I used to sell a lot of heroin. I was an addict. One day it all came to a halt when I got pulled over by the Drug Enforcement Agency and was caught with 229 grams in my trunk. Then I went off to federal prison. I take full responsibility for the crime that I committed but there is still something patently wrong with this scenario: the snitch.
I bought my smack from a fat lady in East Los Angeles; she had fuzzy moles and a transgendered son who collected Disney socks (I couldn’t make this shit up.) She had been sneaking tennis balls full of drugs over the fence to a state prison in Northern California. The feds became aware of her smuggling operation and started tailing her; eventually she was caught with a full kilo. Then she started telling. She implicated over 109 members of an alleged “cartel” based out of Mexico that sold cocaine and heroin throughout the state of California.
Then comes the real irony, I was sentenced to sixty months in prison and she was only sentenced to twenty four. She was already on state parole for her participation in a homicide that she had served ten years for. Because she cooperated, she did three years less than me. This is after getting caught with 771 more grams of dope, on top of being a convicted murderer. Why does a patriotic and ideological society like the United States reward people with weak integrity? Why do the more dangerous and flagrant criminals get less severe penalties by providing information to the authorities? There is something fundamentally wrong with this system and unfortunately it has been an American justice tradition for a very long time.
Snitching in America dates back to the civil war era, when there were prisoner of war camps set up on both the North and the South sides. The conditions of these camps were primitive and often exposed the prisoners to brutal weather and malnutrition, there were no beds and they would be forced to sleep on damp floors. The Confederates were the first to start a reward system for captives that gave up information about the opposition. A snitch would be rewarded with better shelter, food, or more comfortable sleep accommodations.
In the 1920’s, during prohibition, utilizing informants became popularized by law enforcement. Huge task forces were established to bust bootleggers and underground manufacturers of alcohol. The use of illegal alcohol was widespread and many people were willing to break the law to distribute it. This was the first time that the state and federal authorities started waging deals with criminals in exchange for lesser penalties. People would get caught making booze and tell the task forces about other manufacturers or other crimes of interest. This is when policy first became unfair in the American justice system; snitches could be rewarded monetarily or be given a get out of jail free card, creating an environment where law enforcement enforced laws arbitrarily.
The Marijuana Tax act of 1937 made possession or transfer of cannabis illegal in the United States. Further legislation in the 1950’s created mandatory 2-10 year prison sentences for marijuana possession. The local narcotics task forces began incentivizing people to become informants to avoid long prison sentences. For the first time, snitches were infiltrating specific scenes to get other unsuspecting drug users arrested. This made the work of law enforcement much easier and set the standard for the subsequent war on drugs.
President Nixon declared a war on drugs in 1970, following a rather hazy decade of drug exploration in the American counter culture. The Nixon Administration repealed the mandatory minimum penalty for marijuana possession but also created the Drug Enforcement Agency. The work of the D.E.A is almost entirely indebted to the act of snitching. In the 1970’s, the D.E.A began their protocol of catching low-level drug addicts, brandishing intimidation, and scaring them into cooperation.
Snitching was also a staple in bringing down organized crime in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations act of 1970 (RICO) was designed to help bring down the mafia. It was yet another tool the government had to make disproportionate felony cases. These indictments could have never occurred if members of these organizations hadn’t cooperated. The results were unbalanced, locking people up with low participatory roles, and often giving immunity to more serious offenders, in exchange for them giving up information.
Today we have mandatory minimum drug legislation that was enacted in the 80’s. These laws promise many non-violent drug offenders’ decades behind bars. The majority of cases are constructed by testimony alone. This means that people are going away for 5, 10, 30 years for “ghost dope”; when they weren’t caught with tangible evidence, just the flimsy testimony of a snitch who had an incentive to talk in the first place.
Let’s look closely at one example: when a non-violent marijuana grower’s life was devastated by this fallacious policy. I met Justin Lasyone while I was doing time at Federal Correctional Institution Victorville. Victorville is ranked the most violent FCI in the Bureau of Prisons. It is a rough and combative place that the convicts have appropriately nicknamed “Victimville”. The majority of the inmate population is serving sentences that exceed twenty years, mostly for drug crimes.
Victorville is located in Adelanto, California. Any prison in California is subjected to the radical politics that are enforced by the inmates. These politics stem from the dense gang populations and racist extremism. No sharing food with other races, no smoking with other races, and no interracial sports games. There are also mandatory group appearances for the whites, blacks, and Hispanics. There is a “hands-off” policy between the different races. If you’re white you can’t swing on a black guy and vice versa. This means that races police themselves. If you screw up and you’re white, a group of white guys is going to come after you and “smash you off the yard.” If you get jumped and hospitalized you’re considered getting off easily. Prison shanks are ubiquitous and angry convicts like to poke holes in people.
Victorville was a scary place. My first week there, I was eating lunch at a table in the chow hall and out of nowhere the guy sitting across from me called me an idiot. He was much burlier than me with an impressive collection of penitentiary tattoos. When he called me an idiot the whole room seemed to stop talking and look over at me. I simply picked up my food trey and walked back to my housing unit. I told the shot-caller that I felt disrespected and that I wanted to fight this guy one on one. I had been in fights when I was younger at high school keg-parties but really didn’t consider myself a fighter. But this is prison – if you let people talk to you like that, even worse things can happen.
So here I am waiting for this guy to come back from lunch and a younger inmate comes up to me.
“I heard you were going to fight Jack?” he said.
“He’s crazy as all hell,” he said, “Guy likes to stab people.”
He took me into his cell and took a knife out of his sweat shorts. It was a sharpened slice of sheet metal with electrical tape coiled at its end as a handle. He showed me how to hide it in my shorts with the draw strings. I thanked him and waited at the top of the stairs on the tier for Jack. The adrenalin you feel before your first knife fight is completely unmatched.
Jack came in and talked to the shot caller for a moment before looking up and charging towards me. I didn’t even have time to take the knife from my shorts before he had hit me with a right hook. I tasted the blood as it rolled down my face. My eyebrow had split open. I was on the ground and inmates were cheering us on. I couldn’t see anything but I instinctively grabbed for his long hair. I got ahold of him and landed some weak, junkie-atrophied punches. Eventually he got off of me and the fight was over. I had lost and no knives had been drawn. I had to get six stitches over my eyebrow with a sewing kit someone had. Even though I had lost the fight, people respected the fact that I stood up for myself. That was Victorville, a constant test of hyper-masculinity and bravado.
I saw stabbings and beatings constantly. Homosexuality is against the California politics so there weren’t the rapes that the media always scares us with. The most violent thing I saw was a guy that had microwaved baby oil thrown on his face. It left stripes of bubbling gore, and his eyeball was dangling out of its socket. It’s an indelible image that will always stay with me.
When you arrive at a rough prison like this, the first thing the shot-caller asks you for is your paperwork. Sex offenders and snitches aren’t welcomed and the paperwork vouches for you. There is a Pre-Sentencing Report (PSR or PSI), which is a report constructed by the probation department before you get sentenced. It states your charges and covers everything: your entire academic, familial, and criminal history. These reports are considered contraband and you have to get them from your attorney and then smuggle them in through your legal work (which the guards aren’t allowed to look through). If you get caught with them, they get confiscated. If you cooperated with the feds and got a sentence reduction it will either say 5K.1 (which means you cooperated before sentencing) or a Rule 35 (which means you cooperated after sentencing).
Pre-Sentencing reports are hard to get because your attorney has to give it to you and they know they can get in trouble for it. Typically, public defenders won’t do it but some paid attorneys will. I had a paid attorney so he gave me mine and I snuck it in as instructed. The other form of paperwork, which is less revealing and something you can legally have in your possession, is the docket sheet. This is a list of every time you went to court and it was documented into the system. If someone was testifying there are some ways to detect it through the docket sheet. If you have too many court appearances it’s a bad sign, if you’ve been fighting your case for years it usually means you were waiting to testify on someone. Docket sheets are often vague and esoteric, they are considered a weaker form of paperwork but it’s what most people have and it will pass. It lists your charges, so at the very least it would say if you’re a child molester.
With almost half of federal inmates incarcerated for drug related offenses, it’s not surprising that drug use is in widespread in prisons. Drugs are most commonly smuggled in through the visitation rooms. Unlike county jails, prisons have contact visits. Visitors will bring latex balloons full of heroin, cannabis, and crystal meth to prisoners that they are visiting. At some point during a visit the balloon will be passed over and swallowed. The prisoner then goes back to his cell and consumes a tablespoon full of shampoo to induce vomiting. It’s that easy. Corrupt guards will sometimes bring contraband in as well.
I was quickly impoverished by unfairly priced prison drugs. A gram of heroin is $60 in Los Angeles, in prison a gram goes for $400 and up. A single cigarette can go for $20 and a dime sized bag of tobacco goes for $5. Marijuana is measured by filling up a Chap Stick cap with shake and can go for as much as $120. And everyone is willing to extend you credit, it’s a junkie’s dream, who is going to turn down a shiny gram of black tar heroin when you don’t have to worry about paying for it for a couple months?
The majority of violence in prison can be attributed to gambling or drug debts. You can run up debts and “check in”, which means you are asking to be protected by the guards and put in the segregation intentionally. But then you’re marked as a “check in” and it will follow you to the next prison and you are in the same category as a snitch or child molester.
I was constantly in debt, dope sick, and thinking people were after me. There were six binkies (makeshift syringes) in the entire prison so I used to share needles with people who could have easily been HIV positive. It was a nightmare. This was the morose hell that I was living in when I met Justin.
Justin Laysone was a non-violent bud grower from Tacoma, Washington. He was a happy and carefree guy, like so many in that culture. He liked to hang out with friends, smoke bowls, and watch his son get older. Although he was considered a successful grower, he also owned a rim shop called “Wheels and Deals” and was a tax-paying part of the community. In a state where recreational use of marijuana was legalized just a few years later, Justin was doing relatively benign stuff.
In 2006 one of Justin’s life-long friends was in the wrong place at the wrong time. For the sake of anonymity we will call his friend “Tim”. The feds had set up a controlled buy for a large quantity of marijuana and Tim happened to be at the house where this went down. He had a gun on him but it was legal, he had a license for it. They decided to check his car that was parked outside and found two ounces of high-grade marijuana in his glove box. According to empirical data collected in Washington about low level marijuana arrests, this would have been dropped down to a misdemeanor and he would have most likely received a year of supervised probation.
Tim decided to tell the feds about Justin and his grow operation. A couple of weeks later a gigantic task force toting automatic weapons, raided Justin’s grow house. There were federal agents of every stripe: D.E.A, F.B.I and even A.T.F. They found 400 mature marijuana plants and slapped handcuffs on him.
Justin was sentenced to 120 months in federal prison. That’s ten years for a plant that over 52% of the voting public supports decriminalizing and legalizing. Justin has a rare nerve condition called Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease. CMT is an extremely painful disorder of the peripheral nervous system and causes a rapid loss of muscle tissue, which wastes muscles and can curl your toes, making your feet inoperable. When I met Justin he was already confined to a wheelchair, which undoubtedly exacerbated the federal prison experience.
Justin was medicated when he was in the free world with OxyContin, a strong opioid that is reserved for the most severe cases of pain management. He also used cannabis and legal steroids to help quell some of his many CMT symptoms. The BOP took Justin off of his medications and he was forced to endure excruciating opiate withdrawal alone in a prison cell. He was treated like a street-level junkie instead of a person who was afflicted with a disease and prescribed legitimate medication.
Like so many sufferers in the current heroin epidemic, Justin began to self-medicate with whatever was available that could help alleviate his physical pain. He began snorting heroin and was consequently shipped to five different prisons in five years for disciplinary transfers. The majority of the trouble he got in was for dirty drug tests or illegal transfers of funds to procure the drugs he needed to make his pain manageable. Every time he would get in trouble the BOP would take away good behavior time, making his 85% sentence (which is ludicrous to begin with for a non-violent pot grower) all the way up to 100% by the time he was done and had served a full decade behind bars.
My time with Justin was spent playing cards, working out, getting high, and talking. Those are the staples of a friendship in prison while you aren’t worrying about getting murdered over drug debts. Justin is the kind of guy that loves to laugh. He’s generous and loyal. The more I got to know him, the more I realized how ineffectual this drug policy really is. Justin didn’t look like a criminal when I met him. But as the calendars got flipped and he watched the world change through family photos and magazine ads, he began to drift apart from it. He was emblazoned in cheap prison tattoos and was radicalized by the uneven mix of mayhem and monotony. He became the labels the courts worked so hard to create: the convict, the dope fiend, and the criminal.
Did people in Tacoma, Washington stop smoking weed when they locked Justin away for a decade? No, they started taxing it and making it legal for recreational use. Is it effective to warehouse non-violent drug offenders for years? No, it and stigmatizes them with a felony that makes getting a decent job next to impossible.
Justin’s friend became an informant to avoid the possibility of being on supervised probation. The DEA would have never been interested in such a non-threatening grower if the information hadn’t just fallen into their laps. Justin is now registered narcotics offender with a federal felony. His son is in sixth grade and grew up knowing his father through fifteen minute recorded prison phone calls. Justin did his entire sentence chasing dope because the system refused to address his disease. He’s in a wheelchair and he doesn’t laugh quite as much as he used to.
But snitching will continue. Worse criminals will be rewarded with shorter sentences or even paid. It’s a mechanism for people to act the way that they want, without a fully developed sense of consequence. It’s an ugly part of the system, that suddenly your crime is measured not by the crime itself, but by how much easier you make the jobs of others. For a country that prides itself in morale and principle, I think it’s time we stop letting the worse guy win, start taking some ownership, and stop being so fucking lazy.
*Ryan Leone wrote the cult classic novel, Wasting Talent, while serving time in federal prison for his involvement with an international drug cartel. He has worked extensively in television and his essays, poetry, and short fiction have appeared both online and in print. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and son. You can follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanleone85