By John L. Orr
I find little to laugh about in jail, but occasionally a character joins the prison population and helps release some of the tension just by being himself. Spending almost four years at the Los Angeles County Jail, locked down 24-hours-a-day, was a nightmare, but Dat Nguyen provided some comic relief. He disappeared one night, taken out a rear door, and we never saw him again.
-John L. Orr, 2001
I willingly gave my country four years in the 1960s, but giving an almost equal amount to my county was unplanned. I usually slept well in my cell in the Los Angeles County Jail, but woke up to a nightmare.
“An erection! I need an erection!”
These were not the words you expected to wake up to in a jail, or anywhere but an asylum, but that’s what roused me one morning in 1996. I recognized the voice of my friend, Dat Nguyen, in the adjoining cell, but the words unnerved me.
My neighbor in the 24-hour-a-day lockdown of the Protective Custody Unit was a 45-year-old Vietnamese cocaine salesman and reportedly former ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) regular during the conflict. Apparently, he learned more than battle strategy working for the government in Saigon. The hyperactive five-foot-four-inch guy was well-liked on the row of 26 cells, but I questioned his tenure after this blatant statement.
“What did you say, Dat?”
“I say I need to hode erection…”
“That’s what I thought you said, but it’s only 7 a.m. and these folks aren’t awake yet. I don’t think anybody wants to hear about your penis.”
“Peeniz…what this peeniz, John?”
Dat’s English was generally good but the majority of it was learned from American GIs and other criminals in Saigon.
“Penis, Dat. You know, your dick…an erection.”
“No, no, I no say dick, I say election. I want to hold election for, you know, one of us to be spokesperson for the tier. We need representative to speak for us about bad mail.”
Now, I started to get the picture.
Mail delivery problems plagued the L.A. County Jail inmates in the mid-1990’s.
“Dat, there’s nothing we can do about it. We’re prisoners. Stirring up the tier won’t help. It’ll just bring you grief.”
My inscrutable neighbor digested this gem from my vast jail experience. I heard him jump down from his upper bunk next door. I couldn’t see him because a six-inch-thick wall separated us. Bars on the front of the cells and another wall across the narrow tier walkway allowed sounds to bounce back into the cubicles. His rubber sandals slapped the hard floor like an impatient mother bringing her hands together to get a recalcitrant child’s attention.
“No, no, my friend, This is America. You know? The democratic process is recognized by everyone. How can deputies ignore our problems if we organize?”
I sighed, remembering my recent experience with the official jail complaint process. Several issues of my Playboy magazine were intercepted and stolen by deputies and I had the audacity to complain, in writing, to the senior supervisor. I did not turn in the culprits by name even though I knew the thugs involved.
“Dat, this isn’t a democracy. This is L.A. County, it’s a…a Plutocracy.”
He laughed. “You mean like Pluto, the Disneyland dog?”
“Well, not quite…actually, yes. Like Disneyland…Mickey Mouse.”
“Oooohhhh, yes, I understand. Mickey Mouse outfit. ARVN was Mickey Mouse outfit, too.”
He continued chuckling and asked me if I wanted him to zap some hot water for coffee. We had no microwave oven until Dat showed up; lukewarm tap water was the only available liquid for a cup-o’-coffee. His fix endeared him to us all.
He found the armored, recessed light fixture in his cell contained two 100-watt bulbs, and two 40-watt globes. Covered by an aluminum grillwork with over 500 tiny holes drilled in it, the metal box formed a perfect oven that could heat water.
While he nuked my water, our conversation focused. “John, I want to hold an election and make one of our comrades a spokesman. He can take petition to…”
“No, Dat! No petitions. We can’t provoke these people. We have to accept the way it is. We’ll all be leaving here soon anyway and move on to someplace else. This just isn’t worth fighting for.”
He chuckled evilly. “You do that to us in Saigon in 1975, too.”
“Asshole,” I muttered, but he was right.
“I come out for telephone today. I speak with everyone on row. We elect someone to speak out, but maybe you want to be spokesman, John?”
“No thanks, Dat. I’m too angry after yesterday’s mail. I’m not in the right frame of mind…”
“Ahhhh, yes,” Dat replied sagely, “the evil male faces.”
In Tuesday’s mail I received a letter from my parents and several photos of Mom and Dad. Mom smiled brightly in both pictures, looking affectionately at the headless torso next to her by the christmas tree and at the dining room table.
Unknown to me, one of the Los Angeles County Jail regulations is listed as ‘Prohibited Photographs’: “No photos of male persons with heads or faces depicted larger than a quarter will be allowed.” My dad’s face was slightly over-sized so a center punch-like device was used to behead him. Then the pictures were sent to me.
The rest of the mail restrictions were equally as stupid: “No newspaper clippings,” but photocopies of news clips routinely came through; sometimes not. Logically, we were forbidden to receive “genital or pubic hair clippings,”-no mention whether photocopies of pubic hair clippings were acceptable.
“Dat, do what you need to do, but I don’t think any of the jail veterans on this row will participate.”
“We soon see!” Dat shouted. “I hold elections at Disneyland!”
Dat once told me how ARVN interrogators took North Vietnamese prisoners up in helicopters and dropped them out from great heights. I wondered if he had not had a similar mishap at an early age and survived.
Two hours later I heard a PA announcement, “Nguyen! Tier time,” followed by his gate opening. He shuffled up to my door with a betel-nut destroyed smile, holding a sheet of paper and a pencil.
“You sign petition. Everyone will follow your lead…”
“No. I won’t sign your petition. Go away.” He frowned and moved on to the next cell, out of my sight.
Dat’s attempt at organizing the tier lasted for about three minutes before he came stomping by me, muttering in Vietnamese. He continued on to the module deputy’s desk. Their heated exchange went on for about 30 seconds before he was ordered back to his cell. The heavy gate slid shut with a metallic crunch sounding like an anvil dropping on an insect. Dat continued ranting for 10-15 minutes then asked if I wanted another cup of coffee. I agreed to the payment, too; I would help him write his Congressman.
“But, Dat, you don’t have a Congressman,” I said, only after I got my coffee. “You aren’t a citizen yet, but maybe we can send something to the ACLU.”
“Aye-Cee…what that, John?”
“It’s the American Civil Liberties Union.”
“Ahh, yes. The Unions. They organized. I a teamster union man once. They very strong people.”
I climbed back into my bunk while musing over the content of the letter and how best to present the problem to the ACLU: arbitrary beheadings, quarter-sized-faces, pubic hair clippings…they’ll never believe it.