The Refugee: Tran Loc


Tran Loc was born in Hue in Central Vietnam, and he’s in his 27th year of a life without parole sentence at SCI Smithfield. He is the Vice President of Journey for a Change and has served as a mentor and tutor for most of his time inside. Read his story below and scroll to the end to watch an interview with him.


On January 30, 1968, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese People’s Army launched an attack against the South Vietnamese Army, the U.S. Armed Forces, and their allies. It would come to be known as the Tet Offensive, and it was one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War. At the center of this battle was the city of Hue, the ancient imperial capital city of Vietnam and the third largest city in what was known during the war as South Vietnam. Just 31 miles south of the border between North and South Vietnam, Hue was a strategic choice for the attack. The highway that ran through Hue was a vital supply line for both militaries, and the Perfume River, a key naval base for the U.S. military, ran right through the middle of the city. One of the longest and bloodiest battles of the entire war, The Battle of Hue lasted 32 days. Almost 8,000 people were killed in the battle, including 5,000 civilians, and the city of Hue was virtually destroyed. 

I was born in Hue on September 20, 1972. By that point, my family had nothing. We were largely separated from our extended family because everyone scattered over the course of the war. Despite the devastation, my parents raised me and my siblings with strong principles and values. They helped us grow into young people with integrity and instilled in us a sense of responsibility to care for other people. 

When I was 8 years old, my family moved further south to Bien Hoa in search of stability in general, and economic opportunity, in particular. I was a middle child in a family of 8 children, 6 boys and 2 girls, and we all worked from a young age to provide for our family. We found a niche selling ice to restaurants. Every day, my brothers and I woke up at 2AM to go to the ice factory. We loaded up the truck and then drove across the city, delivering ice to all the restaurants and corner stores. Ultimately, it only added up to around $5-$10 American dollars a day, far short of what we needed to sustain a family. 

In 1991, when I was 19 years old, my younger sister and I were given an opportunity to come to the United States. I had one goal in mind: find a good job so I could support my family back home in Vietnam. My sister and I arrived in North Philadelphia with nothing but the clothes on our backs. For the first year, we lived a 2-bedroom, 1-bathroom apartment with four other families. We enjoyed some new luxuries, like our first showers with hot running water and mattresses to sleep on. But we couldn’t help worrying how we were going to make it in a world where we had no family and didn’t know the language. 

I attended Kensington High School for over a year but grew frustrated because I couldn’t read, write, or speak English. I was failing all my classes because I couldn’t understand anything my teachers or fellow students were saying. Eventually, the Vietnamese school counselor sat me down in her office and said it would be better for me to find a job—I could apply for community college later. So, at the age of 21, I dropped out of high school. 

My first job was at a clothing factory. Because I still didn’t know English, the owner of the company took advantage of me and only paid me $3.00 an hour. Later I found out my co-workers were paid twice as much as me. After unsuccessfully fighting for fair wages, I quit my job and got caught up with some guys involved in things that ran counter to the principles instilled in me by my parents. 

One evening in 1995, one of the guys I was running with at the time got into a fight with another person at a bar, and I was shot trying to break it up. For a few minutes, I thought my life was over. Everyone scattered, and the couple who owned the bar took me to the hospital, which ultimately saved my life. While I was laid up in the hospital for 40 days, the woman who owned the restaurant came to visit me often, bringing food and joy into my otherwise dreary days. We became close over those 6 weeks, and that relationship with a mother figure here in the United States marked a turning point in my life. When I was released, she offered me a job and invited me to come live with her family. 

For the first time since leaving Vietnam, I had a place I could call home. I worked at the nail salon the family-owned during the day, and in the evenings, I worked in their restaurant. To this day, I can’t believe they chose me. This woman, who I came to see as my godmother, taught me valuable lessons that helped me lead a productive life in this foreign country. It felt like the start of the life I had dreamed of when I came to the United States.

Then, in a shocking turn of events, I was arrested in 1997 and charged with conspiracy to commit murder. I was devastated and confused. I knew I had never hurt anyone! To this day, I have never once held a gun in my life. Evidently, a guy I met after I quit my job in the clothing factory had been arrested. He took a deal to lower his sentence and lied about a crime that happened in 1995. He identified me, along with 5 other people—some of whom I had never seen before—as part of a robbery where a person was killed. 

That was the first time I was arrested. Still unable to speak English, I sat in the county jail for almost two years with no idea what was going on. In 1999, I finally went to trial, and everything happened quickly. My lawyer worked with a translator to tell me I was sentenced to Life Without Parole. At the age of 24, I was sent to SCI Smithfield in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, where I’m supposed to live out the rest of my days. The guy who committed the murder and took the plea deal is now free.

I have been incarcerated for over 27 years, and at SCI Smithfield for 25. For the first few years I was here, I was very angry. I spent most of my days stewing alone in my cell. Eventually, I started going out to the exercise yard, where I gambled and got into trouble. With no hope for a positive future, I couldn’t bring myself to care about anything. At one point, I spent 60 days in a restrictive housing unit for fighting, where I spent entire days feeling sorry for myself. 

In 2005, my world turned upside down. My godmother and sister came to visit me and delivered the devastating news that my mom had died. My sister said my mother gave her a message to share with me before she died: She wanted me to know she was sorry she hadn’t been there for me. She said to do whatever was necessary—anything within my power—to regain my life and freedom. She urged me to make the most of my days, even in this deeply depressing place. She wanted me to know she had always loved me. 

When the visit was over, I came back to my cell, fell to the floor, and wailed. Years of pent-up emotion pulsed through me as I sobbed and sobbed, mourning the loss of my mother, the loss of my family, the loss of my own life and freedom. In that place of desperation, I made a commitment to myself. I would get back to the person my mother had raised me to be—an upstanding man who took responsibility for my actions and spent my life in service of the people around me. I remembered that, at my core, I’m a good person. Even in this terrible place, I could live an honorable life and build up the community around me. 

 When I emerged from that low point, I immediately signed up for classes to learn to read and write English. I spent countless hours studying in my cell, and though it was very difficult for me, I never gave up. In 2010, after ten long years of studying and countless failures, I passed the GED test and received my diploma. I am still proud of that accomplishment. 

One of the teachers saw my potential and mentored me into a role as a tutor. For over 10 years, I worked in his class as a teacher’s aide, using my skills and experience to help my peers learn and grow. I also started gravitating toward the people who had been at Smithfield long before me, who managed to cultivate a positive attitude. These men taught me how to communicate with others. They helped me understand U.S. laws and gave me assistance with legal issues. These relationships have shown me that even in a miserable place like a prison, love can grow. We come alongside one another in our weaknesses and help each other find our way toward the light. 

I am currently the Vice President for Journey For A Change (JFC), an organization that works with incarcerated people who will quickly return to society. We share our stories with each other, reckon with the choices we’ve made, and foster a space to take responsibility for the harm we’ve caused. This can be a transformative experience for guys who will be back outside in no time. Our hope is that they’ll make better choices this time around and give back to society. 

I converted to Christianity shortly after I learned my mom died, and my faith is a source of strength for me every day. We have church services at 8 AM every Sunday and a fellowship every Tuesday evening. Each morning, I start the day with my Bible and a journal to get me in the right mindset for the day ahead. My relationship with God gives me hope. 

I work a lot to keep myself busy. Most of the work I do right now is in the gym, cleaning equipment, putting weights back, and leading workout classes. I used to make coats and jackets for corrections officers in PA prisons, and I have a reputation as an excellent jailhouse chef. I get paid $.50 an hour, which comes out to around $70-$80 a month. It’s not much, but I don’t have many people supporting me on the outside, so it’s nice to have a way to buy personal items from the commissary or to send emails and make phone calls. 

Over the years, I have learned to cultivate a positive outlook and a sense of hope for a positive future. I look around and remember it’s not just me. I am not alone in my fight. There are a band of unfortunate brothers and sisters that share in my pain. When we come together, combining all our knowledge and wisdom, we are bound to find a way out of this place. 

When we win our freedom—and I know we will—I want to have a birthday party in the free world. To this day, I’ve never had a proper birthday party. We struggled too much when I was in Vietnam, and we don’t have celebrations like that at Smithfield. I want to live in Philly and work for an organization that mentors people who are struggling so they don’t end up in here. I want to help them understand it’s never too late to change—to become a better person than you were yesterday. I’m living proof! I’m not the same man I was 27 years ago. 

I’ve learned from other guys here at Smithfield that a good friend has the capacity to carry you to new heights, places you never could’ve gotten alone. I want to be that kind of friend to other people, in here as long as I’m behind these walls, and out there in the wide-open world when I’m finally free. 



If you would like to send Tran a note, you can write to him at: 

Smart Communications/PA DOC
Tran Loc #DW5822
SCI Smithfield
PO Box 33028
St Petersburg, Florida 33733