Don't Discount Info From Inmates

It was while working the jail that I had an opportunity to do something most of my LAPD peers didn't: acquire intel straight from the source before getting up close and personal with them on the street.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

I processed for both the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department. While both were similar in size, I saw each as having pluses and minuses.

To the world at large, LAPD had the prestige and name recognition, but you'd always be confined to working the city limits: Good luck finding something commuter friendly if you wanted to live elsewhere.

As the largest sheriff's department in the world, LASD had an excellent reputation for its innovations, and the odds of finding a substation close to home were pretty good. But unlike LAPD, you had to work custody before going to patrol.

LASD called first, and so I found myself starting my career at the Hall of Justice Jail. If I didn't like the thought of working custody, I found the reality was worse. The jails had a ridiculous ratio of inmates to deputies and many of the facilities were little more than architectural Petri dishes. (Rumor had it that a study group came in and discovered 30 previously unknown bacteria in the Men's Central Jail ventilation system.)

Also, the high concentration of crass illiterates saw my own vocabulary falling quickly down to their level. Talking like a sailor proved the best way to get my point across.

I decided to make the best of what I perceived to be a bad situation and follow the advice of an old timer who told me to talk to the inmates and pick their brains. The smart-ass in me wanted to say, "I'd have a hard time locating any gray matter in one of their heads, let alone pick at it."

But the fact was many of the inmates proved notoriously inventive in fashioning everything from make-up to shanks. I marveled at what many might have accomplished if they'd used their imaginations for some legitimate enterprise.

To my surprise I also found many weren't above talking with me, and it was while working the jail that I had an opportunity to do something most of my LAPD peers didn't: acquire intel straight from the source before getting up close and personal with them on the street.

Often, they were the ones initiating conversation, always with some agenda in mind: more phone time, double-ups on food, "Can we watch something aside from 'T.J. Hooker'?" (No), etc.

I may not have been around that many hardened criminals before, but I didn't want anyone exploiting my naivete. So I'd establish a credibility baseline by asking questions I already knew the answers to in a bid to make sure I wasn't getting jerked around on the stuff I wanted to find out about later.

Sometimes this BS detector was oriented around general knowledge, such as what constituted a hype kit, or what they were in for. Other times, it was about things I'd heard them say while I listened in the pipechase behind their cells when they'd be talking shit about old ladies, homies, and us.

I found myself steeped in a new idiom where a "green light" had fatal implications, and neither "jerking off" nor "horning" had nothing to do with lusty pursuits, but a "hood rat" did. I learned that you didn't want to be "bumping titties" or going "tits up."

It was edifying to discover that "speedballs" and "8 balls" had nothing to do with sports, and what my perceptions of PCP would be like ("It smells like a cross between ether and nail polish...and you'll probably get a contact-high headache"—a description that I found particularly apt, particularly if I made the mistake of driving back to the station with the windows up and some duster in the backseat).

They taught me the tricks of their respective trades. How to hotwire cars, and what cars were easiest to steal. I was told that "booster bags" weren't NASA-logoed handbags, and that a Sherm had nothing to do with my boss, Sherman Block, but quite a bit to do with "super cools."

They told me how they did their shit, where they their shit, and how they hid it.

They gave me insight as to the ins and outs of getting fake IDs and where they'd piecemeal their counterfeit currency (dark bars and strip clubs).

I learned the significance of their tattoos (e.g., the teardrop), and how to discriminate between jail tats and those of parlors.

These were custodial interrogations in the most literal sense but without the usual legal ramifications, and throughout them I made a point of listening with some sort of empathy for where they were coming from. Ultimately, we all want to be heard by a sympathetic audience, and when you've got nothing but time you'll sometimes settle for some surprising audiences. With me, they at least knew I was paying attention.

Eventually, a vast majority of these people would be back on the streets; I dealt with more than a few of them later. Of those that I did, the rapport I'd developed on the inside often helped on the outside (but not always).

So if you're not already in the habit of doing so, might I suggest that you put aside the Kindle or DS player you're passing the time with and walk back to your jail or court lock-up. See if there's someone who's not above shooting the shit with you.

Just make sure that the shit they're shooting isn't of a bovine nature.

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