and declared my last words without backing down, looking each of them in the eyes as I did. Not everyone in my class got to say they fought with the chairman of the Massachusetts Parole Board; I found it hard to believe that I had. 

When it mattered most, God took me through and out of my own enemy territory, fortifying my voice so I could speak clearly and confidently on my client’s behalf. 

When it mattered most, God took me through and out of my own enemy territory, fortifying my voice so I could speak clearly and confidently on my client’s behalf. 

My client came out of the hearing room with a headache but was pleased that the Board had recognized his progress. I congratulated and thanked him for working so hard and blessed him one last time. By the end of that day, I felt drained, relieved, and utterly exuberant. I did not know who I was. How I responded to different moments throughout that day seemed to fundamentally contradict who I was and yet, that day was perhaps the first day I was who I was truly meant to be. 

• • •

About 15 months later, the Board finally made their decision. My client was denied parole and given a five-year setback, meaning he would remain incarcerated for another five years before his next parole hearing. 

This fate was not limited to my client. All but one of our clinic’s clients had been denied parole. The Board’s retributive nature reflects how calloused our criminal justice system can be toward those stuck within its revolving door. 

The Board’s retributive nature reflects how calloused our criminal justice system can be toward those stuck within its revolving door. 

Indigent Black and Latinx communities disproportionately face incarceration in this country. They live in the chasm between justice and the reality of their hellish nightmare. Similarly, certain Southeast Asian communities are more likely to grapple with incarceration, while East Asians are more likely to benefit from having lighter skin and other privileges that distance them from this plight.

The disenfranchised will keep living within this chasm if no one pulls them out. Our country’s boat has to be rocked, as even now, waves of reform surge from the horizon. Prosecutors around America galvanize to end mass incarceration from the courtroom. Thousands of brave Black and Latinx activists fight for the souls lost to police violence and inhuman detention. Organizations empower the formerly incarcerated reentering society, some of whom now return to prison, not as inmates but as volunteers. 

It is incumbent upon the Asian and Pacific Islander communities to join these movements, because our brothers and sisters are spent. The uphill struggle they face is overwhelming, and solidarity is required, especially from the Body of Christ, for whom maintaining racial or class divisions is not an option. To embody God’s heart is to say, even though I was not pierced directly or similarly, because they pierced you, they pierced me, so I will fight with you.

Like this article? You can get it in print:

Inheritance is a nonprofit that is made possible by readers like you. Donate or subscribe to fund Asian and Pacific Islander faith stories.