On September 28, 2012, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors’ Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence released its official report on what the L.A. Times called, “a lack of meaningful oversight” within the County jail system, as well as “an institutional culture of arrogance and impunity” with regards to the L.A. Sheriff’s Department.
‘Course, when you’re one of the “bad guys,” you think twice about mentioning crappy accommodations and the uppity desk clerk. In part, that’s how things in L.A. got so bad – some people needed to forget, others questioned their right to say anything, and most doubted the likelihood of their being listened to.
I’ve written previously about what these official findings mean to me personally, but validation isn’t the reward I expected. And I never predicted it would be accompanied by growth. Don’t get me wrong, I’m ready to jump up ‘n down, pointing my finger at Men’s Central Jail and yelling, “See? Told ‘ya! I wasn’t makin’ it up!” And it’ll be tough not to make a crack about it around Sheriff’s Deputies or Reserves. The problem is that I inevitably remember it was my actions that brought me to that jail in the first place. Then a little voice says, You’re a ex-felon, so those grudges and scars don’t count. Besides, who told you to stick your hand in the tiger’s mouth? (Never mind that someone dosed the tiger’s food with bath salts and PCP.)
Self-reproach kept me quiet and made me feel inconsequential back when I was in custody, and guilt lingers now. It keeps me from gloating too much over the Sheriff’s failures, but it also affects my sense of purpose. Fortunately, it’s all relative. Back then I was curled up in the dark with my hands over my ears, trying to keep out the sounds of a guy gettin’ raped in the cell next door. So today, having an occasionally shaken sense of duty is actually a luxury!
But what is this sense of duty? Why dwell on a prison sentence I completed –intact– nearly 17 years ago? Well, where once my mission was to keep my mouth shut and pass the time productively, today I’m driven to get the story of my experience out there. Fear not: it isn’t a clichéd and privileged story of someone grousing over his treatment behind bars or harping on how treacherously cowardly and cruel Sheriff’s Deputy Jailers can be. It’s the story of someone discovering he has a voice worth fighting for and something to offer rather than glorify. It’s about working past feeling like the bad guy to become the former bad guy with something useful to say. (And I went on to write presentation speeches for Sheriff Lee Baca — Bwa haa! No shit!)
I started on that mission long before heroin burritos hit the news along with cover-ups inside the jails, before the Board of Supervisors created a Blue-ribbon panel to investigate Sheriff Lee Baca’s unelectable incompetence and his Department’s slide into pervasive fraud and gang-banger mentality. Before the scandal broke over Deputies beating jail inmates, even. Elements of my personal account will have been noticeably substantiated and studied by the time Where Excuses Go to Die is released in January. And while it’s impossible for that not to mean something to me, it’s even more important in terms of progress for rehabilitation and renewal.
I look at it –and the publication of my book– this way: With Blue-ribbon commissions helping to illuminate our system’s shortcomings, it’s increasingly important to show that the folks being affected are not just “those people.” And in the decade and a half since I’ve been out that hasn’t really been done. Prison-themed entertainment and jail memoirs are falling ‘outta trees these days, but they’re still relying on old models of “us versus them,” or what I call the “three Rs” of rape, riots, and rotten food. WEGTD stands in defiance of ho-hum portrayals of the criminal spirit.
Criminals, by definition, are people who have done something wrong. But they’re not always irretrievably lost or broken. Many times, they look like you (and me). With a penal system that doesn’t work against them, they even may still have a shot at a productive life.
It’s easy to think that none of this applies to us. It’s even funny – ’til it isn’t. We forget that our next-door neighbor, our co-worker, or even our straight-arrow sister might get popped, which is all the more reason not to allow Deputies to go around beatin’ folks on the street before they even get to court.
(Check out the Commission’s findings on how many cases of excessive force were reported versus those that weren’t, for example. You can officially let your imagination run wild regarding why someone may choose not to speak up!)
I learned from my own experience with the system that I have a voice worth fighting for. And it’s up to me to use it, ‘cause countless others either can’t or won’t. So I wrote a book. This coming January, I’ll be looking forward to your comments.