Every time you watch a movie or a TV show about prison they gotta make it more exciting than it actually is. I mean, I can’t speak for women’s prisons in America, but on shows like Orange is the New Black they have way too much freedom — like they can walk around and go get finger-banged in the chapel whenever they wanted.
It’s also a very stressful environment. There’s a sense that this is it — you’re fucked now. No one’s coming to get you. When you and me get stressed, we can go outside, take a walk, talk with our friends. But when you’re in prison, you’re stuck alone in a tiny cell till they let you out, and you start going crazy. When I was inside, there were so many cutbacks they didn’t have enough staff to run the show properly, so sometimes we’d be locked up 23.5 hours a day. Suicides were sky-high that year.
How’d your encounter with a yakuza hit man go?
The yakuza are the Japanese mafia, and between cutting off fingers and full-body tattoos, they also handle the drug business. In Japan, that usually means crystal meth. It’s hard for me to verify what he was saying and one thing I learned quickly in jail is people talk a lot of shit. But based on what I’d seen and read about the Japanese underworld over the years, there were enough details to make it sound plausible. He was a Spanish Filipino whose father abused him horribly, and he grew up with a lot of anger and was always getting in fights until finally he met some people who could exploit his anger.
Japan’s a very safe country but the stories he was telling me were like an ultraviolent Takashi Miike movie. He told me about one time his crew went robbing a group of immigrant dealers. No one heard from them again, and he still has nightmares about chopping up bodies. In another life — if you added an unhealthy obsession with his mom — this guy might have been a serial killer, but it shows how organized crime takes those same instincts and unleashes them for a profit.
When you began your journeys, were you already envisioning this book?
It started out as letters to the outside while I was in prison. People thought it was funny when I wrote to complain about having no rights and shit. For example, the prison admin wouldn’t accept that I changed my religion to “Jedi.” When I got out, I started doing a few articles and slowly got the idea to write a full-length book. So I started booking flights to faraway places and taking notes on what I saw. But I didn’t really have any idea of what I was doing, not even a title, until I hooked up with the same agent as Howard Marks. That’s when the mess of my thoughts started coming together into something people could actually read, and the rest is history.
What did you learn about the American criminal justice system?
One of the kingpins I talked to was Freeway Ricky Ross. If you wanted some crack in the eighties in L.A., he was the man to call, and he ended up getting a life sentence — one that was later reduced. But listening to him talk, the ’hood was already a fucked-up place when he was growing up. Who’s more to blame — Ross seizing the best financial opportunity available to a teenager who couldn’t read in South Central, or the system that produces thousands like him?
It’s a vicious cycle. You’ve got successive generations of politicians, from the hard-right Reagan to the supposedly liberal Clinton, putting every other black man in prison — many for nonviolent crimes — and then we wonder why the inner city’s so fucked up. And of course African-Americans have already been done dirty by slavery and Jim Crow, and the prison-industrial complex is just a continuation of that.
Along with all your field reporting, did you do other kinds of research?
Ever since I was in prison I’ve been hitting the books hard — maybe too hard! I’ve probably read every major book on drugs or drug trafficking there is. The books that most inspired me are Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream, about the war on drugs all over the world, El Narco, a history of Mexican narco-trafficking, and McMafia, Misha Glenny’s book about global criminal syndicates.