The following is a story on the juvenile justice system in Los Angeles 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’ which plays a critical role in developing the ‘haves and the have-nots’ of L.A. Certain names have been changed to protect the identities of the people described, but otherwise, the tale is just one example of a crisis of criminalization facing young people of color all across this country, whose families and neighborhoods have been caught in a system of incarceration for generations and into the present day.
It was just another warm Friday night, drinking and hollering with the crew, when 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 just Central, north of downtown Los Angeles.
My friend Josh and I got booked on a Friday night, which meant we had to wait through the weekend before seeing the judge. Both of us figured it’d be no big deal, and that we got booked for disturbing the peace, breaking curfew, or some other lame citation we knew the police liked to blow up on kids like us.
When Monday morning arrived though, I got to the waiting room for the hearing and the public defender assigned to the case threw a curve-ball at me:
“There are six felony counts against you,” he said. “Two counts of aggravated assault, two counts of robbery, and two counts of attempted grand theft auto.”
Dumbfounded, but somehow 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 told him.
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 blithely.
Not knowing what else to say to the man, I glanced around at the waiting room. It flourished with the chatter of a boisterous crop of other juveniles waiting to be called on for their hearings, and 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 saw where Josh was sitting, and left the seat with the public defender to make my way over to him.
“Man,” I said to him as I took a seat by his side, “I don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about.”
“It turns out these two paisas got jumped on Lockwood that night,” Josh said. Lockwood was the street just before Willowbrook, which is where our crew was kicking rocks 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. Only until we were locked to one another were we led into the courtroom.
The courtroom was large, not in a heightened 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. He was a Jewish man, as indicated by a little round black hat on his head, and probably in his fifties, which only made me afraid more of what would follow. The fact of the matter is that Jews and little Spanish-speaking kids like Josh and I weren’t exactly neighbors in L.A., so I knew then not to expect the man to consider us one of his own like we were some strayed mijos or the nephews of the people next door to him or something.
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, standing in chains before her all I could think of was how important it was that I look fuerte to her, 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. 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, strong, mama.
But 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 that point with her, but one which I had never been so ashamed of facing as I was during that moment.
When the hearing started, the judge didn’t so much as even look in the direction of either Josh or myself, instead focusing his attention solely on the district attorney and the public defender.
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. Just like that, Josh and I had gone from standing on the street with the crew two nights prior, to the courtroom from hell, ransacked by a judge and a D.A. who spoke without flinching about casting away the days of our lives like we’d given them permission in a contract we forgot about signing with them. All I could fathom as they rambled on about their codes was how wrong they were about it all. I stood there humiliated, waiting for the discussion to just so much as consider any counter-evidence to the accusations: fingerprints. Alibis. Our histories with violent offenses, or lack thereof. 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 livestock rather than two human beings 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.
But again I was misled as to how things worked at Central. In a matter of five minutes, the gavel went down. The witnesses who apparently pointed us out did not show up to the hearing, and as a result, our court date would have to be postponed. For three weeks. In an instant, then, what should have been no more than two days at Central turned into twenty-one.
After the hearing, Josh had to go back to MN unit, for the 16 to 18 year olds, and I to KL. I could see my mother later, but first Josh and I were escorted out of the courtroom and merged into a chain-linked herd of other kids on the way back to the halls. We were a generation of kids locked at the elbows and ankles then. An entire school of juveniles gone wayside to the dumps.
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 I was placed in 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 impenetrable plastic, but even that window only allowed us to view yet another wall, the one surrounding the entire compound of Central. When the guards locked the door behind me, the entire place seemed to cave in on me.
During the first few days at Central all I could think about was the agony of two years in a camp somewhere and trying to get home through some miracle. But three weeks later when mom and I returned to court only to be told that the witnesses had missed the hearing again and that we’d have to resume things after another four weeks, I realized I could be locked down for quite some time at Central.
I had to adapt, and so I made a home of the halls at Central in the motions when it could be made: 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 in the evenings. 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 facing a criminal sentence for a crime they didn’t commit could still laugh about their lot.
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, and 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 crew or gang. The thing is, most of us at Central were part of some kind of clique on the outs, and when your set or crew was dissed by some foo, there were two ways to respond: you could either let it go and be considered a lame, or you could put it down for yours and handle it with putasos.
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 this.
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 waiting for my case to get settled, I had an inkling of juice. This is because during class and when it came time to eat, I spoke on good terms with both fellow inmates and staff members alike. In turn they occasionally looked out for me with 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 IOW.
The thing is though, my juice was paltry compared to the love some of the other folks got at Central. For this, a kid named Connor ran it best.
Connor was a tall black gang member from South Central L.A. who found himself at Central 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. One of the staff members in the unit 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’.”
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 for class or rec. By his second week though, once he got a feel for the place Connor found his way, and he went on to become one of the loudest, most defiant foos in the unit to the irritation of most of his peers, 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 things I got my juice at KL for being respectful, whereas Connor got his for being less than terrible. That distance would actually scale down though, following a certain Sunday afternoon.
Sundays were visiting days at Central, in which those of us who had parents that wanted to visit could sit with them at a table in the unit under supervision 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, and when I saw Connor consoling his mom, telling her that he was alright, it dawned on me that there was more to him than just his fits.
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 Central.
When I turned to look at my mom, I put on the same show of strength from before; 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. When our visit was finally wrapped up, we hugged and promised to have faith again until next time, hasta la proxima.
From there the days and nights in the halls went on: new kids came in, and old kids went out. Through it all, I wondered just 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. 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 in declaration 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 large that often its members were in our unit for just a few days before being moved to less hostile environments.
With this in mind, 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 stand up to taunting, they started to diss him as if to test out their own luck with the word. For his part, just like on the first day there, the crip would shrug off the diss for the most part, 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 either way. Except that it was hard not to join in with the crowd at KL 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 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.”
At 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 it was alright to sound off at the little inconveniences of being locked up every now and again, like the fact that we had to be seated on the floor that morning for an inordinate amount of time before being shepherded over to school.
By then a little bit of rowdiness or hollering from my peers in KL wasn’t a big deal, and in fact sometimes it made the time go by faster. I would have just shrugged it off, but on that day the crip’s blathering just got to me somehow.
Maybe it was the three months at Central that I was coming up on, or a particularly terrible meal that morning. 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 felt like setting something off just for the hell of it. Whatever it was, I couldn’t keep it within ine, and so before the crip could go on with some more frontin’, the words simply hollered from down in my lungs:
“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 seated on the floor got up to clear the way for the fight, and for about ten seconds afterward Connor pummeled into the crip’s face before staff ran out of the office to pull them apart.
It should have been over when the staff pulled them apart, the way it always was with such squabbles, but something else happened; as one of the staff members attempted to pull Connor off by the shoulders, in all his fervor Connor accidentally punched the staff member in the chin.
I can still see the absolute disbelief in his face now. Even the staff member himself, Mr. Ramirez, couldn’t believe it, as he just stood there for a second staring right back at Connor while the blood pressure squirmed under his lower lip and chin. 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 immediately grabbed Connor by the neck and his 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 the visiting hour, 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 stepped in through the doors and took a seat from me across the table, she told me about new arguments in the case being prepared by a private attorney that she and my uncle had pillaged their savings for. She was hopeful that the 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 nearly three months of separation, the halls had brought her and I closer together than we had been in years.
The truth is that even while I hadn’t attacked the two paisas like the prosecution alleged, I was still on my way to the halls. Through countless days marking the streets with my claim, taking other things that didn’t belong to me, and just trying to find some trouble alongside Josh and the 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 Central, I was playing a game I didn’t know was rigged until it was too late. But unlike Connor, I had just a little more luck on my side.
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 a dismissal of the case, and just like that, as quickly as the charges were summed up against us in the first place, the judge uttered the magic words that dispelled them:
“This case is now dropped. You are RELEASED.”
Even now I can’t describe the relief I felt in that moment. Like every hearing before then, the gavel went down in a matter of just five minutes, but that time it finally went down in my favor.
After the verdict when they escorted me from the courtroom to head back to the halls, I never felt so much joy to have my hands cuffed and linked into the herd of chains with the other releases for that day.
In the afternoon when they finally 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 uttering the lease in “Release”. The process took a few hours, but by then a few hours were time we had. Josh and I both spent a total of ninety days at Central for the accusations levied against us and dodged a two-year bullet.
When the doors out of the compound finally opened up, I promised myself it was the first and last time I’d go through them. I felt for Connor and Josh and everyone I’d come to know throughout my time there, but I couldn’t deny myself what I felt: finished was finished. A few months later when I learned that Josh landed in L.A. County jail for a separate round of charges, I didn’t blink. I let him and the whole crew go as I strived to turn over a new leaf for myself back on the outs.
But even after walking away, nearly ten years later the days at Central are still lodged into my memory. I’ve got little idea where any of the KL unit stands today, but I’m hopeful that somehow along the way, they all caught a break too. The fact of the matter though, is that failing to get a break is precisely why so many of us were at Central in the first place. And I know that to this day, its lousy mattresses and cold showers still house whole schools, congregations, and new generation of kids on the run, all just adapting, trying to maintain, putting up a front till something better comes along.