Ed. Note: We do our best to shed light into the lesser-known hideaways and corners of our fair county, but when it comes to certain institutions, there’s only so much you can say from the outside looking in. Imagination is a wonderful complement to experience, but a poor substitute.
When we received a letter from Roman Navarro, an inmate at the San Luis Obispo County Jail, expressing interest in recounting his experiences with crime and punishment, our interest was piqued. Navarro expresses himself well, as you will see, with a decided flair for humor and an instinct for getting at the heart of a matter.
We present the first three episodes, with many to come, from his journals. A regular column of his stories will be featured in our Detours section the first week of each month.
Also, New Times changed the names of the characters mentioned here to pseudonyms.
Who says you can’t
go home again?
Sept. 3, 2010
- ILLUSTRATION BY NEAL BRETON
There’s not a whole lot funny about committing a crime (or three). Even less about getting caught for it … and sitting on a hard plastic seat in the back of a cop car with your hands cuffed behind your back is especially non-comical. Yet that is exactly where I find myself huffing out a low laugh.
“What’s up?” asks the officer as he types information into his on-board computer. Not angry or demanding, just inquisitive. What was up is that I had just looked over the back seat at the dashboard monitor and seen about 10 versions of my face in a column staring back at me. A good portion of my now numerous booking pictures accumulated over the last decade of my life. Smiling in a couple. Eyes barely open in a few. Rubbing my neck in one from the soreness that comes with sleeping on a concrete bench in the holding cell. And, of course, my infamous Halloween pic from a couple years back where the guards had left my face painted in all white and black from the movie Dead Presidents.
I should explain that 90 percent of these arrests were just probation violations for drinking. Not a crime in my book.
I mumble something about how it’s funny seeing your whole adult life chronicled in progressive mug shots. He chuckles and scrolls down, revealing the last five or so, ending with my last arrest about two years past.
“About time to update my résumé, I guess.”
This gets us both laughing as he pulls out and heads south toward the good ol’ Kansas Ave. Hotel, SLO County Jail. (He turned out to be a really nice guy for a cop. We even had some mutual friends.)
Get my oranges on. Get my bed roll. Take the walk down the deserted hallway to the west dorms. Then the random shot of which 52-man dorm I get to be housed in for God knows how long. Not that I prefer either one, but 800 block always feels backwards or opposite to me. Makes sense, as it is a mirror image of 700, where I have done my longest stint and now find myself in once again. Hooray for the small blessings in life!
The guard asks how my sister is doing, and I realize that I went to school with him for some years, he being in my younger sister’s grade. “Very well,” I say. (When I mention this to her later, she is horrified to find out that her old chum is in HERE! “No, no,” I say, “He’s one of the guards.” “Ohhhh,” she says. I take it he wasn’t much of a trouble-maker.)
- ILLUSTRATION BY NEAL BRETON
“SSSTEEEEeeeeeve … .” comes the traditional greeting to new guys in the tank. The name is whispered in hushed hisses from several of the bunks. This has been going on for as long as I have been coming here, and the origin of calling each new inmate Steve is varied, depending on who you talk to. Supposedly it started between 15 and 25 years ago when some guy named Steve was released in the morning, only to be re-arrested and back in by the afternoon, then bailed out only to be arrested for the same shit later that night (either drinking or drugs). Some say he came back in three times in one day. Others say “Bullshit, I (or my older brother) was there and he only came back once.” Still others claim that he just hopped in and out of jail so many times over the course of a few months, his name just became synonymous with the new guy or “fresh fish.” Between my own track record and some others that I have observed, this does not seem too far-fetched. There is a saying here about SLO County, “Come on vacation, leave on probation, return on violation.”
It is around 1 in the morning when I finally walk in, and I am tired from the day’s madness. I get a top bunk, as always (Seriously! I’ve only gotten a convenient bottom bunk on one of my stays), and my bunkie gets right up to help me get the mattress (a loose mat of padding) into the supplied fart sack (still not sure why we call it that, but it’s just a sack-like sheet that puts a layer of cloth between you and your plastic mat).
Bunkie introduces himself as “Arizona,” and I have my first character in what is to be my little world for probably quite some time. I get my blankets situated and doze off thinking of this place as a tide pool. A constant flow of waves bringing in fresh water. Some just touching for a moment before returning out to sea. Others flowing through channels and swirling around in pools for longer. And some caught in deep crevasses to stagnate in the sun for much longer until the tide ebbs out but eventually cycles in again. I feel a calm stillness as I resign to my new home, but still the comfort that no matter how long it takes, all will return at some point to the sea.
This is not really my story. It belongs to the men and boys who enter and pass through West Dorm 700.
Friends and neighbors.
Sept. 13, 2010
My usual M.O. for the first couple of days in the clink is to mostly ride my rack. (Rack equals your bunk. A rack-rider is someone who spends most of the time on his bunk sleeping or reading, not associating with others or coming out to the day room area. In general acting like a bump on a log. Sometimes this results in calls to “get up and do your time, homie!”)
- ILLUSTRATION BY NEAL BRETON
This is for several reasons, not the least of which being that I’m usually hung over and sleep comes easy. Not that we get to really sleep the day away, as everyone has to get up and either stand at their bunk or go outside and stand against the wall for the daily counts that occur every four hours.
Being in a different place with new people is also a good time to lay low and get a feel for things. Within a couple of days, just by being observant, it’s possible to discern who the core group is. Not that they are in charge (tank bosses are almost non-existent here) but usually there are guys who know each other from “the outs,” and being from small towns around the area, almost everyone has some mutual friends. Also important is how long everyone has been in here and how much time they will be doing. The longer it is, the more likely a dude is to make friends. This group carries the acquired knowledge of the tank, such as which guards are dicks, which TV shows are on at which times (there are no clocks), what may be for dinner (based on inconsistent and usually wrong patterns), and which dudes are weirdos and should be avoided.
It seems I am lucky in several regards on this account. 1) My bunkie, Arizona, has been in here several months. It turns out he is actually from New Mexico but was arrested in Ariz. and extradited here, so the name of where he came in from stuck. 2) There are several guys I already know that are on bunks right around mine. One is a notorious “former” tweeker from Cambria, and the other is my old little buddy from my three-month term in here years ago. I look over the edge of my rack on my second day and there he is. Buddy. I will never forget the first night I met him, and I tell this story to the guys in here to everyone’s delight.
It was late at night so everyone was on their bunk when a new “Steve” arrives and puts his standard jail-issue blankets, cup, spoon, and rule book (all of which must be returned on release) on his rack a few bunks down from me. He immediately takes his shirt off and starts marching up and down the tier with his little fists balled up and his chin high. He is a skinny but wiry kid who can’t be a day over 18 (turns outs it was a few weeks), but has a look of angry defiance on his face. He stares at each guy as he passes, and eventually everyone is up and watching. Most in amusement, but a couple fools start to get ruffled, and murmurs of “check yourself homie” and “what’s your problem” begin rising. Finally, I stop him as he passes me and ask, “What’s up man? This is your first time in jail?”
“Yeah,” he replies, flexing his strappy arms. “Don’t I have to fight someone right away?” We all burst into an uproar of laughter, and the tension is cut. I tell him to “take it easy kid, it’s not like that.” I get in my drawer and throw him a candy bar, and his tough little scrunched-up face melts away into a friendly, questioning look. It reminds me of an untamed street dog that at first growls at you, but as soon as you offer it a treat, he becomes your best friend and rolls over to get his tummy patted.
And so it was that myself and the rest of the guys took a young guy under our collective wing for the time he was in there. (I ran into him one time about a year later at Mother’s Tavern and he had no less than three chicks with him, but I was so wasted that I don’t remember much else.) Now he is 25 years old, an amateur philosopher, and headed to prison in two weeks to do a four-year term for basically doing what I know him best for: taking on the world. Again, it seems like everyone in here loves him in a teasing, little-brother kind of way.
If Buddy is the tank’s li’l bro, then Arizona is the dad. Or maybe the grumpy old neighbor next door. He’s only a few years older than me, but his penchant for crankiness, crossword puzzles, and reading his newspapers make him seem much older and wiser. Not that he complains a lot—he will usually just scowl silently at those who are being too loud for him to enjoy his TV programs. He is very intelligent and his voice has a large, full quality to it that reminds me of a politician. Perhaps he can get into politics after he gets out in a few years.
He even finds time to teach advanced English to one of our side bunkies named Dos, who is a middle-aged Mexican native from Cambria. He’s lived in the United States for many years and speaks nearly fluent English in a low, raspy voice with a distinctive accent. Arizona’s part-time tutelage is at the point where his student is improving the finer aspects of conjugation and tense, which he then uses in ever-more complex forms of shit-talking back to Arizona. For example: When prompted by a question from his pupil, he explained the usage of the word “suggestion.”
“You must follow my suggestions if you wish to improve at Spades. And I suggest you improve your game before you play me again.”
His student ponders this for a few seconds, then says “OK, I un-erstand now. I su-jest YOU get-a better at handball be-cuss I beat you two times yes-erday!”
- ILLUSTRATION BY NEAL BRETON
This dynamic never ceases to amuse the rest of us living in this corner of the tier. One night, a few minutes after lights out (we are all supposed to stay on our racks and not talk) Dos was still laughing and joking with another paisa (Spanish-speaking Mexican national). Arizona, who was trying to go to sleep, had finally had enough and yelled “Quiet Dos! You have all day tomorrow to talk!”
This prompted Buddy, in a half serious tone, to jump in. “Woah! Don’t talk to Dos that way.”
Emboldened by his backup, Dos responded, “Ya don talk-a to me tha way, fool. You always a asshole ina morning too! OK, so we know you a big shot. Goo-night big dog.” We all started chuckling at that, and Arizona rolled over and mumbled something about respecting others.
“Wha you say, Big Dog?” snapped Dos, and we all lost it laughing.
Arizona is right about having respect for each other, but I feel this is best when balanced with a good sense of humor about things. All of us are stuck here together in a pretty crappy situation, so it’s important to savor and thrive on any fun times we can. It makes all the difference to go to sleep chuckling about the day’s hilarities.
The Long Sword
Sept. 21, 2011
The days start with chow at 5:30 in the morning. The lights flick on a few minutes beforehand, and we start shuffling groggily off our racks, into our orange outfits, and up the front door, ending up in line in whatever order we wake up. After eating, almost everyone goes back to sleep, except for those doing cleanup assignments and those who have to go to court. (Cleanup rotates through the bunk numbers, six at a time.)
The court debacle is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it is one of the few times we get to leave the dorm, and the only way to leave the jail building in custody. During transport and in the courtroom is the closest any of us will be to actual human females (inmates or in the audience) for the duration of our stay, so it is naturally a thrilling highlight.
But on the other hand, you have to endure the entire time in full shackles—ankles chained together and wrists handcuffed to a belly chain. Getting the most comfortable “court house shuffle” down is an acquired art form if you don’t want to look like someone stealing a pair of shoes still tied together. Eating lunch in shackles is another difficulty. You can bend over to bite the sandwich, but drinking the milk requires pulling it as high up to the face as possible and then leaning back “Matrix-style” to pour it in your mouth.
Another one of the “joys” of court day is the sardine effect of being crowded in standing-room-only holding cells for up to several hours while waiting to take turns facing the music of justice. These times can be tense, as inmates from several different parts of the jail are thrown together and “beefs” come up to the surface. The criminal world can be a small one, and the problem of the limited mobility will not usually deter anyone from popping off if they end up next to a hated enemy. Despite the physical violence being dangerous and sometimes resulting in some damage, it is hard not to laugh when thinking back on the sight of two or more men trying their darnedest to hurt each other with stuttered steps and both hands attached at the waist. These fights are usually a cross between a potato-sack race and an apple-bobbing contest, with a little bit of elementary school shove-fest thrown in, plus repetitive head butting.
My court date today goes down without any such dramatics, though, and I am returned to 700 where I shower off the holding cell filth and get back to my normal routine. When lined up for the next count, I take note of the fact that my bunkie, Arizona, keeps leaning across me to tell the Mexican guy next to me how or what to sound off. Each guard has a different system. Some simply walk by, silently checking each inmate off the list. Others will stand in the middle of the room and have each guy sound off their last name. Or they will call last names school-style and have us respond “here.”
- ILLUSTRATION BY NEAL BRETON
His name is Wit, and I am perplexed because he speaks perfect English as well as Spanish. Finally, Arizona informs me that he is, in fact, deaf but can read lips. I would never have guessed it, as he can read and speak both languages perfectly, even from some distance away. In talking with him, I find out that he is 35 years old and lost his hearing in a car crash at the age of 17. I decide to test his abilities, thinking I will confuse him by switching to Spanish mid-sentence. But he understands exactly. In due course, he proves to be not only able, but excellent at conversation and impresses me as one of the most witty and intelligent men in here. In addition, I am blown away by his incredible pencil drawings that he trades to other inmates for far less than they are worth. I saw one picture of a dove in flight that looked more like a black-and-white photograph than a drawing. He says it can be hard at times, not being able to hear, but there are definite advantages in here, such as not being woken up when certain loud-mouths start jabbering.
After a few of my afternoon naps are ended by a character named Joker, I understand this point perfectly. This guy has one of those voices that is made for car commercials. There will be 50 people talking in a buzz in the dayroom, and Joker’s voice will still boom through loud and clear. He is a nonstop jokester who almost always has a grin plastered to his face that matches his talk. It stretches absurdly far from ear to ear and seems to pull every other part of his visage with it. I don’t even know what color his eyes are because they are always squinted almost closed like two little kids trying to peek over a huge smile-fence.
But today he finds Buddy looking depressed on his bunk and saunters over. With a suddenly concerned expression, Joker puts an arm around his shoulder and pulls him close. Could this be? Is the caring nurturer inside him coming out? He starts speaking softly, “Hey there, what’s the matter, baby? Don’t I buy you the nicest orange clothes and keep you smelling good with the best soaps?” I see Buddy’s face start to crack into a smile. “Don’t I keep your hair so fine with all the ‘Tres Flores’ (Mexican hair product on commissary, $4.60) you need? How ’bout that raspberry spray? You still got some?”
By this time, everyone in the vicinity is busting up, including Buddy, who plays along perfectly with, “Ya I guess I’m OK. I just need a vacation. You been workin’ me too hard. My butt’s sore.”
This kind of quasi-homo joking can be a bit shocking to newcomers, but becomes a common thread that runs through everyone in some way. Whether they like it or not. Anyone who bucks at a gay joke aimed at him is instantly making himself a target for more. Much like a shark drawing blood, a feeding frenzy of gayness can surround an unprepared victim as other guys jump in the act and eventually grab-assing ensues. It’s all incredibly juvenile, but is usually only pointed out as such by the outraged target.
And so, walking down the bunk aisle toward the bathroom one night, about to pass Joker’s bottom bunk, I hear him call my attention. As I slow my step and begin rotating toward him, the first warning bells go off in my head and I know something is wrong.
“Check out my belt buckle, homie.” But I barely hear the words as my mind screams emergency full stop messages to the muscles controlling my legs, waist, head, and eyes. It’s too late. Momentum keeps me spinning in my low-traction plastic Bob Barker sandals. My torso continues to twist even though my hands shoot out to counterweight it because they are also heading up diagonally in a futile race to black my vision from the impending sight. Finally, the lighting of the bunk area comes into play to seal my fate. At night, all the lights are turned off except for two, which are slightly dimmed. One of those beams of light is at the perfect angle above and behind Joker’s bunk so that a combination of my head turning toward the only sound, and my eyes auto-focusing on the only lighted object occurs.
I grunt like I’ve been socked in the stomach and call him a sicko as I hurry around the corner to the bathroom, but the shocking image of his ball sack hanging over his waist band echoes in my head at the same time that his laugh echoes off the concrete walls. I have to laugh at the whole thing, too. He got me good. I will have to get him back if I want balance restored to the universe. My opportunity comes surprisingly soon the very next day.
To be continued … . ∆
Roman Navarro is an inmate at San Luis Obispo County Jail. Send comments via Managing Editor Ashley Schwellenbach at firstname.lastname@example.org.