PC: Ray Graciano

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by D. Razor Babb

As I crouched atop the one-man recreation cage and reached up to cut the last strands of wire fencing that separated inside from out, I was thinking: “If they’re gonna catch me, now would be a good time.”

It had taken six months of intense labor, calculated planning, opportune timing and good luck to get to this point. I had cash money, street clothes, a place to go, sixty feet of sheet rope, and an unwavering belief in my ability to pull this seemingly impossible stunt off. No one has ever escaped from L.A. County Jail’s Highpower; it’s the highest security section of the jail. That’s where they keep the most violent, notorious and high-risk inmates. There are gang shot callers, guys down from Death Row, multiple murderers, and escape risks. I was the latter having been found in possession of a hacksaw blade early on in my confinement. That had been my first clumsy attempt; this one was the culmination of over five years of scheming.

I was in the county jail for nearly six years, the five I did in Highpower, in many ways, was the best time I’ve done. You wouldn’t think that would be the case. You’re locked in a tiny cell 24/7, strip-searched, shackled and cuffed behind the back any time you come out. You are handcuffed to the table during attorney visits, behind glass for regular visits, maybe get an hour and a half rec time in a single-man cage on the roof once a week, and liable to get stabbed, cut or killed on the way to the shower. When you’re surrounded by killers, you gotta watch your step, and your mouth. A wrong move either way could be your last.

In spite of all that, and regardless of reputation, the guys you encounter in Highpower are some of the most intelligent, honorable and respectable individuals you could ever meet. It’s all about respect on those rows—you have to give it to get it, you gotta earn it to survive.

When I was there, 1994 to 1999, rows A, B, and C were the regulars. Twenty-five one-man cells per row, side-by-side. D row was new arrivals, orientation while being sorted out; E, F, and G were protective custody. O.J. was there at the time, he had all of G row to himself and was treated extremely well, a whole lot better than the rest of us. Celebrities get handled with kid gloves, with the media limelight on them, high-priced lawyers and star-struck guards. But, when it comes down to it, they’re locked in that cell just like everybody else.

The Menendez brothers, Joe Hunt (Billionaire Boys’ Club), Chuck Rathbun (Raiderette killer), a string of rappers, movie guys and high-profilers, they all passed through during my time there. I was neighbors with Joe Hunt for a while. I’d have to say he is probably the most intelligent person I’ve ever known, despite the two or three murders that are attributed to him. He found meditation and soul-awareness, post-murders, and shared that universal interconnectedness with me … along with a vast knowledge of legal expertise. He’s the best attorney I’ve personally known, and a master debater.

Joe’s mentoring gave me a working knowledge of the law beyond what a law school could provide. And four to five hours of meditation a day opened my mind and spirit to vast possibilities and limitlessness. That belief in no limits led to my lying atop the rooftop fencing and peering over the side of the jail, dropping the rope the last 60 feet to freedom. Three guards sat less than 30 feet away, another four or five monitored video surveillance screens. There are only 10 Highpower cages and we’re separated by fencing from the hundred or so mainline inmates who were roaming around the other half of the rec area … most of them staring at me.

With adrenaline pounding in my ears, I know there would be no going back. For the first time in over five years I was feeling the air of freedom on my face—it was exhilarating, and fleeting. It took six months to inconspicuously saw through the thick gauge wire of the cage, a little at a time. I had to get into the same cage every time, camouflage the cut marks and ultimately smuggle street clothes, cash, a hacksaw blade and sixty feet of rope to the roof … after a strip search, handcuffed and escorted. Not easy, but not impossible.

The rooftop rec yard is situated four stories (each story about fifteen feet high) above the front corner of the jail. That section is beyond the areas that are fenced in with razor wire (on the ground). The concrete wall that comprises the back section of the Highpower cages drops into an alcove atop the administration offices. By our late afternoon rec time the offices are mostly empty. The front of that area of the jail is the visitor’s entrance where a variety of civilians and jail personnel mill about. A few times to rec and I realized that directly on the other side of that back wall of the cage you could drop into that alcove unseen, jump the remaining few feet from the administrative offices and stroll out front and blend in with the crowd like anybody else. But first, you had to get out of the cage, cut through the fencing that covered the roof, and manage the drop.

Securing the tools, manufacturing the rope and obtaining the other articles took time. Hiding the stuff was even more difficult. It was supposed to be three of us going. One guy caught the chain to prison, the other beat four of five murders and decided to try and win the fifth. I was going solo and got the green light from the shot callers for E-day. Getting that load of gear to the roof was a heady experience in itself. The guard is two feet in front of you, watching every move during a strip search—it’s sleight of hand magic with a lot more than applause at stake. After I’d stripped and been searched, I simply reached over and picked up a different pair of pants, already packed with the gear. My heart was in my throat as he locked the cuffs behind my back, I just hoped he didn’t notice the bulge from the bulky rope and that the weight of it didn’t pull my pants down.

We’re escorted four at a time to the roof by three guards. Once I was in the cage I immediately cut the last remaining bits of heavy wire. I’m through. Every muscle is taut, I can see everything, I can hear everything, but I’m blocking out all distractions, fear or doubt. The general population inmates are giving me a pretty good eye, I’m signaling them to keep walking, mind their own business, and for God’s sake, quit staring! Months, years really, of meticulous planning were culminating in these final minutes. I looked around, bent the wires back, grabbed the rope and hit the hole. Snag #1, it’s too small! I’d miscalculated by inches. I’d have to cut three more thick wires, and time is running out. Only about thirty minutes of rec time is left.

The previous six months I’d slowly and deliberately done the cutting. Now I’m balls to the wall, full-tilt sawing on those bars like a wolf gnawing off its own leg to get free from a trap. The cage is shaking and rattling, the muscles in my arms are screaming and I’m sweating a puddle. I’m using a Vaseline-type ointment on the three-inch blade to reduce friction and the blade is red hot from the frantic sawing. Noise from the air-conditioner units on top of the roof is covering the commotion, I hope.

In a few minutes I’m through and don’t hesitate to bend the bars back. I sling the rope over my shoulder and crawl out of the cage. There’s no time for doubt or nerves, I shimmy up the side of the cage and crouch on top. I’m going. The cross-meshing of the cage wiring creates an optical illusion from the guard’s station. It appears you can see into the cages as you look down the row of 10, but the meshing distorts clear vision. In cage four the illusion is just right. I’m only 30 feet or so away from them, but I’m invisible. Two minutes more and I’m through the regular gauge fencing that covers the roof. I slip through and lay prone, looking over the side. It’s eerily bizarre and surreal.

I know I could get shot doing this, or jumped by a pack of enraged guards and Rodney King’d into oblivion. But, my motivation and belief in my plan and ability far outweigh any lingering doubts. I’d just won a jury trial on a 25-to-life case, representing myself. The odds of a prisoner acting as his own attorney, presenting a case to a jury and winning are off the charts. Using the same mindset and principles, clearly, fear was not part of the equation. In fact, over-confidence could be my only failing.

I’m lying on the rooftop fencing outside the confines of the jail, cages, guards, with nothing but open sky above and a 60-foot drop below. I secure the rope on a previously located drain pipe, drop it over the side and slide over the edge. The last minute frenzy of sawing had left ointment on my hands and my muscles are badly fatigued. Almost immediately I began slipping on the rope … then sliding uncontrollably. The rope is burning through my fingers … it is too thin, I should have made gloves, I needed more knots, whatever the problem(s), it’s too late for solutions. I’ve escaped, but now I’m falling to my death.

When I come to I’m staring up at the sky. I attempt to crawl away but can’t move. My freedom lasted only a few minutes.

I’ve read and found through experience, that it’s not what occurs in a life that defines us—but how we react to it … what we make of it. Every calamity has within it a lesson we may learn. The significance of suffering is important in human development, as it forces us to face the darkness—within ourselves, within others … and compels us to turn towards the light of our true, higher nature.

Finding the lesson in times of extreme adversity can be the most difficult thing imaginable. The lessons I needed to learn still lay before me.


Twenty years hence … after all the lessons learned and experience gained from countless adversities faced, a particular theme presents itself time and again. It’s the people we meet, the relationships forged and the lives we touch which bear the most significance, people like those met while participating in Dr. Parkin’s anthology … those who have made life, or even life without, worth living.


Republished from “Perspectives from the Cell Block: An Anthology of Prisoner Writings” – edited by Joan Parkin in collaboration with incarcerated people from Mule Creek State Prison.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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