According to several inmates, Bailey is the worst local jail. There, four large cell blocks are connected by tunnels, and within the buildings the men are segregated by race, age of inmates, gangs, and type of crime. Segregation provides little safety, however; the institution is crammed with men on their way to a penitentiary and with men doing county time, say, a bullet, or one-year sentence. Bailey is as dangerous as it is stressful. “I hated Bailey,” one guy recalled. “It’s like a thunder dome. There’s fights all the time. They stay up all night, sleep during the day. It’s total chaos.” It’s the young who are always fighting. “They want to prove their manhood. It’s kind of like a gladiator school.”

Another man also described Bailey as “pure chaos. The potential for violence is a lot stronger [than downtown]. The guards themselves act accordingly. They are some mean bastards.” One cussword hurled at a deputy, and “those guards are beating you down to the ground. Fists and clubs.” One day a long-haired guy who swore about his food got severely beaten. This inmate “turned his back on a deputy, and the deputy grabbed him by the hair, pulled him back, and socked him in the face; the guy staggered to his knees, but he didn’t fall because he didn’t let go of his hair. Then, another couple of deputies — they all wear black gloves in there; it’s just ominous — they come rushing out and give this guy a couple of punches. Then they all drag him into the sally port, where no one can see what happens — and continue.”

Prison Slang

If you’re sentenced to prison, you may be taken to Donovan for processing. Donovan, which is across the arroyo from Bailey, at the eastern end of Otay Mesa, is the only state prison in the county. State prisons are classified by security level: level I has “open dormitories without a secure perimeter”; level II, “open dormitories with secure perimeter fences and armed coverage”; level III, “individual cells, fenced perimeters and armed coverage”; and level IV, “cells, fenced or walled perimeters, electronic security” with armed staff inside and outside the pen. Some prisons have reception centers and security housing units. Donovan is a level I and level III prison with a reception center. According to the California Department of Corrections website, Donovan’s capacity is 2200. Today it contains 4386 inmates and a staff of 1297. So if you’re doing state time, it’s a good chance you won’t stay at Donovan. You’ll be transferred to one of California’s 32 other minimum to maximum state prisons, its 37 minimum custody camps (where inmates are trained to fight fires), or its 12 community correctional facilities. Wherever you go, know that state lockups are severely overcrowded, even though the state, because of Prop 36, is releasing some nonviolent drug offenders into treatment programs. The population in U.S. prisons during the two “punishing decades” of the 1980s and 1990s grew fourfold; in California the increase was nearly sevenfold, from 23,264 in 1980 to 159,177 in 2000. In the last 20 years, the number of parolees who live in California has increased tenfold.

Skin Deep

The key to surviving long-term is race allegiance. Black, Mexican, white. BMW, it’s called. Colors on a palette: black, brown, and white. From a helicopter view of a prison yard, you’d see the three races congregating and distinct gaps between them. A few splinter groups exist. You might “run with God” (Christian or Muslim or Nation of Islam); you might join the homosexuals (a group that’s very “out” inside). And then there’s the group of one, a house unto yourself. You’re an old guy, a career criminal, or a lifer who marks his independence and fends for himself. Or you’re Charles Manson, Squeaky Fromme, a pedophile priest, a psych case. Then you’re separated from everyone.

Blacks hang with blacks; their groups are the Crips and the Bloods. Whites hang with whites; their members divide into the skinheads, or Aryan Brotherhood (a.k.a., the peckerwoods, described by one guy as “tattooed-down and don’t take no shit”), and run-of-the-mill whitey. In general, Mexicans have two gangs: the Sureños (or southerners), from Southern California, and the Norteños, from Northern California. The Asians hang with the Mexicans. One ex-convict, whose father was Hispanic and mother was white, said when he got to prison, “I had to choose. Either that or you’re left in the cold.”

“The first thing you learn,” remembered one probationer, “is that this [racial] separation is condoned and encouraged by the deputies, because they know what happens if they try and enforce rules otherwise.” In other words, the deputies who run the jails and the COs who run the prisons want this system as much as the inmates do. Deputies and COs assign cells based on race. This arrangement allows the prisoners to police themselves. Why? Look at it from the guards’ point of view. When they have, say, a half-dozen mobs of angry men, each with 500 or 600 members, massing at different times every day in a yard, they’d just as soon delegate authority. Otherwise, said a parolee, “Anybody can fall to anybody. If some guy’s bigger than you, he’s going to take what you got. That’s all there is to it. Protection in numbers is the key.”

Since races are pitted against each other and there’s always strife — latent or manifest — among the inmates, the guards also can dodge most of the prisoners’ rage. “The guards keep you at each other’s throats,” recalled a man who’s done two “jolts” in two different state prisons, “so they don’t have to worry about you going after them.” Another ex-convict called racial segregation in the pen a strategy of “divide and conquer. If the races all got together, the guards would have much less control over the inmates.”

Deputies and COs require that each group elect a representative. His name is the shot caller. If there’s trouble between races or between men within a race, the guards lock everyone down and make the shot callers discuss what’s happening, say, a fight over extra food or somebody’s insulted So-and-So’s mother. That’s when the race reps will hear the deputies read them the riot act: solve the problem or the pen stays shut down. One parolee said the only time the races mix is to close a deal: “get ink for tattoos, get drugs or alcohol or some favor returned.” But, he cautioned, before any trade happens, the race reps have to be consulted and the deal has to be sanctioned. One source of certain violence is when men deal outside the control of their shot callers.

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