Who says jail tormentors must have dicks to be scary?
A long-haired blond was shoved onto the 9000 block of L.A.’s infamous Men’s Central Jail, a surfer-boy among the Latino gang veteranos, the gringo trash, the Crips, Bloods, old timers, and fresh fish. Resisting arrest and two counts of grand theft auto, we heard. No doubt the deputies had a laugh as they waved surfer-boy on, into the general population. The fellas thought he should’ve been sent to the soft tank with the “trannies and homos.” Too late now.
Like me, the guy clearly had no jail experience, but regardless of my fear and need for someone to talk to, I didn’t go near that fool. He was radioactive. I’d arrived just a few weeks prior, and already I’d seen enough to stay clear. The guy might have protested getting stuck with the “faggots, bitches, putas, and pussies,” but it would’ve been far better than what actually happened to him.
In truth, however, none of us gave a single thought to what his fate might’ve been had he been thrown to the gays and transsexuals, or the child molesters. Would he have been safer?
The population’s only exposure to these prisoners occurs when busloads of shackled men are processed through Intake & Receiving. Rows of crowded holding cells contain every shouting, spitting, thieving, screaming, bleeding, blubbering, cruising, infectious, bitch-slapping walk of life. The interactions between cells –particularly between tranny tank and “normal” prisoners– can burn a black-humored hole in the place where your memories go.
The contention in Jules Stewart’s independent film, K•11, is that the soft tank is hardly a refuge for he-whores and confused perverts. Just the opposite. The movie version of MCJ’s segregation unit (K•11 in the film; K6G in reality) is ruled by a heartless predator named “Mousey,” a pencil-eyebrowed tuck-job nightmare who might better be called Hannibella Lecter.
Mousey (Mexico’s Kate del Castillo) runs the unit’s drug trade, and so commands her share of transvestite soldiers and muscular gay torpedoes. There’s sinewy competition and victims galore – just like every other prison movie, except with girl parts. At its core are sexual and psychological abuse issues akin to a pot of gold at the end of the exploitation rainbow.
The filmmakers assert that: “In the dorm, there’s no racial issues — they’re all gay or transgender. That’s what holds them together. So race is not an issue, which was a big message in this film. It doesn’t matter what color you are, everybody is the same.”
Her understanding is correct. I remember regular prisoners talking about the unit’s cease-fire vibe with jealously. Some years later, I find it funny that many of those queer-bashing bad-asses failed to predict the growth of LA County’s gay prisoner population. with a last laugh, it eventually was moved to the 9000 series units, thus inheriting a formerly infamous gang recruiting hub.
Despite this and the bleakness of the humor used to tell their tale, Stewart and her co-writer, Jared Kurt, ultimately don’t stray all that far from the stereotypical violence of modern day prison-tainment. Given how difficult it is to get a movie about prison made at all, though, I’m hardly surprised. Jules Stewart, by the way, is Kristin Stewart’s mom – and yes, I mean the 25-year-old heroine of Twilight fame. Not even her name being attached to the project initially helped “Mama Stew” get this thing greenlit.
Prison literature and movies about life behind bars are too often required to depict the world of detention through familiar custody clichés in order to reach production or publication. Even those who are fiercely driven to deliver their message must first bash their heads against the homogenization of their stories, and most wind up compromising to assure readers and audiences they’re engaged in a prison story by feeding their expectations for the the kind of badass payoff that all prison stories “have to” have. As my own learning curve demanded, I’ve nicknamed this effect “the 3 Rs,” for rape, riots, and rotten food.
Publishers and production companies tend to avoid prison-related content that isn’t easily recognizable and digestible. (A notable and pleasing exception is Orange is the New Black, of course, but the creative compromises it’s producers have adjusted to are glaring.) Prison shows and movies are often low-budget affairs, which, while luring a certain independent-minded demographic, come off as unexceptional. No mystery there: “easily digestible” results in projects that don’t turn a profit, because they’re all the same.
So if another hysterical, hyper-gruesome prison movie like K•11 still manages to make us think – in this case, about whether macho has to have a dick – should I dismiss it, or look for legitimate social observations? I’m inclined to think the latter: what really matters is whether the message Stewart and Kurt meant to convey managed to elbow its way past all the compromises it probably took to bring this film to market.
Those of you who’ve been here before know this blog serves as an information portal for Where Excuses Go to Die, my chronicle of the four years I spent in the California prison system (starting with Men’s Central Jail). You may also be aware of my stand that Where Excuses Go to Die was written to fill a void, an empty space where there are no differing voices or visions of incarceration and the incarcerated. Ultimately, Where Excuses Go to Die is a middle finger to anything that obscures, dilutes, or prevents legitimate messages from reaching an audience, whether the vehicle is an exploitation movie or not.
Why? Americana spent 9.6 billion on prisons in 2011, but only 5.7 billion on higher education. Since 1980, California has built one college campus and 21 prison facilities. At least we know this: with numbers like these we can agree that prison is no longer just for “those people.” And there are stories to be told.
So make your own call on K•11.
And Surfer-boy’s fate? Where Excuses Go to Die is now available everywhere.
Paperback and e-book. Audio coming soon.
Don’t expect the 3 Rs.