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August '20: The Gang Conspiracy Trial
Excerpt: The Gang Conspiracy Trial
“Many a time have I sat on the couch with my wife watching any number of films or TV series that utilize aspects of the criminal justice system to tell their stories. In nearly every single one, she finds errors, omissions, or outright stupidity. This is understandable, of course, because she is a former criminal lawyer who used to clerk for the L.A. County District Attorney. Her guidance, in fact, is one of the secret weapons powering the realism in my fiction. So, when I told her that I would be writing The System, a novel using multiple perspectives to progress through every single phase of the criminal justice system—from crime, to investigation, arrest, incarceration, trial, & aftermath—in ’93/’94 Los Angeles County, she was skeptical to say the least. “Whatever you do,” she said, “don’t get it wrong.” To make certain I wouldn’t, she gave me homework: if I wanted to write a trial, I had to attend a trial. Simple. However, there was one catch. She would arrange nothing for me. I had to do it myself.”
“The second time I walked into NCCF, it was almost lunchtime, and there were two gang unit deputies awaiting me. I’m six foot two, but both were taller than me. Height isn’t necessarily a pre-requisite for the job, but it sure doesn’t hurt.
I opened by asking what the most important element of working as a Gang Unit deputy is.
I get told: “Listening. 90% of the job is listening.”
“And paying attention,” the other chipped in. “Always.”
“Almost sounds like my job,” I replied.
They both side-eyed me. One said, “Could it get you hurt if you don’t, though?”
“Hey, I said almost. It also depends where I am, and who I’m listening to.”
The first one eyed me, then smiled. “Touché.”
We walked the main hall connecting all the incarceration blocks. Stenciled on the wall in black spray paint is the bilingual directive: HANDS IN YOUR POCKETS / MANOS EN TUS BOLILLOS. As we passed a line of inmates doing just that on their way to voc shop (vocational shop; NCCF has two: one for printing & one for sewing), only a few inmates raised their eyes to look at me. It was an altogether different experience from my walk-through with the other deputy, where every inmate eyeballed me & many asked questions that I did not answer. This time, there was a tangible fear of the deputies escorting me. After the inmates passed & were out of earshot, one of the deputies says: “You can tell who’s hardcore by who’s going eyes-up on you.”
I’m onshift, it read. If you can get here before I’m off, I’ll take you through. I gaped at the phone. I’d been trying to get inside NCCF for nearly 2 years. I texted her back and we were set. I’d arrive before 6 a.m. And she’d give me a tour of the only super-max jail in America just as the inmates were being served their breakfast.
Some context: if you’ll allow me, it’s important to establish the difference between U.S. jails & prisons. Jails are for holding prisoners in custody awaiting trial (those who cannot afford bail, or have had bail denied), or, in some cases, to serve out short sentences—usually of one year or fewer. Prisons are for those found guilty and—generally, at least in California—given sentences of more than one year. Within these two types of facilities, super-max is a designated security level. It is the highest possible custody priority, & mainly involves extreme isolation (23 hours a day) in a single cell in a specialized block for prisoners deemed extremely dangerous, ongoing security threats. ADX Florence, in my home state of Colorado, is the only super-max prison in the United States of America. This is relatively common knowledge. Now, the reason I tell you all this, is because there is a super-max jail in the USA that few know even exists. Not far from Six Flags Magic Mountain, the North County Correctional Facility was unusually opened by a sitting U.S. President: George H.W. Bush in 1991. The jail is part of the old Wayside Honor Rancho, which has its own fascinating history: once a working rancho, it eventually ended up in the hands of Hollywood, & many Westerns were shot on its land. I’ve been told (though this is likely the simplified version), that once the studio no longer made Westerns, they sold it off to the County, which turned it into a jail complex—one complete with its own power plant, rolling hills, & sniper towers atop those hills. Not only is it essentially impossible to get out of, it’s roughly the same to get in…”
May '20: How A Dinner in Beverly Hills Taught Me About Jail
Excerpt: The Dinners
“We’d met casually a few times at art events, Mister J. & I. Connections frequently happen that way, not entirely dissimilar to Goodfellas. I’ll be told, “You need to meet this person. He’s a friend.” Or: “He’s a homie.” And the tone will convey an added layer of importance. A reminder, almost. To be on one’s toes. Especially if it is an OG (Original Gangster, connoting years of experience & worldliness).
The first real sit-down I ever had with J. was at his request. He’d heard I loved food & had lived in England & Australia, & done home-stays in Japan. (He also knew that when I was 17, my nose was torn out of my face & I required 2 facial reconstructions to put it right; as a result, I lost the ability to smell & taste for about a year. Ever since I regained those senses, food has been a massive part of my life.)
We met at José Andrés’s restaurant, Bazaar, in Beverly Hills. (It was my first time at an Andrés restaurant, & I look forward to going again when restrictions lift; Chef Andrés is doing such great work helping people these days.) This was J.’s call. In my experience, few people love food as much as former gangsters do. Whether growing up with limited means, or having access to good food denied for a period of time (such as during incarceration), they almost unanimously scour markets for the best produce & meat, cook fantastically at home, & seek out fine restaurants all over the city for special dishes. Bazaar was one such place…”