I was arrested on Feb. 25, 1999. Someone knocked on my door, and when I opened it, there stood eight men and women from the Ventura County Sheriff's Department. They showed me three brown envelopes and said that I was under arrest for a variety of felonies. I went peacefully.
Your idea of jail life might be based on its portrayal in movies like Cool Hand Luke, Jailhouse Rock, or some modern docudramas like The Onion Field or The Shawshank Redemption. You might imagine nutty criminals with colorful names like Sad Sack, Lefty, Shifty and Sean Penn running around playing acoustic guitars, eating eggs, dancing in the Day Room, making license plates and in general just having a blast while they wait to be released into their sweetheart's arms. That's a crock.
The truth, I'm sorry to say, is that jail is a mindlessly regimented, depressing experience that will change your way of thinking forever. Because you're locked up with a lot of scandalous characters, including boosters and dealers and crooked faith healers, you could develop a distinctly criminal way of thinking if you're not careful.
The upside is thanks to the robbers and thieves you meet in jail, you'll never have to pay retail again.
And you do wonder if that "Bubba's Butt Buddy" thing goes on, don't you?
SUICIDE WATCHI drove into town with a chip on my shoulder. Six months later feel 20 years older. A year in the tank is like 40 outside. A year inside here, and your eyes open wide.
I was addicted to prescription drugs (Xanax) and tweaking badly from crank (methamphetamine) when I was arrested. Probably about 98 percent of the people in Suicide Watch (the Ventura County Main Jail section—or tank—where everyone stays when they first get to jail) are high on or withdrawing from something, mostly heroin, pills, methamphetamine, alcohol and/ or cigarettes, and it's not pretty. Guys are irritable, ugly, strung-out and angry.
So you spend your first three days in Suicide Watch because everyone is considered a threat to take his or her own life when they're first brought in.
Veterans who know how to "kick" gracefully take advantage of Suicide Watch because the new guys are usually sick and willingly give up their meals. This section tends to be crowded, with bunks overflowing out into the Day Room floor instead of two beds to a cell as you'd find in the regular tanks. Fights are frequent. If you're new, you're better off eating your meals in your cell if you've got one and not worrying about getting a table, since there are more prisoners than seats.
When you get out of Suicide Watch, you're sent to a regular tank, where you eat, sleep and fart with a bunch of other people—gangbangers, drunks, dealers, skinheads, crooks, white-collar criminals and men from all walks of life. The guards don't watch you as closely here.
The Latinos like to sit together, as do the whites and blacks. You should grab a good seat near people of your own kind if you see one. Just be ready to fight for it if someone challenges you. I saw a lot of fights over seating arrangements. The alternative is to eat your meals in your cell until you get located, and that's a viable choice if you don't like to fight or if you don't see any members of your ethnic group around.
Don't ever back down from a fight or you will forever be disrespected by the people in your section. Your own people might work you over if you back down because you have insulted them by your cowardice.
Here's what I mean: I was in the Ventura County Main Jail with a guy everyone called Poindexter, a short, sucked-up white guy with glasses who didn't look like a fighter in any imaginable scenario. Also in with us was a white guy named Steve. Steve got his food one evening and tried to sit at his regular table, but a Latino had taken his seat and told Steve to go to hell when asked to relinquish it. Steve shrugged it off and ate in his cell. When he came out, Poindexter laid into him, spectacles flying, before Steve knew what happened. The fight only lasted a few seconds before the guards broke it up. A brief investigation ensued, and Poindexter was led to the hole, probably for seven days.
This was actually a pretty smart move for a guy who looked like a—well, like a Poindexter. Poindexter was proving he knew the rules, and he was teaching them to Steve. In the process, Poindexter gained the respect of Latinos, whites and blacks alike. You can bet that word followed Poindexter to his next tank and he never had to fight again.
Buckethead was a big Latino who got backed down by a bigger black guy in the rec yard. After that, no one showed him any respect. The consensus: "He shoulda took his ass-whuppin'."
JAIL ETIQUETTE, PART I
If you know you're going to be arrested: Taper your drug use and wear warm clothes. The season may be different when you're released.