‘How I wrote the story’: Wrestling with the access dilemma
Armed with a stack of business cards, David Ferrell probes a jailhouse
If you’ve ever had an assignment that made you wonder, ”How the hell am I going to DO this?” you’ll enjoy watching my colleague David Ferrell’s level-headed pursuit of this story that appeared a few years ago.
His assignment: Expose and detail the brutal, racist society that existed inside a county detention center on the northern edge of Los Angeles County.
His first question: Access. How do I get it? Beyond that were other challenges: Once I get access, how do I collect the kind of detail that will make people want to read a story about a subject many of them would just as soon ignore? How do I balance the structure between gripping examples and the less evocative, macrocosmic description of the collective experience?
Before we get to his essay, here’s the first third of the piece. The first good choice Dave made was to avoid the easy anecdotal lead. He had witnessed hard truths and it was his responsibility to proclaim them: He made a series of observational statements based on his reporting. He put you inside the vortex in a way no single anecdote (unless you let it run on and on) could have done:
A CALDRON OF FEAR AND VIOLENCE
May 19, 1996
Hell might be this: A place where all of the racial hatreds, gang wars and law enforcement problems of an entire metropolis are squeezed down into a single bastardized society so hard and twisted it defies reason.
Los Angeles funnels thousands of its worst, from hundreds of gangland neighborhoods, into the sprawling Pitchess Detention Center in the rugged foothills of Castaic. There are killers and crack dealers, carjackers and small-time thieves, and untold numbers of innocent men–all prisoners in a madhouse, struggling for power and survival in loud, overcrowded jail dormitories never meant to house dangerous felons.
Tensions smolder day and night, erupting time and again in bloody clashes: fistfights, “rat pack” beatings of 10 or 12 on one, full-blown race riots.
Sometimes hundreds of prisoners fight at once, malice surging like high voltage, inmate to inmate, dorm to dorm. Guards scramble to impose order with pellet guns and sting-ball grenades–a harsh style of discipline that often dances on the line between what is necessary and what is not.
Pitchess was the scene of 57 violent disturbances last year, 123 the year before that. It is an extraordinary place in a system that is in deep trouble on all fronts.
The Los Angeles County jails are an institution, like the courts and City Hall, that form part of the immense regulating machinery of society: pumps and filters to cleanse the streets of lawbreakers, to deter crime. In some areas, the whine of the motors is no more than a faint hum, but in many communities–especially in impoverished minority neighborhoods–the jails are a roaring presence, touching nearly everyone, dividing families, drawing up thousands of teenagers into the penal system.
Only now does Dave allow a character briefly onstage:
“No one wants to go to jail, but a lot of the youth here in the inner city feel that it’s inevitable,” said DeWayne Holmes, 28, a former inmate from South-Central who has helped crusade for a gang truce. “The typical youth . . . if he’s never been in [jail] or never been shot or never been involved in drugs, he’ll say, ‘I was lucky.’ ”
Now Dave steps outside the jail to show how it is part of an institutional mess:
Eight major facilities make up the nation’s largest county jail system, one that handles 250,000 inmates a year. At any given time, its cells, holding tanks and dormitories house 18,000 to 20,000 prisoners–men and women locked up to await trial, or serving sentences, or in transit to and from the courts and state prisons.
The machinery is overloaded, running hot. The Sheriff’s Department, which operates the system, has closed several older jails in recent years–reducing capacity by 5,000 inmates–and has run short of money to open Twin Towers, a new, 4,100-bed jail that cost $373 million to build.
Jail space could be doubled and still not accommodate all the criminals that should be in custody, according to the Sheriff’s Department. Thousands are arrested and convicted each year, only to be released for lack of room. Not a single neighborhood is unstained by the leakage.
“The problem is enormous,” said Chief Mark Squiers, head of the Sheriff’s Custody Division, who said the department has pleaded in vain for financial help. “We holler . . . and nobody gives a damn. It doesn’t work.”
Now Dave takes you back inside, where most of the story will be played out, foreshadowing the major themes:
Inside, the jails are old, rat-infested, understaffed, overcrowded. The clientele is rougher than ever–more felons, more repeat offenders bound for state prisons.
Center of Maelstrom
Perhaps nowhere is the system more bent and cracking than at Pitchess, where life is dominated by mayhem, or the prospects of mayhem. In between meals and sleep and the regimented routines of the jailhouse, prisoners spend much of their time girding for trouble: forming alliances, crafting weapons that they secrete in their mattress pads or candy bars and claiming strategic bunks with a wall at their backs.
Every prisoner and every guard plays some role in tilting the balance between order and chaos. Whichever prevails at the moment is the result of forces swirling at many levels: racism, gang politics, the often hostile relationship between angry, mostly minority inmates and the predominantly white, inexperienced deputies who serve as jail guards.
“It’s hard to describe the fear,” said Lycurgus Helton, 31, a black inmate who was stomped but not seriously hurt during the worst upheaval at Pitchess so far: five days of race riots in January, when 5,300 of the 8,500 prisoners went to battle. Six guards and 123 inmates were injured after the Mexican Mafia ordered an attack on blacks, for reasons that authorities have never been able to learn.
“It was insanity,” said Helton, who is doing time for robbery. “Blood everywhere. It was like something coming to an end–like the book of Revelation, like the Holocaust, whatever you want to say.”
Latinos account for half of the inmates, and blacks another third. Those two groups have been at war for years–as have Latinos and Asians, who are outnumbered by their antagonists 50 to 1.
Race riots and gang fights often are orchestrated by the same men who set down the dorms’ unwritten rules of conduct: tattooed gang leaders known as “shot-callers,” links in a vast criminal network that extends far beyond this remote compound, 40 miles north of downtown.
The network fairly crackles with schemes and gang gossip, tying Pitchess to the streets and to leaders of the Mexican Mafia, a powerful gang in the state prison system. Word of a drive-by shooting in Venice or a drug rip-off in East L.A. reaches the shot-callers over any of hundreds of inmate telephones in the Pitchess dorms.
Shot-callers take advantage of the captive dorm populations to retaliate, ordering a “green light” for attacks on members of rival gangs or racial groups who happen to be in custody.
Assaults continue until the score is settled, a form of retribution and extortion whose effects ripple back to the streets.
While some combatants are gang leaders, far more are foot soldiers, bound to loyalty to warring factions by lifelong biases, coercion and peer pressures.
Watch how Dave, now convinced he’s successfully brought you into this circle of hell, begins to bring in anecedotes for small personal illustrations. The first one personifies the previous statement about race:
“Even if a Mexican grew up next to me, we really can’t be friends in here,” said black inmate Steven Troup, 26, of South-Central, who gravitated to street gangs at age 9. He has been in and out of Pitchess and the prison system for eight years, this time after police accused him of hiding 28 rocks of cocaine in a plastic bag in his mouth.
His tattoos, like those of hundreds of inmates, suggest his long commitment to the gang world: On his left fist and muscular right forearm are the initials “U.G.,” signifying the Under Ground Crips. His are modest examples of a vast lexicon of jailhouse tattoos: gang monikers, slogans and territories woven into fleshy tableaux of snakes, skulls and unclad women–a living Rosetta stone of urban culture.
Racial pride is intense, creating the deepest divisions in the jailhouse. Inmates segregate themselves as much as possible within each dormitory, dividing up bunks, tables and telephones. At the maximum-security East facility–one of four separate jails in the Pitchess compound–only Latinos and blacks live in six cavernous rooms upstairs: the “thunder dorms,” inmates call them, for the booming noises of the riots there.
The next anecdote, artfully integrated, illustrates a narrower facet of the racial chasm:
Each concrete room contains 130 men and nine telephones that stand in a row like ebony tombstones. By agreement of the shot-callers, five phones belong to Latinos, four to blacks. That leaves none for the likes of Roberto Sanchez, who is both–a black-skinned Cuban, 35, arrested in December on a grand-theft charge.
Sanchez insists he should not even be here: He ran off with a man’s gun, he said, to prevent the man from shooting someone. In the dorms he became everyone’s victim. For trying to use one of the Latino phones, he was led to the back of the dorm by two blacks, who slapped him and berated him for showing allegiance to the enemy.
” ‘Over here, we don’t talk to Spanish people,’ ” Sanchez recalls them saying. “I told them, ‘I’m Spanish–I’m Cuban.’ They told me it don’t make no difference–my skin is black.”
He was forced to “roll up,” bundle his bedsheet and pillow and plead with the guards to transfer him elsewhere. Sanchez ended up in six different dorms before being moved into a less hostile “old man’s” dorm, normally reserved for inmates over 40. At one stop, about 25 Latinos beat him until he dropped to the floor, a bloody assault that one inmate described as a “mob scene, a lot of noise . . . screaming” that went on for 10 minutes.
No one tried to help him.
Now, here’s Dave’s essay:
Jail is not for me. I’d pretty much spent my whole life paying my traffic fines, staying out of bookie joints and generally refraining from physical attacks against my antagonists (i.e., editors), so as to avoid being thrown behind bars.
Now, though, a journalistic twist of fate put me in a new position: describe life inside the Pitches Detention Center.
From the outset, questions of access dominated my worries about whether I could put a story together. Pitchess, the county’s largest jail compound, had been the site of recurring race riots for years. In January, more than 5,000 Pitchess inmates had taken part in racial melees that lasted for several days. There was no getting around the fact that an in-depth story would deal with a lot of violence and ugliness that would paint the jail system in a very bad light.
I think the story was made possible in part because of good timing, and in part because of the tremendous leverage of a paper such as The Times. In the beginning, we conceived a multi-part project involving several reporters. I would write about Pitchess. Two other reporters, Julie Tamaki and Eric Lichtblau, would investigate other issues affecting the entire jail system–overcrowding, medical care, jail deaths, whatever we could find. Another reporter, Paul Feldman, was brought into the project soon after it began. Clarence Williams was asked to spend weeks taking pictures.
We made it clear to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which runs the jail system, that we planned to take a comprehensive look at the various problems within the system. It seemed to me that the early commitment we made toward a deeply probing story helped to open doors for us-at least at first.
The Sheriff’s Department appeared to recognize that it would have to work with us or we would challenge the department in court. At the same time, political forces were clearly at work. The Sheriff was facing a new round of budget hearings and was looking to demonstrate his need for additional money.
”This could actually help us,” one member of the department remarked upon hearing of our plans.
Our first step in pursuing the story was to file the first of many FOIA requests, asking for basic background information about budgets, jail capacities, the demographics of inmates, the frequency of racial fights, and so on. We also asked to tour the major jails. For one long, grueling day, we walked what seemed like miles of hallways, kitchens and cellblocks at two facilities downtown: overcrowded Central Jail and the newly built, unopened Twin Towers Jail, which sat empty because the department lacked the money to run it. A day later, we spent another long, grueling day walking through each of the four separate jails that occupy the Pitchess compound.
The tours gave me an important head start in understanding the jail system, and Pitchess, in particular. While we were not able to talk to the inmates, we were able to see how the various jails compared–how Central Jail, for example, with its long rows of cells, was different than the Pitchess jails, where prisoners are housed in large, crowded dormitories. I filled up two or three notebooks with information from deputies about how the jails operate–how prisoners are booked into custody, how they’re moved from place to place, how they fashion weapons out of shoes, newspapers and toothbrushes, how decisions are made about where each prisoner is kept, how discipline is meted out when fights erupt.
I was struck by the enormous complexity of a system that handles about 20,000 prisoners a day. Pitchess, a former honor farm, held more than 8,000 inmates, many of them gangsters and violent felons awaiting trial. The four jails at Pitchess were very distinct. One, for low-risk inmates, looked like a row of old Army barracks. Another, for medium-security inmates, looked like a drab gray industrial building. The two jails for maximum-security prisoners could not have been more different: One was among the oldest jails in the state, filled with exposed pipes, chain-link barriers and clanging metal bars; the other was a vast, sparkling new building that looked like an art museum.
Very quickly, I needed to start exploring life in each of the four jails, looking for similarities and differences, for the commonalities that would help to build the story. I needed to find out about the racial fights and why they occurred. I needed to learn about mealtimes and inmate movement and the daily flow of life. I needed to start talking with prisoners of every major racial and ethnic group.
First I needed names. I started with lawsuits and public watchdog groups. As part of an oversight commission’s recommendations, the county had hired an independent attorney to oversee certain reforms in the Sheriff’s Department. I arranged to sit down with that attorney and discuss the jails, and he directed me to a number of inmate lawsuits that he thought would be relevant to Pitchess. That saved me considerable time looking through indices and court files.
I started looking up lawsuits, calling attorneys and tracking down disgruntled former inmates. I also made calls to the ACLU, Police Watch and other groups that monitor jail conditions. During this research, I was given the phone number of a private investigator who had begun exploring the treatment of inmates at Pitchess. This investigator provided me with a list of inmates from one Pitchess dorm in the older, maximum-security jail. These inmates had been through the January riots and were still in custody, several weeks later.
The list–about a dozen names–was enough to get me started. I began to arrange interviews. There were two options: I could try to take advantage of weekend visiting hours and conduct interviews through thick glass, side by side with scores of other visitors, or I could request preferential treatment. I chose the latter. Fortunately, the Sheriff’s Department was still cooperating with us, a situation that would change soon enough.
After a fair amount of persuading, high-ranking members of the Custody Division agreed to allow me to sit down privately, one-on-one, with the inmates of my choice, provided that their lawyers consented. I was able to conduct several long, sit-down interviews this way. The inmates I met were allowed to meet with me in borrowed offices; each time, a guard stood just outside the door. One inmate, in particular, gave me a fascinating, detailed description of inmate society, laying out the general relationships among the various racial and ethnic groups, and also between inmates and guards.
The information was great, but it made me realize there were very many facets to the story. I was frustrated by how much time it was taking to arrange new interviews. In some cases, inmates I hoped to see–men with startling experiences, according to the private investigator–were not allowed to meet with me because their lawyers objected. Clarence Williams was frustrated, too; he was supposed to be taking pictures, and he was not yet able to gain access to the jails, beyond what we saw during the tour.
I decided to ask for time with the jail guards. I asked to spend time with guards on duty so I could see how they monitored the dormitories, how they funneled inmates through the cafeteria for dinner. I asked to observe portions of the wee-hour morning shift, the afternoon shift and the night shifts at the various jails, and to bring Clarence with me to take photographs.
These sessions were filled with anxiety. They occurred as the Sheriff’s Department began to grow apprehensive about our project. Our colleagues were beginning to ask hard questions about the early release of prisoners back to the streets and the Sheriff’s management of budget allocations. The mid-management jailers who chaperoned photographer Clarence and I through these work shifts were very obviously uncomfortable with our presence, and for good reason, I suppose.
Clarence was allowed to photograph inmates so long as they signed consent forms. Meanwhile, I was interviewing guards. My real targets–the inmates–were only a few feet away, behind bars, but I was not allowed to interview them because I had not yet obtained the consent of their attorneys. I had to walk that fine line between interviewing and not interviewing.
Inmates kept calling me over, eager to talk. I would wander over to the bars while the jailers watched me, or while they watched Clarence fiddling with his camera not far away.
I took down the inmates’ names and the names of their lawyers and made notations about their physical appearance, mustaches, tattoos, anything that could help bring the story to life. I always had with me a thick stack of business cards, and I passed them out liberally. ”Call me collect,” I told one and all. As much as I could, I stood and listened to the inmates while they gabbed at me, not asking questions, taking only as many notes as I dared. Several times I managed to slip in a few questions, and more than once I ended up hearing such amazing tales that I found myself scrawling madly to get down the information.
Twice one of my escorts led me away to a secluded room, where I was lectured about breaking the rules. I was shown a thick rule book. I was not actually doing an interview, I would try to point out.
I’d hoped to cover seven or eight shifts at the various Pitchess jails, but that plan fizzled. I soon realized–to the great relief of the Sheriff’s Department–that three or four shifts was enough. My business cards were circulating all over Pitchess, and my phone was ringing incessantly. I had to spend the next couple of weeks doing phone interviews, talking to dozens of prisoners, some more than once. Some of my better sources helped to track down other inmates who could fill in the gaps in my research.
”I need to talk to a few more white inmates,” I told one source, a black prisoner.
Soon afterward, several white prisoners were calling me on the phone. By the time I had to write, I owned a bonanza of anecdotes and insights, about everything from racial beatings to the Mexican Mafia to sex in the bunks–and I tried to squeeze every bit of it that I could into the story.
We return to the story. Watch how Dave continues to organize the story segment-by-segment, and how disciplined he is about making his general points and allowing only the most compelling characters to leave his notebook and come onstage.
We had stopped at the end of the passage about Roberto Sanchez that illustrated the black-Latino segregation. Sanchez was…
…forced to “roll up,” bundle his bedsheet and pillow and plead with the guards to transfer him elsewhere. Sanchez ended up in six different dorms before being moved into a less hostile “old man’s” dorm, normally reserved for inmates over 40. At one stop, about 25 Latinos beat him until he dropped to the floor, a bloody assault that one inmate described as a “mob scene, a lot of noise . . . screaming” that went on for 10 minutes.
No one tried to help him.
Staking Out Territory
At downtown’s Men’s Central Jail, where many of the county’s most hardened inmates are held, guards usually are able to isolate incompatible elements in separate cells and cellblocks. But that is far more difficult at Pitchess, a sprawl of pale buildings and chain-link fences that occupies 3,800 acres of ranch land near Magic Mountain.
Developed over several decades as the Wayside Honor Rancho–a work farm mainly for drunks, traffic violators and other nonviolent offenders–the compound is considered inadequate for today’s demands. Its defining characteristic is its large dormitories, varying in size and shape and crowded with double and triple bunks.
The dorms house 70 to 140 inmates at a time, often in space designed for half that many. Minor offenders share tables and open toilets with alleged killers, armed robbers and rapists awaiting their day in court.
Trifling matters–a stolen tube of toothpaste, someone cutting in line for the showers–become issues of staggering importance in rooms where men brood endlessly over their legal woes and where some keep all their worldly possessions in a small box. A disagreement over “proper bathroom etiquette” blew up last year into a race riot involving 100 inmates, jail administrators said.
“This county is crazy,” said former inmate Mario Wellington, 34, who led nightly prayer groups at Pitchess before being sent to state prison for selling marijuana. He was in one of the huge East dorms when rioting broke out in January. He recalled the terror of objects flying, bunks overturning.
“Your life is on the line,” he said. “You draw a circle around yourself and defend [it]. . . . A guy came in my circle and . . . I don’t know if he was coming to hurt me or not. All I knew was, he came too close to me. I hit him twice and he fell, and when he fell I stomped on him twice and dragged him away from me. Then somebody else came at me, and I fought. I felt bad about it, because I’m a child of God. But God don’t have no punks–God has warriors. Ecclesiastes says there’s a time for war.”
Even when fights are not raging, the dorms operate under Byzantine rules imposed by the shot-callers. Issues that threaten to stir violence are often brought before them in “court,” where the shot-callers yank at the levers of emotion and reason to try to negotiate peace.
Sometimes they decide that the only alternative to an all-out brawl is to punish a thief or troublemaker. Each racial group is expected to handle its own. Thieves are usually escorted to the rear of the dorm, out of easy view of the guards, and beaten–a practice known as “regulating.”
For lesser offenses–say, disruptive yakking at night–blacks may force a brother to roll up, transfer out, in lieu of getting hurt. Latinos are more likely to regulate their own, no matter what the charge.
On occasions when the shot-callers cannot agree, disputes quickly escalate into far greater violence. That was the case in April at the maximum-security North County Correctional Facility, the largest and newest of the Pitchess jails, where an 18-year-old black inmate was accused of taking a metal shank–a makeshift knife–that belonged to a Latino.
When the shank turned up missing, the shot-callers discussed where it had been hidden and where the black inmate, Ronald Harrington, had been seen. Harrington staunchly denied the theft. Other blacks decided to stand by him, despite being badly outnumbered, said inmate Gregory Robinson, one of the allies.
“He swore on his mother and swore on his neighborhood that he didn’t take it,” Robinson said. “He almost broke down and cried.”
That night Latinos timed their assault to begin at the call for the wristband count–the announcement ordering inmates to their bunks, so guards can run a checklist to be sure no one has escaped. Twenty men were injured in the fierce surprise attack, Harrington worst of all. He had to be transported to nearby Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital and later Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, where he underwent five days of treatment for facial wounds and stab wounds in his leg.
“They were jumping off the top bunk down onto his face, his neck,” Robinson recalled. “Man, you should have seen it–kicking his face off the side of a steel bed. They kicked his head off the ground, stomped him unconscious.”
Whites, who account for 15% of the inmates, live in constant fear of attack, as do other outnumbered groups. The safest are those who are strong or in dorms with a favorable racial balance or who are willing to pay “rent” to the shot-callers in the form of snacks and other items from the inmate store.
Ken Wolf, a 37-year-old Caucasian who spent time at Pitchess this year on a drug charge, said he was housed in a mostly black dorm.
“The first thing I did,” he said, “was I found the biggest black guy there and paid him protection,” two $1 items a week–either prepackaged cups of soup, potato chips or instant coffee. And he went beyond that, volunteering to write letters. Wolf averaged four letters a day, to girlfriends, to women listed in the personal ads.
“I wrote a lot of letters for people who really didn’t know how to write,” he said. “People were coming to me, [saying], ‘Write me a letter to this one.’ I felt kind of important. I knew nobody was going to mess with me. Nobody would let it happen.”
Wolf was housed in medium-security North jail, a low, gray concrete building, which looks like a wing in an industrial park. Its dorms hold 100 prisoners apiece. Bunks are assigned, but prisoners claim their own beds once the lights go down. Latinos take over the row along one wall, blacks the other, leaving a middle row for whites and others of lesser importance.
The shot-callers sleep in the bottom bunks at the rear of the room, where they can hang sheets from the upper bunks and afford themselves privacy from the guards. Many use the seclusion, Wolf said, to smoke homemade cigarettes made from coffee grounds and lettuce. The ersatz tobacco is wrapped in pages torn from the free Bibles the chaplains pass out. The cigarettes are lit by jamming pencil leads into a wall outlet, creating an electrical short that will ignite a wad of toilet paper.
Sex in the dorms is uncommon and rarely discussed, but Wolf said it happens. Two men were understood to be partners; one made the other’s bed, gave him extra food, brought him coffee in the morning. Another prisoner went from bed to bed at night, sleeping with several inmates, until he was badly beaten and transferred out. The rumor, Wolf said, was that one of his former sexual partners in another dorm had tested positive for HIV, and one of his new partners vented his rage by beating him.
“It looked like his eye was coming out,” Wolf said. “There was a lot of blood. You learn real quick not to look. You get checked: ‘Mind your own goddamn business.’ ”
It is every prisoner’s business to be alert for signs of danger. In the name of preparedness, prisoners arm themselves and their allies with weapons they craft and hide: razors melted onto the ends of toothbrushes, steel slivers cut from air vents and socks filled with scraps of tile. In the heat of battle, others are improvised. At North, where the ceilings are low, prisoners can stand on the bunks and break off fluorescent lights. Although the phones are rarely vandalized, one inmate said he has seen a receiver snapped off, the metal cord used as a whip.
Though administrators and guards continually search for concealed weapons and move inmates around to keep racial balances from becoming volatile, trouble flares anyway, often for reasons rooted in the streets. In 1994, the year that Pitchess disturbances soared to 123, two deadly feuds were raging in the county: one between Latinos and blacks in Venice, another between Latinos and Asians in Long Beach.
An incident that May, when Asians shot and killed three Latino teenagers as they were leaving a birthday party, is still cited by shot-callers who keep a green light on Asians in the dorms. An attack in March occurred even after guards were tipped to it. Deputies transferred 28 inmates, but still Latinos singled out the weakest-looking Asian from a group housed in an East dorm and beat him badly enough to put him in the infirmary.
“Anything that happens on the streets these days, the prisoners in here have to pay for it,” said one Latino inmate, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “This is the way it is handled.”
In contrast to other racial and ethnic groups, Latinos are highly organized. Their shot-callers compile lists of other gangs targeted with green lights. Often those targets are other Latino gangs that have run afoul of the Mexican Mafia by violating its ban on drive-by shootings or by failing to pay “taxes” on drug sales on the streets.
The lists are circulated from dorm to dorm, by phone or by means of smuggled jailhouse notes known as “kites,” a standard form of communication at Pitchess. Kites float through the halls in the shoes or waistbands of prisoners going to court or the infirmary, on meal carts pushed dorm to dorm by inmate workers, and in plastic bags that inmates carry anally.
Even when attacked, targeted Latino gangs are expected to side with their assailants when the time comes for war with blacks, a traditional enemy in the penal system dating back decades, to when blacks were the dominant group. Latinos and blacks alike are expected to support their brothers or risk further attack later, either at Pitchess or in the state prisons.
“You can’t go in there and say, ‘I’m an individual, I’m by myself,’ ” former inmate Holmes said. “There is no neutral corner.”
Inmates caught fighting are usually given 10 days in the “hole,” Pitchess’ cramped disciplinary cells. But many aggressors go unpunished–in part because snitches are savagely regulated and because surveillance by nearly 700 guards often is inadequate.
A single deputy in the newest Pitchess jail must watch 250 to 300 men. At East, the oldest jail, a guard supervises 130 men by peering through thick wire mesh into a room crowded with square pillars, long rows of bunks and hanging sheets.
Many prisoners express bitterness about the guards. They say the guards foment trouble to keep inmates divided–and therefore less able to challenge authority–and that they allow riots to occur so they can earn overtime. The county spent $5.5 million last year on overtime at Pitchess, beyond normal payroll expenses of $51 million. It paid an additional $600,000 in overtime just to handle the January riots.
Although administrators scoffed at the notion that guards might angle for extra income, they acknowledged that a small number of deputies fail to treat inmates or their belongings with proper respect. Inmates say the guards curse them, rough them up and treat them as anything but men who are, in many cases, not yet convicted by the courts and who are presumed innocent in the eyes of the law.
Adding to the Tension
Seventy-six complaints of excessive force were filed against Pitchess guards last year; 12 were sustained. Guards sometimes create conflict among inmates by singling out culprits when an entire dorm is disciplined, prisoners said.
“[A guard] will say, ‘You can blame so-and-so for having the TV turned off,’ ” inmate Phillip M. Diaz said. “He may name a black, or he may name a Mexican. They start yelling at each other, and then starts the physical part.”
During dorm inspections, guards are supposed to place the prisoners’ personal possessions–deodorant, shampoo, stamps, photographs and the like–atop their bunks, so they do not get lost. Instead, candy bars are often crushed underfoot to look for razors and shanks. Other belongings, according to inmates, are often tossed to the floor and mixed together, sometimes even thrown away.
Missing items lead to accusations of theft, inflaming the tensions.
“They keep the war going,” inmate Ansar Muhammad, 34, said of the guards. “They’re trying to keep the racial war [between] the Mexicans and blacks, but pretty soon it’s going to be against them. They can’t see it. They’re not aware of what they’re creating.”
That bitterness is heaped on top of anguish at being separated from loved ones.
Carlos Bandino, 42, a soft-spoken man with a gray-flecked mustache and the tattoo of a nude woman on his forearm, is one of about 500 inmates facing “third-strike” charges that could send them away for life. He was accused of armed robbery and brandishing a firearm after police officers confiscated stolen property from his home.
“If this ‘three-strikes’ law is not abolished, [the inmates] are going to go up against the [guards],” he said. “That’s what I hear through the grapevine . . . coming down from the state [prison] system: a green light on everything.
“If law enforcement’s going out of their way to crack somebody and put them away for life, that’s pretty much what it’s coming to–the convicts versus enforcement.”
Being jailed has disrupted his attempt to go straight and to make something of his life, Bandino said. It has cost him his job as a warehouse watchman and caused problems for his wife and children: They had to give up their rental home in Covina and move to Adalanto, near Victorville. His wife, Debbie, gets by on welfare, raising her three children from a previous marriage, plus a baby daughter she and Bandino had two years ago.
One son, 14, has begun having trouble in school–fighting, failing classes, she said. Her other son, 10, was caught throwing rocks and breaking windows.
“He’s got a lot of anger in him,” Debbie said. “I’m having a hard time getting control of them ever since [my husband’s] been gone.”
Bandino frets over their well-being. He grew up without a father, and he fears that his baby daughter will do the same.
Jail reaches across generations that way.
Inmate Daniel Zepeda, accused of carrying a concealed gun, has survived dubious odds to reach the cusp of adulthood.
At 21, he stood shirtless in one of Pitchess’ aging disciplinary cells, his chest emblazoned with the signature of his neighborhood: “Puente.” His younger brother was here before him, on the way to prison, Zepeda said, and his father was here before that.
“My dad used to tell me, just in case I’d go to prison, how to handle myself,” he said. “I’m on that road. It looks like I’m going to be there.”
It is not a road he likes, but it is the only route he knows: the gangs, the violence, inside the system and out. It is his past, and it is all he can really see for his future.
“Jail was all I knew, basically–that and the streets,” Zepeda said. “It ain’t no place to grow up.”