In prison, there is no creature lower than a sex offender. Even snitches get a pass before these guys. SOs, chomos, pedophiles—the nicknames all mean the same thing, and they help average convicts differentiate themselves from those they like to believe are the real monsters.
A recent report from the Associated Press suggests inmates in the California state prison system are getting killed at twice the national average, with sex offenders disproportionately likely to meet their demise inside—which is awful, but not too surprising given how much hatred is directed at those inmates. But why would one state stand out so much from the rest?
"That's the culture in California prison," Kilo, a Blood doing life in California under the three strikes law, tells me. "It's taboo and pretty much all the races make an issue out of it, as far as dealing with child molesters and stuff like that. But the Hispanics and the whites—they really make a big issue out of it, as far as stabbing them and getting them out of the prison population."
Much of prison life in America is about making a spectacle of violence. The gangs and others like to publicly prove who's the biggest, baddest and most violent, and going after sex offenders is an easy way to demonstrate that. But as Terry Thornton, deputy press officer for the California Department of Corrections (CDC), points out, prisoners are attacked for a variety of reasons—not just because their crimes are deemed uniquely heinous.
"There are a number of factors that can contribute to violence in our prisons," Thornton tells us via email. "While an offender's commitment offense may play a role, we believe drugs are a major contributor to violence in our institutions. I believe we had something like 50 drug overdose deaths in 2014. Many inmates are threatened and attacked due to drug debts."
While Thornton does not dispute that gang members despise pedophiles, she pushed back on the idea that it's open season on these guys.
"While this is historically true, our analysis of recent homicide incidents reviewed by the Office of the Inspector General and the AP shows that most of these incidents were in-cell homicides and in some cases, the perpetrator was also a sex offender," Thornton says. "The California Department of Corrections strives for a safe and secure environment for all offenders."
Still, California gangs' penchant for targeting sex offenders presents a glaring challenge to corrections officials.
"It all reflects on the [gang's] leadership," Kilo says. "Some leaders are more flamboyant. They just handle it, in the open or wherever—it's on… The Hispanics and the whites, they're open with it—bold, they don't care. They'll do it right at the chow line or wherever, they don't care. They're going to put on a dazzling display."
But one rule holds true across the board: One race doesn't put hands on an inmate of another race, even if the con in question is a pedophile. "Every group takes care of their own," Kilo says. "Once the blacks find out [someone is a pedophile], the Bloods and Crips take care of it. Once the Hispanics find out, the cholos take care of it. Once the whites find out, the skinheads take care of it."
So prison politics come into play when it's deemed time to take out a perv. But why are California sex offenders out in the open—relatively speaking—even after the state established separate housing units for vulnerable inmates?
"The police don't like to try to discriminate despite the fact that they got those charges in their background," Kilo says. "That's a choice they got to make if they want to go to a Sensitive Needs Yard. Some of them try to slide through to the mainline [the general population] until somebody exposes them or hears about their case or whatever. And once they get exposed, it's all bets off."
Even though gangs may disagree on various things, they all agree that sex offenders deserve rough treatment, Kilo tells me.
"When it comes to those type of guys, every race is going to get them," Kilo says. "The chomos don't get a break, period. The only relief they get is if they go to protective custody [PC] and some yards are all PC." And, according to Kilo, if a sex offender makes it out of protective custody, the guards sometimes give the convicts a heads-up.
"The guards pick and choose who they like and they tip dudes off to who the chomos are if they make it out to the mainline," Kilo adds. "It happens all the time."
Any new inmates that don't have any connections to the gangs or the criminal underworld are immediately suspect—and terrible things can happen to prisoners who are said to be pedophiles.
"When I was in LA County there was a cell with all Bloods," Kilo says. "My homies sent for me and they had checked this guy's paperwork and come to find out he used to work at a carnival and he was in jail for molesting kids. I read the paperwork when I was at the cell and I told the dude that did it to take his clothes off. So he stripped down, and I told my homie to take a shower slipper and spank him with it. In the process, while this was happening, I was chastising him and asking him how it felt to be violated, to have somebody do something to you that you don't want."
Kilo says that later, some of his fellow Bloods beat the inmate, and claims the prison authorities gave their tacit approval:
"The crazy part about it—this is how prevalent it is for us—the police came through the back door. The police opened the door and walked in, right when they walked in, they looked at me and they looked inside the cell and saw that the guy was all beat up. I said a few words, I said, 'He's a child molester' and the police said, 'I didn't see nothing' and walked back to the door and locked it."
California is a hard place to do time, period. So one can only imagine how sex offenders feel knowing they might get assaulted or even killed at any moment not for what they do in prison, but for what landed them there.
"One thing about Cali, it's such a predator environment," Kilo says. "And the gangsters on the mainline will make sure the child molesters get what they deserve."
Thornton, the California prison spokesman, insists officials have the situation under control.
"Last fall, CDC convened a Wardens Advisory Group to review its current double-cell policies and practices and will provide recommendations (if any) to the Director of CDC's Division of Adult Institutions," he says. "All homicides are investigated. CDC forwards all information about all homicide investigations to district attorneys who then decide whether or not to prosecute the case. I also wanted to point out to you that there was a drop in inmate homicides in 2014. As for why the drop in 2014, obviously one year is not a trend."
What can't be dismissed as a trend or passing fad is that when child molesters get exposed in American prisons, they're targeted—and sometimes even killed.
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