by Joe Loya
time I rode a bus from county jail to a California prison, I knew
fear. But I could not know that fear would fashion itself into bigotry.
So I want to warn you about prison hate that turned me into a racist.
Earlier this year, three men chained James Byrd, Jr. to the back of a pickup truck, then dragged him to his death on a back road in Jasper, Texas. Two of the men -- John King, 24, and Russell Brewer, 32 -- were only three weeks out of prison, where they belonged to the white supremacist Confederate Knights of America. They figured the heinousness of their crime would establish the infamy they sought for their prison gang.
Don't think that you are not at risk of hate contagion since you will only be in prison for two years. John King served about the same amount of time you will serve his first time in. And I served only 22 months in prison before I felt compelled to tell my black parole agent that she would have to assign another agent to me since living among blacks in prison turned me into a racist.
And don't only think about racial hatred when you think of prison. I was always more at risk of being stabbed or robbed by another Mexican-American man. The Mexican-American men I knew who were murdered in prison were not only killed by other Mexican-Americans, but sometimes by fellow gang members. Like love, there are various kinds of hate.
I received my first 30 pound package a month after my arrival in prison. (At the time, 1985, a prisoner could receive from family: Levi's, T-shirts, cartons of cigarettes, cans of Tuna, Cup-O'-Noodles, etc.). As I unpacked a red polo shirt from the box, an older prisoner standing next to me warned me that I could get stabbed if I wore it.
This was a southern -- "sureno" -- prison, he explained, and only northerners -- "nortenos" -- wore red. Even though I didn't subscribe to any gang affiliations, I was born in East Los Angeles, which made me a "sureno" by default. To other men, that fact determined whether they would drink with me or stab me. And I was only allowed to wear blue.
A few weeks later, a man was stabbed near me. I instinctively offered him my hand when he was on the ground but he brushed me away. A few minutes later, an older prisoner told me that I could be stabbed for helping a "norteno."
That's how my hatred for the red side was born. And because "sureno" prison lore taught that blacks were affiliated with the "norteno," I soon hated blacks equally.
Despite their claim to despise "Sheriff John Brown," or their claim to be the most lawless of the lawless, prison gangs are more punitive than any traditional police force.
The threats and intimidation of inmate-police finally coerced me to act in ways that proved my loyalty to a phantom group of "southern" Mexican-Americans.
It is easy to feign intolerance in order to survive in prison. I used to say that cops were the sissies in junior high, bullied out of their lunch money, and that's why they pathologically loathed the criminal tough. But when my best boyhood friend visited me regularly, I never told anyone that he was an LAPD officer.
Because you attended a university, or because you've eaten Vietnamese food in a Guatemalan neighborhood, or because you are equally familiar with Trollope and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or because Rap music was the soundtrack of all your weekend parties, you may have an impression of yourself as a young cosmopolitan. Hell, some of your best drug customers were black, right?
Like me or Russell Brewer -- who tried to keep his friends from learning that he had a son by his Mexican wife -- you will feel pressured to hide that part of you which is expansive toward other groups, cultures, views. But like an undercover vice cop, you might forget that you are only playing a role and end up becoming what you are fighting against.
No matter how much your lingo is black, your taste in music is black, or how many black friends you have, fellow prisoners will try to make you "black-less." No matter how much you don't care about north-south boundaries, prison will try to make you "other-less."
I struggled this last time out of prison to lose my hate for blacks and "nortenos." My family couldn't understand why I returned all their red colored clothing to Macy's. Resist the prison bigotry of seeing red or blue or black, or you'll learn, like me and those Jasper ex-cons did, just how difficult it is when you're released to see beyond prison at all.
October 18, 1999 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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