A Devil's Playground for Gang Members

The court transportation system is the first weak point. Did you know that 40% of all inmate escapes occur during transport? Any gang member who's spent any time in custody has practiced slipping out of handcuffs and shackles, and you can bet one or more of them carry jail-made handcuff keys.

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Photo courtesy of Richard Valdemar.Photo courtesy of Richard Valdemar.Midget was a Tortilla Flats gang member classically dressed, head shaven and adorned with the appropriate gang tattoos on his face and body. He was led into the Compton courtroom by two large Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies.

He was shackled at the waist and feet. He had been searched and patted down repeatedly by several deputies during his move to the courtroom from the Los Angeles County Jail. His waist chains were removed but he remained handcuffed, and his legs remained shackled. He stood before the judge as he entered, then took his seat at the defendant's table.

He studied each member of the proceeding carefully while ignoring the actual functions and consequences of the trial now in progress. Midget mentally calculated how many steps his shackled legs could take him, and how far he could reach before anyone could react.

The judge was seated elevated and behind his bench; he was too far. The deputy district attorney moved in and out of range as he tried to convict Midget of the cold-blooded murder of one of his own homeboys. He considered the court clerk and recorder but quickly dismissed them because the bailiff deputy was too close behind him and likely to react quickly. He told himself, "If only that fat, lazy bailiff was on duty today."

He finally made the decision to go for the sure thing—his own defense attorney seated next to him. He reached up to his face with his handcuffed hands as if to wipe his eyes. That morning, he had secreted a thin blade taken from his shaving razor under an eyelid. He withdrew the blade unnoticed and palmed it. He took one more deliberate look around the courtroom and, suddenly without warning, turned to the man sitting beside him and sliced at the attorney's throat.

Instinctively, the defense attorney flinched and put his chin down to protect his neck. The razor sliced deeply into the attorney's face diagonally from the left eye, across his nose and deeply into the right side of his mouth. It was ugly but not fatal.

Midget dropped his blade as the courtroom exploded in reaction. He didn't resist the deputies who responded and quickly surrendered. He had already succeeded in his mission. His intention was to delay his sentencing and inevitable transfer to state prison. He was trying to "catch a new case."

By remaining in the county jail he could "put in some work" for the Mexican Mafia prison gang. He would orchestrate jail hits against inmates on the green-light list. That way, when he reached state prison he would be on "up status" with the Eme, and maybe he would be considered for membership in the prison gang.

Ask yourself what kind of person wakes up in the morning and carefully removes a razor blade to hide under his eyelid? What kind of person would attack his own attorney in open court to catch a case? What kind of person looks forward to going to the prison and spending the rest of his days locked down in the Security Housing Unit?

The answer is a gang member. Gang members are very familiar with the court system; they often know the everyday procedures better than those assigned to run them. They choose the court system for their violent acts, because it's the weakest part of the criminal justice system.

The court transportation system is the first weak point. Did you know that 40% of all inmate escapes occur during transport? Any gang member who's spent any time in custody has practiced slipping out of handcuffs and shackles, and you can bet one or more of them carry jail-made handcuff keys.

The court lock-up is another weak point; inmates who are normally segregated in jail are mixed together in the court lock-ups and holding cells. To take advantage of this target-rich environment, Sureño gang members in Los Angeles make their own court list every day and know which courts their homeboys are in. Sureño gang members follow the dictates of the Mexican Mafia-instituted regulations (reglas) that require each Sureño under 30 to "carry candy to court." They carry a secret a weapon on their person.

Gangs exploit the court rules and procedures to take advantage of their rights. Rather than legally defending themselves in their criminal case, they hope to aid their gang's criminal activity. They use the court system and crooked lawyers to smuggle drugs into the jail. This happens especially in court-ordered clothing exchanges.

The gang members obtain transcripts, police reports, and other documents from the court to identify snitches and cooperating witnesses. They circulate these documents among other gang members as death warrants against the victims and witnesses.

The reglas also require every Sureño to come to the aid of any other Sureño involved in a physical confrontation, even if this is with jail staff or court deputies. This regulation can quickly turn a minor incident into a full-scale riot.

Next time you're in court, take a look at the courtroom staff. The cops who work in most courtrooms and in the lock-up tend to be less street-gang savvy and less physically fit. They are often neglected by their departments when it comes to police gang training and self-defense training. They have little time or opportunity to conduct security sweeps and shakedowns. They're often handicapped by judges and lawyers who don't recognize the danger.

The American court system may look like an efficient, well-run, secure machine slowly grinding out justice in a systematic way. To a gang member, it's a devil's playground.

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Sergeant (Ret.)
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