The Beatles are revered for many things music, but they also inspired a series of events that established the unique gay wing at L.A. County Men’s Central Jail. In an L.A. Weekly exclusive last November, we reported that the gay and transgender inmates in the so-called “K6G” dorms had fostered a nurturing culture unique in a major American city jail — and almost impossible to imagine in the notorious and violent L.A. jail.
How did this unusual subculture even come about? It began with two Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department jailers in the 1980s who in a sense were the Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid of law enforcement, minus the criminal acts. A 1985 legal settlement with the ACLU required the Sheriff’s Department to create segregated housing to protect gay and transgender inmates from the “general population.” It was left to two utterly unprepared jailers, Bart Lanni and Randy Bell, to figure out how.
So where did these two straight cops find the inspiration and the commitment to see the challenge through, in a 1980s anti-gay culture where some jail guards were brutal and acted like criminals themselves?
“His name was Milo Pye,” recalls now-retired Deputy Randy Bell. Pye was a middle-aged, “longtime resident” of the county jail system who had been arrested some “50, 60, 70 times” in his life, according to Bell. One day, Pye came into the deputies’ office to show them his stippled artwork. Bell and Lanni were blown away. The inmate asked one of the deputies if he would like a drawing made.
“Sure,” Bell recalls saying. Rummaging through his desk to find something for the inmate to replicate, Bell came across a CD and pulled out a booklet from the inside flap. Thumbing through the pages, the inmate asked the deputy who the group of men were in one of the photographs.
“Really, you are standing here telling me you don’t know who these guys are,” Bell recalls saying repeatedly in disbelief.
The inmate grew frustrated, because he truly had no idea who the men were. That “group of men” was the Beatles.
“I am telling you the truth here, I started crying because there was a man here in front of me who didn’t know who the Beatles were by sight because he had never seen them in pictures — because he had been in jail his whole life,” says Bell.
“I felt guilty. I felt like I had let society or people down. … It was horrible. I was a broken deputy.” But, he says, “That’s when Bart and I said 'No more, no more.' … [We] vowed from then on that we were going to make sure that people knew what was happening in society.”
Their attitude led not only to the sole gay jail dorm in a major American city, but one that thrived while the straight side of the jail grew violent with menacing gangs.
“The jail got incredibly lucky with the two deputies who wound up running the unit,” says UCLA law professor Sharon Dolovich, who has studied the phenomenon of the Men's Central Jail gay wing. “They were extremely dedicated over the course of several decades to making this program successful and ensuring the well-being of everyone in the unit.”
“Bart and I are both straight and we didn’t see it as a gay thing and we didn’t look at it that way,” says Bell. “We didn’t see gay…we saw people that needed help.“
After that, “We started meeting with people in the community meeting at bars. … Randy and I went to a lot of different gay bars, we would read gay magazines, we had gone to the gay pride parades, we had personal friends who were gay and just continually tried educating ourselves.”
Along the way, the duo faced people within the Sheriff's Department who strongly opposed their efforts. Some even tried to split the two apart, and once succeeded for a brief period.
“I called [those] deputies knuckle-dragging river rats because they were Neanderthal-thinking,” laughed Bell of the haters.
Ultimately, then-Sheriff Lee Baca dubbed the pair too valuable to be split up, according to Bell.
But the two say they were never concerned with politics.
“It was a good marriage … we worked together for 17 years,” says Bell. “We were together more than we were with our wives.”
The two carpooled to work together, which proved to be an especially productive time, a space for them to think up new ideas for making the gay wing a humane place to do time.
“The thing about Bart and I is that we don’t understand the word ‘no.’ We don’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” explains Bell. “We just did [things] and then asked for permission after it was already done. … It worked well, just like when we got the first school opened up.”
The two started the first organized classes for the K6G inmates, who previously had no chance to take any educational or other programs once inside the system.
“We went to the captain at the time and said, 'We want to start a school,'” explains Bell. The captain gave them the keys to a spare stock room and the very next day they carpeted it.
“And you know what they say, 'When you get a room and you carpet it, you own it,'” laughs Bell. “It wasn’t easy at first. We had no money, there was no budget.”
The two tapped into modest yet broad resources, asking family members, friends, and friends of friends for old computers and typewriters for their first computer class. It became a game of Survivor with Bell and Lanni the two most inventive players on the island.
“We had doors that we put two four-by-fours on to make tables. We needed a coffee maker, we found one in the trash, repaired it.”
December 1, 1999, World AIDS Day, was also the day of the first-ever class for the gay inmates. “They learned how to protect themselves, how to use a condom properly, how to have safe sex. It sounds crazy, but we were teaching them that stuff right off the bat,” says Bell.
The longtime partners, inspired by a career criminal who had never heard of the Beatles, like to think they created an atmosphere that encouraged inmates to say, “I want to” do these things rather than “I have to” do these things.
(Editor's note: The inmates quoted in the accompanying video have been released since the taping.)
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