Duc Ta Status by Diane Lefer

When Kids Get Locked Up – Duc Ta’s Story by Diane Lefer

Sometimes I forget not everyone’s been to prison. So if you want to come along with me to visit my friend Duc Ta, first you’ll need to get a visiting form approved-a process that may take months. Then you’ll need a new wardrobe. A visitor can’t wear denim or dark green or a t-shirt with writing on it or footwear without back straps or an underwire bra or a shirt that exposes any skin if you reach your arms way above your head and stretch real hard. You can carry a purse or pocketbook made of clear plastic or, if you don’t want to invest in one, a Ziplock bag will do. In it, you place $30 in singles or change to buy lunch from the vending machines, your picture ID, your car key (no clicker), and an unopened packet of tissues in a see-through wrapper. You can’t carry a gift, newspaper, paper, pencil, and if you’re going to need tampax, bring quarters for the vending machine inside and hope it’s not broken or empty. You’ll also need to learn a new vocabulary. OK, let’s go.

A lot of you probably already know about Duc’s case, as he was featured in Juvies, Leslie Neale’s eye-opening documentary about the juvenile in/justice system that tries minors as adults. (Check it out at

A quick refresher: In 1999, when he was sixteen, Duc drove the wrong kids home from school-gang members who lived in his neighborhood. A gun was fired out the window. No one was hit. No one injured. Duc was arrested, tried as an adult, represented by an indifferent public defender, and sentenced 35 years-life.

I thought an “enhancement” made something more attractive, but in Duc’s case it meant the mandatory imposition of additional years for his presumed gang membership. Though he’d grown up in poverty and in a gang-infested neighborhood, Duc had always resisted and refused to join any gang. He got another “enhancement” – more years because of the presence of the gun. What I later learned when I got to know him better, the court heard he used to ditch school but didn’t hear he spent that time not getting in trouble in the streets but rather wandering the galleries at LACMA and the Norton Simon. The court heard from a “gang expert” who knew him, but didn’t hear she had met him not as a banger but as a child who’d suffered severe abuse from his father.

Nine years have passed since the trial. Duc has never seen the documentary. His life within the prison system didn’t end when the camera stopped rolling.

The first time I went to Corcoran State Prison to see him, I got up before dawn for the 180-mile drive up 99, the gulag highway, where almost every town has a prison. So I drove three hours-grateful that I own a car–hoping I would not arrive to find everyone on lockdown and visiting privileges canceled. The guard at the gate told me I was in the wrong place. “You want the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility.” Strange. Duc doesn’t drink or uses drugs but it turned out the “Substance Abuse Treatment Facility” is actually a “level 4-180 yard,”-maximum-security prison for California’s most violent felons. That made even less sense than Duc being in for substance abuse. The inmates there are “cell-fed,” because it’s too dangerous to let them in the same room for meals. To prevent prisoners from signaling one another, all the windows have been painted black and not a single ray of natural light enters.

I asked, “What are you doing here?” It turns out Duc actually requested a transfer to Corcoran in order to get out of Tehachapi, also maximum security, because of the pervasive racism. As one of the few Asians, he was a constant target of racial violence from inmates while guards harassed him for having white visitors. He spent a year in the Security Housing Unit for his “own protection,” where he was kept in solitary confinement and protected–from books. During those twelve months, a friend on the outside helped keep Duc’s mind and soul alive by photocopying whole novels and mailing them to him, pages at a time, in envelopes thin enough that they wouldn’t be confiscated. During his years in prison, Duc has been beaten and stabbed and has witnessed countless acts of brutality, but he says, “If I survived the SHU, I can survive anything.”

Though the California Department of Corrections is now the CDCR, with the “R” standing for “rehabilitation,” there are no programs to assist prisoners like Duc with higher education. For years, the authorities even blocked his attempts to take the high school equivalency exam. Friends on the outside raised money to pay his tuition for a college correspondence course-an opportunity most prisoners don’t have.

Here’s another “R” word: “restitution.” At Corcoran, I found Duc was working double shifts at his prison job, at 18 cents an hour to raise the $4,000 he owes. I used to think “restitution” meant compensation paid to a victim. There was no victim in the incident which led to Duc’s arrest but the State automatically takes 55% of his earnings to pay back the cost of prosecuting him.

Since Duc was featured in Juvies, people have rallied round him. Mark Geragos took his case pro bono and got the “enhancements” thrown out. More than two years ago, Duc’s sentence was reduced and he was ordered to be transferred out of maximum security, but two years later, he was still there. As the sentence remains indeterminate, the State can still keep him for life. Statistics show that youths who are tried as adults tend to get harsher sentences than real adults for comparable crimes. Duc has already served more time than some adults who’ve actually killed people.

Of course, his friends all waited and hoped he’d make parole. A small problem arose: Duc was told he had to complete an anger management class before going before the Parole Board-a date that keeps getting postponed–but at Corcoran, only inmates on psychiatric meds are allowed into the class.

Duc’s supporters finally managed to get him transferred out of max so that he could fulfill the anger management requirement. He was moved to Pleasant Valley State Prison, famous because the disease Valley Fever is endemic in the institution. Almost all inmates contract it after which they either develop immunity or suffer permanent organ damage.

Hector and I have only been to Pleasant Valley once as the prison has been on almost continuous lockdown-no visits permitted. Duc was happy, though, when we saw him. He had a new prison job, counseling other inmates, doing gang intervention and substance abuse counseling. He loved the work but he was being advised to quit. Now he’s told he must complete vocational training before the Parole Board date. The Associates degree he earned behind bars doesn’t count. His skill with computers doesn’t count. The fact that Mark Geragos talked about hiring him as a paralegal doesn’t count. And the counseling-which he would like to make a career-doesn’t count. At Pleasant Valley, he’s been advised to enroll instead in the approved vocational program that would train him for a lucrative career in…floral arranging.

That’s the world Duc lives in. And he’s one of the lucky ones, with champions on the outside and his own intelligence and strong spirit. If he gets out soon, I’m sure he’ll do well, but how much longer will he be able to keep his personality and integrity intact?

A few hours after I posted a version of this essay at, the phone rang with the news that Duc had contracted Valley Fever, a case severe enough to require lung surgery. He’s been transferred to a hospital in Bakersfield where he’ll be undergoing treatment – drugs with potentially severe side effects – for the next month or two. Today is October 22, 2008. If you want to send Duc a get well card in the hospital this fall, you can write him at Michael Duc Ta, #T05249, c/o Mercy Hospital, 2215 Truxton Avenue, Bakersfield, CA 99301; Attn: Guardian Unit, 5 West, Lt. Ellis.

And any Californian who can write a letter of support and express interest in hiring Duc should get in touch with us at re your valuable support in writing once he gets a date with the Parole Board.

 Update September 2010: Duc finally got his parole hearing. The commissioners praised him to the skies and commended him before sending him back to prison and telling him to try again in three years.

He has since been transferred back to Corcoran, to a loud crowded dorm. He says it’s as loud as Wall Street. Nothing to do all day but read, but he’s only allowed three books a month. Makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? But he did have time to write, and not just letters. An essay he wrote about a jackrabbit in the prison yard has been accepted for publication in the forthcoming anthology, What’s Nature Got to Do with Me? Staying Wildly Sane in a Mad World.

His current address for letters is: Duc Ta, #T05420, CSATF/State Prison. PO Box 5248, B3-217 Low, Corcoran, CA 93212