Living Life: Crime, bikers, prison, and the future by LeRon L. Barton
On a Tuesday in San Francisco, California, I was scheduled to meet up with Tony, a guy that answered an ad I placed on Craigslist.org. He and I traded texts on when and where to meet and decided on The Mission, a historically Latino neighborhood in San Francisco. I’ve always been a fan of The Mission. It is arguably the most vibrant area in SF. Great food, awesome murals, and good mix of every type of person in the city inhabit the neighborhood. When I met up with Tony, I was a bit taken aback by his appearance, but at ease at the same time. Tony was covered with professional and likely prison tattoo’s, had a walk that exuded confidence and cool, and was a generally nice guy. While some people would see Tony and have presumptions and possible concern, I welcomed it. Maybe it is because I am from the ghetto and have dealt with “hood cats” all my life, but I was cool with Tony from the jump. I had been around so many phony people from San Francisco that just flaunted their artificial wealth and fancy degrees, it felt good to talk with someone that didn’t put on false airs of themselves.
What was supposed to be a conversation about prescription drug abuse turned into a nearly hour long view into the mind of a man who has crossed paths with the Hells Angels, hung with the prison gang Nazi Lowriders, dealt with heroin abuse, and his life post penitentiary.
Growing up on the farm
Tony, 41, grew up on a farm near Olathe, KS, a suburb of Kansas City, Mo. When talking about his childhood he was, “a farm kid that always had an interest in art.” Days consisted of playing with migrant kids and painting. But like many young cats from the Midwest (yours truly included), he wanted out. “I didn’t like the farm life, so I did whatever I could to get out of there.” His mother lost the farm and ended up moving the family to the city of Olathe, but Tony had enough. He left Olathe when he was 20 and went to Arizona.
While in Arizona, Tony started tattooing and started doing drugs. He went from marijuana to speed and embraced the biker lifestyle. “I started to hang around The Hells Angels, the 81s. I found a kinship with them because they were kinda outlaws and rebellious and so was I,” Tony remembers. While a life of partying, motorcycle runs, women, and drugs were good for a short time, Tony started to sour on the biker brotherhood and saw the façade. “I thought they were trying to be too tough, I wasn’t impressed by them. I found a kinship with a few of them, but I really didn’t like them too much. They were out for themselves and it wasn’t a fun experience. “What about the brotherhood,” I asked? Tony dismisses it. “Man don’t believe it. They will rat on each so quick. You can read any book on the Hells Angels. From “Hell on Wheels” by Sonny Barger to the one about the cop infiltrating the group (we reference Jay Dobyn’s book that highlights his experience of going undercover with the HA’s). That’s was the chapter that I ran with. I left the HA’s after 2003 and the authorities busted them a little after. When I went to prison in California, a lot of them were in protective custody because The Aryan Brotherhood ran them off the line. The HA’s wouldn’t stand with the AB during the riots because they said, ‘We’re not white, we are red and white.’ They were standing for their club and not for what was going on in the yard.”
After leaving Arizona, Tony settled in San Mateo, a suburb of San Francisco, Ca because there was “money to be made.” Two days after arriving, he got into a fight over his girlfriend at an Arby’s and was sentenced to prison for 11 years.
“I had been in and out of youth camps and reformatories since I was 16, but when I went to prison in California, it was way different than Kansas,” Tony says. Getting caught up in California’s mass incarceration factory mean he was shipped around to many different prisons. “I’ve been to Folsom, San Quentin, High Desert, Corcoran – I was in the SHU there for five years, Donovan, and Mill Creek. Tony remembers his first day inside, “The first facility I was sent to was San Quentin. When I got there they ran me through reception. I was assigned a room and when I get there, a riot jumps off between the Surrenos and The Crips, my first 20 minutes in prison. I just back up and watched this war kick off and that was my realization of what my next 11 years in prison would be like.”
Realizing that he was “not from there” as in a native of California, Tony knew he had to make a name for himself at Quentin. “I had to impress the gangs there, so anyone that bumped into me I would go crazy on them.” Not taking any shit cost Tony though. “I ended up doing a lot of time in the SHU or what they call in San Quentin, ‘The Adjustment Center.’ What happened was I cut a guys throat with a tuna can and they sent me to Center for a year and then shipped me to Folsom.”I had to stop and think about attacking someone with a can good. “How the heck did you cut somebody with a tuna can?” I asked. “You use the end of it when you open it.” “Damn,” I said and just shook my head.
Tony landed in the Adjustment Center in Quentin and found himself around different gangs. “Quentin is a reception center, a place that houses you until you are sent to your main prison. In there, everyone is trying to make a name for themselves. The Aryan Brotherhood, Nazi Lowriders, Black Guerilla Family… everyone is slammed to the adjustment center. When I cut the dude’s throat, me and my homeboys were sent to the center. While I am there, instead of just being around regular criminals I am with the hierarchy. I am around the top of the prison gangs and learning from them.
When Tony was released from the Adjustment Center and sent to Folsom, he started to associated with the Nazi Lowriders, a mostly white prison gang. Tom-Tom, a founding member of the group started to run down everything to Tony and he began to prospect, or become a probationary member. “When you prospect,” Tony says, “You do what they say. If someone gets out of line, you deal with them. You are they enforcer. Usually if the NLR asks you to do something, it is violent.” Tony then explains “cliquing up” or joining a gang in prison. “When you arrive at prison, you go through reception and the first thing they ask you is who are you with? You can say, ‘Oh I am just a whiteboy’ and then you are automatically with the ‘Woods. You can say ‘I run with the ‘Riders’ and you are automatically put in the hole. Tony then tells me the danger of what “false reppin” or lying about belonging to a gang if you are not. You don’t want to go into prison and say, “I’m a Nazi Lowrider or I’m Aryan Brotherhood” and you’re not, because they will stick you with them. There are very few guys that become members of the AB and when you do, you are known. If you front like you are AB and you are not, you’re cut up. Everyone knows who are – if you travel from prison to prison, people know you are coming.”
Drugs in the penitentiary….
Throughout prison, one of the most valuable items are drugs. Over 80% of all prison inmates are convicted of drug related crimes, and as a result, drugs are a highly desired vice. Tony tells me who had control of the drug trade and how it gets in. “Usually the Surreno’s have the best dope. The guards bring it in, the inmates bring it in, it’s easy to get it. The thing about getting the drugs in the penitentiary is that the guards usually do it. They are only making a certain amount a year and they want to make more so….. This one guard, we bought so much stuff off him we sent him on a vacation! Tony then talks the costs of drugs inside. The prices of drugs are extreme since it is prison. For a five dollar piece of heroin on the streets, you paying $100 in the penitentiary.” Because drugs are so prevalent, it also the reason for much of the violence in prison. “The main cause of violence is dope,” Tony says. ”That is the main thing that gets everyone racked, everyone stuck. I’ve seen people get killed behind it. Plus the guards play into this as well. They keep you at odds with other prisoners so you don’t think about getting them.” He remembers one of the most brutal murders behind drugs, “There was this guy that was supposed to bring in some drugs, so he swallowed four balloons but only crapped out three. His crew couldn’t get the fourth balloon out, so they gutted him and opened him up to get the balloon. He died before he hit the ground.”
Rolling with the Nazi Lowriders, Tony also found himself getting caught up in drugs, preferably heroin. ”I started using heroin when I was 32. At first I was doing morphine, oxy’s and methadone. I’d take some to kick back and then I graduated to heroin. It was the most popular drug in the joint by far.” Soon Tony started seeing the varying degrees of quality in the heroin brought in and made him skittish about using. “The thing about doing dope in the pen is that sometimes it’s ‘user beware.’ Sometime the shit is cut and sometimes it’s not. If you are using black tar heroin, you can bang a gram in your arm like it aint nothing. But if someone brings in some bomb ass stuff and it’s not cut properly, a match stick head size can kill you.
It wasn’t until the overdose death of his friend Kidd that Tony realized he had enough of heroin and decided to kick. “What happened is my guy Kidd overdosed on heroin and that made me think, ‘I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life,’ so I kicked it myself. I went through the sweats, the sickness, the nastiness, crapping on myself… I didn’t have no methadone, no nothing. The prison officials tried to offer methadone to me, but I refused because that is a worse addiction. I just did it myself and it took me two weeks. I saw Kidd die and I didn’t want to die.
Post prison and staying out
“The hardest thing about doing time,” Tony laments was, “When I went in, my children were 2 and 3, and when I got out they were 13 and 14. I missed their whole life, missed everything and that was the hardest thing. When I was in the joint, I thought the hardest thing was being awake so I would try and sleep all day. I would have good dreams where I could see people I hadn’t seen in years. When Tony was released from prison 11 years later, he remembers the day. “I paroled homeless. My parole officer came and got me and I had nothing – just a tank top, shorts, and flip flops. In California, when you parole the state doesn’t have to house you unless you are medically or mentally unfit. I had $200 in my pocket and I said to myself, ‘I’m going to find somewhere for me to live,’ so I went to the areas where they had the dope and found this nasty old broad. I told her I’d give her $100 to let me sleep on her couch for a month and she did.” Soon after Tony moved in with friend that was recently released, but that didn’t last long. “When my homeboy Rocky got out, I stayed with him for awhile, but he started dealing drugs so I kinda backed off.”
Today, Tony says that life is good. “I’m with a straight laced Latina girl who is a hotel executive and I paint murals. After being with her, I strayed away from the gang life. I am not in prison anymore, so it has no use for me out here. In there the gang life provided an ample amount of drugs and protection. Now that I am free, I don’t need that.
Looking at his ink, I ask Tony if he has ever gotten any static from the prison tattoos, including the faded swastika on his cheek. “Nah. I’ve fought with more of my people. When a Black or Latino guy sees me, he may say, ‘Alright, he’s been in the joint and has ran with this crew or this group’ and they will walk on. But a white guy, he may try to approach me and start some shit. In the joint the swastika means something else in there than out here. I never followed Hitler.”
When we talk about recidivists and not reoffending, Tony offers his view. “My secret to staying out and not reoffending? Well most of the time those guys are short termers. The long termers usually don’t return because we have been through it. The short term people think it’s a game, they been in a couple of riots and think it’s cool. But for us who are tired of the riots and these guards in my face looking up my ass with a flashlight, we just tired of it. If you want to stay out you will, if you want to hang with the homeboys, you will violate.”
Tony looks out to the room of coffee drinkers, students, and future entrepreneurs with optimisim and says, “When I was in the joint a lot of people died, a lot of my family and I missed my kids growing up. Today, I don’t take life so serious. I take it day by day and I love it. I’m drinking a slushy and I am talking to you. Life is good.”