Kevin Neang will never forget the first time he met Phoeun You.
Neang was 21 years old and had just been transferred to California’s San Quentin State Prison in April 2016 after spending time in juvenile detention and county jail for involuntary manslaughter. Neang remembers expecting “total warfare:” Prison, he thought, was a battleground, and he needed to attack people first to show he wasn’t weak.
“What shocked me was, Phoeun told me the total opposite,” said Neang, who is now 28. “He said, ‘You know, young man, looking at you is like looking at my younger self when I first came in. You’re Cambodian, you’re like my little brother.’ And this is our first interaction—I don’t know this man from a can of paint.”
You introduced Neang to self-help programs and college courses offered at the prison. He took Neang under his wing and taught him how to practice self-care and self-love—and how to heal from the traumas that landed Neang in prison.
Neang believes You helped save his life.
“Besides my dad, he was my first positive Cambodian role model I ever met,” Neang said. “And it had to be behind prison walls.”
Neang is now free—but You isn’t. You was transferred into ICE custody earlier this year after spending 26 years behind bars. After spending months in custody, You now faces imminent deportation to Cambodia, a country he hasn’t been to since he fled the Cambodian genocide as a young child. His lawyers believe he will be deported in the next few weeks unless he receives a pardon from California Gov. Gavin Newsom. Advocates are organizing a rally in Oakland on July 28 to prevent his deportation and call for his release.
Neang isn’t the only person who has found mentorship from You. If he is deported, advocates say, it won’t just impact You—his friends, family, and the entire surrounding community will lose his skills, guidance, and care.
“I feel like we’ll always just have a missing part of our community if he gets deported,” Neang said.
A moment of change
You, who was convicted of first-degree murder at age 20, said he began changing his life after his sister was killed by her boyfriend.
“I had a small glimpse of what the victim’s family must have felt like when they lost their loved one,” You said. “From that point on, I was like, man. I want to give back. I don’t want to cause any more pain.”
While incarcerated, You became a certified counselor through Bay Area Women Against Rape. He helped found ROOTS (Restoring Our Original True Selves), an ethnic studies program for incarcerated Asian and Pacific Islanders. He facilitated the Victim Offender Education Group (VOEG), a program run by Insight Prison Project that helps incarcerated people take responsibility for their crimes’ impact on their victims, and he also found spiritual life through the Prison Yoga Project and San Quentin’s Buddhist Sangha.
“I think that in prison, which is predicated upon stripping people’s humanity and reducing them literally to a series of numbers, that to continue to strive towards … becoming a well-rounded human is no easy task,” said Karena Montag, who worked with You as VOEG’s clinical director. “Not only did he strive to do that, he was able to do that.”
You brought other incarcerated folks into these programs, like Neang, who said ROOTS helped him discover his cultural identity and unpack intergenerational trauma.
“Because of people like Phoeun and [ROOTS], I felt the courage and the need and the desire to sit down with my parents and ask them about their childhood stories,” Neang said.
You wants to continue his programming work outside of prison. He has already been offered two jobs—one by Montag’s restorative justice organization, Stronghold, and one by Rafiki Coalition, which provides culturally affirming health and wellness services.
“The community is ready to receive him, and they’ve been waiting for decades,” said So Young Lee, You’s attorney at Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus. “His deportation would tear him from our community.”
Caring for family
You also has over 100 family members waiting for him at home. He said he wants to meet with every single one of them one-on-one if he’s released. You especially hopes to help care for his parents, who are in their 80s and 90s.
“It would be my honor to remind them of the joys I can bring to their lives,” You said.
You’s family said his help would take much of the financial and mental stress off of his older sister, who currently cares for their parents while working full-time. Sy Vucic, You’s niece, said she often gets pulled in to help her mother care for You’s parents due to her mother’s limited English.
“Whatever affects my grandmother, affects my mother, affects me,” Vucic said. “It’s a domino effect through the whole family.”
Vucic said her grandmother’s ill health means she wouldn’t be able to see You ever again if he was deported—and the detention facility where You is held will not let his parents visit.
“Every day we’re always seeing her deteriorate, and the reason she holds on the way she does is she’s hoping to see her son one day,” Vucic said.
Vucic believes You could also provide mentorship to his younger family members. You once mentored a family member in prison—his nephew, SyYen Hong, was incarcerated with You for five years. You helped Hong get into VOEG and ROOTS, and Hong attributes his rehabilitation to You. Hong said he admires You’s ability to build relationships with people stuck in a cycle of violence without being influenced by violent behavior.
“[I told him] I don’t want to deal with these knuckleheads, I know they’ll get me into trouble, and I’m done with that, I’m done with that life,” Hong said. “But with him, he’d say, ‘Well, they’re knuckleheads, but you were once one too. You were once that person too. They need someone.’”
Chanthon Bun, now a community advocate at AAAJ – ALC, remembers when You talked him down from a violent act. You walked six laps with him around the prison yard—about two miles—and just listened to him express his feelings.
“He got me to realize, like, ‘You’re going to throw it all away for that?’” Bun says. “He explained how my pride was hurt and I’m not being present with myself, and I’m not thinking of my future.”
You’s mentorship spans generations—he and Bun mentored Neang together.
“To have my little brother be a mentor, it’s humbling,” You said about Bun. “It feels beyond good because I feel like my work is still being seen through other people’s work.”
Neang said You and Bun used to “tag-team” him all the time, and being held accountable by both of them made him a better man.
Of the three of them, only You still isn’t free. Neang looks at a picture of him and You together every day.
“When I look at his picture, I always send him a prayer of strength, of love, care and guidance,” Neang said. “I hope that he still continues to fight. It ain’t over ‘till it’s over, and even when it is over, you just gotta keep fighting.”