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"One of our most gifted novelists." MICHAEL CONNELLY, author of the Harry Bosch series

Hello Everyone,


A quick congratulations to the winners of the Safe signed & stamped 1st edition contest: Nina & Rob!

Even though California seems to be opening back up, I haven't budged from lockdown & am writing more than usual—mainly pitches, edits, & re-writes. I've also noticed that the more time I spend in solitude, the more I've become interested in history. To that end, I've been re-reading chunks of Gustavo Arellano's insightful & funny Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, and started in on Ken Burns's The Civil War to do some background for new projects. What are you reading & watching these days?

In last month's newsletter, I detailed my first visit to the only super-max jail in America: North County Correctional Facility (NCCF) in Castaic, CA. This month—in this ongoing series of my 6 years of research on The SystemI discuss my last visit there...


The Gang Unit

The second time I walked into NCCF, it was almost lunchtime, and there were two gang unit deputies awaiting me. I’m six foot two, but both were taller than me. Height isn’t necessarily a pre-requisite for the job, but it sure doesn’t hurt.

I opened by asking what the most important element of working as a Gang Unit deputy is.

I get told: “Listening. 90% of the job is listening.”

“And paying attention,” the other chipped in. “Always.”

“Almost sounds like my job,” I replied.

They both side-eyed me. One said, “Could it get you hurt if you don’t, though?”

“Hey, I said almost. It also depends where I am, and who I’m listening to.”

The first one eyed me, then smiled. “Touché.”

We walked the main hall connecting all the incarceration blocks. Stenciled on the wall in black spray paint is the bilingual directive: HANDS IN YOUR POCKETS / MANOS EN TUS BOLILLOS. As we passed a line of inmates doing just that on their way to voc shop (vocational shop; NCCF has two: one for printing & one for sewing), only a few inmates raised their eyes to look at me. It was an altogether different experience from my walk-through with the other deputy, where every inmate eyeballed me & many asked questions that I did not answer. This time, there was a tangible fear of the deputies escorting me. After the inmates passed & were out of earshot, one of the deputies says: “You can tell who’s hardcore by who’s going eyes-up on you.”

Due to safety concerns and a mandate to keep inmates separated as much as possible, meals are served in the blocks now. This wasn’t the case in 1993-94, when The System is set, so I asked to visit the old cafeteria. They have two. Over twenty years ago, they were settings for a number of race riots as various groups clashed. When I visited, however, a small group of trustees (those inmates who have earned the privilege on doing various jobs and moving about the facility more freely) ate their lunch. We moved on.

Quick bit of context: from Pelican Bay to Wayside & beyond, the jail & prison race riots of 93-94 in California were, by nearly every metric, the worst in U.S. carceral history. Black and Latino prisoners clashed in independent, coordinated conflicts throughout the state, often with handmade weapons like shanks, broken broomsticks, & phone receivers ripped from walls and swung from their cords like nunchaku. More often than not, these were political power plays by prison gangs far up the food chain that spawned incidents across the system. Both in terms of sheer numbers of rioters & injuries to inmates as well as deputies. The first few weeks of January 1994 were arguably the worst of the conflict. (And it is within this window that my characters end up at NCCF & must navigate this fraught environment.) To this day, I believe it was the only time the ACLU—in its 100-year history—has ever actually recommended segregation: “‘Because of the compelling state interest of keeping prisoners free of harm, we believe it might be constitutionally permissible,’ said Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California.” That particular meeting with the ACLU & jail officials was in response to a 1,000-person riot that left over 80 injured. (“Jail Segregation May Be Necessary,” L.A. Times, 01/14/94).

Back to the tour: one of the massive plusses of being able to walk with people who know the world deeply because they live or work in it, was being able to ask questions when I have a plot issue. (This was something that happened a lot in All Involved, especially in the firefighter’s section.) Here’s an example from The System: I had two characters who, by court order, needed to shower late in the evening when they returned from trial, but their blocks contain the showers, and would be locked down at that time; so, where could they do it? The deputies put their heads together and talked it out like a problem before escorting me to the discipline area, which has a lock-down area of individual cells and two showers.

We ended in the Gang Unit office, just off the IPA: Inmate Processing Area (where inmates get processed in from other facilities, or when returning from court appearances). On the wall was a large, laminated map of Los Angeles County & its many cities. Gang names were hand-written over each area in dry-erase pen. This was essentially the ongoing, live gang map of Los Angeles County, & it was something to behold.

I zeroed in on Lynwood. And I must’ve cocked my head, or tilted a shoulder—made some kind of sign—because the names listed there simply weren't right.

“Some of it is a little out of date,” one of the deputies said, behind me.

I turned to find them both watching me like hawks. Hands on belts. And though I’d known it before, it was a piercing reminder that I was in an environment where I was being watched, and my motivations and thoughts weighed, at all times. These observational skills were integral, not only to their jobs, but their safety.

“Okay,” I said.

And we spent a moment staring at each other. Them waiting to see if I would reveal information, and me waiting to see if they’d ask.

Something I learned a long time ago when doing this kind of research: do not volunteer information; if asked direct questions, I will do my best to answer them, but I will never answer them in a way that puts others in a bad position—including the person asking in the first place.

It helped at that moment that one of the older deputies passed by the open office door. He had been a deputy at Wayside in 1994 when the Northridge Earthquake hit at 04:31 on January 17th. He described the absolute chaos of one of the walls almost falling down. The wide-ranging riots that took over the facility. I had heard stories of that day from the other side: from inmates locked up at that time, in fear for their lives. It was fascinating to hear another perspective.

I asked how that earthquake affected NCCF—the newest, & most solid of the Wayside jails. The deputies laughed. They all agreed: “The most you’ll ever see is some cracks in the floor.”

I only found two cracks on my way out: snaking lines in the concrete that had been filled.


In total, I spent six hours in the facility that day. (For context: your average facility tour, of which I've done more than a few, is 1 hour.) It only took 2 years of pestering via email and text, but it finally gave me everything I needed to finish the novel. When I left NCCF that day, I had visited every single setting that would eventually appear in the book. I had stood there. Felt the recycled air. Smelled the smells. I could picture everything.

I was starving when I got out of there. Hadn’t eaten breakfast or lunch. So, I drove to a local diner, had a burrito, & wrote notes for an hour before getting back on the road to Los Angeles.

Preorder: The System USA // Preorder: The System UK
Research Story Next Month: The Gang Conspiracy Trial


Advanced Reading Copies for The System Are Available in the USA & UK

For those who wish to review The System on Goodreads, Amazon, or elsewhere, you can get a digital proof copy of the novel now, via NetGalley USA or NetGalley UK. If you've never reviewed before, fear not. My understanding is you can qualify so long as you promise to review honestly.

That's it for this month. Please do take care of you & yours.


All best wishes,
Ryan

 
 
 
 

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