To the Super Max 

A prison diary

Wednesday, Nov 21 2001

Little's new novel, Steel Toes, is out this month, published by L.A. Weekly Books/St. Martin's Press. This piece has nothing to do with that, but Little thought it might be worth a few laughs, and a few bucks.


When I first roll in to Super Max, I cut a deal with Pirate. Having been down for a while, he already had commissary. He fronts me the items (candy bars, soups, etc.) I need to start gambling. I win, I pay him back with interest. I lose, he gets my meal for three days. Not a bad risk because I'm too sick to hold down food. The shit they give you to kick with leaves a lot to be desired.

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"Super Max" is the North County Correctional Facility at the Pitchess Detention Center, the part of the L.A. County system at Castaic for major felons and violent offenders. I was arrested for possession of heroin -- barely enough to get loaded a couple of times. I'm not real violent and not a member of one of the cartels. But here I am in Super Max. Go figure.

It's not written anywhere, but Super Max is also where you end up if the powers that be want you to be miserable, or if you're just plain unlucky.

Three days later, evening sometime, around 7 -- TV blaring in one of the pill dorms here at Super Max, 100 and some guys are yelling, screaming. Others are fighting. It's kind of ugly, but there's no knife handy for anyone to use.

I'm playing poker and downing candy bars. The sugar makes the sick of my drug withdrawal let up for a minute. Occasionally, I walk over to Pirate's bunk between hands to see if he's dead yet. Got him propped up as much as possible so the fluid draining out of his mouth and nose won't drown him.

Pirate weighs in at over 400 pounds, skin covered with bad shop ink, flying greasy hair down to the middle of his back. Has an old lady and kids. He was out of the pen for a few years, holding a decent job doing something in aerospace, when he gets busted on a charge of "having access to firearms." The police come to his home looking for drugs. None are found, but his wife owns a hunting rifle, so he ends up getting charged as an ex-con with a gun, which is good for five years if it sticks. Bad break.

Pirate is a crankster gangster. A hope-to-die speed freak. But it isn't speed that's killing him right now. Pirate has been sick the whole time I've been here. Coughing, hacking, and burning up with fever. Hitting sick call every morning -- where you line up to be told you aren't that ill, and to get the two Tylenol they give you for anything short of a knife wound. The medical attention here leaves a bit to be desired.

He collapses after evening chow, sounding like his lungs are full of water, bubbling noises coming from his chest and throat. With his lips bright blue and eyes rolled back into his head, Pirate is not looking too swell. Me and a couple of South Siders carry him to his bunk. Yell through the bars that we have a man down and he needs medical attention.

That was a lot of poker hands ago. Maybe a couple of hours in real time.

In here, time has its own rhythm, never good but slowing and speeding as tension rises, punctuated by violence and visiting. The guys already sentenced want to get to the pen, where you can at least establish a routine. Then there are the guys trying to beat cases, figuring the angles. I fall into the latter category.

I've done time before for offenses ranging from robbery to mayhem. That was before my career as a writer. This round I'm in because of a regular, aggravating character flaw of mine. Despite a book contract, a movie deal and a sweet girlfriend, I couldn't stay off mama heroin. Even though I had been off the junk. So here I am, hooked like a laboratory monkey and kicking like a dog, trying to accept the fact that I fucked up.

I'm also wondering if Pirate will be dead before the cops crack the door to check him out.

And I'm wondering if I'll get years or love.

I wonder if I'll get the fifth club I need to make the flush.

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