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.
“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.
The door is finally racked. I see Pirate go out on a stretcher, still breathing. I figure that's the last time I'll ever see him.
I miss the flush. Lost to two pair.
Going to court is a joy — 3 a.m. they yell your name and number, and put you in chains of three or four in a bus with 30, 40 guys, most of whom would like to kill each other. And, when you get to court, they slam you into a holding cell.
The stench is overpowering — fear and piss and adrenaline-loaded sweat. Count on a couple of fistfights. And if real enemy crews end up in the same holding cell, it goes off like Vietnam.
I keep my back to the wall, pray, and wait to see the judge.
Another dry run, no reason to be in court today.
We get back to Super Max and strip all the way down, then bend over one after another and cough — so the cops can see if anyone's got a shank keistered. This safety procedure comes with the added pleasure of routine verbal abuse from the cops. I actually breathe a sigh of relief when I walk back into my dorm and can hit the rack. Close my eyes and escape for a few hours.
Another court trip, and I'm held over for a few days at Main County. I'm in a four-man cell, stuck there around the clock. There's no freeway time because of all the stabbings. The food is wheeled to the cell, which holds me and three Paisas, none of whom speaks English. One of them has made pruno (wine) out of the garbage available to us and offers me some. It smells great, but I pass. I stare at the bars and do pushups.
The dudes in the next cell got some ice, a crystal-clear form of meth. They stay up all night babbling insanely. Fucking speed freaks going a million miles an hour in a 6-by-12 cell.
The mainline is not separated by gang or color. Different crews of Crips have their own tank somewhere, as do the Bloods. Gays and transsexuals are kept together. Then you got the Nazi Lowriders and the Aryan Brotherhood, who aren't getting along right now, and a couple of neighborhoods that fucked up with the mob, like the Vineland Boys and MaraVilla. All these different groups have their own tanks; some because they're killers and some so they won't get killed — like the straight P.C. cases who are scared to hit the mainline at all. P.C. stands for “protective custody”; supposedly it helps keep known enemies apart and protects the weak. But seeing some of the obvious victims makes you wonder.
On the mainline, you got South Siders, Paisas, Blacks and Woods. Asians don't walk the mainline at all because they got a complete green light, whack on sight, which means it's okay to beat them to death or stab them, with no questions asked from the South Siders. Everyone else is going off so hard they may segregate the whole little city that makes up the L.A. County Jail system.
After my four days at county, I get called to catch the chain back to Super Max.
Now it's time to make a decision: try and get classified as a head case and get psych meds and relatively easy time, or say fuck it and hit the mainline. I decide to avoid the withdrawal drugs. If I can pass on drinking pruno, which I like, I may as well stay clean. Head drugs aren't clean, even if you're taking them to break your addiction.
Hit the 700 dorms at Super Max, which are overpacked with 120 men by my count — though I'm told the county says the number has never been higher than 75. Whatever. This kind of crowding increases the politicking. South Siders and Blacks are waiting to kill each other; the Paisas stay low-key. South Siders are gang members or riders from anywhere south of Bakersfield, mainly Latino, second- and third-generation Mexican-Americans, and a few White Boys from the barrio. Paisas are non-gang-affiliated Latinos: Mexicans, Salvadorans, Puerto Ricans, etc.
I'm a Wood — short for Peckerwood. Once upon a time, to be considered Wood you had to be about something. Willing to stand up. Now that's what all White Boys are called, regardless of how they carry themselves. Addressed by inmates and guards alike as Wood. I shave my head and start letting my chin-long mustache grow back.
Since I'm staying mainline, I'm going to play the role as taught in Tough Guy 101, doing pushups and dips off a bunk and getting ready for the next riot. The rules for Woods are very simple — hang mostly with your own. The color lines inside are harder than the steel that surrounds us. South Siders and Paisas are all right. If shit kicks off, we roll with the S.S.ers.
You're fair game if you fuck up, like say you run away during a riot, hang out with Blacks, back down from a confrontation, whatever. I'm old school; I follow the rules. I gamble, keep my personal commissary together and hope to get out someday.
DECEMBER, A FEW DAYS LATER
Ex-cons play pinochle. The new guys who haven't done much time — called “fish” — play spades. Gamblers play poker. I'm making my living in here from poker, playing pinochle for fun. Got a good knuckle partner, Mr. Mouse from S.M. (Santa Monica). A youngster with old-school attitude, he's the right-hand man in this dorm for the South Siders. Chili is the shot caller. My back is covered. That's a real good thing because there are only two other white guys in this dorm. One's a San Fernando Valley banger and a straight maniac. The other one's scared to get off his bunk.
It's been a couple of months since I was arrested and thrown into jail. And it's almost time for my case to come to trial.
Court line again. First thing in the morning, and my public defender comes with a deal. We both know I'm looking at time. He tells me I can get a county lid: one year in county. I can do the last part in rehab, some place called Warm Springs.
I have to think about this. Under the three-strikes law, the state of California is giving time away like candy. You fight and lose, and they will wash you up. Hang you out to dry. All through Super Max are guys with light-green wristbands, which means they got a million-dollar bail on a possession charge and are probably facing life for a nickel rock of coke or a dime of smack. Then you got guys with the light-purple wristbands, facing 25-to-life for heinous crimes like shoplifting.
Guess what? Three strikes scares the guts right out of me — the idea of getting struck out for what I did over 20 years ago. I tell my public defender to rush the time — to make the deal — and he does.
LATE DECEMBER, MERRY CHRISTMAS
Now I got a goal. Get this bullet done and get out. See if I have a life left. One thing I can tell you: Anything beats doing all day behind the walls.
So I'm looking ahead to Warm Springs rehab.
But right now, I'm in a work dorm. Some guys will tell you ODR (Officers Dining Room) is what's up, the best job in the joint. But if you work there, cooking for and waiting on the cops, they are gonna fuck with you a lot. You do get to eat their food, which counts for something, because mainline food is inedible. But the added aggravation isn't worth a decent hamburger. So the best job â overall is dorm porter — work a couple of hours a day, kick back the rest. Gamble, read, tell lies. Mind your own business, and it's not too bad.
I'm the dorm porter for 527. Mouse is in here, got transferred just before I did. This is a small world. This dorm is kick-back. If you're playing poker, or gambling, there's a truce in force. No color lines. And we got some old-timers who know what's up — that the only ones getting hurt is us when we're waging war. So the games are decent-size and the betting good. In other words, my income is high and stress level relatively low.
Got a huge bag of commissary, since all commerce, gambling, etc., is done by items: There is no cash, but some guys have accounts from money they had when arrested or money someone sent. You order items at the inflated prices charged by the jail commissary. A cup-of-soup costs 75 cents. The money is deducted from your account.
There's also the unofficial store. A hand-rolled cigarette will cost about three items (a cup-of-soup, a candy bar, potato chips or jalapeños). A real cigarette costs as much as 10 items. A chunk of ice — the most prevalent drug — the size of a match head will cost 10 to 20 items, depending on how connected you are. A match of ice will keep a clean person awake for 24 hours. For a speed freak, a match is nothing. A nickel bag of heroin — you're looking at 20 to 40 items.
Because the game of poker is grand, I got a huge bag of commissary items. That means me and my dogs don't have to eat the crap they call chow; my diet is almost nothing but candy bars and cup-of-soups — straight gourmet.
All I have to do is keep a low profile, and on March 5 I'm on my way to Warm Springs. The rumor is they have real eggs there — yolks and everything.
But today, even here, the food's not so bad: Christmas Day, turkey for lunch. Had a spread later and made it gourmet. What's a spread? You take those cup-of-soups, whatever meat-type product is available, add Doritos, corn chips, jalapeños, hot sauce, mayonnaise — mix it all up in a garbage bag, and you and the fellas dig in. Spread. Mmmm-mmmm good. Me, Mr. Mouse, Danny W. — the world-famous tattoo artist — Possum and a couple of other dudes have our Yuletide celebration.
JANUARY 2000. HAPPY NEW YEAR
Got a guy in here known as Ricky the Rat. He's from Pico Rivera, claims S.S. status and works as deck trustee. Basically a deck trustee is a gofer for the cops. He owes me money (commissary items).
The protocol is simple. In order to collect a debt, you get clearance from the head of whatever car the debtor belongs to. I go through the correct channels and then explain to Ricky that he's got to pay. He says, “No problem, homes. Yeah, man. No problems, man.”
Chow time. The same day. Sitting down to the daily noon meal of compressed mystery meat, I look up and there's Ricky pointing me out to the guard. Ten minutes later, they call me to roll it up. Roll your blanket and personal belongings into a bundle and get ready for transfer to another dorm. No reason why, no explanation. Out of the work dorm and back to the war zone. Motherfucker.
The guys had seen Ricky's move, which would mean a thorough ass-beating, but knowing Ricky was going to get “regulated” didn't help my frame of mind. I'm headed back to a straight mainline dorm.
While I'm digesting this unwelcome news, I am treated to a reunion. Remember Pirate? He is not only not dead, but turns up in the same holding pen while I wait for my transfer. It is not the happiest moment for either of us. He'd gotten out, hit the bricks for a week or two, then picked up a new case and is back again.
I have problems of my own. Upstairs in the 600s, the violence level is plenty high enough. No poker players in this dorm. Reading material is beyond scarce, and I don't watch TV.
I think I mentioned that medical care leaves a lot to be desired. That certainly goes for the dental. The Paisas are known for pulling teeth for each other when they go bad. I like to let a dentist do the work, thank you, and I have a job for him, an abscess on my tooth that looks like a softball stuck in my cheek. I go to sick call day after day. I write up a request to see the dentist. Doesn't age count for something? I'm by far the oldest dude in this dorm. So try and understand when I say I'm Very Grumpy.
One of the Paisas, called Diablo (got it inked across his stomach), shows me a razor blade. I think that he might not have my best interest at heart. As I step back — and keep my focus on the hand holding the blade — he makes a motion at his mouth and lifts his lip. (Diablo speaks no English.) One of the S.S.ers tells me, “Lift your lip, homes. He says maybe he can cut the abscess out.”
God bless Diablo, wherever he is.
It's in the paper, pictures of the Pelican Bay Four yard and White Boys and South Siders making like gladiators with the Blacks. Kill or be killed. It kicks off immediately, dorm after dorm, inside county, all through the system. I'm almost out and I have to put up with this? Three riots later, it's March 5. And I don't get called. After a dry run to court, I process back into 4700 in Main County, cockroaches all over. I wake up and they're running all over me. In the food so thick it squirms. Nice.
Two weeks late. Called for release, sitting in the tank with other dudes, waiting, hoping.
You bet I'm ready for Warm Springs or Cold Springs or fucking watch springs — any kind of springs. My paperwork is lost. I'm sweating.
The last guy called is me. I step outside and breathe that L.A. smog, bum a smoke and light it. Wow. Good stuff. Tobacco. I get in the van for Warm Springs, where they have real fucking eggs. Sounds like heaven to me.