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Where Redemption and Service Have No Walls

By Tim Meehan

The funny thing about redemption is that it can look completely different depending on the lens in which it’s viewed.

Quan Huynh was sentenced to 15 years-to-life for the murder of a fellow gang member in Los Angeles in 1999. He served 16, turning his life around in prison and eventually being granted parole.

To most people, his redemption started the day he turned his life over to helping people both avoid devastating life-altering decisions and recover from said situations. He wrote a book and spends most of his days sharing his story with groups of people all over the country, including an upcoming stop at Cal State San Marcos on Monday.

But Huynh’s redemption actually came recently. It came after years of contemplating his fate. Thousands of hours spent sharing his story. Hundreds of stops at prisons, community centers, rehabilitation houses and schools. And every single interaction with a prisoner trying to figure out how to be human again.

His journey to redemption came full circle when he realized one day that by helping formerly incarcerated people live normal lives, he was doing exactly what his father did when Huynh was a child.


A selfless life

Huynh will present “Finding Freedom Within While Serving a Life Sentence” at CSUSM as part of the Arts & Lectures series March 13 at 6 p.m. in the USU Ballroom. Tickets can be purchased by community members for $5 here. The event is free to CSUSM students, faculty, staff, and alumni.

“For a college group, I would hope to give them a different perspective on what the media may portray as the narrative of what it means when someone says violent offenders, murderer or anything like that,” Huynh said recently from his home in Orange County. “I'd like to give them a different perspective on what that actually means or what it could actually mean, like the possibilities for redemption, the possibilities for transformation. I think these are also going to be tomorrow's leaders. So I think the other point of it is to expose them to a different perspective and the possibilities of people making terrible choices, but then yet still able to start to turn their life around.”

When Huynh was a kid growing up in Utah, his father created a refugee association for Vietnamese immigrants to help ease their transition to a new country.

The family used to take long drives from Utah to neighboring states, bringing hope to refugees who often didn’t even speak English. Huynh’s father would help them set up social security documents, drivers license applications, and other legal documents most of us take for granted.

Call it curiosity, resentment or envy of sharing his father’s time with complete strangers, but Huynh was admittedly conflicted. One day, he asked his father a simple question: What are you doing this for?

“For me, I did not understand why he was doing work for what he did not get paid for,” Huynh said. “It just baffled me. My mind as a kid is like, ‘This doesn't make sense. Why would my dad do this?' ”

He received an answer, but as what often happens with kids, he didn’t particularly like it.


The world turns upside down

Thirteen is a brutally confusing age for children. One part young adult and two parts emotional roller coaster, Huynh one day had to start living life without his father.

Leukemia was the culprit. This type of blood cell cancer can be quick and unforgiving, and it took the life of Huynh’s father at an age when the world often doesn’t make sense even with two parents.

Gone was the man who was formally recognized by U.S. government officials for his work with refugees. No longer was the former military officer whose steps Huynh expected to follow.

In fact, Huynh was being groomed – albeit at a young age – to be the first Vietnamese-American to go to West Point.

Implied dreams are pressure-filled already. Add losing the man who was the inspiration for those dreams, and it’s no wonder Huynh turned to the lure of gangs to fill a void.

He found trouble, and that trouble landed him in and out of jail until he made life behind bars a more permanent solution to his trauma. He was convicted of murdering a fellow gang member and sentenced to 15 years-to-life.

At a time when California was simply not offering parole to any type of life sentences, Huynh thought it was basically a death sentence.

“Here I am doing a life sentence. How did my life end up like this?” Huynh asked himself. “And contrasting it with my father's life when we came here to the U.S. and think about what my father had created in Utah. How did my life end up like this? Is this it for me, like am I meant to die?”


Finding a connection

Around the 12th year of his sentence, Huynh’s father’s father died, and it brought back waves of a child’s regret. Huynh was almost the same exact age at this moment as his father was when he died.

But instead of going down dark holes, Huynh chose to explore rabbit holes provided by books on topics like saints, meditation, personal development and mindfulness.

He began changing his mindset to viewing prison differently. Instead of a punishment, he started to look at it as a place to remake himself, even if it meant spending the rest of his life behind those walls.

A bookworm as a kid, he was lost in thought one day in the prison yard when he looked up at the sun coming up over the hills and saw a chirping sparrow on the razor wire.

He had a thought that that sparrow had probably been chirping every day he was there. But that particular day he heard it.

“From that day, I would have to say my prison experience was never contained where I felt like I couldn’t connect to other human beings,” said Huynh, whose memoir “Sparrow in the Razor Wire” was published in 2020. “I saw the men around me. I recognized them in their own separate journeys, many of them much further along on their path to redemption and transformation. But some of them perhaps not even awakened. But for me, it just became prison from a cold harsh place to a good place to one of curious wonder, one of continued learning and knowledge. And then from there, it became, ‘What can I do every day? What is the lesson from the universe for me? What can I learn?’ And that's where that process began for me.”


Taking control of his life

Twenty-five years after his father died is when Huynh finally started the grieving process. He sought therapy and offered his version of inmate therapy, a tough stigma to overcome on the inside.

He came to the realization that many of his fellow prisoners were grieving some sort of loss. Whether it was the loss of a loved one dying while they were still incarcerated or mourning the loss of a spouse and children growing up without their imprisoned father, prison inmates are often filled with grief and no outlet.

So Hyunh wrote a syllabus for a grief program in his prison. He submitted it to the prison psychologist, who loved it. Thus was born a group for those behind bars suffering grief and loss.

“When I stepped into that first group, and I saw the men, what they were sharing, and the space and the container that we created there, that's when I suddenly felt alive,” Huynh said. “I think I've found my purpose here. I may have done terrible things. But this is my purpose to alleviate the suffering, and the pain, and the sadness of the men around me. This is where I think I can do it.”

His approach to serving others led the parole board to release him in November 2015. Since then, he has written a book, received the Peace Fellowship Award for his work with the Alternatives to Violence Project, and has been featured in Entrepreneur, PBS Newshour and Talks at Google.

He’s also the executive director of Defy Ventures, a nonprofit whose vision is to give people with criminal histories their best shot at a second chance. He oversees a program covering all of Southern California prisons to the entire post-release program.

Huynh isn’t able to bring his father back, but he can live a life in the service of others.

“I realize I'm following in my father's footsteps,” Huynh said. “Welcoming men and women to their new homeland after they are released from incarceration. There are parallels in it that I see. I feel so very gratified with what I get to do.”

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Eric Breier, Public Affairs Specialist

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