You’d think after 20 years there’d have been a book or movie about watching the L.A. riots from prison, where day-to-day dynamics of race and equality are already challenging. And though it’s likely such a view would have been twisted into the taffy of a Broadway musical by now, we got nuthin’. So let’s put it this way: most prison televisions sit in protective steel enclosures for good reason.
Just as the “outside world” learned the name Rodney King, so, too, did inmates in California prisons. In March of ’91 when local KTLA 5 began airing George Holiday’s video footage of King’s beating at the hands of the LAPD, talk of law enforcement inequality – a constant part of penitentiary chatter in its own right – became more heated, louder, and angrier. Kern County’s Wasco State Prison had opened earlier that year, and by then it was an absolute circus.
The primary objective of the institution’s administrative staff and frontline custody personnel was to weed out the heavy hitters and gang shot callers, the Nazis, child molesters, known troublemakers, potential troublemakers, bipolar maniacs, and schizoids of every stripe from the countless busloads of inmates skimmed off the top of bursting penitentiaries statewide. When I say the place was a zoo, trust me, it really was a zoo. (All of this and much more is covered in merciless detail in Where Excuses Go to Die, the forthcoming book for which this blog serves as a pre-publishing playground.)
The staff had a backwards, uphill climb: we inmates were badly in need of consistency and California Department of Corrections higher-ups were determined to flaunt the new bed space, ready or not. The timing of increased racial tensions due to the Rodney King beating couldn’t have been worse. The facility was placed on immediate lockdown, where it remained for six days.
When things finally stabilized (there was a lot of fighting for all of that virgin Yard territory) I became a clerk assigned to a civilian teacher in the education building. The teacher was in charge of our pre-release program, and during that year he filled a large bulletin board with newspaper clippings related to the investigation and the Rodney King trial. I was lucky to sit in on so many conversations from the perspectives of men who inhabited a South Central world under the boot of the Los Angeles Police Department. The magic of that classroom was that no one ever got into a fight. Oh, arguments got settled, sure, but not in the presence of the teacher, out of respect. (Arguments sure as shit got settled, though.)
Along came April 29, 1992 and with it the acquittal of all five officers who’d beaten King. Several days prior, I’d been sitting in the chow hall when a platoon of custody badges moved in to order us back to our units. We weren’t told why, but we were sure the verdict had come and the warden’s office wasn’t taking any chances on the reaction of several thousand maximum-security inmates. Especially since it was making headway in gaining control over the inmate population. But the verdict had not come: the administrators had chosen to lock the facility down several days ahead of time, not knowing exactly when the verdict would be revealed. And we had already been on lockdown so many times and were so accustomed to the drill it just sort of rolled along like normal post-stabbing security measures. With a shrug of our shoulders we marched back to our units and prepared for yet another week of 23 hours a day in our cells. (Not me though: I was an education building clerk and escorted to my job every day. I watched rented movies and wrote crap – yay! – all of which you can read more about when Where Excuses Go to Die gets a release date.
So the warden’s office didn’t have any more clue than we did when the verdict would be announced, but the ‘ol guy was smart to have everyone in their cells when it came down. On April 29 at 3-something in the afternoon, those who’d purchased mail-order televisions began screaming. For the next five straight hours, inmates of all ethnic stripes either cheered angrily for the verdict or railed angrily against it.
A lot of guys kicked at their doors and threatened holy terror. Our unit, and others like it, had triple their usual correctional officers. We were fed in our cells. I couldn’t talk my way into a work pass if blood had been streaming from the center of my palms. We stayed in our cages and saw Los Angeles burn. We watched Reginald Denny’s head get cracked open by that cinder block, followed by then LAPD chief Daryl Gates’ announcement that he’d bring it all under control in one night. We saw everything that you did, except that most of us were enraged Arabian horses thrashing violently at the starting gate, desperate to stampede.
I listened carefully at my cell door for inmates from South Central to relay news copter play-by-play to those without televisions. As they shouted the locations of rioters and looters in relation to their own neighborhoods and family homes, I compared what I heard to what I was witnessing on my own tiny black ‘n white TV. For five full days, the men around me would go to work on the front of their cells, yelling and pounding and kicking and punching in a relentless and deafening cacophony. I started separating single squares of toilet paper from my roll, softening ‘em up with saliva, and stuffing ‘em in my ears. Every time I caught a glimpse of myself in the polished steel “mirror” it looked like rabbit ears were jutting from my head.
We heard that in housing Unit 2 inmates had been allowed to take solo showers. In fact, those assholes had been allowed to shower from day two. That is until one idiot turned a mop into a lance as soon as he was let out of his remotely unlocked cell. He charged the blaring communal television screaming at the cops back at home. He broke the screen after four solid hits before Control Booth Badges nailed him with bean bag rounds. As he ran around the otherwise empty common areas, cursing, he was cheered on. As a result, our unit wasn’t approved for single shower rotation ’til day seven.
Medication was brought to our cells like every other lockdown, but none of the white Kern County employees would come to work, which meant there was a serious shortage of medical staff to distribute prescriptions. “So you Charlie-White Honkeys rule the medial department too, huh!?” said my “neighbor” every time his blood pressure medication was dispensed by an unauthorized Badge. “You even know what you givin’ me!? I don’t want no cancer shit, Charlie!”
It was straight out of a Roger Corman movie.
Front-line custody staff faced similar MIA personnel issues and it took those wuss-bitches a year to live it down. If ever there was something that brought us all together – a genuine “great equalizer” among Badges and inmates alike – it was when everyone agreed on the Yard’s biggest chickenshit. Somehow this conferred a diplomatic safe zone in which you could say just about anything you wanted, no matter who it was or how vile the details. When a CO or inmate stood out in that manner, some of the best insults I ever heard were exchanged. I lived for the moments we were unified in relatively good-natured mockery. If I die tomorrow, one of my greatest joys will have been going fetal with laughter in a room full of inmates and guards, howling in unison with teary-eyed glee. I may never have the words to do those moments justice.
Twenty-seven days after the riots began we’d been so thoroughly marinated in seclusion and lack of fresh air that we were deemed unlikely to “jump off” over what had by then become old news. The warden’s office was right again; there was relative peace.
As you may have noticed, I offer no in-depth analysis of the riots, Rodney King, or what 20 years ago means culturally or politically today. I’m as cynical now as I was then, in that I don’t believe a lot of progress has been made in the area of equality on the streets, in the media, or in Washington. I think we can all agree that “how far we’ve come” is not as socio-culturally rosy as some would have us believe. But we can stay aware of how our actions affect those around us. That’s where the good dialogue can finally begin – in that one little, hard to reach spot where we’re only looking to see if our side of the street is clean.
So, in lieu of thoughtful estimations of why looters go looting, here’s my favorite story from that 4-week lockdown:
A newly minted CO who’d been buzzed into our unit was carrying his lunch in a brown paper bag, and as the door rolled closed behind him, he failed pull the sack through quickly enough. His spaghetti got squished and he went berserk, shouting and punching the unit’s bulletin board. Of course we all saw it: whenever anyone entered the unit we got up to look — what else did we have to do? The spastic rookie even kicked over a stack of board games as he spun and danced and shouted and cursed.
The guard overhead in the control booth opened the intercom at the bottom of the sally port door and broadcast it. That incident alone caused me to replace the tissue paper in my ears — due this time to disorderly laughter. The total rageaholic tantrum became legendary; when we were finally freed it was a hoot watching inmates mimic the dance all over the Yard.
I can do a pretty good imitation myself in fact. I did it at my brother’s wedding.