Phal Sok's story highlights the impact of current criminal justice policies and the imposition of fees and fines on individuals like him. Starting at 13, Phal faced the juvenile justice system, burdening his sick father with court debts. After his father's death, his brother took on the responsibility, worsening their circumstances. As an adult, Phal was imprisoned, and even the money he earned through prison labor went toward his debts. This narrative sheds light on the detrimental effects of court-imposed financial obligations on immigrant and marginalized communities, perpetuating precarious situations and impeding rehabilitation.
"All the growth that I've had since that time has not been because of a prison wall, has not been because of concrete and rebar."
This interview was edited for length and clarity
PHAL SOK: I'm here because I've also been impacted by fines and fees. When I was younger, when I went into the system starting at 13, my family ended up having to pay those fees, which was really difficult for a single parent that was disabled. My dad didn't speak English. It was really hard to handle those things, which I didn't understand then at that time. But then, when I was 17, I ended up going to prison, and because my dad had passed away, my brother ended up absorbing all of those fees and restitution. He had to deal with so much in life already, like taking care of my dad's last wishes; he also had to deal with me going to prison. So I know fines and fees have a great impact on our communities, and particularly in migrant communities. Oftentimes, folks feel obligated to pay fines and fees because they feel they'll get deported if they don't. And so it puts them in precarious dilemmas because of the immigration status within their families.
DEBT FREE JUSTICE: Can you tell us a little bit more about your story?
PHAL: The first time I encountered the juvenile system, I was 13. Then I was charged as an adult when I was 17 and sent to prison. When I was 13, I was in junior high school. Me and my friends, we hung out real close ‘cause there was a lot of stuff going on in the community, ‘cause of lack of investments in the community, so we had to keep ourselves safe and protect ourselves. It was a lot of racism and things that were going on. For those of us that were Cambodian that were living in Long Beach at the time, it was really difficult times in the nineties for us in particular. So we stayed really close together and ended up getting in some trouble down at the mall. And from there, we ended up getting arrested and went to court.
They ended up giving us community service, or at least I got community service. But then there were some fees and stuff that got associated with that. And that was all given to my dad to pay at the time. Then when my dad died, that was my junior year in high school. I was 16, just about to turn 17, and he passed away. He had stomach cancer. I had been taking care of him for quite some time. He was already terminal. The doctor said he was gonna die already. So it was just mainly me taking care of him, end stage of life. He passed away that summer. By the time I went to school my senior year, it started off kind of okay, but I was really, really struggling. Things weren't going well.
I could tell you what I needed when I was 17 after my dad passed away. I needed somebody to feed me every day. I needed a place to go every day. I needed somewhere safe to be, I needed somewhere where I could talk to somebody. Those things didn't exist simply because they were not funded and it was not available.
The school didn't really have any support for me, and their solution was to push me out. They sent me to a different type of school, wasn't an actual school, it was more of a packet program, if you can call it that. Handing me remedial information, copies of textbooks on just black and white copies, telling me to fill out the information to return it, when there weren't any services out. So all that funding was going to law enforcement and I couldn't find supports that I needed in the community. So I ended up getting in trouble ‘cause the only place I could find support was in the streets. So that's where I went, and that's where I navigated to. I mean, the government spent plenty of money ensuring that there was a squad car on the corner waiting for me to come outta my house, telling me to sit down on the curb, demanding me to lift up my shirt, demanding to see tattoos that I don't have, as opposed to taking care of a young person that needed something.
I ended up getting in trouble. Ended up being tried as an adult at 17 and sent to prison. I had restitution that was set on me, had parole fines placed on me, and a number of things, but the bill ultimately went to my brother. I got charged for having a public defender, and it was just these court fees that were pretty outrageous, and my brother paid those things ‘cause they didn't want debt collectors and stuff calling. But you know, it made it difficult for him to deal with those things at the same time ‘cause, you know, he also just had my dad pass away. My brother was a lot older, and so he had to take care of everything else, including his own family. So it was really difficult. Then even while I was in state prison, money that was being sent in was also being taken away for restitution as well.
DFJ: Explain to people who don't understand this; what do you mean by the money was taken out while you were in prison?
PHAL: I've only been in prison in the state of California. The prison system gives you what you need to survive, or supposedly they do, which is a place to sleep, a shut door basically, and some food and some clothes and basic hygiene. Your basic hygiene is a plastic toothbrush, the length of your finger. You don't get toothpaste, you get tooth powder, you get a bar of soap and a roll of toilet paper, and that's about all you're gonna get. You're not gonna get really anything else. And prisons are in places where the water quality is very, very poor, so you need money to have other things. You need money to be able to have proper shampoo if you have hair. You need lotion if your skin is really dry. Just the basic necessities that people don't always think about that are more common in your own bathroom at home, that is not readily accessible or provided when somebody is incarcerated in a prison in the state of California. So you have to purchase other items. When you purchase items through what is known as the canteen or a commissary system in the state prison system, everything is marked up. So imagine spending maybe two bucks for a bar of soap that you can wrap your whole hand around, like literally, your finger can touch your thumb. That would be like travel-size soap. But these are the things that you can buy in the state prison system. But it all costs money.
Even if you go through vendors to acquire stuff, everything is marked up. It's really expensive. And in the state of California, most people that are working that are incarcerated do not get paid. There is some pay, but imagine getting paid 8 cents an hour. You know, you walk away with maybe $17 a month in a paycheck, and half of that is being taken away. So for folks that do not make that much money or even money that's being sent in from their families to buy these items just to sustain themselves, or maybe, they need to buy shoes, or whatever it is all that cost money, and markups make the cost of living even higher. So if people do have outstanding debt in terms of restitution, money will come in, and money will be taken out automatically. If somebody's working inside the prison, they're earning some money, that money will be taken automatically. At this current state in time, as far as I know, it's 55% that's being deducted.
We just ask folks to understand that not everybody in prison makes a choice to go do some harm. I would also encourage folks to understand that not all harms are crimes, and not all crimes are harms.
DFJ: What were you doing for work?
PHAL: In the state prison system, I was doing various different jobs. Whatever was coming to me, whether it was clerical or just working in a building, sweeping the building, or whatever it was. So it kind of varied from time to time, just depending on where I was, and what jobs were valuable. Sometimes it was just picking up trash in the yard. Sometimes you would end up in what would be considered skilled labor. You could say it was more administrative work or something technical that's available. But those are jobs that maybe pay a little bit better. We're not talking about considerably better, maybe a difference in 4 cents an hour or something like that. Oftentimes, those jobs aren't all that great either. You're literally, as an incarcerated person, doing a lot of the operations that keep the prison functioning, but you do not get paid for those things. You may have people that are skilled at plumbing, taking care of the plumbing in the prison system, that are maybe making 8 cents an hour at best to keep the place functioning. So I did have some jobs like that or maybe worked in the kitchen, so it just varied depending where I was, and what was available. And if nothing was available, I just remained unassigned. I just would not have a job.
DFJ: What do you say to people who say, actions of consequences for folks who committed a crime?
PHAL: I would say, in order to understand why people make the choices that they make, you also have to understand the surroundings and the context of those choices. Oftentimes, people that are incarcerated, are incarcerated behind moral dilemmas that they faced in life. Choices that are not easy to make—choices that somebody cannot make that decision having not been there to understand those things. An example, I've met people that were incarcerated for murder. Somebody was labeled or charged with murder, convicted of murder, but in reality, he didn't go out and kill somebody. The man merely defended his mother. The person happened to die when he defended his mother, but in the state of California, he was deemed a murderer. This guy was a chemical engineer, actually. People thought he was actually a drug cook when in fact, he had killed somebody that was attempting to harm his mom.
So, you know, he was in a moral dilemma. Does he just stand there and watch this thing happen, or does he intervene? He chose to intervene, but in the way he intervened, the other person that was attacking his mother ended up dying. There are many situations like that in the state of California's prison system. People oftentimes resort to the underground economy in order to survive. People are selling drugs or whatever to pay bills. Women engage in sex work ‘cause they can't find work anywhere else, and sex work is criminalized, so the circumstance that people are placed in, people are often forced to find ways to survive here ‘cause America is a country that relies on money. You gotta have money to pay your bills; you gotta have money to have water, an essential necessity of life. You still have to purchase these things. You have to pay for your roof or your basic clothing and stuff. So people end up in prisons for very different things, but if we support people to begin with, maybe those consequences or those actions would've never taken place. So we just ask folks to understand that not everybody in prison makes a choice to go do some harm. I would also encourage folks to understand that not all harms are crimes, and not all crimes are harms.
All the growth I've had is ‘cause people have volunteered to reach into the prisons from the community to engage and talk with me and help me to get through and grow.
DFJ: Can you talk about the resources that would've helped steer you in a different direction?
PHAL: So when I was a teenager before my dad passed away, I got into a lot of trouble. I didn't need a policeman on the street corner. A policeman wasn't there to help me. Policing’s role in America is not to help people, it’s there to enforce laws. They're not social workers, they're not registered nurses, they're not psychologists. At the end of the day, I could tell you what I needed when I was 17 after my dad passed away. I needed somebody to feed me every day. I needed a place to go every day. I needed somewhere safe to be, I needed somewhere where I could talk to somebody. Those things didn't exist simply because they were not funded and it was not available. What was available was very detached. What was available was the Department of Social Services. Imagine if I went there, I would've got taken away from my brother, I would've got placed in some foster home or something, and I would end up becoming a ward of the state. Wards of the state oftentimes do not make it out very well either, ‘cause that's the nature of the system. So the resources I could have used were community workers, intervention workers, I could’ve definitely used a better counselor at school. Somebody that actually cared, not just somebody that just gave me a piece of paper and said, sign here and turn in your books.
At the end of the day, what I could have really used were people that just really cared. At the end of the day, we're all human beings, we're social creatures, we need people to look after us. All the growth that I've had since that time has not been because of a prison wall, has not been because of concrete and rebar. Those things didn't do anything except keep me in the cage. All the growth I've had is ‘cause people have volunteered to reach into the prisons from the community to engage and talk with me and help me to get through and grow. And even while I was incarcerated in the halls or the county jail or in the prisons, it's always because there has been that human interaction. And it's not the interaction from cops or policing, it's the interaction from people.
DFJ: Do you remember how much you owe in total?
PHAL: When I was 13, I don't remember exactly how much my dad had to pay, but when I got tried as an adult, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of fees just in like court fees, fees for this, fees for that, permission reports, public defender fees, etcetera. Restitution was a large one. Restitution fees were like $20,000. There was no loss that amounted to that from my convictions or anything. It was just an arbitrary number ‘cause that's what the judge can put at the maximum. So the judge ordered the maximum of restitution fee of $10,000 plus a parole fine of an additional $10,000.
DFJ: Are you still paying for that now?
PHAL: I'm currently no longer paying for those, probably ‘cause I got a pardon from Governor Brown.
DFJ: If you could address people in your community, what would you say to them?
PHAL: I would say, brothers and sisters, My name is Phal Sok for the Cambodian community. I just want to encourage you all to understand that those of us that came, we landed in areas of poverty, landed in areas of violence, and we had to rely on each other to protect and look after each other. Unfortunately for some of us, to our parents, to our elders, we got caught up in the system, and oftentimes we got levied with fines and fees. For families who have to pay for those things, I would encourage you to please reach out to community organizations and those that are working with nonprofits that are working on these issues to find the help that you need to be liberated from those fines and fees. For those that we've harmed along the way, to our families that we've caused dishonor, to be shameful, we send apologies.
DFJ: What do the words Debt Free Justice mean to you?
PHAL: The words Debt Free Justice mean we shouldn't have to pay for a carceral system.