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A Voice Inside

We Can Put Throwaway Kids in Prison, but That Doesn't Mean They'll Be Quiet

November 03, 2002|Kerry Madden | Novelist Kerry Madden is the author of "Writing Smarts: A Girl's Guide to Journaling, Poetry, Storytelling and School Papers."

When I visit Michael Duc Ta in prison, my writing student wants to discuss "Jude the Obscure," Thomas Hardy's 1895 novel. It means thinking back to when I was an exchange student in rainy Manchester, England, studying 19th century literature in 1982--the same year Duc was born to Vietnamese boat parents at what was then Queen of Angels Hospital in Los Angeles.

The trappings of the prison visiting room are a far cry from my "Women in 19th Century Literature" tutorial. As Duc launches into Hardy, a sleepy woman nearby spreads out a vending machine feast for her boyfriend, who has yet to appear in his prison denim. A mother grabs up her son as he enters with a guard, and she refuses to let go.

While these dramas play out around us, Duc is away in England with Jude, a stonemason who fills his mind with books and longs for higher education, but who has a string of bad luck in love and life that leaves him forever short of his goals. Duc shakes his head and asks, "How could Jude love Sue still after all the stuff she puts him through? All for what? Nothing! What do you think?"

I explain that the 5 a.m. drive isn't helping my memory and say, "Could you tell me the story again?" Duc's eyes flash as he describes how Jude and Sue's love brought them only heartache. I understand why he relates so passionately to Jude. They both desperately seek an education. Jude wants Oxford. Duc wants to get his GED, since he tested highly gifted in English before being sent to prison. (Novelist Mark Salzman called him the most talented and motivated writer he encountered during his three years teaching at the juvenile facility.) But Duc has been waiting two years for prison officials to administer the test that could give him the equivalent of a high school diploma.

Duc is serving time for attempted murder. At age 16, he drove a car involved in a gang shooting. Duc had no priors, was not the shooter and no one was injured, but the state pressed charges. The judge advised him to take 15-to-life. Duc agreed. But the two juveniles arrested with him did not. It was a package deal. The case went to trial and the three were sentenced 35 years to life. At his sentencing, the same judge told Duc not to feel too bad because he'd still be "younger than I am today" when he is released.

Unless things change, Duc, now 20, will be eligible for parole in the year 2031. He will be 49. He faces an appeal hearing this month. He may get a new trial, or the court might order resentencing, or the decision could stand. According to statistics, the appellate court overturns lower court decisions in less than 4% of cases.

So Duc is working on his writing, and he sends me his work to critique. I gave him an exercise called "I Remember." He gave me this:

I remember coming home late one night. I remember the look on my mother's face, a look of lost hope. I remember sitting in my room trying to find clothes that were thick so the impact of my father's hits wouldn't mark me. I remember him walking through the door like a madman. I remember the first swipe to the face that blinded me as he lost control. I remember it felt like hours before the beating ended.

Duc's memories are consistent with police records and court documents, and I cannot help but think of my three children, especially my son, Flannery, now a teenager. Both Flannery and Duc love the TV show "Smallville" and the Dodgers. Both wore braces, but their experiences could not have been more different. My son's orthodontist has smiling clerks who soften their presentation of a $500 fee with, "Gee, what a pretty sweater!" Duc went into juvenile hall with his braces. They stayed on for three years before a prison dentist removed them with pliers.

Duc had asked me about my three children, and hadn't seen a child in more than three years, so on my next visit, after discussing it with my husband, I take our 3-year-old, Norah. Together they stack Scrabble tiles into castles, and Duc grins a lot. When we say goodbye, Norah gives him butterfly kisses. My husband gives me earrings and prayer stones he bought at a nearby Indian powwow while he waited for us.

I wish I could give Duc prayer stones.

We drive through the Mojave heat toward home. Duc sends a letter about how much he enjoyed meeting Norah. His godmother sends him books regularly--he was then reading "This Boy's Life" and "Frankenstein"--and he says he never knew that, in prison, reading would open up the world to him. Michael Duc Ta also writes poetry, and he wrote this:

Today's younger

Generation of incarceration

Must be a joke

Sending a kid

Off with life

Without parole

Seeing society smile

Because they threw away a child...

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