Open Big House

Nick Schou gets inside OCs toughest jail

Wilkerson said inmates often attack deputies inside the jail as a way to "score points" with other inmates.

"The inmates dictate what happens," he said. "Every day, we have incidents. I spend a lot of my time reading reports on assaults. We find weapons every day—toothbrushes, razors, anything that can be made into a knife or shank.

"Unfortunately, what the general public usually hears about is this innocent inmate got beaten by some evil cop," Wilkerson added. "We take a lot of heat on excessive force. We have lawyers that make a living suing us. . . . Occasionally, a guy gets carried away, but we handle it—he'll be disciplined or fired. In reality, they are doing a phenomenal job. This guy Alfaro knew he had to fight [to score points] . . . but he knows that if he attacks a deputy, he's not going to get hurt real bad because we're not going to knock him unconscious. He would have never done that to another inmate."

Accompanied by Sergeant Tony Romero, I spent the next two hours touring Theo Lacy. First, I glimpsed medium-security inmates lounging inside their jail cells. Elsewhere, minimum-security inmates ate lunch in the kitchen or stretched their legs on bunk beds inside their barracks. Inside another wing—which the deputies call "modules" —were maximum-security inmates, most of whom stared blankly through their windows, flexing their muscles.

Walking from module to module through grassy open-space courtyards that dot the sprawling jail, I encountered lines of inmates on their way to and from chow. For my protection, as we passed, the deputies ordered the inmates to stop, turn and face the wall. Without a murmur, they complied. As soon as we passed, the deputies ordered the inmates to continue walking.

Back inside the jail, I overheard a few deputies barking commands at inmates, but for the most part, the deputies seemed low-key and professional. Contrary to my expectations, Theo Lacy was serenely quiet and strikingly devoid of conflict.

Amazingly, my tour included one-on-one interviews with inmates confined in the jail's disciplinary-isolation cells. I spoke with nearly a dozen prisoners through the tiny window in each door. Inmates in solitary are allowed to read one book per week and can write and receive one letter per day. They are also allowed one shower every two days—a right they seemed to be aware of. (One inmate asked the deputy guiding me when he'd be getting his shower. "It's comin' right up," the deputy replied.)

Twenty-six-year-old Nathan Venegas said he had been in solitary for two days after being accused of assaulting another inmate and that he expected to spend the next eight days in the cell. Jesus Salinas, 19, told me he had spent the past five days in the cell for fighting with another inmate, but he didn't know how many days he had left on his sentence. Another inmate with a black eye and six stitches in his temple said he had been accused of fighting with an inmate, but he claimed his injury occured when a deputy slammed his face to the concrete floor.

Ruben Cruz, 22, said that he had been put in a dayroom with "green lighters," prison slang for inmates who have been targeted by gang members for retribution ranging from a beating to execution. "I walked in and started fighting them," Cruz cheerfully told me. "They're green lighted, so you just have to fight them. I've been here eight days."

And then Cruz paused and asked hopefully, "You gonna write a story about this?"

Toward the end of my tour, I asked two deputies if they knew about a colleague who had recently broken his wrist in an altercation with an inmate named Alfaro.

"He didn't break his wrist," one of the deputies answered. "He broke the knuckles in his right hand."

I asked him how often deputies are injured inside Theo Lacy.

"Not that often," he said. "In fact, this incident is the only one this year I can think of."

Another deputy standing nearby said he went to the hospital six months earlier after hurting his back during a scuffle with several inmates who had barricaded themselves in a module with broken trays that they brandished in the air.

The last inmate I interviewed was Alfaro, who was being held in isolation in a different part of the jail. After deputies ordered him to put on his clothes and walk to the lobby of his module, Alfaro approached. Barely five-and-a-half-feet tall, he seemed to shiver with fear. The entire right side of his face was purple, the eye swollen shut, revealing only a blood-red slit. His nose looked broken—misshapen, lumpy, seemingly held together with a strip of medical tape. His lips bulged out and appeared as if they had been stitched.

I asked Alfaro why he was in isolation.

"I took a swing at one of the deputies," he said. "That's it."

I asked Alfaro why he attacked the deputy.

"It's in the report," he said. He seemed to glance nervously at the two deputies standing on either side of me.

I asked Alfaro what happened to his face.

"That's in the report, too," he said, his good eye sweeping back and forth uneasily.

I asked Alfaro if a deputy had injured him.

"Hey," Alfaro said meekly, ignoring my question and looking at one of the deputies. "Can I just go back to my cell now?"

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