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The Impact of Mass Incarceration on Asian Americans

Written by Safa Michigan

Graphic by Emma Li

As the national prison abolition movement grows, it is crucial for us Asian Americans to realize that the carceral state affects everything about America, including the lives of Asian Americans. While non-Black Asians are privileged in many ways in a world so predicated on anti-Blackness, we are not immune to the carceral state. It is an ever reaching, crushing hand that looms over those in America deemed lesser than.

Within the prison system, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are categorized as “Others.” In the 1990s the prison industrial complex expanded exponentially. During this time, the AAPI prison population rose 250%, according to the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance’s “AAPIs Behind Bars.” This report also mentions that the state of California tried Asian American juveniles twice as many times as it tried white juveniles for the same crimes. Further, according to a report from 2007, Samoan youth in Oakland, California, had the highest arrest rate in the city at 140 arrests per 1,000.

The impact of mass incarceration on the Asian American community largely includes the possibility of deportation upon being imprisoned, especially for Southeast Asian Americans, who are three to four times more likely to be deported for prior convictions than other immigrant communities. There are many “legal” permanent residents who committed crimes in their youth and are still targeted for deportation, years after serving out their sentences. Since 1998, at least 15,000 refugees from Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos (of whom many were given green cards) have been given final notices for deportation, about 80% of which were based on old criminal records rather than current offenses. Many currently and formerly incarcerated Asian and Pacific Americans are from families of refugees; teens left to take care of their siblings while their parents worked multiple minimum-wage jobs seven days a week found themselves in the conditions in which “crime” arises.

The backbone of abolition is mutual aid and community care. There are many groups focused on helping Asian Americans affected by the carceral state, one of which is the Asian Prisoner Support Committee (APSC). APSC formed as the community rallied to support Eddy Zheng, Viet Mike Ngo, and Rico Riemedio, dubbed the “San Quentin 3.” The San Quentin 3 advocated for Ethnic Studies at San Quentin Prison in California; in retribution they were punished by 11 months in solitary confinement before their eventual release. The group now runs programs inside prisons and helps rehabilitate recently freed individuals through a framework of cultural competency and community. In 2019-20, APSC supported 24 people who won freedom from ICE through gubernatorial pardons, relief after convictions, stopping a direct transfer, and administrative actions to stop or reverse their deportations.

Knowing how we as Asian Americans are affected by the institutional violence of this country should also force us to reckon with the rampant anti-Blackness within our community, as I have learned that abolition starts within and around us.



Visit the Asian Support Committee Website here:

For more history on Asian American involvement in the prison industrial complex as well as the abolition of policing, watch this webinar:


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