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'They want to make you miserable'

interview by Peter Rashkin

YA 7827905 is my friend's son. I've known him casually for about eight years and I always thought he was a real sweet kid, but I knew from talking to his father that he was a Bad Boy who was driving his parents crazy and actively un-endearing himself to the schools, the neighbors and the police. I'll bet you've all known boys like that, and girls, too. In fact, now that I think of it, some of my best friends were (or still are) boys and girls like that.

Now I'm always taking the kids' side against their parents ... I'm down with Kid Liberation. I don't buy the line that parents have to force their children into appropriate behaviors; most parents haven't even figured that out for themselves. But when your 14-year-old steals the car and gets arrested in another state for mugging an old lady, or whatever, and the courts as well as your conscience hold you responsible, well, I guess some sort of intervention is called for.

YA 7827905's father often complained to me about how intolerable his young hoodlum was making family life, and I reluctantly had to see his point. After thinking his problem over carefully, I was able to offer the following advice: Sell the kid to white slavers, and don't hold out for a good price. He never followed up on that suggestion ... I guess the slavers just didn't come around at the right time. YA 7827905 continued to make life tough around the casa by taking people's stuff and copping 'tudes, and getting in low level trouble in the community. From the time he was 13, he was in and out of the juvenile justice system, but he would just walk away from the bad kiddy facilities they put him in and there were no repercussions.

Then a couple of years ago he got into big trouble, and ended up copping a plea for fencing stolen merchandise. He was looking at hard juvey time. He spent four months in juvenile hall while his case was being heard, then almost four more at the California Youth Authority testing facility in Norwalk. At CYA he was offered a deal: Instead of two years hard time at a youth prison, he could spend four months at the Fred C. Nettles School for Boys in Whittier, a kiddy prison modeled after military boot camp. I spoke to YA 7827905 a week after his "graduation."

YA 7827905: I did four months at Fred C. Nellis, three and a half months at SRCC clinic in Norwalk, and before that I did four months in juvenile hall. I was incarcerated for almost a year. In my whole life I've spent about three years in jail.

Which is worse, jail or school?

Jail. Because in jail ... they say safety and security is the most important part of the institution, but there is no safety; there is no security. You go in there, staff is supposed to be there to protect you, but the staff isn't always around, and stuff goes down. Almost everyone in there is in a gang, but since I wasn't, I had to fend for myself and I had no one to back me up.

You weren't in a gang because you weren't in a gang on the outside?

I chose not ... because if you affiliate, that means they are going to have shot callers, people that are older and more experienced in the system, that tell you what to do. I could fend for myself. Because as long as you know how to fight and can defend yourself, and you don't snitch on anybody, they won't mess. I pretty much had to fly solo.

You say you were already a fighter. What does it mean to know how to fight?

Any way possible ... mentally, verbally physically.

How often did you have to fight when you were in jail?

When you first come to jail, that's when you do most of your fighting. You come in, and you have something, you know ... "well gimme your shoes" ... you know, and I say "no man, I'm not gonna give you my shoes" ... and you know, you're gonna get down for awhile ... talking ... mouthing off to one another.

First you get in the verbal fighting, and then, after that ... . you're on your way somewhere, and they get you in a closet or something ... after three minutes one person leaves the room, five minutes later another ... so it just looks normal and doesn't attract attention. So two or three of them come down and try to pop you, but you still can't back down or you're a punk, and if you're known as a punk all your stuff is gone, you don't have any hygiene, you don't have any food.

How about before you went to jail? How often did you fight in the community?

In the community I rarely fought ... maybe four or five times. In the system I fought maybe 30 or 40 times.

I've talked to people who like to fight...


Yeah ... they get a rush.

Do you?

I don't like to fight, but if it happens, I've got to get myself motivated, because if you don't, you lose. I've taken some serious hits ... hit in the eye so it totally closed up, or hit in the jaw and you see black. But if you're pumped up you don't fall down. I lost a couple of times, but you know it's not really win or lose, it's just taking care of business.

I asked you why you like school better than jail and that was the first thing you brought up ... the violent atmosphere.

But then there's girls ... You know in juvenile hall it was coed, but in the YA you don't even see a girl. All you see is, you know, a bunch of assholes.

Didn't you meet any people you liked in there?

Yeah, I met a couple of people I liked. They were gang affiliated, too, but they were trying to bring themselves out of it. They were changing their ways. Those were the people I got along with pretty good.

Was there pressure on you to join a gang?

Yes, at first. When you first go in, they ask where you're from, who do you bang with; me I go "I don't bang," and they ask "Who do you kick with?" and I say "I don't kick with nobody." And this would happen five times a day ... and that's when they start testing you because you got no backup, and they try to take stuff from you and everything. You don't let them take your stuff ... then it's cool.

At CYA I was in a two-man cell. I could touch both walls with two hands ... a double bunk bed, a sink, and a toilet in the corner. It had a screened window in the back of the cell. There were 100 cells, all filled. I spent 20 hours a day in the cell; we got out for showers, exercise, chow or working in the kitchen.

There's a top bunk and a bottom bunk. If you have the top bunk you're in bad shape, because everyone sees you and thinks you're a punk ... so you either sleep on the bottom bunk or the floor.

Where did you sleep?

I slept on the bottom bunk, and sometimes on the floor.

Who was in the cell with you?

Twenty different people. It would change every few days. That made the time go pretty fast, because you can talk to somebody different; when you run out of stories, somebody else comes in.

Was it pretty friendly because you were in the same boat?

Well sometimes it was and sometimes it wasn't. Sometimes you get somebody and they try to act just too cool, or whatever, and you end up fighting over something stupid, like a card game, 'cause you get real irritated, looking at the same face all day, and you end up fighting about some stupid stuff, or you're playing around and all of a sudden it gets serious.

Let's talk about drugs for a minute. Were there drugs in all three institutions?

Yes, everywhere. People put them in balloons, you know double balloon them, then they swallow them. And then you have your own toilet in your room, and you go through it and wash them off, open them up, and they have marijuana or speed or something.

Some staffs would bring us packs of cigarettes, or little shots of liquor. If you knew them. A lot of the guards are related to the people in the institution by blood or former gang affiliation.

And you weren't drug tested?

No, you don't get drug tested unless they come by and see you doing it. If they see you smoking something and you flush it down the toilet, they'll test you. But most of the time if you take Ajax and wrap it up in toilet paper and swallow it, your pee comes out clean.

So are you staying away from drugs now?

Yeah, I've been staying away from drugs now, because now that I was in a boot camp and everything, and all that good health, I don't have any reason to go back to drugs right now.

You like it better without doing drugs?


But drugs are fun, aren't they?

Yeah ... they were. They were fun, but after awhile, when you're on them all the time, like for years, you're spaced out, you forget things.

Do you think it was drugs that got you in trouble, or being in trouble that got you into drugs?

I was rebellious. I didn't like any authority. I still don't. I can't stand somebody else telling me what to do. But I have to live with that, because someone's going to be hiring me, telling me what to do, and I have to deal with that.

How has your jail experience changed you?

When I went to jail, that's where I learned everything I know. I learned how to steal cars, I learned how to make bombs, I learned how to break into houses.

This is in your earlier times in jail?

Yeah ... the system put me in jail to correct me, but instead I was getting more knowledge in what I needed, so when I got out I tried to use all these new things I had ... these skills ... they worked. So then I got addicted to the fast money, the drugs, the girls, and it just keeps going on ... it's an addiction ... it's not so much an addiction to drugs, it's an addiction to the lifestyle.

What did you first go in for?

When I was 13 I went in for commercial burglary and vandalism. I got one month for that, but it was enough to learn some new tricks. Then I got another year at Boys Republic. I booked from there three times ... I was just manipulating the system, and it caught up with me.

Do you think you have learned your lesson, and that this last program helped you to reform?

To tell the truth this program didn't do a damn thing for me. It's if you want to do something about it. If you have the smarts and you stay mentally strong, you can do anything you want. This program was nothing but hell. The program I was in this last four months, it was more than punishment. This program is to break you down, to show that you aren't a man. I think it's torture.

The staff, some of them, they go in there just so they can yell at you, cause they know if they went to the main line (main prison population), they would have got stabbed, they would have got battery packed ...

But you guys were all on your self-imposed good behavior?

Because we had four months ... we could soak it up, and take any shit ... so you just sit there all day long at attention. When you're not doing anything you sit there ... if you scratch they yell at you, they drop you on the floor, you're down there like a half hour doing pushups, when you can't do pushups anymore you're over there stair stepping. One staff used to tell me, where else can I come to work and yell at people and get paid for it ... make people's lives miserable ... staff that works here, they don't want to help you out, they just want to make your life miserable.

About six months after this interview, YA 7827905, stopped going to school and reporting to his parole officer. He was picked up by police a few blocks from his parents' house, and now he's back in kiddy jail.

Letter from YA 7827905's mother

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