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The alluring darkness hypnotizes me
turning back is not an option
I climb over the fence and disappear
As I lay under the covers of a stiff double bunk bed
on this modern-day slave plantation called the Prison Industrial Complex
the ghost sleeps with me
Zheng says he wanted to apologize to the Tams and even asked a priest to serve as his go-between, but that his friends advised him not to. They worried it might reopen old wounds for the family, whom they supposed wanted to forget the past. After all, even though the Tams were notified of Zheng's parole hearings every year, they had never voiced their opinion publicly. So he relented. "What I am doing to repay them and show my remorse is to continue to improve myself and learn and help other people," he says, "because when I help other people I am paying for the crime I committed."
The more Zheng reached out, the more the community reached back. Publications accepted his essays and poems. Chaddha and others organized fund-raisers on his behalf and helped him sell his zine. And Zheng found a lifeline exchanging books and letters with friends and admirers on the outside -- particularly women, who found him to be a chatty, expressive guy with a willing ear. "I wanted to have a girlfriend, somebody who loves me and who I love," he says. "Every time I see a woman, it was like, 'Man, she's so intelligent and beautiful and she's my type.' Everybody was my type."
Zheng turned out to be Shelly Smith's type. She was a volunteer English tutor, a soft-spoken woman with an intricate tattoo at the base of her throat. When they met in 1999, she was drawn to him right away. "In that environment of prison, where people can feel very beaten down, it kind of seemed like he was in charge, almost," she recalls. "I immediately noticed him for just being secure in himself. And his writing is beautiful -- his heart and the sentiments he expresses are beautiful."
They exchanged writing samples and compared philosophies; she visited him often. But it's hard to conduct a romance in prison, even harder when you have no hope of getting out anytime soon. Zheng knew he deserved punishment, but felt he'd done all he could to earn forgiveness. "I thought, 'I'm wasting time. I'm rehabilitated, I want to go out to the community and start working and helping people and set up a new life,'" he recalls. "When I get denied for no reason except for the crime -- which will never change in a million years -- I started questioning the system and how the system plays with our lives."
And so, even years after Zheng and Smith's relationship had moved beyond friendship, they didn't talk too much about the future. "We have this feeling for each other but are always afraid to pursue it," Zheng recalls. "You put your hopes too high and you know you're going to suffer."
Right around the time he met Smith, in the fourteenth year of his incarceration, Zheng bumped into someone else who gave him hope. Keith Wattley, a lawyer with the California Prison Law Office, was visiting another inmate when he and Zheng struck up a conversation. Wattley remembers being impressed by Zheng and appalled by his story: "It was clear he'd done everything anybody had ever asked him to do and then some, but he was still being denied the opportunity to live as a free person."
Wattley filed an appeal claiming that Zheng was wrongly denied a rehearing when the board rescinded his parole offer in 1999. It took two years, and the board ultimately upheld its decision. Zheng appealed their decision in 2001, and that took another year to consider. In the meantime, he went to parole hearings every year, hoping to convince the board that he had truly changed. But the answer was always no -- his crime had been too serious.
In prison, though, his behavioral record had been spotless. But as he observed the increasing number of Asian inmates flowing into the prison system, Zheng began doing things that made correctional officials view him as a troublemaker. He pushed for the college program to teach Asian history and other cultural studies classes, concerned that Asian inmates of different nationalities had little common cause. When nothing materialized, he and two friends circulated a proposal and asked other inmates to sign it. That went over badly. His cell was searched, and he was written up for violating prison rules by passing his essays and poems through a tutor to publications outside the prison, among them the SF Weekly, which ran a 2002 story about his seemingly futile parole bid. Inmates are supposed to send written material through the mail so that it can be screened.
Zheng then spent more than nine months in administrative segregation: 23 hours a day alone in a tiny cell, with a chance to shower or go outside only three times a week. Inmates in "The Hole," as it was known, wore handcuffs every time they were out of the cell and couldn't use the phone. Zheng remembers solitary as a creepy, rat-infested place that rang with the shrieks of mentally ill inmates.