Simon Liu (left) and one of the home's first residents, Al, say the house will be run democratically by formerly incarcerated people. Credit: Amir Aziz

Three decades ago, Simon Liu immigrated to the US from China with his family as a teenager and enrolled in Oakland Technical High School, but he found it impossible to keep up. He was not yet proficient in English and barely understood what was being talked about in his classes. He dropped out during his first year. Unable to find a job, he was kicked out of the house by his father. Liu stayed with some of his older friends and did odd jobs in exchange for housing. In 1996, one of these odd jobs turned into a home invasion robbery. “The consequences were impossible for me to anticipate,” said Simon.  Although he was just 16-years-old, Liu was tried as an adult and sentenced to 22 years in San Quentin State Prison. 

In prison, Liu taught himself English, read a lot of books, and learned computer programming through a program that teaches prisoners coding skills. When he was paroled in 2017, he got a job with a San Francisco-based company that hires formerly incarcerated coders. 

But rather than moving on with his life and immersing himself in a new career, Liu committed to doing something to help others exiting the prison system. While he was inside San Quentin, he had a dream: if only there was a place where people coming out of prison could live and take the time they needed to begin to rebuild their lives after the trauma of incarceration. It should be a place that wasn’t run by a non-profit, or the state, or connected in any way to the prison system. Liu dreamed of a place that was run by formerly incarcerated people themselves.

Last November, Liu’s vision became a reality when, with the financial backing of a co-worker and a friend they were able to purchase a house in an East Bay suburb. The 2,000 square foot ranch-style home sits on a large lot set back from the street and screened by a hedge of Junipers and flowering shrubs in a sunny residential neighborhood not far from Oakland. (The Oaklandside agreed not to disclose the exact location.) A towering yew tree grows in the middle of the front yard. In back is a porch, a fishpond, and a garden shed. Later this year, Liu plans to plant fruit trees and build raised beds for a vegetable garden. The garage will be converted into an office out of which volunteers will coordinate support for released prisoners by arranging pick-ups from San Quentin and coordinating rides to appointments. Simon and a small team of co-workers and friends worked for months to find the right house, looking at at 40 houses in all before finding this one. 

“I think that it will be nice for these guys to have the peace and quiet of living out here in the suburbs,” said Liu about the location. “That might be something that they haven’t gotten to experience.” 

While Oakland was the preferred location for the house, Liu said the city has become “too gentrified” and expensive for a project like this. The house’s more remote location also means that men coming out of San Quentin won’t be dropped right back into the same setting in which many of them were arrested.

The freedom house is a four-bedroom home capable of housing up to eight people. Currently two men live in the home. Credit: Amir Aziz

Most central to the project, according to Liu, is the urgent need for housing for people to parole to. “Imagine you’ve been in prison for 20-30 years and you’re trying to get back on track. You don’t have a rental history and you don’t have credit. You don’t have money for first and last month’s rent, or a deposit. Or you do have all these things, but the landlord runs a background check and sees your criminal history and you are silently rejected.”

Parole requirements also necessitate that people have a physical address, which in the case of the Bay Area means people have to pay for housing in the most expensive rental markets in the country.

Eventually, the four-bedroom home will accommodate eight individuals who will double up in the rooms. The house will run collectively, with the former prisoners helping govern the space. Residents will stay for one year rent-free and receive support in the many tasks required to transition to life outside of prison: obtaining a driver’s license, getting a cell phone, learning how to use a computer, and finding a job. Legal assistance, including helping residents resolve issues with their immigration status, or obtain pardons, will also be available. Volunteers will help residents set goals over the course of the year for finding permanent housing in the Bay Area.

The Bay Area Freedom Collective is currently raising money to pay for operating the house and outfitting it with furniture. As of April 1, the group had raised over $26,000.

‘Determined to see us succeed’

There are already two formerly incarcerated men living at freedom house: Sonny, whose Vietnamese family immigrated to San Jose when he was a child and Al, who was born and raised in Oakland. (The Oaklandside agreed to use their first names in order to respect their privacy.)

Sonny commutes to San Francisco to work as a custodian at Laguna Honda Hospital. He often doesn’t see a lot of his housemate, Al, because of his work schedule. But, he says, their relationship is marked by courtesy and respect. 

Al is currently undergoing treatment for cancer and Sonny is mindful of Al’s lack of energy, which he says motivates him  to clean up more around the house or wash Al’s dishes if he doesn’t get around to them. 

Sonny moved into the house three months ago after serving over 24 years in various state prisons before being paroled from San Quentin. He was sentenced to 75 years to life for a gang-related killing outside of a club in San Jose when he was 19-years-old. “Someone killed my friend,” he said. “So, I retaliated.” 

Sonny first entered prison in the mid-1990s, a time when the California prison population was steadily surging toward it’s all-time high of 173,000 in 2006

“When I got to prison, it really felt like no one was ever going to get out,” he said. As the number of people incarcerated in the California prison system grew, the pervasive sense among many prisoners serving life sentences was that none of them would experience freedom again.

This trend began to shift following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2011 decision in Brown v. Plata that the overcrowding in the California prison system systematically violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. That decision upheld a lower court’s order to cap the state prison population and release thousands of incarcerated people. Later that year, the California legislature passed AB 109, the first of several bills designed to reduce prison crowding.

Simon Liu said the home’s suburban environment can provide formerly incarcerated people with a slower pace to adjust to life outside of prison. Credit: Amir Aziz

In 2012, California voters passed Prop 36, which limited prosecutors’ use of the state’s “Three Strikes” law. Slowly, the state’s prison population began to decrease. Not long after, in a pair of decisions in 2012 and 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court held that applying mandatory life sentences to juveniles was unconstitutional. Govs. Schwarzenegger and Brown subsequently signed several bills aimed at easing the sentences of young people convicted of serious crimes.

Not all of the resistance against California’s prison practices occurred in the courtroom. In 2011 and 2013, two state-wide hunger strikes organized by senior members of four rival prison gangs in Pelican Bay State Prison spread to other California prisons. On the first day of the hunger strike, 30,000 incarcerated Californians refused meals as part of a campaign against the use of long-term solitary confinement.

Sonny credits the campaigns led by prisoners and prisoner advocates for ultimately helping him gain his freedom from San Quentin less than 25 years into his life sentence. 

When Sonny was first paroled, he was placed into transitional housing in Oakland run by the nonprofit group Volunteers of America. The house, he said, had a one-size-fits-all approach with rules that were geared towards addicts, and a strict curfew that made it difficult to do things like take the bus to visit social services offices or look for a job. There was some group therapy offered for residents, but Sonny said group leaders handed him generic counseling printouts and was led by employees who seemed like they were “going through the motions.” He felt like the programs denied residents real opportunities for introspection and healing. Worst of all, Sonny had to be quarantined in a hotel twice while living in the transitional house when other residents, including his roommate, tested positive for COVID-19.

Around this time, volunteers with Bay Area Freedom Collective, a reentry support network for formerly incarcerated people, made contact with Sonny and began visiting him at his hotel, bringing him food and supplies. Sonny asked to leave the transitional housing program and was granted permission by his probation officer, but only if he could find another address in Alameda County. At first, that address was the home of a member of the BAFC, where Sonny stayed for a few months before becoming the first resident of the freedom house. 

Asked how the freedom house compared to the other transitional housing he has lived in, Sonny said that there was no comparison. “The people who are involved know who we are, as individual people. They see us as individuals. They are determined to see us succeed.” 

He said his goal is to help others who are getting out of prison and eventually find permanent housing where he can afford to take care of his elderly parents. “Seeing what people do for me makes me want to do my part for others.” 

‘None of us are free’

The Bay Area has a rich history of prisoner solidarity efforts, from the prison organizing of the Black Panthers and other Black liberation groups, to San Francisco’s Delancey Street, a foundation that provides group housing and job training through commercial enterprises such as Christmas tree lots, moving companies, and restaurants. The Good Earth Commune, an intentional community formed to offer “food, shelter, survival and help for all poor people” once ran dozens of communal households and businesses around San Francisco’s Haight Street that included individuals coming out of prison. A recent addition to this legacy is the Bay Area Freedom Collective (BAFC), which was formed last year as a support network for individuals exiting the prison system. 

The Bay Area Freedom Collective’s members include people who are formerly incarcerated as well as those who have no direct experience with the prison system. Some members found BAFC through abolitionist organizing, others are former prisoners with friends involved in the project.

When Jonathan Chiu was paroled from San Quentin last May, he got connected with the Bay Area Freedom Collective. Soon after, he started volunteering with the group. Since then, Chiu has helped facilitate some of the meetings about the formation of the house, including new applicants. He also volunteers helping former prisoners with computer literacy, one of the many volunteer tasks that will be performed out of the garage when the house is up and running. “When I got out last year, I didn’t know how to use a phone,” he said. “Now I’m teaching people how to use phones. It’s pretty cool.”

Liu and Chiu first met in the San Quentin Runners Club and through the Asian Prison Support Committee, an organization that runs a group inside San Quentin called ROOTS (Restoring Our Original True Selves). ROOTS supports incarcerated immigrants who have been robbed of their ties to their culture by the prison system and creates a space for men to learn about and practice their respective cultural traditions.

A koi pond completes the tranquil atmosphere in the freedom house’s backyard. Credit: Amir Aziz

When Chiu was 21, he was sentenced to 50-years-to-life for first degree murder. At one point, he believed he would get the death penalty and had resigned himself to dying in prison.

“I never expected to leave,” said Chiu. He did what he jokingly calls “the California tour via CDCR,” meaning that he has spent time in many of California’s prisons. When he was first locked up, he met with his parents and asked them to move on with their lives; His family returned to China. “When you go to prison, your family also goes to prison, and I didn’t want to put my family through that,” said. Today, he talks with his mother and brother regularly and feels they have a good relationship despite their separation. 

Chiu compared his initial experience of getting out of prison to simultaneously immigrating to a new country—an isolating experience that was made even more baffling by the unfolding pandemic. 

Inside prison he had nothing but time to and try to unpack some of the trauma that led him there. “That’s who goes to prison, right? People with trauma,” Chiu said. He now works staffing a hotline run by a non-profit that helps parolees and people in prison access health care.

Chiu wasn’t involved in any kind of political organizing inside prison, but he attributes one experience to shaping his political consciousness about the prison system: When he left San Quentin, he had one friend left inside that he badly wanted to help get out. This was a guy, who, according to Chiu, had a bad record and was labeled a “career criminal.” But, he was a good person who had done a lot for people. His friend also had a wife and a child with whom he needed to reunite. “I was really focused on how to get this one friend out,” said Chiu. “Then COVID-19 broke out inside San Quentin and I realized, no, we need to get them all out, because no one deserves to be locked up during Covid. I had what I would call survivors guilt—just a really clear understanding that I am not the only person who deserves to be free.” 

Liu said he often tells people that life outside prison isn’t really free. Whenever he is asked about how he is enjoying his “freedom”, he has a go-to reply: “I’m not free. None of us are free. I just live in a bigger, more colorful cage with the rest of you.”

Part of what he is referring to is his immigration status. Liu is currently petitioning for a full pardon from Gov. Gavin Newsom in the hopes it will eliminate the threat of deportation that comes with his criminal record. He’s also hoping to erase the stigma of being a registered sex offender, an element of the plea deal he was encouraged to accept at just 16-years-old, which included implicating himself in a sexual assault committed by another person, even though he was not present when the crime was committed.

Over the past several years, Newsom has pardoned a number of people who immigrated to the US as children and were convicted of crimes as minors. This has proven to be an effective method to limit the power of ICE to deport Californians to countries where they have no remaining ties or have not lived since infancy or childhood. Simon’s request for a pardon of his original sentence is supported by his sentencing judge Ladoris Cordell, Jeff Rosen, the District Attorney of Santa Clara County, where Simon was sentenced, and San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin. Simon’s pardon petition has reached its final destination, the Governor’s desk, and he awaits a verdict. 

Based on his own experience, Simon understands the work that goes into these individual campaigns, and hopes freedom house can be a center for this kind of organizing. 

‘Rules of our own’

About the possibilities for the future of the freedom house, Chiu said “there’s no other place like it, where someone buys a house outright and formerly incarcerated people get to make the rules. Think of if anyone else was in charge, all the limitations they would put on it. So, there is definitely a desire to make the most of this opportunity.”

Liu said that eventually, when the house is filled to capacity, the eight residents will develop their own system for sharing in the responsibilities of the household. Perhaps there will be interpersonal conflicts, or perhaps conflicts will not play a large part in the daily life of the house. How certain communal aspects of the house will develop remains to be seen. The beauty of the freedom house is simply this: that for one year, in one house, former prisoners get to be in charge of creating their own reality to a degree greater than they may have ever experienced in their lives. This, in itself, merits freedom house its name. 

“In prison, when we’ve been locked up so long, we feel like we don’t need any rules,” said Sonny, explaining how incarceration robs people of their autonomy and humanity. But after getting out and considering all the ways that formerly incarcerated people can support each other, Sonny said: “We do need rules. But the important thing is that we get to be part of making them.”