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Challenging Common Misconceptions: Criminal Justice Reform

Why did we have this meeting?

Our CTO, Qian Wang, is part of the Homecoming Project, a program of Impact Justice that connects formerly incarcerated people with immediate, stable housing when they exit the prison system. By matching formerly incarcerated people with this form of safe and stable housing, the project not only bridges a gap in services but also bridges a social divide. 

Qian has gotten to know Joey Pagaduan and Avi Frey through this program. Both graciously spent an hour with us talking about the criminal justice system, major misconceptions, and the need for reform. We believe this is an important topic to learn more about and shed light on the real stories and challenge commonly held beliefs about formerly incarcerated people. 

Here’s who we spoke to

In 1999, at the age of 18, Joey Pagaduan was sentenced to life in prison. Joey was found suitable by the California Board of Parole Hearings in 2020, but his suitability was unilaterally reversed by Governor Gavin Newsome. Two years later, Joey was found suitable again and, after 23 years, was released on June 30, 2022.

Joey is an accomplished actor having played Hamlet, Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Master Harold in “Master Harold and the Boys,” and many other roles at Shakespeare at Solano. He founded P@S – Performances @ Solano – to give theater artists and musicians opportunities to write, workshop, and perform their original works. For P@S, he has written and directed several short plays. He was also the editor-in-chief and photographer for the Solano Vision newspaper. Joey is working as a Certified Addiction Counselor, currently enrolled in a coding bootcamp through CSU Eastbay, and interning with California Lawyers for the Arts and Marin Shakespeare Company.

Avi Frey is the Deputy Director of the Criminal Justice Program at the ACLU of Northern California. In this capacity, Avi supervises litigation protecting and expanding the rights of people impacted by policing and the criminal legal system.

Avi is an experienced civil rights litigator whose past practice has focused on criminal law, police reform, and racial justice. His experience includes challenging the extreme sentencing of young people, the death penalty, solitary confinement, parole, inadequate police oversight and accountability, and infringements on the constitutional rights of people facing criminal prosecution.

What We Discussed 

We were so grateful for Avi and Joey’s time that after an hour's discussion, we realized that we needed to schedule a second session because we covered so many varied issues.

What are some of the misconceptions people have about prison? 

Joey let us know that prison, in the media and on TV, is glorified and exaggerated. In Joey’s experience, prison is a lot less violent than what is depicted on TV. There are certain situations that do break out in prison but for the most part, it’s quieter than people think. 

The biggest problem in prisons, according to Joey, is drug use. In his experience, a number of people that were in prison with him experienced addiction issues. It was really easy to find and buy drugs in prison, which made the road to recovery and sobriety very difficult. In addition, the mental health resources were extremely limited, as we’ll discuss in the following section.

For Avi, the biggest misconception that we have about the people in prison is that the folks who are incarcerated are evil. According to Avi, “there are evil acts, not evil people… Think about it this way, nobody who kills someone is doing well. No one who is committing robberies has had great opportunities or a different lifestyle modeled to them.” For Avi, we need to realize that many times the people in prison are experiencing some kind of trauma. The answer is not to lock them up, but to approach their situation with compassion and get them the help that they need.

What are the mental health resources (or lack thereof) in prison?

As mentioned before, it is extremely common for people who are incarcerated to experience mental health issues for example, depression, PTSD from trauma and addiction. The environment in prison typically intensifies these issues.

From what Joey saw in prison, it was really difficult for people to find the help they needed to address their trauma and addiction issues. It is unfortunately a Catch-22 if you want professional help in prison. You are able to get support and speak with a professional. However, you would be lucky to speak to that person once a month and they would have to designate you as a mental health risk which meant that you would have other privileges restricted. Without this designation, it is impossible to speak to someone who can offer you help. 

Additionally, even if you do speak with a professional,  HIPAA laws do not exist in prison. This means that there is no doctor/patient confidentiality. The records the healthcare professional produces and what was discussed in therapy is accessible by the board of parole hearings when you go before them for a parole suitability hearing. Openly sharing struggles in therapy could be used against you.

How do you start to think about getting out of prison when you have a life sentence? What are some of the steps you need to do to advocate for yourself?

It was an uphill battle for Joey to even begin thinking about his release when he was incarcerated at 18. For a while, Joey couldn’t see himself ever leaving prison, and even admitting that for a while, he thought that he would die in prison. After 13 years inside, Joey started his journey to advocate for himself, confront his past and take steps toward his freedom. 

Some of the things he had to do is learn what his rights are and some of the laws that he could use to petition for his freedom. This is how he was connected with Avi and we will discuss more about his case and where it stands in the next section. Without any legal background, Joey had to learn the laws on his own so he could start working toward his release.

On a personal level, Joey took control of understanding himself, learning about how to handle his emotions, and confronting this past trauma. In group therapy, Joey was able to open up about his painful past, take ownership of the things he did wrong, and work his way to developing healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with this pain. 

Where does the case stand today? 

After 21 years in prison, from age 18 - 39, Joey was finally up for parole in 2020. Two weeks before he was supposed to be released, his parole was overturned by Governor Newsom. The power of a governor to overturn a parole board’s decision is unique only to California and Oklahoma. Avi and a team at the ACLU are working to bring a class-action lawsuit against California with the goal of preventing the governor from overturning a parole board’s decision for offenders that are 25 and younger. 

In speaking about the case, Avi argues that offenders under the age of 25 don’t have the impulse control or the same level of decision-making capability as people who are over the age of 25. They seek to prove that there has been inconsistencies in the governor’s reversal of a parole board’s decision when it comes to offenders who are under 25, compared to those who are older than 25.

Team’s reflections

Joey and Avi’s discussion with us was deeply moving for the Informed K12 team. Here are some of their thoughts and reflections:


I found this presentation truly fascinating and powerful. I learned so much new information about the faults of the US Criminal Justice System. The criminal justice system is deeply flawed and it was incredible to hear Joey's perspective. I'm grateful for Joey and Avi sharing their knowledge and experience with our team.


I found Joey's description of the fact that contraband items like phones were most prevalent during COVID lockdowns when the only people that prisoners could interact with were the guards to be very interesting.  After hearing Joey and Avi speak, I realized that I underestimated the lack of privacy prisoners have as it relates to mental health services provided.  My understanding of the criminal justice system has evolved because I've been exposed to the perspectives of law enforcement professionals, attorneys, and formerly incarcerated individuals


I have close friends and loved ones in Law Enforcement, so I probably see things a little differently than many people.  I believe in our criminal justice system overall.  That said, I thoroughly recognize that it needs a lot of work to improve.  There's no denying injustices happen and we need better mechanisms and training to reduce those (I do not believe they can ever be totally eradicated, but we can never stop trying to improve).  


Some choices a person makes have a life-long impact.  I do agree that under the age of, say, 25 years, we should consider rehabilitation a bit more seriously, though. I think that portion of the discussion had the biggest impact on me.   

Yet we do expect those under 25 to make life-long choices regularly - to join the military, for example.   And many more drug addicts and those from disadvantaged situations do NOT decide to do violent crimes/murder.  It's not inevitable and we should not treat it as such.  This isn't a simple mistake that they've made.  I'm obviously still thinking on this discussion and look forward to Part 2.  


When I was 19 years old, I was employed as an Interviewer at the Public Defender's Office, where I worked for 8 years. My main responsibility was to read police reports and conduct interviews with individuals who were going to be represented by a Public Defender. I often reflect on this experience as a valuable lesson in developing empathy and learning about the intricacies of the criminal justice system. It’s difficult to encapsulate the depth of my growth during this time.