Over a video call, Phoeun You showed me the nighttime view from his balcony: The soft glow of street lamps lit up a line of low-rise buildings and a snarl of electric cables. He was calling from Sen Sok, a fast-modernizing district in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It was a beautiful sight; but I was distracted by the bittersweet tone of his voice. It had only been three months since the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported Phoeun You, 49, to Cambodia. He was granted parole from California’s San Quentin State Prison in August 2021. He’s free, but he can’t return to the only home he remembers.
Phoeun You, a former Cambodian child refugee, served more than 25 years for murder. In 1995, when Phoeun You was 20, he killed a 17-year-old while trying to shoot someone else in retaliation for hurting his family. Less than 24 hours before he was due to be paroled and reunited with his family, Phoeun You said, he was transferred by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to an ICE detention facility, where he spent several months in limbo before being deported without warning.
During his incarceration, he got an associate’s degree, became a certified crisis counselor, and was a reporter for the San Quentin News, an inmate-produced newspaper. It was there in 2014 that we met; I was a volunteer editor for the paper for two semesters while studying at the University of California, Berkeley.