A Pleasantly Filled Dungeon in My Back Yard

Column by Kevin M. Patten.

Exclusive to STR

This ain't no place for no hero.
This ain't no place for no better man.
This ain't no place for no hero
To call "home." ~
The Heavy, Short Change Hero

It’s been now, for me, more than five years of freedom; and eight years since I first experienced the Los Angeles county jail. My “short” weeklong location would be in a permanent cell; mouse-ineering made a little easier this time around. In here, a 24 hour lockdown, quadruplet of bodies, sucky food, a three minute shower every other day, “entertainment” requiring quotations, and . . . well, that’s about it. However, they all had a phone inside, making family conversations for once, and again, the best thing ever. For more specifics: each row of cells is known as an “A” – “B” – “C” or “D” sector. I was in the last, what was called “the basement,” where I think three tiers were above me. It was said that this floor also served as a “transport zone,” where a recently convicted man would wait to “catch the chain” (go to one of the state’s 33 prisons). The first fortunate thing to note is this: no one is housed across from you, and aside from the six or so porters that randomly roam about, the only real company are your cellmates, and the doomed anonymous voices that surround. Guards occasionally do count and walkthroughs; nurses, two or three times daily – if you’re lucky.

Has anything changed since I was gone? The answer to this is both yes and no, with a pressure that is more condensed on the latter. What is actually happening is a rearranging of, not deckchairs on the Titanic, but of steely-cold bunk beds and the guards who watch submerged as their own ship slowly sinks. The prison overcrowding issue is big deal over here in the Golden State. From the Los Angeles Timesrecent polemic against Governor Jerry Brown’s brilliant idea, they write: “Brown's realignment solution when he took office in 2011 required creating a new category of criminal — the ‘non-serious, non-violent, non-sex-offender felon.’ The ‘triple-nons’ already in prison would head to county probation when they got out. Instead of three years, they could finish supervision in as little as six months. Those committing new crimes would serve their entire sentences in jail rather than state prison. Parole violators would also go to county jails,” noting also that, “The prison population fell sharply at first, dropping from 162,400 to 133,000, but it is rising again. There now are 135,400 inmates in state custody, a number expected to grow to 147,000 in 2019” – which of course requires more money. This effort has been prayed by those Prison-Industrial-Overlords to accommodate for the full implementation of Assembly Bill 109, said by Brown to be the “boldest move in criminal justice in decades.”

But Brown – who up until 1999 was an official enemy of the C.C.P.O.A, but who has been brown-nosing in his political twilight – is dead wrong. Some things never change. And those are the secret politics that exist behind those walls, and which lie at the heart of this overcrowding problem. Now, shows like Lockup do give a good display of gang politicians in action. To a varying extent than the Golden State, these policies run throughout American prison systems. (For a testimony of this, read my still-timely, post-release essay Cancerfornia.) How does this basically work? It works by enforcing a strict regimen of morning wake up calls, of “good-nights,” of introducing oneself to the tier, and of work outs. A “shotcaller” keeps the pace of this internalized police system. This floor was inundated by the SouthSiders, the Southern Mexican gangs.

And so how does one enforce when you can’t even reach your underlings? Indeed, nobody usually has to, because most people of tabulated colorization readily adhere to these jailhouse rules (a topic that deserves far more attention than I can give in this report), and realize that moments do regularly come when one is outside and amongst the pack (there are plenty of dormitories, as well as church services, showers, doctor’s appointments, etc.). Any disjuncture from this train of thought can, given some room and manpower, be very hazardous to one’s health. In here, it is not possible to make distance from those who you have nothing in common with. Fortunately for me, I had all but one cellmate who was either dismissive of these policies, or overtly critical of them. Thirty-two year old “Weto” – the most bland and repetitious of Southsider names – was entirely done with “mandatory” work-outs and having to be awake with shoes on “just in case something cracks off.” “Fucking stupid ass shit,” he said in several variables. Weto always ignored the “mandate” to be up, which oddly never warranted the cry of insubordination. Does he ever regret joining a gang when he was twelve? “I never would have joined. For what?” Another of them, “Fast” (name-change), in his gangster denouement, went on about how badly he wanted to get this absconding parole violation done with and to go back to his girlfriend and kids, safely waiting for him some miles up a hill from where his ‘hood was at. Those scarcely heard stories are always encouraging: inmates who want to leave the gang-life behind and become better fathers, sons, and people.

Many will never think about life beyond the dungeons. For a majority, this is their home. Their cave. Their lair. Their frightening Cerberus is the cordial “dep” (as in deputy) down the way, whom, sometimes on their passing by, stops to humor a half thought-out complaint. “Chico” (change) was the Southsider “shotcaller.” “Alright homies, its program time! Program time! Time to get up, brush your grill, roll up your mattress, and put your shoes on!” – followed with loud, incomprehensible, ape-like chants, and ending with several “Uno-Tres!” (Thirteenth letter is “M” – Mexican). Every. Single. Morning. And night. These countless ethnic gang politicians would, metaphorically, give Cerberus his additionally needed heads. Meeting “Chico” only once – during that single time we went to “yard,” on top of the roof – he was short, bulky, probably around 40 years of age, and friendly to us three white guys. Who could possibly guess how many times this seemingly good-natured man has ordered other Hispanics to be beaten up for choosing to be individuals?

Another of this mentality, the single cellmate who couldn’t seem to recognize his absolute failing as a carbon-based life form, was “Blaster” (some of my name-changes are admittedly stupid, and not familiar to Southsider gangs. I’ve even forgotten some of the handles since I’ve been out): 35, seven kids, and a total of two years on the street. He also had a tattoo of a group of demons “raping” (his word) an angel, which might have went along with his sexual preference of strangulating women. “. . . longest I’ve ever been out at one time,” he said, referring to the nine months of freedom. Built like a tank, he was polite – almost like a pet gorilla. He often made fun of the only “30-day stress-box” in here, me. What would you say to a grown man who is so ecstatic about seeing one of his prison-buddies that, as soon as he greets him, and through the metal bars, gives him a big, wet, sloppy kiss on the cheek? I asked him the question I’d asked so many during my three years of incarceration: isn’t institutionalism a very real thing? Possessing a meth’ed-out cranium that was usually bobbling and jiving all over the place, this time it signified a depressing affirmative answer. Yes, said-narcotic was snorted several times by “Blaster” and Weto. As anarchically retorted, how can the American state stop drug use when it can’t even keep them out of the place where it puts the users? Hint: nobody profiting from the black market – from either side of the legalities – would ever want to do a thing like that. I was offered a line, but then, eight years having not done the shit, coupled with five years of high blood pressure, made an easy and definitive no. Although, I did take several hits of a banana cigarette, made and sold by Weto.

The good-night part of the program was the same for the blacks, and the same-but-worse for whites on the other side of the floor that, unlike the former, but like the occupied gang down here, “required” workouts and shoes-on. “My” shotcaller, “Cowboy” (true, typical, white man name), in the immediate cell on the floor above me, was friendly, Christian even. There was no real mandatory nothing for “us” – except maybe showers. Thank God! “Where you from?” he asked obligatorily during our initial greeting. “San Gabriel Valley,” I answered. “Some of your homeboys are on the other side,” he said. And then I muttered a barely audible “Oh, alright,” leaving the most uninterested response I could to linger on the tier. It’s not something to be overly worried about in cell-living, but he kindly never mentioned anybody again. Both of the other two light-skinned creatures in this section were minor offenders, heroin or theft or something like that; neither cared for the politics. Yes, one did have a swastika.

A note of thought for the reader: Think how silly it would look for four grown men to be stuck inside of a cell the size of a bathroom, shoes on, sitting upright on their rolled-up mattresses, and doing nothing else except yell and holler and sometimes read whatever books they could find. All day. Now, some men damned here for decades.

As I wrote in 2009:“The first thing that is imperative to understand is the general mentality of the prison population. The public has a widespread illusion that because it is prison, it must be a place no one would want to go. This is a mistake. The truth is, behind those gates there is an entire community of very comfortable inmates. Indeed they are quite happy being the statistics that you read about in all the reports.”

Going on to add: “From there, one can constantly be told to ‘follow the program,’ which essentially means do what you’re told – by either an officer or another inmate. The Wardens and all the other ‘higher-ups’ are aware that as long as the inmates are busy fighting each other, they won’t be giving them much trouble. So they enforce the racial hatred to keep the population preoccupied.”

Sadly, I can still report that no effort is made to curtail these resentful jailhouse politics. That is why this libertarian, seeing imprisonment as a necessity for certain NAP offenders, can even go so far as to argue for solitary confinement; because 24 hours a day alone is the only form of voluntarism – as well as hope for rehabilitation – behind such walls. A surefire proof of how this system encourages the internal police system is by demonstrating how the inmates have to rely on one another. For best example, sandals must be worn to the shower; but since none are given out, where are they to be found? Answer: obvious. This means every other day “Cowboy” would have to toss down his pair, and I would have to do my best Michael Jordan impersonation by getting them back up; furthermore having to throw between the metal railings, and doing this before the returning inmates flooded the small four-foot hallway. Extrapolate that now to the “canteen’s” food, clothing, and hygiene products, the “fishing lines” that makes the jailhouse economy that much more convenient, and naturally the debts that can and will accrue from this, and you are left with a simmering cesspool of violence.

See that guy over there,” said “Fast” with a lamenting tone. “He’s going to be in here for the next 20 years.” It was a porter, a large Native American man, and a victim of AB: 109; of malum prohibitum. What did he do? “He must have been caught with a grip of cocaine or dope,” my cellmate speculated. More violently, the Southsider in the cell next to us, “Sniper” (change), was “offered” a mere 395 years, insisting with a strained nonchalance that he was only sitting in that vehicle while his ‘homies’ performed the armed robbery. Details left unknown, the gentlemanly gangster had proven incorrect the last prison guard he had seen: “Sniper” would not be on the streets for a whole two months; he would bear witness to freedom for a mere 51 days. What does one say to a man who, after five years in prison, almost immediately decides to jump in a car full of armed criminals – and who cannot testify against them for fear of retribution? On the other end, how does one respond to a judge who routinely sends drug-offenders off for decades, and is so far detached from reality that he offers a prison sentence so ridiculous that, even if “Sins of the Father” were applied, could not be completed even by one’s great grandchildren? The closest utterance should fall along the lines of mutual acceptance for the perpetual debt; also the erroneous, unconstitutional, and immoral laws, as well as the unquestioned subservience to a State that creates and watches over it all.

Anyways, congruously, these type of “higher risk” inmates have very little to lose, and will probably not for long tolerate the petty crassness of any recently-hired county official. “See how much more legit they act nowadays?” observed several veterans of the system. It was explained to me how, just a few years prior, the guards would never, in the hallways, allow “us” to look at “them.” I also recall similar abusive experiences way back when, in Wayside – that deplorable addition to the LA county system. Apparently, this place still made men shudder with annoyance, with many reiterating the “fact” that none were absolutely obligated to attend, and could refuse if only at the expense of a visit to the “hole.”

With less forewarning were those moments outside of one’s set location: during the Twin Towers' maze-like commute, I could faintly hear several commands not to break eye contact with the red, blue, and yellow lines that directed one to his awaiting pit. When disobeyed, usually the threat of one’s “time” came up for stake. Suppose it’s thought that the tilt of a man’s head could signify a level of his authority, something not intended for consideration while walking down the corridors, but very much encouraged while inside and adjacent to those other cells. Many have felt discomfort as a result of refusing to obey the order for appropriated vision, as confirmed by another Southsider cellmate who spoke of an Asian guard singlehandedly hoisting his 200-pound frame up by the bunch of his shirt (no collars on jailhouse blues) and dragging it down the hall; feet, a convict’s word testified, imperceptibly grazing the floor.

In response to these brutalities, the ACLU – already having a field day with lawsuits in the Golden State – has been granted a literal success in transparency: a number of cameras that are being installed to help invigilate the influx of offenders, personally observed on a particularly grim morning with the sound of a noisy drill. What were the odds that of these cameras would be installed on this jailhouse floor the week of me being here? This inmate population was also speckled with rumors of federal agents, said to be armed with “micro-cameras” – where? I don’t know – and who are then “implanted” inside the jails, this so as to bear witness and document firsthand the abuse of inmates from the discretion of the guards, a phenomenon always given much testimony by these numerous veterans.

A quick side note: One afternoon, the jail hosted a “walk-through” with the kids of P.R.I.D.E., a “scared-straight” program. (I believe it was this name--can’t find a link.) A line of 20 or so youngsters – all white and Hispanic, no blacks – were put inside of our floor. Expectedly, the inmates saw a grand opportunity for entertainment. “That one, him right there,” said some, doing their best intimidation bit. But how, I had first thought back in Folsom, observing another “divergence” program, could these inmates be such hypocrites? Sure, try to scare the kids at that age from doing whatever you think they’re doing, and while not in their criminal prime, but what if they do end up becoming a cellmate? Does that “man” now become a possible subject for eternal inmate-to-inmate obedience? Is the entrance to this dungeon indeed the Rubicon? No going back then, right? No condolences or support whatsoever at that point, oi? It’s fantastically ironic considering that many of these men were “jumped” into a gang at that young age. Why not just tell them: “If you ever come inside here, I’ll make you my bitch”? Suppose one could look at it the other way, and see them doing nothing more than being honest; but I have never been able to.

One of these kids would not be intimidated. On his way out, he stopped at the bars of a cell down the way, and stared blankly back at the caged specimens. “Props” were given by some; chagrin by others. For me, it was a fear that he might not have a great family life, and might one day want to find out if he can show his worth in a place like this. And for those questioning the writer’s exalted prose, let this irony be known: one of my cellmates actually was named “Caveman.” Yes, he was a very darkly skinned black man. And yes, he was one of them trying to intimidate the kids. “I’m not sure what their background is,” I explained to Caveman – who was otherwise polite, and who once proudly told an exhilarating story about the white girl he slept with. “They might have it rough. And if smoking some weed is all they’re doing, this is really overblown for ‘punishment.’ Don’t you think?” Not completely bright, Caveman never gave a definitive answer, but amused himself nonetheless during those hours.

Moving on. There is another explanation for the institutionally manifested paranoia. Almost tortuously, the inmate processing through Los Angeles County can take up to several days, going from cell to holding tank and back again without receiving either mat or blanket (hence, mouse-neering). That is, unless one has an urgent medical need. “What was it?” I asked the nurse about my blood pressure. “One-hundred and seventy four over a hundred and ten,” she said. Not a lie. And not a panic. “This happens,” I told her calmly. “. . .very jumpy nervous system . . . . I get really . . . offended . . . whenever I become a walking-talking piece of merchandise.” All the same to them, several hours later – only – and even after an eventual drop in numbers, I was placed ahead of those before me and quickly housed in the medical dorm. Here I would see the doctor and request any prescriptions that I might need, one of which I do.

Two days passed. No doctor was seen. After some fuss, I finally saw her, putting me on my 20 milligram Lisinopril and also putting me down for some “vitamins,” which seemed to have changed shape and color upon every visit by the nurse – who we immediately get to. Again: rare is the Golden State inmate who is unfamiliar with someone – indeed many times themselves – who has succumbed to an injury, a stroke, a seizure, a heart attack, and is left thereafter for many hours, either screaming for help or waiting critically for it. One morning, an encouraging announcement was made: “Meditation services. Let’s go.” The bars cracked and I leapt through them before they could even finish opening, still putting my shirt on. After one flight of escalators, the group of about 30 of us found ourselves in the jailhouse chapel. A 30-something black gentleman sat in the center. He was the instructor. Not to be overly sentimental, but the sound of someone calmly and quietly explaining the helpful benefits of meditation was a much needed change from the normal hoot and hollering downstairs. After two breathing secessions, 45 miles inward, the gentleman explained how he was a former inmate here, and how he wanted to give something back after he changed his ways. “Ever notice that?” he asked. “. . . how we think we can affect something that we have no control over?” He gave a very concise and basic instruction of the – should I say it? – magical experience that is a deep session of concentrating on one’s breath. We soon got up to go back to our pits. I shook his hand firmly before leaving, just like many in-house chaplains and imams before.

When I got back inside the pit, I realized something: I had missed the nurse! Now, I can go two days without a pill, but it’s better not to. I would have to wait until this evening, and hope that the next lady would be kind enough to go back to her station and retrieve my pills – which doesn’t always happen. What good luck, though! The morning nurse came back! She was a black, aging, obnoxious, cantankerous woman. I had already scolded her incompetence earlier for not knowing what pills were what – seeing as I rejected the “vitamins” and only wanted my B/P medicine. She never came back that day. Now I looked right at her, gleaming face: “Ma’am, I went to meditation and forgot about my pill, do you think I could get it?” She glared at me with a deadpan and croaked with the whiniest, pissiest, most annoyed sound of a voice: “You don’t get nothin!” Then hurried off. Others were also forgotten. “Can I get a ‘fuck that bitch!?’” one of the inmates said. “Fuck that bitch!” But then that was it. Nothing else would be done. The one other thing in here that helped calm my blood pressure down was in fact the ultimate price I paid – except of course for all the other inconveniences that come with being a slave.

So. I had entered this jail on a Saturday morning. I wrongly believed that I would be out in 72 hours. Every day that passed I became more and more distraught, stressed, and restless. Yours truly is just not made for incarceration. Kevin Patten is too energetic. Too mobile. Too isolationist. Too free. Lying on a bunk all day, with no choice of food, drink, company, scenery, books; it reminded me how great freedom really is. Three years of this “life,” with varying degrees of liberty inside the prison programs, admittedly made me a little more unhinged than I already was. The Police State, with all its dimensions of routine violence, still occasionally gives me nightmares, even years after my first post-prison panic attack. Incomprehensibly, many inmates love being in there, and despise those who do not. As a seemingly civilized and “enlightened” society, we nonetheless allow “civil servants” to exploit this underworld, shred our recognized rights, and perpetuate a fatalistic criminality.

My uncle had finally got ahold of a competent guard on the phone. She informed him that I would be coming home on Sunday – a full week after I first got here. My uncle was right: I should have just stuck with the goddamn “community service.” It was around 4 a.m. on that morning. I was asleep. A faint noise startled me. Was it my name? I should get up just in case. Two minutes later, the loudspeaker again: “Patten, you coming?” Crack. “Yes!” I yelled, jumping up and putting my shirt on, with a mattress that was quickly scooped. The guard was a young blond haired girl, the friendliest around here. Officer . . . what was her name? “Don’t come back,” she said. I wasn’t really in the mood for conversation, but I think I said: “I didn’t plan to the last time I left.” And you know what? Eight years is a long time. Hopefully it’ll be another eight before I find myself back inside of a hellhole like that. I left the jail around seven. It was clear and cool outside; the dirty, musky smell of downtown Los Angeles was for once refreshing. Coffee and eggs and bacon and biscuits and gravy: they’re great on any other day, but after a week of jail food, they’re indescribably great.

The biggest heart-shocker actually came after the release. An “event” that happened during the incarceration, something that I would not find out about until my first post-jail Google search. It was the news that after 21 years “undefeated” at Wrestlemania, The Undertaker gave up his winning “streak” to Brock Lesnar. “The Deadman” almost looked as much. Tired. Hurt. Old. A slew of serious injuries had been bothering him since the mid-'90s, but like the masterful stuntman that he is, he powered through the ensuing years of self-inflicted pain, fatigue, and blood. At only 49, the professional performer named Mark Calaway must have realized something that real-life authoritarians like Raul, Bratsworth, and “Chico” had yet to, and seen only then by my luckily inherited cellmates, whilst discovered suddenly by those at the SuperDome, noticed instinctively by that teenager, and perhaps, one day, only near death, glimpsed at by all those other ridiculous “Pac-Man” names: that is, no matter how convincing the moniker, no matter how commanding the posture, no matter how much torture has been endured, no matter how many years you’ve dominated the industry, that sooner – rather than much later – a great many more just stop taking your actions seriously.

And now, after an unlikely comparison, a contemporary look at the American Police State in the Year 2014 . . . .

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Kevin M. Patten's picture
Columns on STR: 16


Douglas Herman's picture

   Damn fine writing skills you polished in the pen. Start submitting your stuff to book agents/ publishers and think up a good title.
   I only spent 35 days in medium security but you are like STR's Shawshank correspondent. "Get busy living or get busy dying," said Red.
  Write more about your stretch, about the details. Maybe, just MAYBE, you can sell the screen rights if/when you get out.
  Good Luck.