Halfway home

From a Juneau halfway house, Gino Kuang discusses his addiction, family and future

Posted: Friday, September 04, 2009

Ri Dong "Gino" Kuang is only a few weeks into his one-year prison sentence, but he's already made it halfway home.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Kuang, 38, was convicted this summer of a misdemeanor drug charge for attempting to buy hundreds of OxyContin pills from a police informant worth tens of thousands of dollars while under surveillance. He agreed to be interviewed at the halfway house - where he was moved after two nights in lockup at Lemon Creek Correctional Center - and maintains the pills were for his own use to feed a rampant personal addiction.

He said he's been clean since his arrest in March.

Kuang would not discuss the particulars of his criminal history, the circumstances of his arrest or the seedy rumors that circulate about him.

"It's not important," was his repeated refrain.

Kuang initially said nobody would believe the words of a convicted criminal and that it would be a waste of his time to talk about his situation. On reflection, he said his notoriety could lend a weird credibility to his word that he hopes can effect good in the community.

"I don't care about my reputation. Whatever. ... I'm popular for a bad reason, the wrong reasons," he said. "I have to forgive myself and earn the forgiveness of the community."

Kuang's official record doesn't wash with the widespread rumors about his ties to the drug trade. Before the police sting this year, his criminal drug record amounted to a single misdemeanor in 1998 for possession of cocaine.

Before his OxyContin addiction that began two years ago, he claims he never had a drug problem.

When he was using, he said he'd smoke the crushed pills off a piece of aluminum foil, some days 10 or more. Stopping any serious addiction cold turkey can cause soul wrenching withdrawal, but Kuang would only describe his figuratively - "I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy."

Kuang said he will voluntarily begin an on-site drug rehabilitation program next week, his first stint in such a program, and a work release program where a quarter of his pay will go to restitution; halfway house inmates pay their own rent. He doesn't know what line of work he'll be in, but the program bars him from working with family.

Amid some unkind words his brother, Richard Kwong said Gino's ties to the family's Mendenhall Valley restaurant, Canton House, was in name only; the family bought out Gino's stake.

Gino Kuang said the attention has been humiliating, and he has no way to address the imminent public outrage or what he'll say when he's recognized out and about.

"Live by the sword, die by the sword," he said.

Is it fair?

Kuang's one-year prison sentence began Aug. 15 at Lemon Creek Correctional Center. He was moved to the halfway house after two nights.

Officials with the state Department of Corrections said moving Kuang out of lockup was consistent with his misdemeanor conviction, criminal history, history of violence and other factors.

Kuang kept his comments on the matter brief: "I have no control over what the state does. ... But it is what it is."

Scott Wellard, superintendent of Lemon Creek Correctional Center, said anyone with a sentence of one year or less would be an immediate candidate for the halfway house. Wellard said it's common to field questions about treating different inmates fairly and that he recognized that Kuang had a high profile case under greater scrutiny.

But that doesn't change how the department treats him.

"You live in a small community, you hear the rumors, the hearsay. Our job is to ignore that, go on just the facts" handed down from the court system, Wellard said.

The department uses a scoring system to rank inmates in a matrix of custody levels. Factors such as the severity of the most recent offense, criminal history and history of violence are formally inventoried, scored and tallied. The halfway house option falls under the minimum custody level.

"We don't back up and try to retry a case in our minds," said Dave Wilson, Lemon Creek's lead probation officer. "It's not our job to punish further. ... Our job is to house prisoners in the least restrictive environment that protects the community."

Kuang is now subject to drug testing. A "hot" urinalysis will automatically send a halfway house inmate back to lockup, Wellard said.

In the grand scheme of prison population management, "It comes down to this: It's a lot cheaper to have someone in a halfway house bed than a prison house bed," said Richard Schmitz, spokesman for the department.

'I just drain everybody'

Kuang attributes his first bust to youthful indiscretion.

"I was young and stupid. I felt untouchable," he said.

This time around, he said the impact on his family is putting things in perspective, motivating him to stay clean and is what will keep him straight down the road.

When he got into OxyContin, Kuang said he burned through his savings and used the family restaurant to support his habit. He's not using anymore, but legal fees and fines continue to impact those close to him.

"I'm broke. I dug a big hole for myself," he said. Financially and emotionally, "I just drain everybody."

Kuang also has a 13-year-old son.

"I cannot afford to make a mistake like this again. Everyday I take away from my kid cannot be replaced."

Kuang said he knows his son is disappointed, but sees a silver lining.

"If there's no disappointment, there's no room for improvement."

His days are tightly structured at the halfway house, but the chores, visitors, mandatory community service and other programs don't fill up the hours. On the weekends, when there's no work and nowhere to go, all there is to do is "sit around, think about all the s---ty things you did in life," he said.

Besides more "soul searching," Kuang said he doesn't know what he'll do after his time is up, if he'll stick around Juneau or if he'll try to get back into the restaurant business. But he wants a chance.

"If someone's an addict, the worst thing you can do, especially with OxyContin, is not give them a chance. Just give them a chance," Kuang said.

• Contact Jeremy Hsieh at 523-2258 or e-mail jeremy.hsieh@juneauempire.com.

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