Los Angeles Central Juvenile Hall was/is a dreary imposing structure with its once white stone-block walls now covered with smoggy soot, mildew and graffiti. One of its exterior walls faces the adjacent railroad tracks another towards the sprawling county hospital. This hospital was the only other structure of significance in an otherwise desolate area of rundown single-story industrial buildings.
Central as we simply called it back in the spring of 1962 was already 50 years old by the time I first arrived to its entry point at the ripe old age of ten. Central’s grimy windows barred with rusting iron gave little away as we approached it early in the evening. The police car transporting me drove past the guard shack overlooking the drive-in entrance that was unmanned at night, then through the iron door and stopped a few feet from the entrance.
The officers got out of the car opened my door and without saying a word reached in and grabbed me under one of my arms that were still handcuffed behind my back. The officer simultaneously held my head down with one of his hands while pulling me to my feet with the other in order to prevent me from either falling or bumping my head.
I was escorted through the door and taken to the desk of the admission clerk where I was instructed to sit down in the chair facing the clerk’s desk. The clerk looked at me then my file and read aloud “Incorrigible huh?” I silently sat down on the grey steel chair and the balding middle-aged male clerk with an ample pot belly informed me that he was going to ask me some questions for my admission records. Immediately he began asking me the required information in a dry impersonal manner while never once taking his eyes off the form.
The clerk typed in an extremely slow and methodically manner on what appeared to be an ancient black manual typewriter even for the era. Occasionally the man would stop to line up the next blank or to use the bottle of white out setting on his desk to correct the errors that he had made. He called out in almost robotic fashion his requests for the blank lines of information titled “Full name, address, age, sex, race, color of hair, color of eyes, and any distinguishing marks such as tattoos or scars” until all the blanks were filled in the record.
Then I was taken to another room to strip down to my birthday suit, placing my belongings in a box to await my release or transfer to another institution (in which case the items would be given back to my family).
Once this was complete I was made to shower using a shampoo meant to kill any lice that may have been on my body. I only needed to shampoo my head but older boys entering the institution had to shampoo under their arms and also their pubic hair.
Upon finishing my shower I was issued my juvenile hall uniform which consisted of a white tee shirt, kaki pants, and black converse style tennis shoes. The pants I was issued were a few sizes too large due to the rareness of my small size.
I was then taken by an escort down the hall and out the door of the administration building to a sidewalk that connected to other intersecting sidewalks. As we walked I tried to commit to memory the route that we were taking through my new neighborhood as we navigated our way between the housing units and school rooms to the far side of the complex. Why I wanted to memorize the route I don’t remember anymore but maybe I just wanted to make sure I could find my way out.
In the first week at Central while waiting in line to enter our classroom a much taller inmate grabbed my buttock from behind saying “Oh sweet meat. What a nice ass.” My response was immediate and without thought as I defensively spun around striking my assailant a hard right hand blow to his jaw catching him totally off guard.
Dazed he then staggered back against the wall. As my eyes focused on my opponent I realized that he was over a head taller then myself, so I stepped up my attack with renewed urgency lest he be allowed to recover and whip me good.
I continued punching until both my assailant and my pants slid to the ground. The sight of my pants around my ankles drew loud laughter from the rest of our unit. All the finger pointing and laughter of my classmates brought the counselors running over.
I was then jerked away from my assailant by my collar of my shirt and unceremoniously marched directly to solitary confinement. I was never even asked to explain why I had attacked the much larger boy but instead it earned me a label as a troublemaker. This label came with one huge benefit however it meant that few of my peers would ever dare to disrespect me in such a blatant way at least for the immediate future.
In solitary I passed the day reading comics with frequent interruptions from others locked up nearby. There were the “Please let me out!” type crying and banging on their doors to no avail. Then there was the occasional angry inmate cursing and threatening the guards while also banging on the door or throwing his bedding about.
At times the guards would feel the need to rush into a cell to subdue an inmate and the sounds of their keys rattling on their hips would mix with the sounds of the struggle to subdue the inmate. One could hear the demands of the guards countered by the shouts of defiance by the inmate.
With these sounds and a little imagination you could then visualize the struggle in your head without ever being able to see it. The struggle would invariably arouse other inmates to yell in support of their fellow inmate like babies in a nursery are lead to cry in support of one another.
The most memorable character during this stay was the resident African American transvestite who was kept there for his own protection because of his wildly flamboyant behavior. He would sing out loudly the following lines “Oh I’m the queen of the hoes! I can suck a baseball up a garden hose. Give my ass a try and you’ll know why I’m the queen of the hoes. Come on baby don’t be shy. Be my guy.” Other African American inmates nearby would chuckle together and try to get a commitment from him/her for a blow job at their first opportunity.
It was as if I was in a mad house and I’m sure that a good percentage of the inmates did indeed have mental problems that were only being aggravated by their surroundings.
In between these dramatic episodes in the relative silence of my solitary confinement I would lie on my bunk and listen to the melancholic sound of the trains passing by on the other side of the wall. I enjoyed imagining the beautiful places that they might be headed to. The passing trains soon began to represent the lives of the free populace which were unrestrained and continuing to advance even while my own life stagnated behind the towering walls just outside my window. I came to realize that in my bunk I was out of sight and out of mind and I longed to be free and moving forward along with the passengers on the trains just over the wall.
On my second trip to County about a year later I was marching with my unit to classes when I heard a familiar voice call out “Hey Al how you doing Bro?” It was Mike standing in line outside the dining hall. Apparently the police had just captured him so I yelled back “Hey I’m alright but what happened? How did they find you?” “Oh it’s a long story I’ll let you know when I can.” Mike answered.
A week or two later while I sat in the dayroom watching TV we all heard a lot of shouting outside the window so we all strained to see what was going on. Then one of the other inmates shouted “Hey there is a guy on the roof trying to escape”.
The phone rang and shortly thereafter I was called into the counselor’s and told “Your brother is on the roof and we want you to talk him down”. I later learned that while being held in solitary for fighting Mike had fashioned some sheets into a rope and then asked to see the doctor. As he was being escorted to the clinic he started to run and climbed up on the roof. The staff lost track of him for awhile only to pick him up hiding somewhere on the property so I never had to talk him down.
This was Mike’s second attempted escape using sheets to scale the wall. In his first attempt Mike had made it over the wall only to be captured outside of nearby L.A. County Hospital.
I later learned of Mike’s motivation for attempting to escape. My brother told me that one of the guards in solitary had become irritated with him and they had exchanged some harsh words. Sometime later as Mike rested on his bed the counselor rushed into his cell after soaking a towel in urine and held it over my brother’s face until he passed out. I thought of the fear my brother must have felt while the man weighing over 250lbs was on top of him smothering him.
I knew that my brother would mouth off and fight back against all odds. I admired him for that. He never showed visible signs of fear under circumstances that I would have been shaken. Fear drove me in a fight while the lack of fear combined with deep hatred seemed to drive his actions. His hate for authority, the system, and his enemies was intense. My method of coping with incarceration was to go along with the program, only fighting when needed. His was to fight back just long enough to escape. Mike realized his physical limitations at just over 125lbs so he could only hope to use the element of surprise against his opponents, whom, for the most part were much larger than himself.
The saying goes upon entering one of these institutions that you have three choices, you can either “Fornicate, Fight or Flee” The people who can defend themselves usually choose to fight while those that are lacking the physical ability were left with the other two options. Too many fights and you are labeled antisocial too few and your most likely going to get it in the ass. The system is concerned with maintaining a smooth operation and therefore the men who run these institutions would rather let some inmates be abused than to have them fighting back.
Much later on after a confrontation with another juvenile inmate I was taken to solitary confinement where I spent the holiday season of 1968.
When I read about the long term isolation that inmates today endure my experience seems to pale in comparison. Back in the 1960’s we were allowed a nightly shower, and on at least one occasion, Christmas Day 1968, we even ate dinner together in small groups. The dinning hall on the first floor of Preston School of Industry’s Solitary Confinement Unit was a smaller version of its other dinning halls. The dinning room consisted of a half dozen, four person, square, stainless steel tables in two rows of three. It was primarily used by the guards except on this very special occasion.
The smaller number of inmates eating allowed the guards to keep a closer eye on this potentially troublesome bunch that the system found necessary to confine inside this jail within a jail for disciplinary reasons.
I sat with three other inmates on one of the four backless metal stools bolted to the concrete floor and painted over with grey epoxy paint. My eyes scanned the face of each inmate appraising their probable social status in the pecking order of institutional life.
The one directly across from me was a slightly built dirty blonde around sixteen years old with even younger boyish features. His face however seemed tired as though he had been under extreme stress for way too long. I knew the look well; it is the same expression one sees on fallen prey in a National Geographic Magazine when the animal realizes there is no way to escape their fate.
I didn’t know this particular inmate but I knew others like him so I felt a profound sadness for him. I imagine that this feeling is similar to how a soldier on a battle field might feel as he passes fallen combatants.
The inmate to my left was of a different lot I imagined him to be still holding his own but only by the narrowest of margins.
Now the guy on my right had the look of a career criminal a true survivor of the system that would be willing to use any means necessary to survive even if it meant stepping on top of the first’s inmates head to keep his own above water.
Even with this unflattering appraisal of my dinning partners after days of isolation I was eager to swap stories with each of them.
The conversation followed the normal pattern of conversations between inmates “Where are you from? What are you in for? What unit are you in? How long do you have to go? Why were you sent to hole (solitary)?”
I found the story of the inmate across from me to be incoherent as his eyes darted around the room wildly. He kept saying that he was going to be released and was flying back home. I took this with a grain of salt as the wishful thinking of a desperate boy for how could he ever hope to be released so soon after being placed in the hole.
I swapped stories with the others as well then it was back to our isolation upstairs.
Later that evening after I had taken my shower I heard the blond teenager shout “I can fly, I can fly, and you can’t keep me here no more”. Then a guard said in a panic “Grab him he’s going to jump”. I heard the young man repeat “I can fly, I can fly” then a loud sickening thud like a melon hitting the floor. He had jumped over the railing.
I had heard the jail house rumors of inmates that had died after being thrown over such rails so I surmised that the jumper was probably dead or at least seriously injured.
After the commotion downstairs subsided, a short interval of relative quiet followed. As I sat alone pondering the youth’s words over dinner a guard opened the slot in my cell door and tossed in a wad of hard candy wrapped in tissue paper. The candy landed unceremoniously onto my now dimly lit cell’s floor and slid to a stop somewhere in the middle. This candy was probably meant to bring us a little Christmas cheer by who ever had the idea in the first place but it’s delivery was carried out with such callous disregard for our feelings that it had done little to raise our spirits.
I immediately jumped up and asked the guard “What happened to the guy that jumped? I had dinner with him you know. Is he OK? The guard scuffed “Don’t speak unless spoken to!” So reluctantly I sat back down on my bed and opened the twisted piece of paper holding the candy together then tried to break a piece free. The pieces had become stuck together and were now just one large piece covered with bits of the wrapping tissue. I turned to look out my window and wondered what the scene had been like on the first floor. The smell of spit and mucus (much like the smell of a persons sneeze in a closed car) emanated from the protective screen which was meant as an additional barrier to the bars on the window and I asked myself how I could eat candy under such circumstances. I hesitated but tried a piece anyway. The candy had a familiar taste but one in which under normal circumstances I would not have eaten. I needed some distraction however and so I continued breaking off pieces until it was all gone.
I then laid back and watched the eerie shadow of Preston School of Industry’s original building from the 1890’s on my room’s walls. I had passed this now vacant building on the way to solitary and it has always reminded me of a haunted castle from a horror movie. (In fact it has since been used as a haunting back drop in movies.)
As we had passed the building the guard had pointed out a wood platform that he said was part of the old gallows from which they hung inmates in its heyday. I wondered how many young men had lost their lives over the years from acts of desperation, murder or execution. I wondered how the jumper became so disturbed and what had been his fate. How his parents would react to learning of his action and on Christmas Day no less. I wondered if the guard had been truthful about the purpose of the platform. I wondered if the jumper had been trying to tell me of his plans at dinner. Did I miss an opportunity to warn the guards? I tried to put these thoughts out of my head for there was nothing I could do now. So I tried to sleep to avoid having to think about him but his face at dinner would greet me whenever I closed my eyes. It was early morning before I fell to sleep.
During the remainder of my time in solitary I did thousands of sit ups and push ups to exhaust myself in order to sleep. Sleep I found was the most effective means of escaping the reality of my confinement. But my sleep was often interrupted by the desperate screams of those even less able to endure their isolation. The “Catch 22” here is these unruly inmates were then viewed by the staff as not having learned their lesson so they were forced to endure even longer terms of isolation in a vicious circular cycle.
Back in my regular cell weeks after my release from solitary in the otherwise complete silence just before the scheduled predawn awakening of Sequoia Lodge’s inmates I listened intently to the sound of approaching footsteps. Not surprisingly these footsteps stop at my cell door and are then followed by the familiar metallic rustling of a counselor’s keys. This rustling sound is soon joined by the harsh clanking noise of my cell door’s internal locking mechanism being unlocked. Then the counselor swings the door wide open and orders me to get dressed as he stands impatiently just outside my cell door watching my every move.
The day had finally arrived for me to be transported down to Los Angeles to appear as a witness at Mike’s trial. In anticipation of my departure I had found it impossible to sleep soundly so without any hesitation I jumped up and dressed quickly. Once I was dressed the counselor escorted me to Sequoia’s mess hall.
The mess hall was only a few hundred feet away from Sequoia Lodge and during our normal daily routine inmates were all allowed to walk over to it unescorted. But before dawn the system required that inmates be escorted in order to prevent them from attempting an escape under the cover of darkness.
Alone at the mess hall I took a metal tray from the stack, and silently went through the serving line under the watchful eye of my escort who stood stoically at the entrance. I sat down at my usual table but with no one else eating in a dinning hall designed for forty inmates the silence and solitude felt strange. As I ate I contemplated the many past meals that I had shared at this very table with my best friend Bill. Bill had arrived at The Preston School of Industry months before me and had shared this table with another inmate before I had arrived. After the other inmate was transferred to Tracy Bill inherited the table. In this way the table had been occupied by a series of security minded inmates over the years. The table was prized for its prime location against the far wall which afforded those seated there an unobstructed view of everyone entering or seated in the room.
With our back against the wall the two of us could see anyone approaching us with bad intentions. Although this was hardly necessary on this occasion old habits are hard to break.
After breakfast I was escorted directly up the hill to the administration building in the predawn darkness. Once my paper work was completed I was handcuffed and loaded into the back of the waiting passenger van. I sat down silently in the first of the three empty benches in the back of the van and peered out the window. The sun was just beginning to rise like the curtains of a theater and I thought to myself “Lights, Camera, and Action!”
No one spoke as the two officers drove me through the back roads of California’s “Gold Country” home of “The Mother Lode”. This pastoral rolling countryside surrounding Preston School of Industry on the western slope of the Sierras is forever associated with the California’s gold rush but it is also home to many correctional facilities. The later has also resulted in a gold rush of a different sort where big money is being made off the misery of inmates.
My eyes scanned the passing landscape with its scattered oak trees and an occasional grouping of farm animals grazing on the area’s grassy rolling hills. Alone with the two guards I allowed my body to completely relax soaking up the sunshine coming in though the van’s side window. I had often felt that the racial tension was so electric in Preston that it could illuminate a Florissant light bulb without the need of a light fixture. But now outside its walls, the deeply comforting vision of this idyllic countryside passing by my window filled me with an illusion of freedom once again.
We had driven for a half an hour or so before we pulled up to the Northern California Youth Center facility located in Stockton. I had never been to this facility before but its duel chain linked fences topped with razor wire seemed all too familiar to me. As we entered the facility the harsh sounds of the gates locks opening and closing annoyed me.
Later on in the institution the metallic sounds of my new escort’s keys bouncing off his hip as I followed him to my cell for the evening made my stomach feel queasy. And by the time my cell door was slammed shut and the key turned the emotional high of the early morning had completely vanished.
I watched from the cell door’s small 6” X 12” wire reinforced window as my escort disappeared from view. Then I turned my attention to the larger window facing the interior of the facility and seeing nothing remarkable there I decided to lie down on the bunk.
I had been resting in silence only briefly when suddenly I was startled by the primeval wails of what sounded like a wild beast struggling against a predators grasp. Curious I quickly got up and looked back out the small door window in time to see two guards struggling to restrain a young man in order to place him in a cell close to me. I later learned that the inmate was distrait at not being allowed to go to his mother’s funeral and his grief was unmanageable. This was a useless struggle but riveting in that I could identify with his desire to escape back into his mother’s arms. Throughout the day the young man would bang on the door and plea to be let out until he was exhausted or was subdued by the irate guards. Other inmates trying to sleep would yell threats at him if he didn’t shut up. Following these outbursts there would be a short period of silence only to have the cycle repeat over and over again after a few minutes. I soon came to realize that I was staying in solitary confinement.
I hadn’t slept much by the time they came to get me just before dawn the next morning. I had a new type of restraint placed on me now comprising of handcuffs with a chain that ran down to my angle cuffs. I had seen these before but it was the first time I had ever worn them. Still I looked forward to getting out of earshot of the distrait young man. I didn’t like to think of how he was feeling, how I might feel if it was my own mother. I didn’t want it on my mind so I eagerly hopped up onto the large bus where a group of adult prisoners waited my arrival.