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​Why California Parolees Are Sending Themselves Back to Jail

Drug smuggling is su​rging at many California county jails thanks in part to gang members getting pinched on purpose for minor offenses so they can take part in the lucrative contraband trade.

by Seth Ferranti
Dec 10 2014, 4:05pm

California state prisons have been moving inmates to local county jails. Photo via Flickr user Wayne Hsieh

The netherworld of corruption and violence that is the United States ​prison system is a vicious subculture that has its own by-laws, codes, and regulations. It's an environment that forces prisoners to toe the line and maintain the status quo, or else suffer the consequences. And one of the golden rules is that when you are ​beholden to a prison gang and the big homie calls your number, you have to stop whatever it is that you're doing and come back inside, no questions asked.

With career prison gangsters calling the shots, drug smuggling is su​rging at many California county jails. As the state system works to deal with facilities that are ​overcapacity and ​court orders to decrease its inmate population, it's come up with a prison realignment plan that incorporates "​flash incarceration" tactics, utilizing county jails to hold prison parolees who get sent back for minor technicalities. But the shot callers and prison-gang leaders, doing life in Pelican Bay and the feds, have figured out a way to exploit these changes.

"What they do is get their guys, recently released gang members, to violate the terms of their parole on some minor account," says Trouble, a twice-convicted felon and Crip street gang member who is currently housed in the California Department of Corrections (CDC) and serving out a sentence of 20 years. "These guys don't come back to prison because they want to; they do it because they have to. It's a direct order. To disobey would be detrimental to their health. It could mean getting their head cracked or worse."

Once inside, it's open season given the inadequate security measures and resources at small facilities.

"These local county lockups are lax—you can get away with a lot of stuff," Trouble says. "[The authorities] are not hip to all the moves and methods that are used to bring drugs in. They don't have the training or experience in dealing with the hardcore prison mentality, and the shot callers recognized this and started using it to their advantage."

The sheriff's departments that run the county jails have struggled to keep pace with the flow of drugs in the three years since the overhaul of the state corrections system started sending lower-level felons to county lockups to reduce  ​overcrowding. "What they are doing now," Trouble tells VICE, "is sending dudes to the county jail for five or ten years. Unless you commit a certain type of crime, you don't even go into the prison system—you stay in the local lockup. It's right at home, so it's sweet for the homeboys who have access to all their people because they are so close. Instead of having to drive several hours to a CDC prison, their visitors can come see them regularly and make overtures to the deputies there."

These tactics were intended to give authorities a way to avoid sending parolees back to state prisons, but instead is being used by some offenders to move drugs into county jails, which are poorly equipped to deal with penitentiary smuggling techniques. "These folks have brought with them prison politics, prison contraband, prison culture. It's very different than what the deputy sheriffs were previously used to dealing with," Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson recently told the Associated Press. "Nobody was ready for this freight train."

"The California system is flooded with drugs." Trouble tells me. "A gram of heroin goes for like $400 to $600. They break a gram into quarters and sell them for like $100 to $150. Everybody locked up is trying to make money. The guards are on the take, especially at these county jails. They get paid to look the other way. A lot of these guards don't even have their GEDs. They are from the same areas as the gang members getting locked up. Plus, they don't got access to the same intel prison investigators in the state have access to."

But the county jails are catching up. Recently, they started sharing information with the CDC, which has led to many high-profile gang members being placed in segregation when they are housed in the county jails. "I went back on a writ and they put me in high power—max security—and when I asked them why, they said because the CDC called down and told them I was a threat to the orderly running of their jail," Trouble tells me. "But it was all good. I still got visits. And the homies that weren't behind the glass looked out, so I was straight."

Illicit drugs in jails and prisons aren't anything new—it's a battle prison administrators have been fighting pretty much forever. The amount of drugs flowing into local jails is just another example of the problems the CDC is facing as a result of the decades-long expansion of the state prison system. By swallowing balloons of heroin, meth, and cocaine, or using a method called keistering—which involves stuffing packaged drugs into the  ​anal cavity—prison inmates can sneak contraband through strip searches. Once inside the jail, they can retrieve the drugs and sell them quickly. Then the money from the sale of the drugs is funneled back out to the real world and diverted to the accounts of the gang leaders, most of whom are doing life at Pelican Bay.

"The Eme, AB, BGF, NF—these are the big four Cali organizations," Trouble says. "But my gang and the Bloods are doing things like this also. The Nazi Low Riders, everybody is getting in on the action. It's a free-for-all. Once the drugs are in they use a deputy to smuggle the money out. You would be surprised how much cash people have in these county jails. But if it's not a cash transaction, they do it just like they do in prison. They get their people on the street to send money for the drugs."

If you buy drugs in prison, the dealer will give you an address and tell you to send the money there. You call your people or see them in a visit and make sure the money arrives, because if it doesn't, consequences will arise. "Don't fuck around with the gang's money," Trouble says. "That can get you fucked up, seriously. When it comes to money, muthafuckas ain't playing. Not in these streets and not in these jails. Muthafuckas can get green lighted [marked for murder] for that."

With gang leaders sending out the call for their members to violate the terms of their parole and get re-incarcerated in the local county lockups, drug use will continue to rise in California jails. After all, in prison, drugs mean money and power—and that's what the gang leaders crave more than anything else.

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Mass Incarceration
Vice Blog
drug smuggling
street gangs
prison overcrowding
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
Flash incarceration