LA County Jail: The No-Frills Business School
By Benjamin J. Stein
Prison as Richard Nixon has observed has proved to be fertile ground for writers and social observers in this century. Idealists and visionaries like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. and lunatics like Adolf Hitler spawned powerful books and articles about their movements from behind bars. Now, from that center of the new and the relevant,Los Angeles, comes some poignant thoughts about management and organization in modern corporations also germinated in jail.
The source of this data is a man I will call Donald. He was a student of mine some years ago at a glittering university overlooking the ocean in Malibu. Donald was in intelligent and articulate guy, but he was also an incorrigible (I thought) wise guy, troublemaker and arguer. I had heard, off and on, that the same had dogged him when he had gone work for a very major corporation here in Los Angeles. Promotion had been slow and he had been in constant jeopardy of being dismissed—always because of his bad attitude. . - When he pulled up behind me at a gas station in Malibu a few days ago in gleaming sports car looking like a vastly more confident, far smoother, far easier to talk to-far, far better dressed-guy than I had known I was surprised. He looked, as one might say like a successful version of his old self.
He said that he had in fact been doing incomparably better at his work, had been promoted, was told what an asset he was, and was on the fast track to plutocracy. Over veggie burgers in an outdoor restaurant, he told me what had happened. It all began, he said, when he had been sentenced to 60 days in LA County Jail for drunken driving while on probation. It was, he said, a kind of education he had never expected, but had badly needed.
From the first moment that he had been handcuffed to a hardened convict and attached by leg irons to five others—all of whom were terrifying—Donald had realized that he had better learn the rules of prison life fast or he was going to wind up either dead or with some truly horrible stories to tell for the rest of his life. “There are rules of how to get by.” If you follow them, you do.
Rule One, he said, “…Is that no matter what kind of crap is being dished out by the cops and the guards, you absolutely have to put up with it. You can’t say one word back or you get hit so hard you can’t believe it, and you can’t do a thing about it. That’s rule one: Be humble and don’t talk back to those who have power over you.
“Rule Two is that you can’t take and crap at all, not any, from anyone on your level. You can’t let yourself be pushed around at all, not even a little bit, by the other prisoners. If they ask you for a cigarette you tell them to go —- themselves. If they ask you for money, you tell them you’d rather kill them than give them a cent. You can be friendly, but don t ever back down from anything, and even if the guy is 10 times your size, you let him know you’ll put up a fight and he’ll at least have some scars on him. Respect is everything in jail, and if you don’t have the guts to fight, fake it until you do (while I was jail I told people I was there for whacking my old lady, just so they would not think I was another drunk-driving wimp).
“Third beware of anyone who seems to be doing you a favor that is too good to be true. The first night I was there a little guy offered me his bed—and there weren’t anywhere near enough beds to go around— for five bucks. I paid him, and 10 minutes later, this huge Chinese guy comes by and says it’s his bed and he is going to kill me. We swore at each other for a while, so I at least looked tough and then I went and got my money back from the little guy. Guys who make offers too good to be true are nothing but trouble, at least in jail.
“Fourth stay out of other people’s fights. You don’t need to speak up for someone who’s being hassled unless you are part of his group. The guy who started teaching me about this told me at first I should just go off into a corner and not talk to anyone. He was totally right—totally. And it saved me a lot of trouble. “
“Fifth, hook up with a larger group who can protect you. Don’t ever be alone in jail. In LA County jail there were mostly blacks and Hispanics, and since I’m not black and I speak Spanish, I got with the Mexicans. That way I wasn’t just one lone guy who they could kill in the shower for laughs.”
“Sixth have a goal and pay attention to it. My goal was to get out of there alive — in one piece, in good health, and without any horror stories to tell my friends. I did it but it meant giving up being a wise ass, no more arguing for the fun of it, no more disrupting everybody else just to be the center of attention. Just staying alive, that was my goal.
“The point is that when I got out one month early for good behavior, and went back to work – they thought I was inGermanyon vacation – I just reflexively started to do the same things I had done in County.”
“They worked even better there. Being humble to my bosses, not taking any guff at all from the people on my same level, not getting into other people’s fights, making myself part of a group that could protect me, staying away from people who offered me unreal favors, paying attention to my goal (which was to get promoted), not showing off – all that works incredibly well in a large white collar organization.”
“Prison is the most unforgiving, rigorous large competitive organization. It’s the essence of human relationships in groups without any of the politeness or the etiquette. It’s what business school should teach you about what competing is really like – boot camp, in a way, for other more compromising situations. It sure worked for me,” Donald said.
“Anyway, now that you know,” he added, “don’t feel you have to try it.”
(Thanks, I won’t.)