If you’ve ever felt stuck in a situation or life circumstances with no way out, you’ll appreciate Quan Huynh’s story.

Author of Sparrow in the Razor Wire and a recent guest on my “Now to Next” podcast, Quan Huynh is the post-release program manager for Defy Ventures, a nonprofit in Southern California that provides opportunities to men and women with criminal histories.

In 1999, Quan received a sentence of 15 years to life for killing a man in a gang-related incident. At the time, California did not offer parole to any prisoner with a life sentence. Sparrow in the Razor Wire shares Quan’s story in a prison dedicated to violent and high-profile gang members and how he discovered a new path of self-reflection, truth, and personal responsibility.

From Vietnam to the United States

Right after the Vietnam War, when Quan was a few months old, his family moved from Vietnam to Provo, Utah.

Growing up in Provo, 99% of his neighbors were white. Most people in Utah were kind, but there were a few early incidences of racism throughout Quan’s childhood. He remembers a car driving up to him and his uncle at a gas station and the people yelling, “Go back to your country, Gooks, get out of here.”

When Quan was 8 and his brother was 6, they were playing with GI Joes outside when some kids started to bully them. They made his brother eat dirt while Quan was frozen and didn’t react. When they got home, the most difficult part of sharing what happened was his father’s disappointment that Quan didn’t fight back to protect his family.

A few years later, after his father was diagnosed with Leukemia, Quan and his family moved to California to be closer to his father’s side of the family. California was more diverse than Utah, but Quan still felt like an outsider. The other Vietnamese kids saw him as “whitewashed” because he only spoke English. He made friends, but those random occurrences when he was mocked or ridiculed affected him profoundly, and he struggled with self-esteem.

I know all too well how those moments can affect us for an extended period of time. I still remember a grade school teacher telling me I was stupid one day. As an adult, it’s easy to see that scenarios like that happen because of that other person’s mindset or stress level, but even so, those moments have a long-lasting impact. The other person involved probably doesn’t even remember what happened, but it sticks with us.

No Wishes Granted

As his father’s illness progressed, Quan began focusing on his first communion. They were Catholic, and he wanted to use the ceremony to ask God to heal his father.

Quan woke up the day of his first communion to the news his father had passed in the early morning. At age 13, he took the timing of his dad’s death as a rejection from God. He believed God didn’t think he was a good person and didn’t want to grant his prayer.

I asked Quan what would have reached him at that time, after his dad’s death. What could someone have said to help during his grieving process? Looking back, Quan acknowledges that if someone had asked how he was feeling or discussed the loss of his father, that might have reached him. However, no one asked how he was doing, instead the family didn’t talk about the death at all. Even today, Quan says some family members still won’t discuss it and haven’t fully grieved his father’s death.

At Home in the Wrong Crowd

After traumatic events like that, you can withdraw or connect. As human beings, we look for a place we feel we fit.

At the start of high school, some of Quan’s friends had older brothers who drove cars with great sound systems and knew pretty girls. He started hanging out with those older boys, and it was with them that he broke into a vehicle for the first time. In the beginning, they only stole car stereos. Then, they branched out to taking wallets from cars and using stolen credit cards. Stealing became normal.

They didn’t think of themselves as a gang, just a tight group of friends who had each other’s backs. Yet problems started arising with rival groups in the area, particularly the skinheads. As the conflicts escalated, one of Quan’s friends started carrying a gun. And when the skinheads had threatened to kill Quan’s mother and sister, their group took action.

One day at age 17, Quan came home from his shift at a Subway sandwich shop to find out his friends had gone into the skinheads’ house and shot three of them. They all lived, but he was still arrested for attempted murder. Even though he wasn’t present at the shooting, he was charged as part of the original conspiracy because he’d given his friends a map to the skinheads’ house.

For Quan, the arrest felt like the system was screwing him over. Incarceration sent him deeper into the crime culture.

In jail, he had to live up to a particular image. Everything was fear-based and people gained power through acts of violence against each other. As Asians, they were always outnumbered and felt obligated to extra shows of force to avoid being victimized themselves.

After getting out in 1993, Quan enrolled at a local community college but worried his record would hold him back. He did well in school but he felt like an outsider around the other students who were so bright and excited about their future plans. This lead him to reconnect with and start hanging out with guys he knew in prison, feeling they better understood him.

Again, they weren’t a “gang,” they were just a group of friends who had all done time and shared a brotherhood. They would go bowling and clubbing and do things together, but the prison mentality stayed with them. They’d often run into other groups and get into fights. As things escalated, and many people on both sides carried guns.

A Harsh Disappointment Leads to Violence

During this period, Quan had several jobs, including working at Home Depot and seasonal work. Eventually, he joined Gallup and became one of their top interviewers, winning their 1998 award for interviewer of the year.

He was encouraged after his award to apply for a managerial position at Gallup. In his mind, he was thinking, “This is finally it, my life will finally go right, things will fall into order, and I will be fine after this.”

A month and a half after the interview, Quan got Gallup’s standard rejection response, “I’m sorry you were not a fit.”

The rejection shook him to his core. He didn’t believe he fit in anyway or that deserved success. This position denial seemed to confirm there was something wrong with him.

Upset, he called his gang associates to go out. They went to an LA club, and Quan brought his gun. Spurred by emotions he couldn’t face or process, Quan ran into a group from a different gang which escalated his emotions. As they left the club, they got a call from some women they knew who were being followed by some of their rivals. Quan and his friends found the guys’ car and Quan shot the one person in the car who had a clear shot at them. He didn’t see what happened, but he knew he’d hit him. The next morning they found out that the passenger had died.

I asked Quan what was going on in his mind that night. He said he wasn’t thinking about the people at all. His group had a reputation as being one of the most violent and ruthless gangs on the street. In his mind, it was about respect: “How dare these guys — don’t they know who we are? How could they hassle our homegirls?”

It was also a place to vent his anger and feelings of failure.

Fifteen Years to Life

Quan was arrested four to five anxious and paranoid months later. At the trial, one of his friends testified against him in exchange for immunity. Quan lied and accused that friend of the murder, leading to the jury doubting Quan’s guilt.

He was charged with second-degree murder with a sentence of 15 years to life. At the time, California was not paroling anyone with a life sentence. It felt like a death sentence.

He was sent to Pelican Bay State Prison, known for housing the most violent and high-profile gang members. Everyone’s mindset was to prove they belonged there. It was another dark and violent time for Quan.

Inside the prison, he got into taking bets and dealing drugs. He went from running for another bookie to taking bets for the whole yard and expanding into other yards as well.

Ten years in, he had a realization that changed his life.

Life Stops for No Man

One day, Quan got a photo of his brother’s infant daughter. Looking at his niece flooded him with memories of childhood. Suddenly, he saw himself from an outside perspective. What was he doing? He thought of what his father had accomplished before he died at 38, and compared that to the pain and destruction of his current life. He needed to change.

Bookish by nature, Quan started to retreat into reading. He discovered stories of the saints who had their struggles in life but turned themselves around to become saints. He began studying mindfulness and personal development, and over time it changed his thinking.

Then, in the yard one day, he had a moment of awakening. He was gripped with the questions, “Why does prison have to be punishment? Why can’t it be a place where I make myself a better person, even if I’m supposed to die here?”

At that moment, he felt the warmth of the sun. He saw the drops of dew on the blades of grass and noticed a sparrow chirping.

Suddenly, he saw the men around him as human beings. Some were further along in their journeys, and some had not awoken yet. He felt at peace for the first time. Prison stopped being a place of endless punishment and became a place of tranquil beauty instead.

New Mindset, New Actions

Quan handed off his gambling racket to his guys and found new ways to be productive. He joined a creative writing class and a program that allowed inmates to volunteer for the Special Olympics for kids and other causes.

He started asking himself, “How can I make an impact on this yard?” He got involved in groups and helped create others. Quan found meaning and purpose in helping the people around him and felt good inside in a way that he hadn’t before.

As his 15 years approached, he got the opportunity to go before a parole board. In 2013, the parole board issued a five-year denial based mainly on his prison write-ups.

Quan filed a petition to advance his hearing 14 months later. In the petition, he laid out what he’d been doing since the denial and showed how he addressed what they’d brought up.

They granted it. The parole board sat with him a second time and said, “We feel that you are no longer a threat to society and are suitable for parole.”

Hearing those words, he cried. Quan broke down in tears to know that these people saw him and knew he could fit back into society.

Freedom Inside, Freedom Outside

As the governor approved his parole, Quan had 150 days left in prison. He chose to use that time to be present with the amazing friendships he’d made over the years — people he would probably never see again. Instead of a time of impatience or fear, it was a sweet time of appreciation and grieving.

Quan knew of the Defy program from his time in prison and started his first business through them only six months after his release. They approached him to work with them, and now he helps men and women with criminal histories change their lives through entrepreneurship.

Quan’s is an incredible story that will undoubtedly touch a lot of lives. I was so glad he was willing to come on my podcast and share his life’s story so openly. I also highly recommend you buy the book, Sparrow in the Razor Wire to learn more about him.

It just goes to show, even in those darkest places and times in life, we can find freedom within by changing our mindset.

To catch the full interview I had with Quan, you can watch it on YouTube or your favorite podcast listening platform. And of course, you can always reach out to me directly with any questions you might have!