We do not see things as they are. We see them as we are.
Before Nathan’s arrest and transfer to the adult criminal court system, the thought that one of my kids could be part of an attempted robbery in which he pointed a gun at someone else had no meaningful place in my mind. Real crime was a newspaper story, or a television show, a set of soulless statistics or fuel for political rhetoric. Drugs, guns, gangs and prisons had no personal relevance for my family.
Of course, I did not think we were immune to negative and destructive elements of life. The terrible custody battles we endured were all the evidence I needed to know that sometimes things go horribly wrong. I did not, however, even consider the thought that things could go so far wrong that one of my own kids could become a criminal. It feels kind of silly now to state that I guess I thought that fate belonged to others, not to us.
* * * * *
Our New Reality
Nevertheless, not yet eighteen, having demonstrated and verified his incompetence in a legitimate and sustainable adult world and having been judged already to be unfit to be tried as a juvenile, my son Nathan was thrust into the world of the adult criminal system, where life in prison was a possibility, where he would not regain his bearings until it was too late, where he would never understand the significance or context of the proceedings and their potential devastation for him, where he should never have been. His transfer meant two things. First, he would face trial as an adult, regardless of his actual age or maturity. Second, he would be held in adult facilities from now on.
They were quick to move Nathan from Sylmar to Men’s Central Jail following their finding that he was “unfit” for the juvenile system. After that move, however, things slowed to a crawl. Months passed between Nathan’s transfer and his first days in adult court. During those months, our 120 lbs. boy faced conditions and situations that tested his will to survive and his very soul.
Nathan began calling the house more frequently. Things between us were improving, slightly. That is what I told myself anyway. Phone conversations were not nearly enough, however, to give us a sense of his condition. We needed to see him in person. It had been more than a year since we had laid eyes on him. I was incredibly grateful when he agreed to have us visit him at Men’s Central Jail.
On October 4, 2003, Maddie, Darrick, Leanne and I dragged ourselves down to Bauchet St. in Los Angeles.
People who live in the northeast or midwest might expect October mornings in LA to be warm. They would be surprised to discover that surrounded by concrete, litter, asphalt and gutter run-off, with an indifferent wind blowing down man-made canyons between heartless buildings on an early Sunday morning, it is very cold in LA.
We drove around a bit to find parking. It was new territory for all of us, in spite of the fact that my work regularly took me into Los Angeles I had never been to this place. As we passed by the monstrous jail complex, we all looked at the surprisingly long line that had formed for visiting and we realized we were in for a long wait. Finally, we found the parking garage. We made sure we locked the car before we joined the informal parade of people walking to the visitor’s line at the jail.
The Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail has a design capacity for 5,000 inmates. Its sister facility, the Twin Towers, is designed for 7,000 inmates. Both are chronically overstuffed and will only get fuller with the brilliant plan the State of California has for reducing its state prison population by sending prisoners to the overcrowded jails. Ridiculous.
* * * * *
We filed into line and began the impossibly slow march to the front door. If you don’t get to the door by the cut-off, they send you home and all the hours you waited are for naught. That happened to us once.
Three hours after we took our places in the visitor’s line, we reached the front door of the jail’s visiting lobby and entered, and not too soon for us. What started out as a cold early morning became progressively hotter in the Los Angeles sun. It was good to get in-doors. Our work, however, was not done. The next step was to check-in. More lines. At least the inside lines moved more quickly. After check-in, we received a paper pass to what they call a visiting row. On the pass was the time for our visit and the window number where Nathan would appear. After getting our pass we found some seats on one of the many benches in the waiting room and listened for our number to be called for visit.
The mostly pleasant, cooperative and communal demeanor that characterized the visiting crowd outside in line disappeared inside. Just the confinement of the waiting room, even though it is expansive, had everyone on edge. People who spoke freely outside turned their eyes away from their former comrades and sat on opposite sides of the room. While we were there, the toilets in the women’s restroom backed-up. . That led to a great deal of yelling and cussing. We were on pins and needles during that first visit. I wondered how the guys inside dealt with the crowding, the sewage back-ups and everything else that being confined in a collapsing institution means.
Finally, we heard our name and proceeded to our visiting row. Essentially, a visiting row is a like a narrow hallway with one way in and out. On either side, is a row of stools with low backrests that are bolted to the floor. There is one stool for each visiting window. Mounted in metal to the side of the window is a phone receiver. The windows are made of thick security glass that separates inmates from visitor. Privacy shields separate one window from another. On the other side of the windows are similar set-ups for the inmates. As we took our place, we waited for Nathan to come in with the other prisoners.
At last, we saw him. He had lost far too much weight and looked generally unhealthy. I did not feel good. I had so much to say to him, so much to ask. But, we really wouldn’t get the chance. Visiting hours at Men’s Central Jail meant 15 minutes. Everyone wanted to say something. So, our conversation was short, superficial and filled with I love you from Maddie and me.
Nathan smiled. I hoped that he was grateful we were there. I also hoped that he would start thinking clearly. What I saw at that visit, however, was not what I hoped to see. He was still quite arrogant, even contemptuous of the DA and the police. The bullshit flowed: “It wasn’t even me…Trejo been after me for a long time” – that kind of thing. I told him I was going to find an attorney to represent him. Then the phone turned off. The guards called to him and the others in that visiting tranche. The inmates stood up as a unit. Then they were led back to the hellish world we could not see.
The Tower of London, LA style
When I call the world inside the Los Angeles County jail system a “hellish world,” it does not begin to describe how horrible it is. After our visit, we returned to our car, then to our home. Nathan returned to a world of rampant, uncontrolled violence, vendettas facilitated by the guards, roving factions of gangs taking out hits on rivals and more. No one should have to confront such an environment – least of all kids whom the justice system claims to have magically turned into adults.
The LA County system is jam-packed. Nonviolent offenders such as drug addicts who can’t stop using, embezzlers, check kiters, forgers, drunks, homeless, etc. are packed alongside the murderers, rival gangsters, carjackers, rapists, and more. Perverts, child molesters, and people who are just too weird are there, too. The mentally ill, those who are in danger and those who are dangerous, wander throughout this confined, overcrowded population, at risk to themselves and others. Convicts on their way to state prison, and convicts are their way back down from state prison are there. Somehow our justice system has determined that it is perfectly okay to send juveniles there to fend for themselves with all the adults. If an adolescent boy that the system has decided to treat like a man is arrested in Los Angeles County, chances are he will spend from a few days to a few years packed like a sardine into the overstuffed Men’s Central Jail while he waits for his trial or, if found guilty, waits for his transfer to state prison.
At last count, Men’s Central housed at least twice the number of prisoners it was designed to handle. Within this overcrowded, obsolete facility the fundamental rules of humane behavior have broken down. The result is confined anarchy. Incredibly, authorities have known about this situation and done little to nothing for more than a decade.
Many years after he left there, Nathan told me about one of his earliest experiences in the LA County jail. He recounted one occasion when he was called out of his cell for a visit. The visiting protocol at Men’s Central includes lining up alongside other prisoners in an open hallway on what is called the 2000 floor. Inmates are instructed to face a row of mailboxes in the wall.
Nathan turned around to face the guy, who was substantially larger than he. In fact, pretty much everyone was substantially larger than Nathan in those days. He looked at the skinhead for a couple of seconds and knew what was coming. So he hit him square in the face with all he had.
The guy didn’t even flinch. He picked Nathan up by his waist and another skinhead came running out of a room across the hall and grabbed Nathan’s legs. The two of them carried him into room 2900 across the hall and proceeded to beat him unconscious. Remember, this is all taking place in an open hallway where inmates line up before being led by guards to their visits with family and friends.
Nathan does not recall what happened next, except he knew from his injuries that they continued to beat him even after he was knocked out. Finally, a “turnkey” – that is a deputy sheriff who has not finished all of his training – came into the room and shouted, “What are you guys doing?” That’s what woke Nathan back up.
They put him back in line and in a daze he walked down to the visiting phones.
I have no doubt that the two skinheads would have killed him if they had a few more minutes. Nathan knows it for a fact.
Nathan: “Dad, there wasn’t a day in that place when I wasn’t in a fight or a riot.”
Tiny Yokes walked with a limp, a reminder of a shoot-out he had been involved in years earlier. He was, however, massively muscled – “yoked” as they say.
On the day he nearly killed Nathan, Tiny had been drinking “pruno,” the homemade wine that prisoners make in their cells. He had drunk so much he was incoherent and needed help to the toilet before pissing on himself. So, Nathan was helping him. As Nathan was getting him up to walk, Tiny was rambling and mumbling. “They’re trying to kill me. They’re trying to kill me.”
Suddenly, he grabbed Nathan by the throat, thinking he was someone else.
Nathan: “It all happened so fast I didn’t even really know what happened. One second I am helping him to the toilet, the next second he has me by the throat and he lifts me up above his head. He was tall, about 6’2”, so he lifted me so high that my head hit the ceiling. Bang!
I couldn’t talk because his grip was so strong on my throat. I was just moving my mouth and looking right at Tiny. I was trying to get him to recognize me by using my eyes to ask him what he was doing. I was looking right into his eyes. But he was hallucinating. Then I passed out.
He must have dropped me when I passed out, because I woke up on the floor. When I came to, he was climbing up on the rack to get to the stash of weapons we had hidden in the light panel in the ceiling. That’s when everyone else grabbed him.
We didn’t want him to go maniac on everyone with weapons.”
Me: “You guys had weapons in the jail? How the hell do you get weapons in there?
Nathan: “Dad, they have everything in there. Hell, there’s more drugs and stuff in there than on the streets.”
Me: “Did he get any of the weapons?”
Nathan: “Yea. We got most of it, but he got a sock full of homemade knives. Everyone moved away from him. He was a powerful dude. He was sitting there, kind of rubbing the sock. I said to him, Tiny, do you know what you have there? I was trying to be very calm so he wouldn’t lose it again. He said, “Yea, it’s a sock,” as he held it in his lap just, like, petting it. I said, “No Tiny, it’s not just a sock. You need to give it over here.” And I slowly reached up and took a hold of it. “Okay,” he said. Then he passed out on the top bunk and pissed all over himself.
The next day he woke up and it was like nothing even happened. He didn’t remember anything.”
Beyond the individual violence that was a regular part of life, riots took off without warning, and without any discernable reason. Survival depended on knowing which gangs were fighting each other and whether or not you were suddenly obligated to join in.
Many of the guards were as dangerous as the prisoners. The equivalent of a guard’s gang has developed. Stepping out of line earns an inmate, among other horrors, an invitation to a “boot party.” A “boot party” happens when members of the gang of guards pulls a prisoner aside and beat him to within an inch of his life. The deputy sheriffs, not the prisoners coined that phrase. It got its name because it always involves knocking a guy to the ground, then kicking and stomping him when he is down. Men do not get up from a “boot party.” More than once Nathan heard deputies in the jails bragging about how they “stomped the shit” out of a guy.
In the past few years, the LA County jail system has been under investigation by a variety of official commissions, the ACLU, the FBI, federal courts and more. Boot parties have come out of the shadows and into the light as a number of civilian witnesses have given declarations about what they saw. In a typical example, a chaplain who ministers to inmates tells of hearing thumps and gasps in one of the jail’s hallways. He stepped out of a cell where he was ministering to an inmate to see three deputies beating the face and body of an inmate who was pinned against the wall. The inmate did not resist at all. It looked like he was handcuffed. Eventually, he collapsed face first on the hard floor. Once he was down, more deputies joined the fray and all began to kick his head and body. Even after the inmate was completely limp, the deputies continued to kick and stomp until they noticed the Chaplain watching. What he witnessed was a classic “boot party.”
When he wasn’t fighting for his life or preparing to do so, Nathan was stressing about an uncontained outbreak of MRSA, the antibiotic-resistant staff infection that continues to disfigure inmates on a regular basis, or the rats that ran through the cells – the only residents who were happy to be there, or the frequent midnight cries of “Water!!” that told everyone on the tier that the sanitary sewers had backed up again and were pumping raw sewage across the entire floor. Entire cellblocks would be covered in 2” to 6” of raw sewage.
The ACLU has called Men’s Central Jail a “dungeon” that can drive inmates insane. During hearings a federal judge stated that LA County was housing inmates in ways that did not meet basic human values and called for immediate reforms.
We had an idea, but a thoroughly insufficient idea, of what Nathan was walking back into when we ended our visits. And he never mentioned a thing in those days. I do not know how he kept that kind of experience to himself, or made it through it.
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