Saturday, 11 September 2010

#32 The Bloods and the Crips and the KKK.

Lil Wayne, sporting typical gang tats

I've tried playing Dizzee Rascal to several Americans. They just break down laughing. "Do people actually listen to this?" "Yes," I patiently explain. "Rap doesn't have to be about booty and firearms." "Is that really how he talks?" And so on ad infinitum.

The truth is, America just does cool a lot better than we do. To name a genuinely cool British recording artist, I think we have to go back to the Stones.

They do gangsters better, too. Sometimes I think we can't do anything right. Dizzee Rascal doesn't drink, for God's sake. Our toughest gangs - Nottingham and London's yardies - just aren't a patch on the Latino and black gangs over America's great cities. Ours shoot hoops; theirs shoot hos. I am officially declaring my authorship of the phrase 'SHOOT HOOPS NOT HOS' - coming to a Camden t-shirt stall near you very soon.

Well, a few weeks ago I had the fascinating experience of meeting some of America's toughest gangsters, when I visited a county holding facility on Long Island.

Now, most of the inmates we're two-bit crims. America has a system known as 'three strikes and your out', which on the surface looks like a sensible way of dealing with low-level antisocial behaviour, but in reality leads to jails being filled to bursting with men on five-year stretches for stealing a candy bar. It's nuts. America locks up about 0.75% of its population, or nearly five times the number we do. To give you a whirlwind of comparisons: that's 50% more than Cuba, 200% more than South Africa, and 300% more than Iran.

Is it working? Who knows. America has three times Britain's murder rate, but then it has many more densely-populated cities, more unemployment, more racial diversity, and (I'm just putting it out there) a lot more guns.

Anyway, without wishing to make any political points, incarceration is as American as apple pie. A young black man is more likely to go to prison than college.

Backdrop painted, what the hell was I doing there? Howard (my boss) is doing a pro bono project with the Council for Unity, a sort of 'Cons Anonymous' self-help group that ambitiously aims to paper over some of the gaps left by America's skeletal social welfare system. They provide educational opportunities within prison, and a support network on both sides of the bars - which aims to tackle the chronic problem of reoffending. Unsurprisingly, cons who leave prison with records, no skills and no family or friends tend to return to prison fairly quickly. There's a bit too much God bothering but it's a great scheme that I was happy to help with.

And while we were there, we also got to photograph some of the 'harder' inmates - mostly not part of the Council for Unity, since (I hypothesise) that would break with gang etiquette (and since they are mostly in for life). America's toughest gangsters sport tear drop tattoos which indicate various things depending on their exact form: usually either murders committed, family or friends lost to murders, or years behind bars. Well, the guys I met had dozens - I counted six on one guy alone - sitting under dull, thousand-yard stares. One of them, I was told afterwards afterwards, was the New York head of the Latin Kings, the most notorious of America's Hispanic gangs. (The Kings, incidentally, tell a story of the genesis of gang culture: they started as a legitimate civil rights organisation, then drifted.)

Meeting murderers and rapists is a bizarre exercise in normalisation. They are normal guys. They make jokes and say hello to you and eat fried chicken (I tried their food, by the way, and it was grim). There was something intangibly dark about the long-term inmates, but then there's little surprising about that. The guards communicated how difficult it was to me. "I get along with them, but I have to remind myself...they've done horrible things." There is a very real need to compartmentalise - otherwise you would be frantic - but a danger of going too far.

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