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What to expect inside San Diego jail

New fish in the tank

The County Jail facility squats like a sad green hulk between “C" and "B" streets in San Diego. It is surrounded by the offices of the San Diego County Sheriffs Department: a parking lot full of green and white cars is across the street on Front. At this corner, one can hear a constant conglomeration of sounds through the six floors of maximum security windows: conversation, punctuated every so often by a short, loud bell and more excited voices shouting unintelligible expletives over scores of blasting radios. A P.A. system reminds someone of a probation appointment or a court appearance (“Brush you teeth, please."). Occasionally,. an inmate will hoot at the young, platform-shoed secretaries passing below. They don't often wave back, but almost everyone that goes by these echoing, thick mesh rows looks up curiously. Some of them smile.

Mugshot of a San Diego County Jail inmate

Mugshot of a San Diego County Jail inmate

A sign on the wall reminds the law-abiding that unauthorized communication with prisoners is a misdemeanor and violators will be prosecuted.

A white police car, with a young passenger held safely behind black mesh, slips down Front Street and veers right into a short, cement tunnel. A closed circuit T.V. camera stands watch over the male inmate reception entrance to County Jail. The young passenger is wearing handcuffs, a white T-shirt and faded levis.

Just suppose that passenger with the handcuffs is you. How would you survive your new environment? What would your life as an inmate be like?

Conversations with a number of the facility's alumni suggest that money, diplomacy and a certain amount of courage are the keys to survival within.

Anyone that wants to survive, can survive.

In a small room, through a thick reinforced glass window, you should be informed of the charges against you. If there is bail, you will be informed as to the amount. Processing has begun and the next step is to another room, where you may spend fifteen minutes to an hour. Here telephones are available, as well as a toilet for nervous bladders. Take advantage of both. Eventually, after a thorough check for bugs ‘n drugs, you will be booked: your fingerprints, a picture and all of your valuables will be taken. In exchange you will receive a hooking number and a property card: you are now the bona fide property of the State. As a result the quality of your life, your standard of living, will depreciate considerably and the quality of your survival becomes paramount.

After many hours of waiting on benches and standing in lines, you will be escorted to the fish tank. There is a misdemeanor and a felony fish tank and they are often very crowded.

As a new fish, be aware that your attitude is important. During processing, you will meet deputy marshals hardly given to any altruistic contortions of the heart. They may speak to you roughly, giving orders and making crude demands on your person. They don't care much for street talk or “hippie lingo" (Hey, man), and may react strongly to such.

If they want to kick the shit out of 'em, break a finger or something, they do it. I saw’ one guy get his arm broken. I didn't hear what he said, but all of a sudden they were throwing him up against the w all. . . they whipped his arm around his back and we heard it crack.

During processing you will be served a multicourse banquet of crow. Fat it, be polite, quiet, and attentive. The hospital tank is infamous for sloppy medical care.

Unless great fortune, like a friend with the funds to bail you out. should somehow intercede, you will spend two. maybe three days in the fish tank. Afterwards, you will be transferred to a regular tank.

Basically a tank is a self-contained unit within a floor of the jail. There are six to a floor, lettered A to F. During the day, under normal conditions, it is possible to go from one end of the tank to the other. There is a day-room at one end where T.V. is available. This is controlled from a master panel operated by the jailers. There is also a “panic button", or emergency button, in each tank, in case someone has a heart attack or an extreme altercation with the guards. Roving deputies wear a similar button on their belts.

Tanks differ greatly in style and quality. There is a drunk lank, of course, and a tank for gays. Trustees live in a special dorm-style tank and then, there are the cell-type tanks. These are four-man cells, but they often sleep six. New fish get the floor pads.

You'd think the tanks with cells would be for the more highly powered fellas, but I haven't found that to go across the board.

The quality of a tank and thereby the quality of your survival, expecially as a neophyte jailbird, depends on who's running the show the bossman. It is not, as many would think, some gun tot'n deputy, but another inmate who, just like you, is doing time. He is called a tank captain. The tank captain receives a little pay for those duties below the dignity of his (and your) jailers: he keeps track of people and gets them lined up for count. He also manages the distribution of chow and is the head janitor in that he co-ordinates the weekly clean-up or field day.

If the tank captain is cool and easy-going, perhaps he has a degree in comparative literature and an interest in the fine arts, life in his tank will run harmoniously. But if lie's the egocentric leader of a clique, intent on his authority, with no interest but w hat and/or who he can exploit, fife will be miserable for the new fish.

You have good tank captains, those that are so-so and bad tank captains. They get real rank ones and anyone that walks through the tank is in trouble — they just start puttin' 'em through the mill.

Once again, as a new fish, or square job, there is a lot hanging on your attitude as well as the amount of courage you can squeeze from your battered psyche. The tank you're in, the people, tone and vibes will have a direct effect on these assets, how much you use, when and how.

When you enter the tank don't expect a cheering welcoming committee. The residents will want to feel you out, see what you're made of, before they accept you as just another guy doing time. They will test you in many ways, the severity of which depends on the tank you're in. Everything a square job does the way he walks, talks and holds himself in general is evaluated. The evaluation sticks and has a direct effect on the way one is treated. So treat these first introductions like a game of twenty questions: Scared? What's your racket? Who do you think you are? And finally: are you one of us?

Be diplomatic. Open yourself to the vibes and slide easy. If someone bags a smoke the minute you walk into the tank, let generosity coat the apprehension you feel. Don't come on like a big operator or know-it-all, but try not to be shy either. They'll know you're a square job. it's impossible to hide since, by itself, jailhouse talk is an esoteric idiom of its own.

You might get a hunch of Junky jobs for a w eek or so, but meanwhile you're getting in with 'em. As nasty as they might be, it's better to be in than out.

So, common sense diplomacy, even education, can act as a shield against aggression. As long as no one tries to rip you off, be natural. Take your time getting to know the people around you and don't push. If you're in a particularly bad, tough tank, do what you have to do to survive it may mean some very interesting friends.

But you gotta have heart.

The fact is, many convicts like jail, where life has been reduced to its lowest common denominator and social Darwinism reigns over any considerations of fair play. The strong survive. Many convicts perpetuate, by their own actions, the very system that keeps them locked, up in a cement cage. You might say they are oppressed but don't know it: once on the street, social conditions can frustrate an ex-con's best plans for a better life.

So a conscious choice is involved jail is easier. It represents three meals a day, an environment where one is accepted for his crimes, and an opportunity to instruct others, less practiced, in the same. So the professional jailbird returns with a deliberate regularity that tries the patience of liberal social workers every where.

You gotta have heart: in County Jail the square job is always confronted, sooner or later, by the pro. The pro will come on full of the hardness he has learned behind the wall: perhaps he'll take a subtler, more manipulative line at first. T he end is the same. Eventually, this person will try to rip you off and am diplomatic overtures will only be brushed aside, probably with a sneer. There isn't much you can do. but the other inmates will respect a person that “acts like a man". This is having heart.

If a guy calls you out, the only thing you can do is gifht him. You don’t dare back offa' that first guy. You might get your ass beaten, but that first ass beating might save you a hell of a lot later on."

Otherwise, you're a punk.

The term carries a heavy sex-role connotation. Basically, it applies to any inmate that won't light back when confronted by another, to a person that is shy of physical altercations and would rather avoid the risk of being hurt than protect himself.

The man with a reputation as a punk can expect ongoing humiliation and disdain from the other inmates: they will have no re sped, no pity. Often they will have no mercy, either.

I had one in County Jail, a guy from Washington state fresh meat on the line and kind of cute. I helped him in 'cause I knew he had an extra sheet; I gave him a couple of cigarettes for the sheet…someone to latch onto. He'd come down to my cell and the others would lease him: they called him my son.

One day, just to see what kind of stuff he was made of. I said, "you're gonna be my punk. " He refused, but they grabbed him, about four guys… got out the ol’ buddy butter and turned him out right there.

There is much less sexual extortion at County Jail than, say, Chino or Tracy State prisons. There is, however, enough to be considered: a square job will sometimes fall for a common trick employed by more subtle operators. They will be solicitous, providing candy, cigarettes and other goods on loan. All smiles and generosity. Then, the day before the candy man arrives, payment is suddenly, vociferously demanded. The new fish is told that he will pay up one way or another. Now. Of course, the fellow won't have any goods yet. ...

So if you find yourself confronted by some leering sexist pig, you have but one recourse "you either fight or swish".

If you have money, enough to last your stay, you can probably skate. Remember the old adage, “money talks"? Well, in County Jail, or any other prison for that matter, it sings like four-part harmony.

You won't be allowed cash in jail: cigarettes are the financial standard and can be bartered for other goods and services. But your property card, a yellow slip, will indicate how much cash you've got on the books. When stores come around, a system operated in some alphabetical order, you use the property card to obtain goods. Buy all you'll need, perhaps a little more, to last awhile. An extra carton of smokes can be very useful.

But don't give your slash away: don't let anyone coerce or manipulate your funds into his hands. That's being a punk.

The best way to survive is to have money, period. If you have money, you can always make more and you won't have to borrow from people that will charge twice the amount you're borrowing.

The books, of course, are kept by the jail administrators. It might be advisable, if you're on trial and expecting conviction, to sell that stereo or automobile. With the proceeds, a trusted friend can make weekly deposits for you on the books, insuring a steady How of economic sustenance. The quality of your survival increases in direct proportion to the quantity of money you have. A property card that indicates a few healthy digits will make even the meanest tank captain smile and once those digits are converted into smokes and candy bars the neophyte jailbird may find himself drowning in friends. Literally.

With money you can buy protection.

Protection is a racket. In jail there are numerous rackets (or hustles) and most are illegal. Nevertheless, you will invariably meet some eager tattoo artist, a guy who has refined the art down to its most primitive essentials. He'll probably procure his ink by burning carbon paper, and the needle he uses is likely to resemble a paper clip.

Two for one dudes, or two for one stores, is very common. It is the lending of commissary goods (cigarettes, etc.) at usurious rates like two packs of smokes and a candy bar for one pack. In prison this hustle is well-organized, but in County Jail it's perpetuated, for the most part, on new fish.

If you're low on cash, you can always hustle another inmates chore on field day. You can write letters, even legal correspondence (if you have the shill) for the less literate of your tankmates. A large fellow, demanding of enough respect, might churn up the humanistic corpuscles in his blood and pull slack for some endangered square job it's dangerous, but worth a lot of cigarettes.

With the proper skills (typing, even cooking or painting) and a little luck it is possible to land a payed position at County Jail as a trustee. Trustees live in a special dorm-style tank and enjoy a lot more mobility than the average inmate. Besides, the work will keep you busy and can help soften your stay appreciably.

Boredom is the bane of every man behind bars.You just do whatever the hell you can find to do all day, until things get quiet enough, so you can sleep.

Given that survival connotes a psychological as well as a physiological quality of being, it might be advisable to make a pact with Father Time, a gentlemen's agreement: he won't hassle you if you won't worry him.

It is a matter of survival.

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