A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.
Alexander Pope, Essay on Criticism II
As a teenager growing up in Compton, California during the turbulent 1960s, I was an idealist and a liberal. I was passionately involved in the civil rights movement and read and followed the social justice activists. I was sympathetic to the causes of groups like the Black Muslims and Black Panthers. As a teen, I ran a teen center in Willowbrook under the federal government’s “War on Poverty.” This “Teen Center” was an alternative to hanging out in the street and focused on “at risk” kids and gang prevention.
After graduation from Compton High School in 1965, I attended an International Spanish Speaking Conference in Puerto Rico representing the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations. I was predicting civil disturbances in Los Angeles motivated by the growing disparity between the community and the police. However while attending this very liberal activist conference I was asked to act as interpreter for the non-Spanish speaking American college students who were in attendance and I began to see things differently.
After repeated verbal attacks (and a few physical ones) on the USA by Spanish speaking communists and socialists, I found myself defending the country I had come to complain against. In addition I fancied myself a self-appointed spokesman for the residents of Los Angeles’ housing projects and ghettos in Willowbrook, Compton, and Watts. My travels exposed me to real ghettos and projects in New York and Puerto Rico that made Willowbrook look like Beverly Hills.
I returned in August 1965 to the Watts Riots. I was in the process of modifying my liberal opinions when I entered the US Army in 1966. Uncle Sam influenced me again by taking this community activist who was highly critical of authority and sending him to the Military Police Academy at Fort Gordon Georgia. And then I was off to Vietnam.
Influenced by my real life experiences, my views grew more and more conservative. After my discharge from the Army in 1969 I joined the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department on November 10, 1970. During my Sheriff’s Academy training, Los Angeles again experienced a series of civil disturbances. These riots were called the Vietnam Moratorium Riots. Since I was familiar with the radical political movements and could speak “Communist,” I was assigned to work undercover in the Brown Berets and the Revolutionary Communist Party. I was surprised to learn that gang members constituted a large percentage of these groups active on the streets of L.A.
My supervisors in the Intelligence Division assured me that a kid with skills and knowledge like me would probably avoid the Custody and Patrol Divisions and be advanced directly into an Intelligence Detective role. However, like every other county mounty, after the rioting and completing the academy I was assigned to the Custody Division. What a waste of talent, I thought.
I was assigned to L.A.’s Men’s Central Jail, Module 2400, without the benefit of any custody training at all. There were about 250 inmates divided among the four rows of the module. Rows A and B were on the bottom and rows C and D on the top. In the adjoining module 2200 the situation was basically the same, except that my “partner” who worked there was an old salt Special Enforcement Bureau (SEB/SWAT) Deputy who had gotten himself in trouble and had been “beefed” back to Custody Division. He was not happy to be there.
On the PM shift deputies were expected to make reliefs for each other for coffee breaks and dinner. My partner would show up for the first hour and then go for coffee and never return until the end of shift. As a result I did not get coffee or meals and had to use a cell toilet for bathroom breaks. And now I had 500 or so wild and crazy inmates to supervise.
I was not cut out for this kind of work. Most of the inmates at this time were gang members and delighted in starting fires in and flooding out their cells. The noise was maddening and inmates were robbing, raping, and assaulting each other frequently. One time in my module an angry inmate attempted suicide by leaping from the top tier to the cement floor below.
On the shift a mandatory inmate count was to take place before the end of watch at midnight. Because the 2200-2400 module inmates were habitually not in the cells where they belonged, I frequently could not clear my count. This caused the modules to be locked down and all movement halted. This was not an overtime situation and all staff was required to stay until I could clear the count and account for the whereabouts of every inmate. This uncompensated late release made me very unpopular with my peers. “Don’t you know how to run a module?” a six-month senior deputy asked. I thought to myself, “Of course not, no one ever showed me how.”
On one memorable day after being abandoned by my “partner” again, I was especially frustrated and my trustee runner noticed my agitation. On each row the first cell was reserved for inmate helpers who acted as unofficial trustees. The main trustee answered directly to the module officer and became his “runner.”
My runner was a well-preserved 37-year-old Hispanic male, Ruben Martinez. You could see Ruben had been a gangster in his younger days by his demeanor and prison tattoos. He spoke with an unusual authority. When he spoke others listened.
Inmate Martinez commented, “You are a nice kid, but you are going to get yourself killed.” He told me. He then said that I needed help running these two modules, and he was the man who could help me.
How? I asked. “First off, you have too many black trustees on Denver Row and to many Mexicans on Charlie Row. Put two whites and two blacks and two Hispanic trustees on each row,” he replied.
This made no sense to me at all, but in desperation, I moved my trustees so that I had two of each race on each row. Many of the problems, yelling, and complaints that I had been dealing with daily calmed down immediately.
Why? Because the first rule of convicts is that those in power will take advantage of those that are not. By balancing the representatives of each race, fewer inmates were victimized and extorted by the race in power. Each inmate dealt with inmates of his own race and cultural background. Trustees often looked out for the welfare of these inmates and they were no longer pushed around by trustees of another race.
Also, clothing exchange, toilet paper, towels, and jail procedural information was provided for free by these trustees of the same race. These items were sometimes provided for a “fee” by trustees of another race. So my education began. The first lesson: gang members in power will take advantage of those that are not.
What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You
Like many other ideologically liberal trained people, I thought that because I grew up in a barrio or ghetto, was a minority (Hispanic), and had friends that were gang members that I would naturally know about gangs. Wrong! Gangs are secret criminal organizations, and they are formed from a deviant criminal culture, unlike the normal Hispanic, African-American, Asian-American, or white culture.
Gang members are expected to keep gang business to themselves. They commonly speak in public about defending the neighborhood, or being a substitute family to gang members, but they don’t talk about the real gang lifestyle. Ask any of them if they would like to see their own baby sister in a gang. The answer will be no. But why not, if it is so great to be a gang member? Because of those little inner secrets.
Gangsters are not usually very good at following the rules of society. That is why they wind up in jails. In our jail, inmates commonly “cell hopped” and “roamed” in the modules, leaving their designated cell and meeting homeboys or getting involved in card games in other modules, rows, and cells. This was against jail rules but a very common practice.
Every time deputies opened cell gates, the inmates would jump out of their assigned cells and on to another tier or row. Often I was unable to locate these inmates for calls to the clinic, attorney room, or visiting. By the time the end of shift arrived and the count time came, I would be unable to find these roamers for the mandatory inmate count. The whole jail would be locked down looking for my missing inmates.
My runner Ruben Martinez passed down the word to the other trustees that every inmate must be in his cell on his bunk for the count at 11 p.m. He then walked the rows before me checking on who was out of place. I then would lock Ruben in his cell and walk the count myself. It was amazing; every inmate was in his proper cell. Lesson two: gangs do have authority figures and codes of conduct, they’re just are different than ours.
Soon my module was the cleanest and most efficient module on the floor. My equal opportunity trustees worked the hardest and looked the sharpest of any in all the jail.
The more experienced Deputies who walked the floors in search of trouble were called “prowlers.” One of them remarked that I was finally getting the hang of this custody assignment.
The prowlers often stopped to search Ruben my runner, as he stood out in front of the Officers cage. They would make him strip off his clothes and each item was searched. He was made to run his fingers through his hair, open his mouth, wiggle his tongue, expose his hands, arms, underarms, feet, and finally “bend over grab your cheeks and cough.”
The prowlers never found anything on Ruben. Ruben by his own admission was a “Hope to Die” heroin addict. His drug of choice was a cocktail of heroin and coke, which he “slammed” intravenously. In fact his alias was “speed ball” or “cue ball,” which is the slang for this heroin and coke combination.
Ruben was very conscious of his personal appearance and often used a paper clip to clean his fingernails. He perpetually walked around drinking a hot cup of coffee from a white Styrofoam cup. In the jail the paper clip was contraband because it was an excellent makeshift handcuff key. He would bend it in such a way that when he squeezed the two ends together it would launch itself silently several feet away. This is how he avoided being caught with it by the prowlers. I took them away from him when I noticed, but in a few minutes he would have another.
Tricks of the Trade
Remember I said that I never got relieved for dinner or coffee breaks. One night I asked Ruben where he got the hot coffee. He immediately brought a cup for me, and while I was drinking it he told me that he brewed it in his cell and that all the trustees had some as sort of a reward for working hard.
He showed me how they hung an aluminum pitcher (contraband) from a jail made cord (contraband) from the air vent over the toilet. The pitcher was filled with water and coffee grounds (contraband) stolen from the kitchen. A “donut” made of unraveled toilet tissue was floated on the toilet water surface and then a cone of additional toilet tissue was built on top of the donut. The tissue was then set on fire. The fire burned slowly and produced heat but very little smoke. What smoke it did produce was sucked up the vent, and if the Prowlers were walking some one would call out, “Man a walking!” and the toilet would be flushed. A t-shirt was stretched over the pitcher to filter out the coffee grounds when it was poured into the cup (more contraband). Lesson three: what ever a gangster wants he can get, despite our making rules against it.
One evening I discovered a violent mentally ill inmate was acting up in a cell on “A” row. I knew the inmate was crazy because he even ignored Ruben Martinez my runner’s advice to calm down and cooperate. I called for a prowler team to extract the inmate and take him to the clinic for evaluation. After a tense initial standoff, the disruptive inmate was handcuffed and escorted out of the module’s heavy front door. And as it clanked shut I heard Martinez say, “Kid, don’t you ever be that stupid!”
Feeling a little insulted I asked, “What do you mean?”
In the voice of my Academy Drill Instructor he replied, “Don’t you ever handcuff a dangerous inmate with his hands in front of him!” I stupidly asked, “…why?”
Using the big, ugly white runner from the adjoining module and borrowing my shinny new Peerless handcuffs, Ruben put on an officer safety demonstration in front of the officers’ cage. He showed me three or four ways to kill someone while being cuffed in front and went on to show me how inmates “sat out” their cuffs manipulating the cuffs from the back of the body to the front. He then demonstrated how to bang the cuffs on a hard object to unlock the double lock and finally how to slip out of the cuffs several different ways. All this was much more easily done while cuffed in front.
On another occasion a Hispanic trustee from the module across the hall came and asked if he could borrow some soap and a bucket to mop the area around the offices cage in 2100. With my permission, he entered the storeroom and exited with a bucket to show me that it contained about two inches of powdered detergent.
As he left my module Cue-ball asked, “Do you know who that was?” “No”, I answered. Cue-ball identified him as Babo Sosa a member of the Nuestra Familia prison gang. He asked me, “Do you really think he is going to mop the floor in front of the officer in 2100?” I hesitated a moment and then called the Officers in 2100-2300 and told them what had just happened. They stopped and searched Babo and found a jail made shank in the powdered detergent in the bucket.
(Read Part Two Next Week)