Jim Porter: Prison life — a primer | SierraSun.com

Jim Porter: Prison life — a primer

On September 14, 2006, John Chamberlain was arrested for possession of child pornography. Twenty-one days later, inmates in Theo Lacy Jail in the City of Orange beat Chamberlain to death because they believed he was a child molester.

In reviewing the charges against the inmates, the California Court of Appeal described in some detail the culture at Theo Lacy Jail which I found surprising if not shocking, and will recount in short-form, essentially verbatim, below.


The Theo Lacy Jail inmates quickly learned why Chamberlain was in jail. They wasted no time.

As waves of inmates hit, kicked, stomped, and did other abhorrent things to Chamberlain over the course of about 30 minutes, three Orange County Deputies sat in an enclosed guard station approximately 68 feet away.

The attack on the “Chester” was conducted during day room time.


Although a jury could not reach agreement on first-degree murder, five inmates were convicted of second degree murder.

They appealed their convictions, each with their own attorney, arguing they were not guilty because the practice in Orange County jails was to condone such attacks in deference to the time-honored practice where the inmates control the jail, not the jailers.


The Orange County jail culture as described in the court Opinion is enlightening. At least to this naïve guy.

Per the Court:

The jails form race-based groups called “CARs,” Classification According to Race. At least The CAR system is an inmate-generated hierarchy divided along racial lines that has existed since the 1950’s. The CAR system was present in Orange County jails and the majority of California jails in 2006.

In the F West Barracks at Theo Lacy Jail, the three CARs were the Woods, the Paisanos, and the South-Siders. The Woods were the Caucasian inmates, the Paisanos were the Mexican National inmates, and the South-Siders were the Hispanic-American inmates, who were primarily gang members and were the most dominant CAR.

Each CAR had a leader, a “shot caller,” a second in command, a “right-hand man,” an enforcer, a “torpedo,” and a person waiting in command, a “mouse.” There is also a “house mouse” for the entire barracks who is in charge of cleaning the barracks, distributing commissary slips and communicating with the deputies about the barrack’s needs.

The shot caller and the right-hand man were responsible for determining which inmates were disciplined or “taxed,” a form of punishment that included assaults, cleaning duties, squats or providing items from the commissary. The shot caller used torpedoes to carry out the taxings. It was common for inmates to assault other inmates with “sensitive charges,” such as child molesters (“Chesters”) and informants (“Rats”).

Deputies are trained to treat all inmates equally but because of the number of inmates, deputies used the shot callers to control the inmates because the inmates did not always follow the deputies’ orders but they feared the shot callers.

One deputy (Taylor) met with the shot callers almost daily and used them to control the barracks, discuss issues, and obtain information. When the deputies had a problem with an inmate, they would likely address the problem with a shot caller or other CAR representative.

The deputies would tell the shot caller that a particular inmate was not “staying with the program” — i.e. the inmate was making the deputies’ job difficult. Shot callers generally complied with the deputies’ directives and were rewarded with additional day room time or extra food.

The above is verbatim from the Court Opinion.


Several of the inmates that were not charged for the Chamberlain beating said that after the beating, Deputy Taylor said, “You guys f—ed up. I did not tell you to do it that way, someone is going to be in trouble for this … you guys weren’t supposed to take it this far.”

There was nothing in the Court Opinion that suggested any of the deputies were reprimanded or demoted.

The case issue was whether the inmates’ convictions should be dismissed because their due process rights were denied by the deputies who clearly knew about the beating.


The Court of Appeal recited the facts in a 30 page decision ultimately concluding the inmates had failed to satisfy the “extremely high standard of establishing outrageous government conduct.”

The fact the deputies allowed an inmate-manufactured assault does not itself establish outrageous government conduct under California and federal law. Convictions upheld.

Okay then.

Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon licensed in California and Nevada, with offices in Truckee, Tahoe City and Reno, Nevada. Jim’s practice areas include: real estate, development, construction, business, HOAs, contracts, personal injury, mediation and other transactional matters. He may be reached at porter@portersimon.com or http://www.portersimon.com.

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