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Fire blazing in a jail with silhouettes of scary movie villains
Illustration by Janelle Retka

A ghastly pale man was sitting in the corner with his head tilted back. He wore a black Dickies outfit with black Chuck Taylors. He was brawny and covered in tattoos. 

It was Oct. 31, 2005, and I was being held in a maximum security jail in Los Angeles. I was waiting to be processed at the jail when I noticed a man who reminded me of Darth Vader at that moment when he removes his helmet in “Return of the Jedi.”  

The man had a dark aura and a rough, sinister grin. He stared at me with his yellow and orange eyes. They were shining with the red glow of fire seen through smoke. He was sweating heavily. 

I could tell he was in the middle of a withdrawal. Processing at Los Angeles County jails can take 24 to 48 hours, depending on the volume of people. The area where I was being held was smelly, loud and overcrowded. 

I was anxiously awaiting my intake when a man approached me: “Hey dawg, you got some drugs?” 

I turned and noticed this tall, slim man with his eyes wide open, kind of like an owl. He was grinding his teeth while he talked. He resembled a zombie from the TV show “The Walking Dead.”

“Nah!” I said. 

“Oh, you want some?” 

I declined again. 

Suddenly, I noticed blood dripping from his nose. 

“You OK?” I asked. 

He wiped it off with his hand, but that made things worse. He had smeared the blood all over his mouth and chin. 

“Yeah, I just need to stop,” he whispered. 

“Stop what?” 

“Partying!” 

Several hours had passed when Darth Vader got up from the corner and began scanning the room. He spotted the zombie and nodded at him to come over. Their conversation made them both agitated. 

The room reciprocated their energy making everyone tense. It felt like being in the woods at midnight with a full moon, and then hearing a wolf howl. You know danger is lurking around and must be vigilant. 

Just before dawn, a man started acting belligerently toward another. The room got quiet as these men argued. Suddenly a brawl broke out between them. The jail turned into chaos. Then out of nowhere, I smelled smoke. I turned to my left and noticed a massive, bright orange light. 

Fire.

It was like a scene from the firefighting movie “Backdraft.” The cell filled with heavy, thick smoke. More than 20 deputies rushed in with riot gear to quell the inferno. It took them about 20 minutes to contain it. They handcuffed and escorted everybody out of that cell. 

While that was happening, I noticed a barbaric scene down the hall. An inmate was on the ground slouched over, drenched in blood. Other deputies were taking pictures of his corpse. 

For my 18-year-old self, those 48 hours were a nightmare.

Fatigue, failure, frustration, despair and evil harm more people than all the illnesses in the world combined. We all have a dark side in us, but it’s up to us to understand and control it. LA County jails, though, can bring out that dark side. 

The jails are like Dracula. They drain you emotionally, mentally and physically, leaving you to fend for your life among the ghouls, goblins and werewolves.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Brian Quintanilla is a writer incarcerated in California.