Thirteen years into the new millennium, you still can’t swing a CATV cable without hitting a reality show: Whisker Wars, (a show about facial hair?), Preacher’s Daughters (as if we need another show about teenaged sluts), Here Comes Honey Boo Boo (a show about congenital idiots), and amazingly The Kardashians (a show about über-rich Armenians), to name a few.
These shows bill themselves as cutting-edge and genuine, and purportedly offer a glimpse into the lives of those who are doing something you’re not.
The problem with all of these “reality” shows is that they’re not, repeat, NOT REAL. They’re just made-for-TV talent shows that allow folks at home to live vicariously through made-for-TV actors, who eventually go back to their jobs at autograph conventions or dancing at Spearmint Rhino after their Warholian 15 minutes of fame.
Even more alarming is the ever-growing epidemic of penal envy, the lamest of all the Freudian wannabe diseases. This syndrome is characterized by a desire to look like or be like an ex-con, replete with neck tattoos, to give off the aura of a criminal or someone who has done time in jail or prison. Carried to the extreme, sufferers truly want to be incarcerated.
Clueless young kids want their hip-hop stars to be real gangsters, and there was even a time in the annals of rap when rappers were shooting each other and doing time, a la Mystikal, Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, Suge Knight and even that mama’s boy Eminem. Howard Stern, as lame an excuse for a man’s man as there ever was, says he got tattoos on his back and neck so he’d “have an edgy look, like somebody who’s been in prison.”
Latino gangbangers in Oxnard and desert skinheads see doing time in jail and prison as a rite of passage, as a place to accumulate “points” to enhance their street reps when they get out. Getting arrested, sentenced and remanded to the VC Main Jail on the way to a prison is no big deal.
In a society gone so completely wrong, what we need now is a firm dose of realty; and right in your own back yard, at the Main Jail at Victoria and Telephone, there’s a reality show going on that combines the best of reality and penal envy.
Here are some highlights of the show. The stories are all true, although the names of the characters have been changed:
ERIC THROUGH A GLASS WINDOW
The only thing worse than having visitors is never having visitors while you’re locked up.
Michael cries every time his girlfriend, his kids, his friends and his parents come to visit him in jail. Forget the fact that they’re very disappointed in him for being where he is. Forget the fact that he has absolutely no idea what they’re (especially his girlfriend) doing on the “outs” ⎯ in the outside world ⎯ while he’s locked up.
The real bitch is talking to them through a telephone and a glass window, not being able to touch, not being able to kiss. It breaks his heart, every single time.
He tries not to cry when they leave. There’s no crying in jail.
TEACH TEACHES A LESSON
“Teach,” a very spiritual Asian dude, tall and lean, meditates every morning and keeps a low profile. He has some good family who keep him supplied with a lot of commissary, or goodies from the jail store. Everyone likes and respects him.
Everyone, that is, except the guy who was stealing his candy. Teach casually mentioned that a lot of his candy was disappearing, and a quiet investigation began. The culprit was quickly discovered — he left wet sneaker prints on the floor near Teach’s cell and the shower. He was stealing Teach’s stuff when he took a shower.
The Mexicans came to Teach and offered to take care of the thief. Teach demurred, and confronted the guy near the shower.
The Holy Man happens to be a master of Black Tiger Kung Fu, an Asian martial art. A couple of barefooted kicks, a few well-placed hand chops, and the Hispanic guy was begging for mercy. No more problem.
STANLEY EATS NO MEAT
Jail food is bland and predictable, and there’s no waiter to take your special order. “Have It Your Way” is not a motto you’re likely to hear in the Ventura Jail.
Stanley is a vegetarian, and, believe it or not, there’s no vegetarian menu in jail! (He was shocked.) But he does manage to avoid almost all meat in his stay there: He trades coffee — It’s decaf anyway — and breakfast meats for bananas and oatmeal in the morning. He trades meat for bread at lunch, and meat for vegetables, dessert, macaroni and cheese and other carbs at dinner. He hears (and hopes like hell it’s true) that the hamburgers are actually soy burgers in Ventura County, so he always trades for extras of them, being sure to remind the other cons that the burgers aren’t meat anyway.
Stanley jokes that he’ll get home, sit down to dinner with his girlfriend’s family or go out with a big party to a ritzy restaurant, and begin seriously trading parts of his meal with the other flabbergasted guests at the table.
Stanley unfortunately learns a special dietary rule very quickly: Don’t trade food with members of other ethnic groups. He tried that a few times when he sat at the Black table, and got the hairy eyeball from a few of the skinheads at other tables. He had to do it quietly and furtively thereafter.
POINDEXTER GETS RESPECT
Poindexter, an older white guy who didn’t look like a fighter in any imaginable scenario, got his chow one evening and tried to sit at his regular table. A Latino named Hector took his seat, and told Poindexter to fuck off when asked to relinquish it. Without missing a beat, Poindexter laid into him, spectacles flying, before the Latino kid knew what happened. The fight only lasted a few seconds before the guards broke it up. A brief investigation ensued, and Poindexter and the kid were led to the hole, to multi-ethnic cheers of approval.
This was actually a pretty smart move for a guy who looked like a … well, a Poindexter. Poindexter proved he knew the rules: Never let anybody disrespect you. In the process, Poindexter gained respect. Word followed Poindexter to his next assignment.
RAMROD GETS A NEW NICKNAME
Some guys come in and try to assume the nickname they prefer, but that doesn’t usually work. Charles tells everyone his nickname name is Ramrod. But because he has really bad teeth ⎯ the tweaker’s, or speed freak’s, curse — by the end of the day his name is Colgate, and he never shakes it while he’s locked u Supporting characters in the VCSD reality show are Keefie D, Buckethead, Booey, Chopper, Dust Bunny (he was a fat slob), Yogi (Dust Bunny’s alter ego), Pops (There’s always a Pops. Ours was 79), Cornboy, Screwball, Snowball, Gordo and Guero (Chubby and Whitey, in Spanish. There’s always a Gordo, too.), Poindexter and, of course, Elvis. (Just kidding about Elvis ⎯ a little joke for those who remember that incredibly cheery and almost gay ’50s musical jail flick Jailhouse Rock.)
CLARENCE LEARNS TO BE A NEAT FREAK
One of the worst things you can be in jail is a slob. So to survive, Clarence is learning to be incredibly neat and sanitary, even though he was never that way on the outs. One of the things that amazed him from the beginning about jail was how excruciatingly clean veteran inmates are. His cell — and cells don’t vary much from institution to institution — consists of a two-bed bunk inside a concrete-walled area approximately 12 by eight feet. His sink and toilet are stainless steel.
Clarence thoroughly cleans ⎯ sweeps and mops the floor, and washes the toilet and sink with pine cleaner ⎯ twice a day, whether or not he thinks it’s necessary. If his cellie has been in jail before, odds are that he’s been brainwashed into thinking that an obsession with cleanliness is next to manliness, or something like that.
One guy in Stanley’s section, Maurice, was “regulated” (beaten down) because he innocently confused the cloth used to clean toilets with the one used to clean tables.
Mopping and sweeping the “Day Room” area (the common area outside of the cells), is the responsibility of the inmates. Somehow this gets done, twice a day, by inmates appointed, usually in cell order, by a de facto leader in the section. How these leaders appear is a mystery to me, and surely would make a great doctoral dissertation in group dynamics. But there is always an alpha male in jail, and it’s not always the biggest, strongest or loudest. It probably has to do with serotonin or testosterone or something.
If you ever go to jail, try this: Mop without sweeping; or if you really want to upset a bunch of people, mop and then sweep. I guarantee people will talk about you for weeks, if they don’t regulate you.
If you don’t shower every day now, you will if you go to jail. While it may be OK to walk around in the real world after a jog or a gym workout, you will be ridiculed and insulted in jail if the slightest trace of sweat is detected on your jailbird body.
It amazing that cons, who sometimes put dirty needles in their arms and often puke after “fixing,” are so gung-ho about cleanliness.
RANDY IN THE REC YARD
In Ventura County, inmates are allowed to go once or twice a week, for a couple of hours, to the rec area on the roof of the jail. They play handball, basketball or just lie around and chill. You might think that a lot of fights happen in the rec yard, since there’s usually no guard in attendance, but they are actually infrequent, not very serious.
But why fight? The games themselves are brawls.
Rec yard is not for the faint of heart. The idea is to match muscle and reckless abandon with a bunch of rowdy criminals, most of whom have spent most of their lives getting high and whose athletic skills seem to have been mainly developed running from cops and jumping over walls.
You haven’t lived until you’ve played basketball with a bunch of inmates. Randy calls it full-contact basketball. It’s absolutely hilarious. One day of this and Randy feels worse than Kobe after a game in which he shoots 50 foul shots and misses 40.
If Randy escapes rec yard without a broken nose or a bruised shin, he feels very fortunate. The irony is that he will keep coming back again and again, because it’s his only chance to get real “exercise,” breathe fresh air and see the sun.
RAY GETS A ROUTINE
Developing a “routine” in jail is important to make the stint as painless as possible. Ray develops a predictable routine, doesn’t complain and doesn’t explain. Losers do the opposite. They “hard-time” it.
Ray gets up at 5 a.m., eats breakfast, mops and cleans his cell, plays cards, watches Cops, eats lunch at 11, takes a nap, exercises by doing calisthenics in his cell, showers, reads a book or writes a letter or something, watches TV and plays chess, eats dinner at 4:30 p.m., mops and cleans his cell again, reads more of a book, watches more TV, calls home (he can only call collect in Ventura County) and, finally, goes to sleep at 9:30 or 10 pm. It’s not a very exciting life, but it’s important to get exercise and fool yourself into thinking that you have some control over the situation. A good, solid routine is the first thing an experienced convict settles into.
Daniel is a long-time gang member from La Colonia in Oxnard who happens to be a great artist and, by the way, an expert at doing time. He doesn’t do a lot of chores, he always has the same seat at his own table (a very important status symbol in jail), and he always has plenty of “store” or commissary ⎯ also very important.
Dave’s secret, besides the fact that his gang affiliation confers a certain amount of jail cachet, lies in the fact that he is an excellent illustrator who knows how to keep himself busy doing “commissioned” works for other prisoners, usually for commissary items, since you’re not allowed to have currency in jail.
Daniel does excellent colored pencil work. (Short pencils are the only drawing tools allowed in jail.) His subjects were stylized, smiling-through-the-tears clowns and hoboes, Hispanic ladies, and symbols, logos and tattoo models. On the outs, Daniel is involved in different types of painting, murals, illustrations, sculpture and “street art,” and is a recognized Ventura Avenue arts figure.
The ethnic groups tend to stick together in jail. You’ve got “Esses” or “Vatos” (Hispanics). A Black guy is a “Cuz” or Brother. Whites are Peckerwoods or “Woods.” There are Chinos (Asians) and “Others,” the official jail term for Polynesians, Indians, Native Americans and such. The rivalries range from good-natured kidding to bloody hostility.
REFLECTIONS ON REALITY
There are reality shows and there is reality. They’re actually two different things.
When you’re talking about jail, reality sometimes means abstaining from drugs and alcohol and “getting a program.” Ninety per cent of the criminals in jail would not be criminals if they cleaned themselves up.
Cons invariably think that “They are out to get me.” If you end up in jail, you are out to get you, pure and simple, and you couldn’t do a better job if you had walked into the complex at 800 South Victoria Avenue, put on a blue VCSD uniform, and snapped the cuffs on yourself.
Many inmates have to learn that the world is not a hostile place. It’s actually a pretty cool place if you just Do the Right Thing. That’s Reality with a capital R.
Reality is a special word, and it should not be tossed about lightly.
George (Butch) Warner, MA, MFT, CADC-II is an addiction specialist and therapist at Pasadena Recovery Center. He has actually been a guest of the VCSD for a few months.