“The first thing you notice is the smell, it’s like the stink of a dank sweaty locker-room. Then the noise hits you, the clanging of doors, the angry and crazy non-stop screaming, the TVs blaring full volume and the endless banging of tin cups against bars. It’s intense.”
Rafa had been sentenced to 11-years after he pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, for shooting an unarmed father dead whilst high on drugs. He was sent to The Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles, where he spent the next six years of his life behind bars, before eventually being released early, for “good behavior”.
People who have never been inside a jail are sometimes of the belief that prisoners have it too “cushy” on the inside—that jail is like some kind of giant country club and that inmates need to suffer more as way of punishment.
That’s certainly the belief in the south, especially at the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary which hosts the regular Angola Jail Rodeo, where people can enjoy a fun family day out watching inmates being charged at, speared and tossed up in the air by angry bulls released into the ring, or wrestle wild horses with a rope. Yep really. You can even watch video of what the facility boasts is “the best show in town!”
Kinda like a modern-day Roman gladiator show, but different…..same same, but very different.
Then there’s Tennessee, where Sam Benningfield, the General Sessions Judge for White County, issued a standing order in 2017 that promises inmates a reduced sentence, of up to 30 days if they agree to undergo a vasectomy.
So, yeah, it could be understandable to see why some think that in liberal California, inmates really do have it easy—there’s no slaving away on the chain gang, a deplorable practice steeped in racism, that has made a resurgence in recent years in some states. In 1995, Arizona, Maricopa County even introduced the first all-female prisoner chain gang in the history of the United States, which thankfully was disbanded last year after the newly appointed County Sheriff, Paul Penzone, took over office.
But, anybody who holds the belief that serving time, anywhere in the US, outside of low-security Federal institutions, isn’t hell on earth, is sorely mistaken—California or not.
LA’s Men’s Central is one of the largest jails in the world, along with its neighboring institution, The Twin Towers Correctional facility, and it ranks amongst the ten worst prisons in the US.
“Mother Jones” magazine explains:
“Serving time in prison is not supposed to be pleasant. Nor, however, is it supposed to include being raped by fellow prisoners or staff, beaten by guards for the slightest provocation, driven mad by long-term solitary confinement, or killed off by medical neglect. These are the fates of thousands of prisoners every year—men, women, and children housed in lockups that give Gitmo and Abu Ghraib a run for their money.”
The building of Men’s Central was completed in 1963 and it was originally designed to house 3,323 inmates, but by the time Rafa arrived there were an estimated 13,000 prisoners crammed inside the walls, with up to three at a time sometimes forced to share a seven-by-nine foot cell, in addition to hundreds of others stuffed into overflowing makeshift dormitories packed with bunk beds or just thin mattresses strewn on the floor to sleep on.
It’s easy to see why such horrendously over-crowded conditions can quickly lead to anger, fighting, chaos, and danger….not to mention severe emotional and mental suffering for prisoners.
Adding yet further to the volatility and problems, the jail is chronically understaffed, and many of the inmates suffer from severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, which officers are not trained or equipped to deal with—as a result, inmate deaths have increased significantly over recent years.
Some country club, right?
Having pretty much grown up on the streets, in one of the toughest areas of LA, Pico Union, and being a fully-fledged MS-13 homeboy, Rafa knew he had the “smarts” and skills to survive in jail. He definitely knew how to fight—to the death, literally, he had no issue with defending himself, against anybody, and with his gang affiliation, he knew he would instantly have “family” on the inside to look out for him.
An eleven-year sentence? How bad could that be? He’d be out in six and still only 24-years old—he’d have the whole of his life ahead of him. Piece of cake.
It didn’t take more than a day though before Rafa realized he’d drastically underestimated the situation he’d landed himself in.
There is a high number of MS-13 members in jails and prisons across the US, but in California, it’s the Mexican Mafia that rules the roost. Prison hierarchy dictates that inmates stick to their “type”, so the Hispanics would always have each other’s backs against the blacks, Asians, and whites. But, within that hierarchy, there was yet another, at least when it came to the gangs.
On the outside, the Mexican Mafia and Mara Salvatrucha are bitter rivals, engaged in a seemingly endless turf war, but on the inside, there’s a peace truce, of sorts. However it was clear to Rafa from the get-go that the Mexican Mafia made the rules, and if a rival gang member refused to carry out their orders, disrespected them in some way, or was related to somebody on the outside who had committed a perceived slight or offense, then retribution would be swift and bloody.
By the time I met Rafa he was living south of the border again after having been deported back to Mexico City following his release from jail. At the heart of it, Rafa still holds on to many of the behaviors and traits that being part of MS-13 had forced him to learn as a survival tactic, in addition to still being traumatized by his incarceration experience.So, it was little surprise that he initially shrugged off his time behind bars as being “no big deal.”
“I didn’t have it bad like others,” he explained. “I had my boys around me and they had my back, I always knew that. I didn’t have to fight to earn respect or worry about getting raped in the shower.
“It wasn’t bad for me. Well apart from the food. Man, the food really sucked,” he continued, laughing.
People are only too quick to write off and judge prisoners, former inmates, and gang members—especially when it comes to MS-13 which has the most notorious and infamous reputation of all—but, shock surprise warning! with the inevitable (limited) exceptions, when it comes down to it, they really are absolutely no different from you or me. They’ve just taken another path—usually because they were dealt a really shitty hand of cards as a kid, or they felt they had no other options in life. At the very least, they’re not “monsters” they’re human beings, albeit ones that have often done some truly reprehensible things.
The more we talked the more Rafa began opening up, and despite his matter-of-fact tone and rhetoric, it was apparent he had been deeply affected by jail.
“I remember one day I was sitting playing cards with my road dogs, and this no good M runs up and ices one of them from behind, stuck his neck with a shiv, like, thirty times,” Rafa confessed.
“This cowboy CO just stood there, didn’t do shit. I watched my boy bleed out, right there, as I held him in my arms. He hadn’t done shit wrong either, turns out his brother on the outside had been banging the girlfriend of one of the Mafia fools inside, so they iced him. That’s some fucked up shit man.
“There was this other guy, he was a loner, some white dude who didn’t want to get mixed up with the AB [Aryan Brotherhood] so he stayed to himself, he was a sucker ducker. He was a fish, hadn’t done time before, and he’d copped some low-level fraud charge or something. He was targeted as weak straight away, people would take his food, steal his bedding, commissary and phonecard, threaten him, and fuck with him constantly.
“I got to give him props, he held his own, he stayed true to himself, and he even stood his ground against some crazy-ass crip that threatened him The next day though he was found dead in his cell, with a sheet around his neck. They said he had hanged himself, but man, it didn’t add up, it made no sense, that guy was snuffed, for real, no doubt.
“I know of at least two dudes who were raped, and nobody seemed to care, at all,” Rafa continued. “it was like, ‘that’s what happens in jail, deal with it’. Then, one time some naco stuffed his cell toilet full of paper causing shit to flood all over the floor. By chow time rolled around we were eating with sewage up to our fucking ankles man.”
However, it turned out that the biggest threat to inmates was actually from the guards who were supposed to protect them, not their fellow inmates or rival gang members.
“The COs were real bad dude,” Rafa claimed. “They would fuck with us all the time. I witnessed a ton of bugs initiate altercations and incidents, and they’d purposely ramp up conflicts or invent some bum beef just so they could haul somebody’s ass to the SHU or the ding wing.mAnd there wasn’t shit you could do about it either,
“One time it went off between, like ten dudes, it was some crazy chaos, they were netted up, but the CO just looked the other way and let it happen, he didn’t even call for help. One of the inmates was choked unconscious and was in a coma for days, another ended up with his jaw and nose smashed to bits.
“Another time three guys rushed a dude under the stairwell and started taking flight, they were giving him a serious beatdown and there were two COs on at the time, but it took them, like, five minutes before they waded in and split it up by pepper-spraying everyone. Before that, they were watching the fight and laughing about it together.”
Shortly before Rafa was forced to make the Men’s Central his new home, the American Civil Liberties Union, who claims to receive around 4,500 complaints a year from the facility’s inmates, published an extensive and damning report about conditions and civil rights abuse inside the jail.
“To be an inmate in the Los Angeles County jail is to fear attacks by a savage gang of deputies. Packed at the best of times, Twin Towers and Men’s Central are overflowing with prisoners transferred there from overcrowded California prisons under the state’s court-ordered reorganization scheme. Eyewitnesses, including several prison chaplains, have reported that attacks by deputies at the twin facilities are often unprovoked or brought on by the slightest infractions. Additional deputies often pile on, sometimes after being alerted to the action on their walkie-talkies.”
The ACLU went on to file a lawsuit against LA Men’s Central, as did the US Department of Justice. In 2013, 18 Sheriff’s Deputies were charged with “using excessive force” and in 2015, a number of the facility’s guards were found guilty of beating a handcuffed man to death.
Turns out, Rafa had only just started telling me the full story though, so much more was yet to come.
I think I’d prefer to choose the rodeo personally.
Check back for more shocking details of life inside, learn how to inhale razor blades up inside your nostrils, and the best ways for smuggling eye-wateringly large contraband items inside your rectum, in addition to discovering some of the unbelievable and ingenious methods inmates employ to make weapons, booze and communication tools.