A Fresh Start Behind Bars

By Cai Zhao-man (蔡照滿), Zheng Yi-hui (鄭怡慧)
Abridged and translated by Eddie Huang (黃永平)
                                                 Nick Chen (陳鼎棋)

A Fresh Start Behind Bars

By Cai Zhao-man (蔡照滿),
Zheng Yi-hui (鄭怡慧)
Abridged and translated by
Eddie Huang (黃永平)
Nick Chen (陳鼎棋)

Since his release from prison in 1994, Gao (center) has been sharing his story with inmates in various correctional facilities across Taiwan. (Photo by Li Zhao-tian)

"There's nothing ahead; nothing behind. I'm afraid to turn back; afraid to voice my pain. How do I navigate this long and endless journey?" This song was sung and written by Mrs. Gao, expressing the poignant emotions of waiting for her imprisoned son, Gao Wei-ying (高惟碤), to come home.

At the age of 20, Gao was convicted of armed robbery and was sentenced to nine years in prison. His rebellious years started young. During his time in elementary school, he was a timid boy who struggled with learning and frequently became a target of bullying. Determined not to be pushed around anymore, he swore to become a fearsome gangster someday.

He kept that promise to himself and started skipping school, stealing, extorting, and stirring up trouble. Things further escalated after he entered junior high school. "While others packed books in their bags, I packed booze and weapons in mine," Gao said. After graduating, he ran away from home and soon joined a gang, later becoming a prominent figure in the criminal underworld.

"When I see kids headed to school, I couldn't help but feel regret for missing out on an education. But it was too late; I was already in a gang." Gao said remorsefully. (Photo from Da Ai TV)

But then he was behind bars for armed robbery. Little did he know that his time in prison would introduce him to two death row inmates who would profoundly change his life. The first inmate gifted him a Buddhist sutra. Despite being unable to read, Gao made every effort to explore the teachings. The second inmate invited him to become a Tzu Chi member, so Gao started donating money to Tzu Chi every month. From then on, he frequently read the Tzu Chi Monthly magazine and learned about the importance of helping others and honoring one's parents. At that point, he reflected on himself, "Do I really want to continue my old ways in the future? Do I want to keep breaking my mother's heart?"

Not wanting to bring suffering to his mother anymore, Gao decided to turn his life around. He started doing laundry for his fellow inmates and sent the money he earned to his mother. After being released on parole, he has been actively participating in Tzu Chi activities as a volunteer, visiting the Zhengde School of Hualien Prison every week, sharing stories about Tzu Chi and the wisdom of Dharma Master Cheng Yen (證嚴法師), with the hopes of inspiring positive change within the inmate students.

Gao's wife (left) and mother (right) are also Tzu Chi volunteers. (Photo by Bo Chuan-qi)

And he did. An inmate student who has been serving time for over a decade mentioned that Gao's story deeply resonated with him, especially when he heard Gao's mother singing, which reminded him of his mother and brought tears to his eyes. He said, "In the future, I plan to smoke less and use the money saved to help others and make the world a better place."

"It's okay to make mistakes; what matters is the will to change. Once you change, happiness will follow." After sharing his story, Gao once again encouraged the inmates, saying, "We're waiting for you to join us at Tzu Chi!" The inmate-turned-volunteer continues to transform lives…

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