Rafa had gained a wealth of street smarts while growing-up in Pico-Union and becoming part of MS-13, the world’s most notorious and violent gang, at the age of 8. By the time he was sentenced to jail, Rafa had experienced more than his fair share of violence, sex, and drugs, and he’d learned to never trust a soul, outside of his gang’s tight circle.  Rafa was well-versed in not showing any emotion and burying his feelings deep down inside—it’s basic street survival 101—because, in the gang world, people who express emotions are seen as “weak” and if you’re weak you become prey.

Victim or victor

So, Rafa trained himself to become the predator, because he wasn’t going to become anybody’s bitch, he figured that in life you’re either a victim or a victor—he chose to be the latter. READ MORE: Inside MS-13, World’s Most Notorious & Violent Gang: The Initiation That decision ultimately led to an eleven-year sentence after Rafa pled out to charges of voluntary manslaughter following the shooting death of an unarmed man at a motel one night. Rafa was 18-years old when he arrived at The Men’s Central Jail in downtown LA. He would be 24 by the time he left, having served six-years behind bars before being released early, for “good behavior”. Rafa knew that being locked-up would be tough at times, plenty of his friends had been inside, but he figured he could handle it, he had the smarts, he knew what was up and how to handle himself. But he was wrong, so very wrong.

From predator to prey

Rafa’s closest friend “G” had offered him one valuable piece of advice before he went to jail, “Always be careful, always watch your back, and only trust yourself and yourself only.” The teenager realized life was about to get much tougher the second he walked into his newly assigned unit. For the first time in years, Rafa felt truly alone, he no longer felt like the predator, now he felt like the prey. The Men’s Central is the largest jail in the world, with a holding capacity of 6,750, some inmates awaiting trial and some already sentenced, it stinks, it’s dirty, overcrowded, noisy, and it has a well-documented history of human rights abuse. READ MORE: Inside MS-13 World’s Most Violent Gang: Banging & Street Life “It’s intense dude,” Rafa explains. “You walk in and it’s like that feeling you get on your first day at school, but, like amped-up on cristy. There’s a whole load of mother fuckers watching your every move, sizing you up, analyzing you. “I’ll admit, it’s intimidating walking in there, you feel real small, and you can just sense the tension, the danger, you feel like you’re in a pressure cooker and drama’s gonna pop-off any minute. I can’t explain it, man, it’s just, yeah, it’s intense.” Rafa was already street smarts educated and he was skilled in some of the codes that exist in day-to-day prison life—such as hiding all emotions aside from anger or violence, and the basic principles of “respect” —but by the time he left jail, he could have graduated with a PhD.

R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

“Inside, everything is about respect,” Rafa says. “Everything is about respecting, or disrespecting somebody, being shown respect or feeling disrespected. “But really, respect is just about maintaining power—like, if you respect me then you better fear me, because if you don’t you’re gonna get X’d.. READ MORE: Inside MS-13 World’s Most Violent Gang: Doing Time & Surviving Jail “I didn’t have it too bad, because I had my ride backing me, so I didn’t have to prove shit to nobody, but in return I had to get on the count, and be ready to fight for them at any moment. “It’s all about survival, it’s kill or be killed. If you act like a bitch you don’t eat, you don’t survive. So you just force yourself to be numb, you have to.”

Keistering up the prison pocket

Luckily for inmates, there’s a lot of options available to help the “numbing” process if needed—they just have to not think too much about where they came from. “Dude, you wouldn’t believe what people can shove up their ass,” Rafa says, laughing. “The COs did random checks pretty regularly, but we’d usually know they were coming in advance, so if there was anything in our cage one of the cellys would hide it in their ass, it’s called keistering.” “Nah, I never put anything up mine,” Rafa insists, despite me not having asked. “But I guess I would have done it if I had to.” “It’s how a lot of stuff is smuggled into jail, stuffed inside somebody’s prison pocket,” Rafa continues, laughing again. “I’ve seen cell phones, shanks, those plastic things from inside Kinder eggs, razors, even a hacksaw once that had been keistered, and a lot of drugs….”

High times at Men’s Central

Everyone knows there are drugs available inside jail, trying to stop them coming in is a constant battle for guards and wardens, but even Rafa was shocked by how many drugs there were and how freely available they were. “You name it, you can get it,” he claims. “If somebody hasn’t got it to hand then they’ll get it delivered if you’ve got the Ds. There’s a lot of pills that inmates have been prescribed but they sell them on instead of taking them, and then there’s meth, H, coke, ice, acid, weed, molly, all the shit you can get on the outside you can get on the inside. Most popular is probably toochie though, because it doesn’t show in a UA.” READ MORE: Inside MS-13 World’s Most Violent Gang: Jail 101—Pruno, Shanks & Locks in Socks Toochie, also known as Spice or K2 is often referred to as being a type of “synthetic weed” because it’s rolled and smoked, but it has very different effects than marijuana. In addition, unlike weed and most other street and prescription drugs, Spice isn’t detectable in urine tests, hence its popularity amongst inmates. Spice has been dubbed “the zombie drug” because of the psychotropic effect it has on users and it’s been creating havoc and chaos around the world. According to The Guardian newspaper: “Few drugs have achieved such notoriety in so little time. A synthetic substance that emerged only three years ago has already wreaked chaos within the prison service and placed huge pressures on the emergency services. “In every town center, spice users can be found begging for the small amount of loose change they need to buy their next fix.”

Time for a happy ending

Just like drugs, sex is also freely available behind bars—well, when I say free, I mean sometimes, when it’s between consenting adults. Or, just one adult on their own—doing their “thang”. However, that’s not the case on way too many occasions in US jails today. Human Rights Watch created a forum for incarcerated victims to share their stories, and it makes for truly horrendous and heartbreaking reading. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, around 80,000 women and men get sexually abused in American correctional facilities every year—and that’s just the reported number. A lot of people on the outside simply don’t care about the rapes and assaults that happen to inmates, they say, “So what? They’re in jail, they’re criminals, why does it matter?” But, of course, it matters. Aside from those who have been unjustly convicted, and innocent people still awaiting trial, even if someone actually has committed a crime, they’re still a human being….and they should be treated as such……every single one of them.
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