He stared across the San Quentin State Prison yard at an old man, a lifer hopelessly sitting, white hair, slumped shoulders, blending into the gravel dust and beige brick.
It was 2003, 10 years into his own 25-to-life bid. That image – of an aging man eroding into his surroundings – changed everything.
“I can’t do this,” convicted murderer Tung Nguyen of Santa Ana said to himself. He was 26 at the time. “I’ve got to go home. I can’t end up like that.”
With that, Nguyen started, for the first time during his life sentence, to live. At San Quentin, he learned to speak English properly. He learned to play “Hotel California” and “Dust in the Wind” on guitar. He learned to pray, joining the Catholic Church. He signed up for seemingly every program the prison offered – self-help, life skills, piano, community outreach. He joined the San Quentin choir.
He let go of his anger.
A new life
Then, in 2006, the strangest thing happened. Nguyen committed an act of kindness inside those prison walls that made him a hero. Not just in the eyes of the people he helped, but in the eyes of his fellow prisoners, the guards, the parole board and, eventually, the governor.
Today, Nguyen considers himself a living miracle. His 25-to-life sentence suddenly and stunningly morphed into a second chance. He has become a Vietnamese Jimmy Stewart, living out a prison yard version of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Today, Nguyen is married, working and a finalist for a Soros Justice Fellowship, which would…
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