How a Former Detainee Is Advocating for Prison and Immigration Reform

A legal and civil rights organization in the United States is giving incarcerated Asian Americans a second chance.
Asian American political activist Yuri Kochiyama. (Photo: YouTube)
Jul 22, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Gwendolyn Wu is an editorial intern at TakePart and a junior at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Before becoming a teenager, Rajeshree Roy had already encountered a lifetime of violence. She was abandoned by her mother as a baby, and her father emigrated to the U.S. from Fiji when she was young, leaving her in the care of sexually abusive family members.

After an angry, traumatic childhood, Roy followed her father to the U.S. Like many immigrants, she spoke no English and said her family provided little support as she nursed suicidal thoughts. She was homeless and unstable, and her rage manifested elsewhere. By the age of 16, Roy was arrested for a string of violent robberies and sentenced, as an adult, to 15 years.

“The minors are committing crimes, but they’re not fully understanding what’s going on in their lives,” Roy told TakePart this week.

Now 42, Roy has devoted herself to young Asian American offenders who fall onto the path that ruined her young life. Roy was named one of the Asian Law Caucus’ inaugural Yuri Kochiyama Fellows, named for the Japanese American political activist who survived the internment camps of World War II to protest for civil rights.

Yuri Kochiyama speaks at an antiwar demonstration in New

York City’s Central Park around 1968. (Photo: Courtesy

Kochiyama Family/UCLA Asian American Studies Center

via Wikipedia)

Asian American activist Aelam Khensamphanh and Roy will lobby legislators to change incarceration and immigration laws and advocate for alternative reforms by sharing their experiences in detention.

California is home to 10 million immigrants, 36 percent of whom come from Asian countries and some 2.6 million of whom are undocumented, according to the California Immigration Policy Center.

Under immigration laws in the 1990s, immigrants convicted of minor crimes were detained and faced deportation. After serving a second prison stint, Roy ran afoul of the law again after police caught her shoplifting in 2014 and issued deportation orders to send her to her native Fiji, a country she barely knew. In detention, as an adult looking back on a life of being in trouble or in custody, Roy connected the dots among her anger, trauma, and reasons for committing crimes and realized that she could do that for other people. Roy walked out 14 months later a free woman, knowing whom she could help next.

“People don’t really realize what they’re walking into or digging into because they don’t have the comprehension or maturity to understand the things going on around them,” she said. She wanted to help at-risk youths get to that realization sooner in life.

The duo will begin the one-year fellowship by lobbying for the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016, a California ballot initiative that would limit prosecutors from charging minors as young as 14 as adults.

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“Too often, the movements against prisons and deportation are out of sync and ignore the intersectional experiences of people in both systems,” Roy’s attorney, Anoop Prasad, wrote in an announcement about the fellows. “Advocates often make decisions without inviting formerly incarcerated people into the conversation and without consulting people who are locked up.”

The time for reform is now because decades of prison-system expansion mean America has the largest prison system in the world, and “putting people in cages to solve our problems doesn’t work,” Asian Law Caucus senior staff attorney Angela Chan told TakePart.

“It’s harmful to the wider community for people to lose their family members, and both our fellows in their advocacy work will seek to find alternatives to incarceration to address our vital concerns in a way less harmful to the Asian Pacific Islander community,” Chan said.

Roy and Khensamphanh are doing their best to reach out to youths at risk and provide support to steer them away from the problems they endured growing up.

“I want to be able to reach out to young adults to tell them about my story and what I’ve been through, let them know what they’re doing is not OK, and for them to open up to someone else and talk about their stories,” Roy said. “I want to help somebody with something I’ve been through.”