While reading Prison Riot, I was struck by how similar this story is to the classic Melville novella, Billy Budd. Of course, the latter was written in a much more stilted voice, and was built on Biblical allegory – but the thread of the story is very much the same.
Here we have a power struggle between a cruel and sadistic Corrections Lieutenant, and a fair minded but ineffectual Warden. The victim in that power struggle ends up being the innocent – the powerless everyman, whom in the Melville book was represented by Billy, and in Prison Riot is represented by B.J. and his friend, Giant.
Where the analogy breaks down however, is that Billy Budd was fiction.
Suspension of disbelief is not necessary when the writer actually lived through the hell of the California prison system. As a student of literature, I can think of no author, better suited to tell the story of incarceration than a former inmate. Glenn Langohr’s writing is filled with tension, vivid characterization, in the moment conflict and a true pathos that dispels stereotypical thought. The reader sees his characters as people – not just inmates.
From the entertainment standpoint, Prison Riot is filled with all the stuff that a good novel needs. There’s plenty of action, violence, conflict and tension. From the educational point of view, one can use this book as a blueprint for how to behave, should the reader ever face the misfortune of confinement in an American penal facility. For example, at one point in a conversation with a fellow inmate, B.J. is asked a question that he sees as a violation of his personal space – the kind of thing that just wouldn’t happen in the outside world. His response? “I know how to do prison time.” Of all the prison books I’ve read – and there’s been a plethora of them – I’ve never read one that delved so deeply into the social mores and memes of prison life.
The book is short – only about 30,000 words. His writing style is quick and terse. The words race off the page. One can read this book in a sitting, but the impact will stay with you long after you’ve put it down.
As a writer myself, what I like best about Langohr is his voice. He writes for readers, not for the dictionary, and he peppers his books with argot. In short, this book should be a College textbook for all students of Law Enforcement, and a users manual for the rest of us. Read this book, and internalize it, and you’ll be able to walk the yard with confidence – and you’ll never sit at the wrong table.
BD: You refer to the term “Block Guns.” Could you describe these? I take it from one of your paragraphs, that they shoot some sort of inert charge (apparently made of wood) or blank round, but can also accept live ammo. Can you expound on that?
GL: Great question. I didn’t explain it well enough in Prison Riot. The prison guards in California State prisons have a supply of block guns in the gun towers. Each building has a gun tower that overlooks the interior of the building, and also has a view of the yard where that building releases inmates. The block guns look like shotguns, but only shoot wooden blocks. They don’t shoot live rounds. The tower guards also have rifles that shoot live rounds – that legally, they are only supposed to use when inmates are using deadly weapons, not for fist fights. The block guns are used for fist fights.
The wooden blocks are compacted into a circular shape about the size of a silver dollar, but are a little thicker then a ping pong ball. The block guns are extrememly effective – in part because of the noise. In the building, or on the yard, the echo “booms” so loud that inmates inside every other building on the yard can hear it.
At Centinella State prison in Imperial Valley on the California and Mexican border, the prison yards are close enough together that inmates can hear the block gun go off on other yards. At Centinella it is an almost daily occurrence. As an inmate you become trained to expect it shortly after you hear the alarm go off, followed by a tower guard yelling, “GET DOWN!! GET DOWN!!” and then, “BOOM!! BOOM!!”
To give you a feel for the prison politics at Centinella, the Mexican inmates are ordered [by their shot callers] not to stop fighting until the block gun has gone off. Most of the time they keep going for about 30 seconds after the “BOOM” for respect and effect. That means you can expect to see a fight or stabbing on the yard, continue until the alarm screeches a whining noise – that rises and falls in decibels – followed by the order to get down; followed by a swarm of a couple dozen prison guards running to the incident, with about every third guard carrying a block gun.
At close range, block guns hurt bad and will knock the wind out of you and put you down. At more than around 40 feet, the block begins to come apart. Seeing it up close so many times, I can tell you that it breaks apart into circular rings and sizzles – burning on the ground – on fire from the explosion sending it.
I find it interesting that in your descriptions of the riot – you make it clear that the guards are seen as a lower priority then the “enemy” inmates. Did you find that to be the case? In other words, was it common that an inmate would attack even at a time when an armed guard was standing there?
With this question you are getting really deep into prison life politics. It is the most eerie feeling to know a prison riot is coming well before it comes. Now you are getting into a gang riot or a Race riot. The gangs are where the pressure and most of the decisions are coming from. The prison guards don’t matter at all, compared to orders. To give you a better understanding, pretend you are in a California prison and you are told by your race, “If you ever see another race attacking one of us, you have to help and fight. If you don’t, you will be considered weak and you will be attacked.” This is the common mentality of every single race and to me, an ex prisoner of over 10 years, understandable and respectable.
I guess to fully understand this kind of thinking you have to picture being housed race by race, as far as who is in each cell. To watch your own race get outnumbered, attacked and possibly killed, while you are just watching, is a guarantee that you will be attacked by your own race later, as a form of discipline and order. So in that regard, as an inmate, the guard with the gun in the tower, or even 10 feet away in the chow hall, isn’t there at all.
Since we are getting so deep into prison life politics amoung races and gangs, I will explain it as it relates to other then race war and gang war situations. Lets say that I’m a White inmate and I watch another White inmate get attacked by a group of Black inmates – and instead of rushing to his aid, I follow the guards orders to “GET DOWN,” and just get on my stomach and watch the pummeling. For being in the area and not helping, I am in big trouble. In that situation, when the order is given to get me, the inmates will pick a spot to handle the business. That means that it will be done on the yard, as far away form the guards as possible. At times they – the guards, just can’t be avoided. We call those suicide missions.
There has been a lot of discussion in the tech world and the media – over the past decade – of use of non-lethal but highly effective methods of stopping this kind of thing. Stuff like foam, high-pressure water, low frequency sound and pancake bullets – that sort of thing. In your experience, was any of this newer technology ever employed, or did the guards stay within the older framework of guns and gas?
While I was in prison from 1990, on and off through 2008, before I found a new path in writing books, I saw some changes in those deadly force measures. Keep in mind I’m talking California State prisons. First of all, the pepper spray works! It isn’t the kind of pepper spray you can imagine if all you are used to is what the police use on the streets. California prison pepper spray at one point killed a number of inmates because it was so pure that it stopped peoples breathing, caused shock and heart attacks. Somewhere in the mid 1990’s they finally toned it down slightly.
Don’t picture a little pepper spray bottle, picture a small fire extenquisher. Picture inmates drenched in so much pepper spray that it looks like they have been painted orange. I’ve seen white shirts and bald heads completely drenched in dripping orange fire. The pepper spray is so strong that if a fight is going down in the building, all of the inmates inside the cells will start coughing. They will stand at the cell watching, with their faces covered with shirts like bandanas.
The next level of force was the old fashioned billy clubs. New laws changed the shape of them from the same kind the police use on the streets to higher tech ones that are spring loaded and eject a thinner steel outward. Those disappeared later. As mentioned earlier the guns start with the block guns and graduate to “LIVE ROUNDS COMING NEXT,” usually with that exact warning.
I have finally got around to writing about life at Centinella, where I spent my last amount of prison time and will use an example of a respectable gun tower guard. I had made it my business to develop conversations with gun tower guards, because I figured they would see me in a human light. I tried to pick their brains and make them laugh. One prison guard I talked to was an ex-military sharp shooter. When the Mexican inmates and Black inmates went off in a yard riot, that everyone knew was coming, that tower guard never fired a live round. That riot was a very serious one and prison made weapons were scattered all over the yard. More than a dozen inmates had puncture wounds from being stabbed. He probably should have fired live rounds, even if he only fired into the ground. But he had a lot of pressure on him to dance that fine line of which inmates can I righteously say are trying to kill. Later he was laughed at by many of the other guards as weak.
That Mexican and Black war was a long way from done. The next time they came off lockdown to wage another round, that same guard fired a live round in a smaller riot. He fired it through the middle of the basketball backboards right where the red square is.
I get the distinct impression that the guards’ reactions to you would have been no different, had you not been involved in the fighting. From your writing, I felt that they just kind of swept in and mopped up – paying no heed to innocence or guilt. In other words, even if you had hunkered down with your hands over your head, you still would have been tied up with zip ties and carted off to the SHU. Is that true, or am I missing something?
You have that part right on. In a riot like that they take everyone in the area and sort it out in ad-seg. To be found guilty of “being a combatant” it takes the written reports of eye witness accounts from the guards, pepper spray proof dripping off the inmate, injuries, hand evidence from punching or using a weapon and the very rare testimony from another inmate.
It’s clear to me that the financial rewards benefit the guards in these situations. Overtime, Hazard pay, etc. Bearing in mind that neither of us are corrections professionals, in your opinion, were the guards complicit in these riots? Did they see the financial benefits as incentives to foster dis-harmony among the many inmate groups?
Fantastic question and hard answer. Yes I have painted that picture in a number of my books that this is the case, and yes it does happen. However, it is rare where the guards do it in an evil way. For people who haven’t been there, this must be so hard to understand, but even the prison guards become affected by all the violence and pressure.
There are so many examples I can use of this but to be fair to how hard their jobs are, they can know a riot is coming just as well as the inmates – because a tiny percentage of the inmates send them written notes, telling them it is going to happen – yet they can’t stop it. What are they going to do, ship hundreds of inmates to other yards every time? I have been on over 25 different prison yards. In my experiences, I have seen guards get evil and instigate wars to continue, by what they say while we are locked down. When one side wins a yard fight in a big way – let’s say the Mexican inmates are attacked by the Black inmates and get their asses handed to them – and a Mexican veteran prison guard says things in the building like, “You guys aren’t getting off lockdown for years. You know that if you mess with one bean you get the whole burrito.” That is putting pressure on both races to keep the war going.
The prison guards and gun towers can pop cells open inside the building where both races are let out, in those situations, and the war reignites with what is called, on site orders. That kind of situation keeps the yard on lockdown and that hazard pay – time and a half continues.
Again, to be fair to the 99% of the prison guards who don’t deserve to be painted this way, it is a rare fact of California prison life. But, besides the extra money incentives, and overtime control, the prison guards are following a divide and conquer strategy because they would rather see the inmates fighting against each other versus fighting them!
There are 3 reasons that I can see for becoming a prison guard. A) One could have an anti-crime hard-on. Say one’s family or one’s self were victims of crime, for example. B) Money. It’s possibly the best paying and most in demand area of law enforcement. C) A genuine desire to help people turn their lives around. However, several psychological experiments conducted over the last half century would indicate that regardless of the motivations for joining up, the tendency is to move towards a culture of cruelty and corruption. Based on your experience, would you say you found that to be true? Were there any guards that you thought highly of?
Yes I found many that I respected and thought highly of. Most of those either usually looked like they could have been in prison themselves, and or they were militarily trained pros. As mentioned earlier I studied them like my life depended on it and this became getting to know them through conversation.
In California prisons you have regular prison guards, tower guards, free staff workers who work the clothing, food and other shops, Inmate Gang Investigators, Security Escorts, Special Teams for searches and cell extractions and Counselers that go all the way up to the Warden. They are hardly ever all on the same side themselves. Inmates are constantly studying this angle to find cracks in their structure. How do you think all the cell phones are landing in prisoners hands? How about a percentage of the dope and pretty much all of the tabacco? How about inside info?
For the most part most of the prison guards are there to earn a paycheck. On the serious level 4 yards where the inmate population is more then half lifers, there isn’t much room for a prison guard with a hard on to be disrespectful to inmates because he knows he will get stabbed. In a place where violence and pressure are a constant, moment by moment, 24-7 affair – 365 days a year, the senses are hardened and the culture becomes emotionless.
What is the relationship between I.C.C. and the store? You waited for a long time to get I.C.C. so you could buy essentials like toothpaste and deodorant. Why is it viewed as necessary for an inmate to be classified before he’s allowed store privileges?
Because an inmate has to be classified to a certain level for yard and store priviledges. I.C.C. is a collection of prison administrators mostly made up of counselors who do the paperwork. That part of the process is where they determine special needs situations. Lets say that an inmate gets off the bus and enters a prison, that person has to be cleared for yard before they get to go to yard and get store. I.C.C. looks through the file to determine if there are any enemies or reasons not to put the inmate on the yard. For instance, a well know rapist, police officer doing time, or even Charlie Manson, can’t just be put on a mainline prison yard because they are all consided, points to earn and will get stabbed. For that and many other reasons, I.C.C. keeps inmates locked down, without priveledges, until that process is determined.
Once determined, and you are on the mainline, and a riot or any form of discipline puts you in the hole-ad-seg (SHU), you have to go through that process all over again to get yard and store in there.
I get that it was terribly important for the I.C.C. to classify you as what you were – White inmates, but could you spell out for our readers why the Southern Mexican label would have been so detrimental.
In the true story I wrote, Prison Riot – I was involved in a massive riot that made the news at Solano in 1998. The southern Mexicans were outnumbered by the northern Mexicans and my friend Steve Smith, also known as Giant and myself decided to lend a hand to the southern Mexicans because we were friends with many of them.
Let me make this very clear, I’m a White man who doesn’t gang bang or claim a gang, and I helped them because I don’t like to see people bullied or outnumbered. Giant felt the same way. The problem with being 2 White guys in the midst of almost 100 Mexicans at war in a riot is that the prison guards had to assume we were what is called, Sleepers, who were Mexican gangsters. The massive problem for us as White inmates to be classified as southern Mexicans in the hole, is that when our SHU term ran its course, we were going to be housed as southern Mexicans. That is a massive problem.
Imagine getting off the bus at a new prison, being put in a cell with a southern Mexican, and having to tell him, “Look I’m sorry to disturb you but I’m a White inmate so please don’t tell me about who you guys are stabbing tomorrow.” On the other side of that coin you are also going to have to explain to the rest of the White inmates that you are indeed a White inmate!
I’d be very interested in some of your views regarding the impact of America’s drug war on these racial politics within the prison system. Could you give me a brief paragraph showing a connection between the Drug Culture in the U.S. and the struggle as it is currently playing out in Mexico – and could you tie that to the California prison system?
Perfect question to add to the last one, to show you how crazy it is –because of the drug war and the direct connection to it, breeding more violence and gangs, under the current policy where we incarcerate drug offenders!
In California prisons southern Mexican inmates are under enormous amounts of pressure to straight up be gangsters, and that breeds an army of gangs. That is also the case for every other race, maybe to a lesser extent. The amount of gangs in southern California is staggering and their reach is long. By not getting to the root of the problem – drugs and poverty – prison is the breeding grounds. People see the news that the Mexican cartels are powerful and they don’t understand that in California’s prisons, those cartel members don’t have the most influence. So if I’m in a cell with a southern Mexican all of those politics are crossing into a White inmate’s loyalties.
Back to the drug war breeding gangs. By incarcerating low level drug offenders we are turning an addiction into an affliction much harder to escape, where gangs and violence are the calling cards. The problem gets bigger when these displaced, tattooed down, harder to get a job, mentally taxed from post traumatic stress, human beings get released without any job training or housing placement.
Now you mentioned Mexico’s drug war also. Most people don’t know this but in Mexico it is legal to have up to an ounce of Meth, Heroin, Cocaine etc. You just can’t bring it to sporting events or sell it! I used to hear this on the radio in my cell in Centinella, on the border of Mexico, and scratch my head in exasperation. But guess what. By decriminalizing drugs you take the power out of them! Look at Canada, their policing of drug addicts is more of a nursing program to get them into treatment. If we treat drug addiction as a disease, which it is now looked at like alcoholism, we are being not only smarter, but more humane. We shouldn’t call drug addicts criminals. For those of you with kids who have become addicted you understand.
Kind of a side note here, but the homemade lighter you spoke of is actually called a carbon-arc lamp. It was one of the first lamps used for film projection in the 1890s. Necessity truly is the mother of invention. Can you think of some other prison fabrications you created that were of equal technical interest?
The Asian inmates are the most advanced, go figure. They made lighters with batteries that were almost like a regular lighter! We also used salt water lighters. Inmates can make cell phone chargers and so much more, but I personally am not that talented.
BitcoDavid is a blogger and a blog site consultant. In former lives, he was an audio engineer, a videographer, a teacher – even a cab driver. He is an avid health and fitness enthusiast and a Pro/Am boxer. He has spent years working with diet and exercise to combat obesity and obesity related illness.
- Glenn Langohr: “If/when You believe in Redemption for Prisoners…” (inprisonedwomen.wordpress.com)
- Of Prison and Reform: My Interview with Glenn Langohr on Prison Reform (thiscollegedropout.wordpress.com)
- Links to Glenn Langohr´s Drug War & Prison Books in Print, Kindle & Audio: (inprisonedwomen.wordpress.com)
- Prison novelist GLENN LANGOHR on O.C. Register’s Front Page (bookmavenpicks.wordpress.com)
- Happy Birthday CCA! You’re the New Parchman Farm! (deafinprison.wordpress.com)
- Glenn Langohr’s Prison Memoir Got Another Great Review From a Criminal Justice Professor at U.C. Irvine (asolitarytorture.wordpress.com)
- Underdog, A True Crime Thriller of Prison Life (Book Review) (thiscollegedropout.wordpress.com)
- State Crime Data Log Is Lacking Due to Drug War by Glenn Langohr (deafinprison.wordpress.com)
- Fourth Hays Prison inmate slain (timesfreepress.com)
- Glenn Langohr’s Prison Memoir Got Another Great Review From a Criminal Justice Professor at U.C. Irvine (lascrucescarpenter.wordpress.com)