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"I asked him a favor: could he get me into Men’s Central Jail? He laughed when I asked. But he knew people. And they knew people. And, after years of trying on my own, I was headed to the jail within a week of asking."
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"One of our most gifted novelists." MICHAEL CONNELLY, author of the Harry Bosch series

Hello Everyone,

I'm reminded of last month's installment this morning. In particular, the way the judge reacted when I told him that I wanted to stay to observe the gang conspiracy trial. He was surprised.

He genuinely couldn't believe why someone who wasn't a family member would care. The media, so far as he was concerned, had long stopped looking at such cases. And as for the public? Forget it.

But that's me, I suppose. The one who cares. About the humanity of folks on every side of the equation.



One More Blurb

Last week, we had one more quote come in & I wanted to share it with you. This time it comes from Marcia Clark, lead prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson trial & bestselling author, most recently of Final Judgment. She had this to say:

"Gripping, fascinating, moving, and so very, very real. The System is one of the best books I've read in years. Told from multiple perspectives, it's the story of life on the street—for gang members, fringe players, cops and lawyers—told in all its gritty, authentic detail. It grabbed me by the heart and mind from page one and never let me go. I'll be thinking about  Dreamer, Angela, Wizard, Little—and all the rest of the vividly drawn, incredibly compelling characters—for a long time to come. The System is a thrilling, brilliantly written and profound work of art."

It's worth saying, I think, that I've never met Marcia. (Shoot, of all the people to blurb so far, Joe Ide is the only one I've ever met in person.) Needless to say, it's a huge honor that someone with her career experience & background found the book to be real. She prosecuted many cases in the precise era the book takes place, & I imagine there are very few people on earth more qualified than her to weigh in on its authenticity. It's humbling, indeed.

And it makes all the hard work & years spent worth it, I have to say. As an ongoing series only available to newsletter subscribers, I’ve been sharing stories from my 6 years of research on The System. This is the latest installment…



How I Got Into Jail (Without Committing A Crime)

I started researching and writing chunks of The System soon after the final edits were finished on All Involved. In my case, it was the next day. I couldn’t help it. The spark had already been struck…

One crime. All the players. The accused. The victim. The witness. Law Enforcement. Lawyers. Each one of them gets a say through unfiltered narration. And the reader can make up his or her own mind about the criminal justice system—the way it functioned in 1993 L.A., at least—as a result.

This was 2014, undoubtedly a difficult time to write about the jails. L.A. Sheriffs (LASD) were understandably skittish about it. The county jail scandal, in which LASD hid an informant from the FBI within L.A. County Jail in 2011, had broken not too long before, and the fallout was vast. [In fact, Sheriff Lee Baca ultimately went to prison for his part in it.]

Understandably, I found it nearly impossible to gain access to the jails & take a tour. I tried media liaisons within LASD. My calls went unreturned. So did my emails. Many, many emails. I worked other angles, to no avail. And then All Involved came out, & I essentially toured the world for a year and a half.

When I returned for a few weeks here or there, I’d try again. But it was disjointed. I tried friends of friends. Colleague connections. But nothing clicked. Then something lucky happened.

An actor read All Involved and fell in love with it. Soon after, he was asking me to work on another project of his, this time in Louisiana. It involved interviewing gang members & sheriffs, compiling research, and taking a pass at a pilot. I said yes.

When I completed the work, I asked him a favor: could he get me into Men’s Central Jail?

He laughed when I asked. But he knew people. And they knew people. And, after years of trying on my own, I was headed to the jail within a week of asking.

I walked through the doors of MCJ and met a gang specialist. His job, as he described it to me, was essentially that of an intelligence officer. He needed to be well-versed in the Southern California gangs represented in the L.A. County system (at the time, over 100), as well as their rivals and any gossip that could help him do his job more effectively.

Few folks I’ve encountered have impressed me more than this deputy. For a guy not from L.A., his street knowledge was essentially encyclopedic. He knew his job wasn’t cracking skulls; it was getting inside them. He carried himself with a quiet humility and seriousness. He firmly believes his job is to keep as many people safe as he possibly can—deputies and inmates, alike. And I’ve met a lot of folks over the years who work in that world that don’t necessarily share the same understanding, shall we say.

I was meant to catch on with a tour of young L.A. Times journalists (about 10 in all, most looking fresh out of university), and he tagged along with me. The tour began in the lineup room. A room with a floor some five feet below the 2-way glass showing where suspects stand. One of the young journalists asked, “Why is that?”

The deputy giving the tour smiled. “You noticed, huh? Good. That’s because we need to bring witnesses in here for ID’s. And they may already be scared. And some guys, well, let’s be honest, they like to mad dog—uh, to intimidate—because they think any witness is directly on the other side of that glass, like they see on TV. The joke’s on them, though. They don’t know we’re way down here.”

Examples of confiscated shanks came out after that. They were fastened to a large board, but some could be removed. Some were made of wood. Others? Plastic. But the fact is, inmates will make them out of any material they can find. Even old sawblades that trustees repatriate from garbage cans after civilian contractors fixing pipes discard them.

“That one,” the tour guide said as a young journalist touched the blade of a shank fastened to the board, “was made from a screw used to fasten a bunkbed to the wall. It killed two people.”

The journalist gasped in horror.

“Just kidding!” The guide laughed. “If that were the case, it’d probably still be locked up in evidence.”

Soon after, a recently bottled banana pruno (a fermented, alcoholic drink, often made by inmates in toilet tanks using bread from sandwiches and whatever fruit is available) was passed around. Some refused to smell it. I didn’t.

It smelled more mellow than I imagined. Like banana bread loaded with yeast.

Partly in jest, I asked the gang specialist if he’d ever tasted pruno.

“Next time I’m looking to get a really lovely strain of hepatitis, I will,” he said and smiled.

MCJ is a walking jail. And it’s the first thing you notice when you get through the sallyport and inside the jail proper. It means inmates must walk on their own to their destinations (checking in verbally & visually at various points), or be escorted shackled if their security level is high enough. The lines on the concrete lead inmates to visiting, to meetings with their legal representation, the medical area, and more. (There are also, it must be said, large banks of escalators throughout the custody area, to shuttle inmates and guards to different levels quickly and with engineered chokepoints on either end.)

We walked somewhat behind the main tour group. And it sure was something to watch inmates interact with the gang specialist. He knew everyone’s name. Everyone’s situations. And that level of knowledge is intimidating, but it’s also, in my opinion, the cornerstone of excellent policing. And on the flipside of that: next-level gangsterism. Knowledge is power. Nowhere is that truer than in secretive worlds.

It was from the control room on the 4700 block that various aspects of contained race riots were explained to me: how they started, what happened most frequently, and how they ended. That this ended up factoring into a few scenes in The System goes without saying.

The rooftop recreational area (a.k.a. the yard), though, that was the highlight for me. I’d never seen anything like it. And what’s more, I didn’t even know it existed.

I’ll let Dreamer, one of the characters from The System, tackle the description: “This yard is big like what a warehouse would be, like half a football field. Longer than it is wide. It’s got sections too. Right side. Middle. Left side. Between each one are these metal pillars in rows. And no ceiling above them. Only chain-link and sky.”

I was back at MCJ two weeks later to have lunch with the gang specialist. He’d never had the French dip at Philippe’s before, and I thought that was a real shame (esp. because L.A.'s iconic eatery sits only a few blocks from the jail), so I brought some for us, and we sat out in the lobby for the visiting area when no one else was there, and just talked about his job, the facility, and so much more.

It’s those moments I treasure most from my research. Sitting down with real folks who know different facets of the system inside and out, from lived experience, and just listening to what they think stories—whether TV, film, or books—get wrong about their jobs and lives. And then, when I finally I set pen to paper, I do everything I can to get it right for the folks who really know what it’s like. The responsibilities. And the consequences.

Research Story Next Month: What Happens When You're Arrested


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

Ready to read it? For those who wish to read The System right now, & review on Goodreads, Amazon, or elsewhere, you can get a digital proof copy of the novel 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.

See you next month. In the meantime, please do stay safe & well.



All best wishes,
Ryan


 
 
 

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