The following is a story on the juvenile justice system in California, which I had the privilege to share last night as part of the Thursday night writing circle with the InsideOUT Writers program. Based on responses to the tale I received from my peers, I believe making the story public is both a coming of age feat for me personally, as well as an opportunity for others to learn about a vast ‘underworld’ that plays such a critical role in developing the ‘haves and the have-nots’ of our society. Of course, certain names have been changed to protect the identities of the people described, but otherwise, the tale is just one example of a real crisis that has incarcerated people of color in our country for decades, and which is still incarcerating a generation of them today.
As always with love, and so much more soon,
It was just another warm Friday night, drinking and hollering with the crew, when suddenly the blades of the helicopter tore through the sky. A moment later, the chopper’s light consumed the shadows we hid in, casting our group as the target for the siege. The wail of sirens followed; there wasn’t much time left. Like roaches, we scattered, but only in vain. The cops had the whole thing surrounded. A couple of dizzying hours of booking later, I found myself in handcuffs walking down to KL, the section for 15-17 year olds in Central Juvenile Hall, otherwise known as Eastlake.
My friend Josh and I got booked on a Friday night, so we had to wait through the weekend before seeing a judge. I figured it’d be no big deal, and that we got booked for disturbing the peace or breaking curfew or something.
But when I got to court on Monday morning, the public defender threw a curveball at me:
“There are six felony charges against you,” he said. “Two counts of aggravated assault, two counts of robbery, and two counts of attempted grand theft auto.”
Dumbfounded, yet for some reason hopeful that the truth would gleam in my eyes, I looked at the public defender and responded naively.
“Well, that’s wrong; we didn’t do any of that!”
I would never forget the look he gave me then, which was somewhere in between mild disdain and flat out disgust.
“Yeah, right,” he replied.
Not knowing what else to say to him, I left the seat with the public defender and made my way over to the inmates’ bench, where a crop of other juveniles sat waiting to be called on for their hearings. There were enough of us crammed into the seats that morning to fill a medium-sized classroom or a small church. Among the crowd, I quickly found Josh and took a seat next to him, eager to touch base on what was going on.
“Man,” I said to him, “I don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about.”
“It turns out these two paisas got jumped on Lockwood that night,” he said. Lockwood was the street just before Willow Brook, which is where our crew was hanging out when the cops showed up.
“Lame-ass putos were fucked up,” he went on, “that’s why they pointed us out even though we were on some other shit.”
Before I could press on, they called each of our last names.
At criminal court, when you and another inmate are under arrest for the same case, you have to stand enchained together before the judge. When Josh and I got called up, a guard bound us together in chains at our ankles and wrists. Once we were locked to one another, we were led into the courtroom.
The courtroom was large, not in a tall way, but in a wide way. What was really impressive about it was the judge’s bench; it was lengthy, sophisticated, and imposing. In fact, the bench was so big that it actually made the judge himself look rather small. The judge was a Jewish man, as indicated by a little black round hat on his head, which somehow made me afraid of what would follow. But when the hearing started, the judge didn’t even look in the direction of either Josh or myself, instead focusing his attention solely on the district attorney and the public defender.
Another part of the courtroom that surprised me was the absence of benches for the public or other audiences like the ones I’d seen on Judge Judy. Immediately, I realized this would make for a very closed off hearing; the only places for spectators were a few small chairs set up for my mother, as well as Josh’s parents, which were placed a few feet away in front of the bench and from where Josh and I stood.
On seeing my mom, all I could think of was how important it was that I look strong, or at least okay. The thing is, even if we were in the courtroom together, there was no way I could just walk over to her to at least apologize for seeing me as I was, since the court forbid any interaction between inmates and others, even if the others were family. In turn, the only thing I could give my mom had to come from my eyes, which I poised with everything I could to let her know que estaba bien, fuerte, mama.
Still, even with a show of strength, when mom and I exchanged glances as the judge spoke, she looked angry, saddened, and worried all at once. It was a look I had grown used to by then, but one which I had never been so ashamed of facing as I was during that moment.
The details of the case were stated quickly, and basically the judge just reiterated to the district attorney what my “defender” had said earlier with slightly more rhetorical strings attached. I could hardly care about what those strings were though, as there was only one line throughout the hearing which stood out.
“Two years in a youth camp if convicted.”
Two years. Somehow, the judge and the D.A. were talking about casting away the days of my life like I had given them permission to do so in a contract I had forgotten about signing, but all I could fathom was how wrong they were about it all, and as I stood there waiting for the discussion to consider counter-evidence to the accusations, I thought of anything else they might consider: fingerprints. Alibis. Our histories with violent offenses, or lackthereof. Our stories, for crying out loud. Anything.
But neither the defender or the D.A touched on any of it; it’s as if they were just having a conversation about some animals rather than the two human beings that were in chains before them.
Despite this, somehow I still believed that at some point I would at least be granted the opportunity to state my own thoughts on the matter. After all, it was my life they were talking about sending away.
Again though, I was misled as to how things worked for juveniles. In a matter of five minutes, the gavel went down. The witnesses who pointed us out didn’t show up, and as a result, our court date would have to be postponed. For three weeks. Just like that, what I thought would be no more than two days at Eastlake turned into twenty-one.
After the hearing, Josh had to go back to MN unit, and I to KL unit. I could see my mother later, but first Josh and I were merged into a chain-linked herd of other kids on the way back to the halls. When it came time to part, Josh and I shook hands, vowing to be cool through it.
“Keep your head up little man,” he said.
“For sure,” I replied, as I was led back into my section to return to my cell.
The room was painted a pale white, with nothing in it but two old twin-sized mattresses. One mattress was stacked on a short metal bed-frame latched to the ground, while the other mattress was stacked on top of a concrete frame that was attached to the wall of the room itself. There was a single window made of strong plastic, which opened the view to yet another wall, the one that surrounded the entire compound. When the guards locked the door behind me, the entire place seemed to cave in.
During the first few days at Eastlake, all I could think about was the agony of two years in a camp somewhere, but when I returned to court three weeks later only to be told to come back in another four weeks, I realized that I could be locked down for quite some time there before the verdict, and that I had to adapt.
With this in mind, I made a home of the halls at Eastlake, as I could: walking up and down the span of the compound, eating at the assigned times, sleeping through its lousy mattresses, and soaking up the cold water of its showers day after night. I made friends in the process, to the degree that someone is able to make friends in such an environment, and I laughed there, to the degree that someone could laugh when facing a criminal sentence for a crime they didn’t commit.
More than anything, though, I learned from the other young people there.
In the halls, as it is anywhere you go, it was all about maintaining dignity and respect. In particular, everyone had to watch what they said. After all, being confined to a hallway with only about 60 other individuals makes for a lot of time to just talk, so street gossip, rumors, and other stories permeated through the KL Unit as frequently as the electric currents that illuminated the building. In turn, no one could really escape the knowledge that flowed through; everybody was up on game, so to speak, as to what was okay to say and what wasn’t.
The words that most successfully set things ablaze were diss words, or words which mocked the name of a particular gang. The thing is, most of us at Eastlake were part of some kind of clique on the outs, and when your set or crew was dissed by some foo in the halls, there were two ways to respond: you could either let it go and be considered a lame, or you could put it down for your crew and handle it with your fists.
More often than not, when put to the test, most of the KL unit put it down. But every now and then, there were more complicated cases, and juice had quite a bit to do with it.
Juice basically meant connections: if you had juice, you had some connections, and if you had no juice, you had little to no love during your time locked down.
After nearly two months at KL, I had an inkling of juice. This is because during my time there, I spoke on good terms with both fellow inmates and staff members, which occasionally created little perks for me: an extra meal after dinner, a snack or two under the table, a certain book from the library, and even time with the weekly writing group, some organization called I.O.W.
The thing is though, my juice was nothing compared to the likes of other kids’s connections. And for this, a kid named Connor comes to mind.
Connor was a tall black gang member from South Central L.A. who found himself at Eastlake because of a violation of probation. By the time he came in, my case had stranded me in the halls for over a month and a half, and this put me in a position to watch the development of Connor’s demeanor through his time at KL. For this, one staff member put it best:
“Kids walk in here and ain’t tryin to step on nobody’s toes. Another two weeks though and they start walking like they da kings ‘round here; all gangstered out, frontin’.”
This fit the bill. In his first week at the halls, Connor was quiet, polite, and mostly invisible to the rest of the unit. He made eye contact with no one in particular, and got in file just like the rest of us when it came time to line up. By his second week though, once he got a feel for the place, Connor became loud, defiant, and irritating for much of his fellow inmates, including myself. The thing is, he had a bad temper and a scandalous way about him, which would often send him to the box or ‘solitary’, but which also made the rarity of his good behavior something particularly noticeable for the staff.
At a distance, I resented Connor for this. As I saw it, whereas I got my juice at KL for being respectful, Connor got his for being less than terrible.
My feelings about him would change though, following a certain Sunday afternoon.
Sundays were visiting days at Eastlake, in which those of us who had parents that wanted to visit could sit with them at a table for twenty minutes to half an hour. My mom came in every Sunday, and to my surprise: so did Connor’s. This alone fostered a respect for him, but when I saw Connor consoling his mom, telling her that he was alright, it dawned on me that he and I weren’t so different after all.
For her part, Connor’s mom looked like a sweet, kind woman not very different from my own special little lady across the table, and it made me wonder how they got into things over at Eastlake.
When I turned to look at my mom, I did the same as Connor: after nearly two months inside, we had another appointment with the judge in the next few weeks, and we were hoping that the so-called witnesses of the case would fail to show up yet again. This made my mom anxious, but I assured her that it was going to work. Of course, I had no idea whether that was actually the case, but I had to make it seem that way, even if only to put mom at some ease while we waited.
In the meantime, the days and nights in the halls went on: new kids would come in, and old kids would go out. Through it all, I wondered when it would be my turn to move on, but at the same time, I feared what that would look like. I also wondered where kids like Connor would end up, but as it’d happen, it wouldn’t take long to find out.
One day, a kid from the sixty crips gang came into the halls. For Connor, the ‘sixties’ were supposed to be among his fiercest rivals, and when it came time for them to meet, Connor chose to diss his enemy. As the crip stepped through the door into our unit, Connor yelled loud and declaratively from his cell:
In most instances, the phrase meant total warfare. After all, the sixties were a huge South L.A gang with members that came into the halls almost every other week. In fact, the gang was so big that often its members were in our unit for just a few days before being moved to less hostile environments.
Considering this, when Connor dissed his enemy, everyone at KL expected a rumble. After all, the crip was a fit, medium-sized dude. That is, he looked capable of putting up a good fight; but to our surprise, instead of retaliating, the crip let Connor’s diss pass. In the eyes of the staff, this made him a non-threat, but in the eyes of the KL unit, this made him a lame.
A week went by, and when the kids at KL noticed the crip wouldn’t respond to taunting, they dissed him like it was a given. For his part, just like on the first day there, the crip would do nothing about it, so a lot of people got comfortable just casually taunting him. At first, I told myself I wouldn’t stoop to the rest of the unit’s level, and that I didn’t really care about the whole thing anyway.
The thing is though, it was hard not to join in with the crowd over there at one point or another.
One morning after breakfast, we were all sitting down waiting to head out to school on the other side of the compound, when the crip sat down just a few feet away from me while Connor was helping the staff with clean-up, working his juice.
For whatever reason, that morning the march to school was taking a little longer than usual to get going, and as a result, the crip got tired of being seated and started running his mouth “on some bullshit.”
By that point the crip was in his third week at KL; he’d gotten a feel for the place, and although he still didn’t put it down when others dissed him, by then he knew that it was alright to just talk some shit every now and then.
At that point, a little bit of rowdiness from my peers in KL wasn’t that big of a deal, and I would have just shrugged it off. But on that day, the crip’s blathering just got to me somehow.
Maybe it was the two-and-a-half months at Eastlake that I was approaching by then, or a particularly terrible meal that morning. Or maybe it was that I was getting too confident about my juice at KL, or that I was feeling too safe among the crowd of bodies that surrounded me and the crip. Honestly, maybe it’s just that I was so damn tired of the routine that I just felt like starting some shit for the hell of it. Whatever it was, I just couldn’t stand it, and so before the crip could go on with some more frontin’, the words just came out of my mouth:
“SHUT UP SISSY!”
At the sound of this, the crip finally got up to defend his hood. Not knowing who uttered the diss, he wailed for somebody to step up. That’s when from out of nowhere, Connor ran up and lunged at him. Those of us sitting down in line got up to clear the way for the fight, and for about ten seconds afterward, Connor pummeled the crip’s face before staff ran out of the office to pull them apart.
It should have been over by then, the way it always was with such squabbles, but something else happened; as the staff pulled Connor off the crip, in all his rage Connor accidentally punched one of the staff members in the chin.
I can still see the absolute disbelief in his face now. Even the staff member who took the hit, Mr. Ramirez, couldn’t believe it, as he just stood there for a second staring right back at Connor while the blood pressure broiled under his lower lip. For a moment, Connor looked like he wanted to cry and just beg for forgiveness right there on the spot. But there was no time.
Other staff members immediately took Connor by the arms and hauled him away shouting. Everyone, Connor and the staff included, knew that was that last we’d see of him then. No juice, no matter how strong, could save Connor from the courts for assault on a staff member.
In bed that night, I felt like a monster. I said the diss, and I started the whole thing. It was my fault, but no one knew. The only thing that was being talked about was the hit on Mr. Ramirez itself and what’d come next for Connor.
The following Sunday, when I sat down to wait for my mother for visiting time, I looked around at the other tables, almost wishing to see Connor and his mom somewhere in the room, but they were gone.
A moment later, when my mom got in through the doors and took a seat from me across the table, she told me about new arguments in the case developed by a new lawyer that she and my uncle had pillaged their savings for; she was hopeful that a new lawyer would do the trick, but that day, I was just happy to have her across the table from me. At that point, even after two and a half months, the halls had brought me and her closer together than we had been in years.
The thing is, even while I hadn’t attacked the two paisas like the prosecution said, I was still on my way to the halls. Through countless days of tagging, robbing, and just trying to get into trouble alongside Josh and our crew, it was only a matter of time before I would have gotten caught up anyway. Like Connor and so many of the other people at Eastlake, I was just playing a game I didn’t know was rigged until it was too late. But unlike Connor, I had just a little more luck with my case.
At the fourth hearing with the court, the witnesses of the case failed to show up for a fourth time.
In turn, the defense for Josh and I effectively argued for our release, and as quickly as the charges were summed up against us, the judge uttered the magic words that dispelled them:
“This case is now dropped.”
Even now, I can’t describe the relief I felt in that moment. Like every hearing before, the gavel went down in a matter of just five minutes, but at that final hearing, it went down in my favor.
Later that day, when they escorted me out of the halls, I never felt so much joy to have my hands cuffed and linked into the herd of chains with another group of releases. When they unlocked the cuffs and returned me my clothes, I prepared to run out of the place to meet my mom before the guards at the door could even finish saying “Release”.
The process took a few hours, but by then it was nothing. I had done ninety days at Eastlake and dodged a two-year bullet.
When the doors out of the compound finally opened up, I promised myself that it was the first and last time I’d go through them. Ten years later, I can say I kept my promise, but that Eastlake is still lodged in my memory. I’ve got no idea where Connor and the rest of the KL unit stands today, but I’m hopeful that somehow along the way, they all caught a break too.
In truth, everyone down there deserved one, knowing how at the end of the day, we were all just adapting, trying to maintain, and frontin’ until something else came along.