Blind Spot

For OC jail inmate John Chamberlain, jailhouse justice served as judge, juryand executioner

The "bubble" is a darkened-glass watchtower balanced atop a concrete pillar six feet above the floor at the exact center of F-West Barracks, a rectangular dormitory for nonviolent offenders inside Orange County's Theo Lacy Branch Jail. Inmates call it the bubble because it separates the guards from the prisoners, and it has a 360-degree view of the barracks. Inside the bubble, two uniformed guards sit behind a console equipped with closed-circuit television screens; zoom-lensed cameras; loudspeakers; laser pointers; and dozens of buttons, alarms and switches that control every aspect of life for 146 prisoners housed in 16 modules on two tiers, or floors.

There are blind spots in the dormitory, especially on the lower tier, that the deputies and their cameras can't see from the bubble, certain areas where inmates can do a few quick pushups or play a hand or two of spades without being zapped by the laser pointer—the guards' way of warning inmates to get back to their racks, prison slang for beds, or risk losing their day-room privileges for a day or two.

It was to one of these blind spots that two or three inmates led John Derek Chamberlain at about 6:50 p.m. on Oct. 5, 2006.

Chamberlain had been worried about his safety—so much that he had called his ex-girlfriend and told her to have his public defender arrange for him to be put in protective custody. And now, just a day later, a couple of thugs he'd never spoken to in his life were leading him down the stairs. Chamberlain didn't struggle. These guys were half his age and could have easily overpowered the slender 41-year-old software consultant from Rancho Santa Margarita. Besides, he knew he was in for a beating, and he had every reason to suspect the guards out of whose sight he was being led had something to do with it. After all, the guards in F-West were the only people who could possibly know his secret, and that secret was the only explanation for what was happening to him now.

The guards and prisoners inside Orange County's jail system operate in a hierarchical power structure that is strangely symbiotic. Theo Lacy is no exception. To enforce order among the 1,800 inmates housed there, the vastly outnumbered guards rely on the leaders or "shot-callers" of three main jail groups: the "Woods," or whites; the "Southsiders," mostly Latino gang members; and the "Paisanos," mostly illegal immigrants from Mexico. Each shot-caller has a "mouse," or assistant, who is responsible for passing along commands from shot-callers to the rest of the inmates. Helping the shot-callers enforce those orders are "torpedoes," typically the toughest or most violent members of each clique.

If a guard wants the inmates in his area of the jail to clean up their bunks, he simply tells the shot-callers to pass the word that if the bunks aren't spotless in a matter of minutes, nobody gets access to the day room, where inmates play cards or chess or watch television—mostly reruns of The Simpsons. Since day room is the only thing inmates can look forward to to disrupt the monotony of their lives, whoever fails to comply with the command could expect to be punished with a beating by a torpedo.

"There is a hierarchy in every cell block, and if you don't do what you are told, you're screwed," says one former inmate. "It's a jungle, and the deputies are all in on it."

As often as not, the inmate says, beatings are carried out collectively, especially when day-room privileges are at stake. He recalls the time an inmate grew upset while using a telephone in the day room and slammed it down, breaking the receiver. "You never know when they will fix the phone, and it's vital to everyone," he says. So the cell block's shot-caller ordered three Latino inmates to punish the offender.

The three designated torpedoes didn't want to carry out the task because they were getting out the next day, the former inmate recalls. "But if they didn't reciprocate, they'd be dealt with for not obeying orders. I watched this poor guy crawl from his cell to the stairs, getting the shit kicked out of him by three big Hispanic gentlemen who were ordered to do this and were charged with the crime and went on to state prison."

According to inmates at Theo Lacy, guards sometimes don't wait to ask shot-callers to punish inmates who broke the rules. "This happened all the time," claims one former inmate who asked not to be identified. "I always called the deputies 'Sir,'" he says. "Never 'deputy,' just 'Sir, Sir, Sir.' But some of these young guys, especially the Mexicans, they didn't know what 'Sir' meant. So [the guards] would smack them for that or when they were in a bad mood. They could do whatever they wanted to do, and they had a right to be in a bad mood most of the time because they had a tough job to do."

Physical violence at the hands of jail guards is a daily occurrence, claims another former inmate who asked not to be identified. "A couple of times when the deputies walked into the dining hall, some guy didn't pick his plate up quickly enough," he says. "They Tased him to practice their techniques. It ain't fun, let me tell you. It's awful. Everybody gets scared. It's a good deterrent."

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