Editor’s Note: This is part 3 of our series on Marla Thao. In this segment Marla talks about the need to reach out to young people, especially those within the Hmong community, supporting them and helping them avoid the mistakes that sent her to prison for eight years. Thanks to post author Jessica Hunt for her fantastic work and a special thanks goes to Marla for taking time out of a busy schedule to work with us on telling her story.
Post by Jessica Hunt
Marla Thao recognizes the wrong choices she made that led to her to prison. As she struggles to rebuild her life, Marla is making a concerted effort to reach out to others, especially young people who might be vulnerable to the same negative decisions she made herself.
As a teenager, craving acceptance Marla describes her relationship with a meth-using boyfriend who convinced her to turn to prostitution to help fund a place to live.
Then her “boyfriend” began luring more girls into prostitution, using their apartment as the base of operations.
“My relationship with him was more important than (the girls) were … I knew it was illegal, I knew it wasn’t right. But I didn’t want to … I was unhealthy myself.”
Her boyfriend was caught and because of her involvement, Marla was sentenced as a co-conspirator. In 2003, she was sentenced to 11 years for three counts of promotion of prostitution with minors, aiding and abetting.
While at Minnesota Correctional Facility – Shakopee, Marla contributed to the Straight Talk program, where she and others in prison were able to talk with young girls and troubled teens. The girls would come to Shakopee either by court order or taking a field trip with a group home. The Straight Talk group also speaks with college students who are taking classes in criminal justice at Metropolitan State University, Minnesota State University in Mankato and Anoka Technical College.
“It is not easy to share your story with others,” Marla said. “Just knowing that it could help save a life is really rewarding…that’s why I share my story. That’s one of my passions – to help people.”
Marla finds it easy to relate to the girls she has spoken with because she has experienced many of the same issues. She sees in them the need for more involvement from their parents.
“They just want to look cool when they are younger or try to fit in. It’s not just the girls, but the parents too,” she said. “I think it goes both ways…as parents you have to build that relationship with your kids. If you show your kids that as parents you love and care (for them) …they don’t have to look anywhere else to be accepted.”
Marla also continues to grow an understanding of her Hmong culture and its involvement with the American justice system.
She recalls that there were only three Hmong women when she first went into Shakopee. Since she has been there, she has seen the number grow to about 10 women.
Marla has also been working on a long-term study of the cultural challenges faced by young Hmong men. Drinking and drug abuse among Hmong males is a particular concern. Marla believes they turn to drugs because they feel caught in a no-man’s land, accepted by neither Hmong nor American culture. She also notes that men of Hmong descent find it difficult to share their story because they don’t want to appear weak.
Marla ultimately wants to help change this trajectory, using her own story to reach out to the Hmong community and others, hopefully helping a few young men to avoid spending their lives in prison and to ultimately make positive lifelong decisions.