Shaun Attwood is a former stock-market millionaire and Ecstasy trafficker turned public speaker, author and activist, who is banned from America for life. His story was featured worldwide on National Geographic Channel as an episode of Locked Up/Banged Up Abroad called Raving Arizona (available on YouTube).
Shaun’s writing – smuggled out of the jail with the highest death rate in America run by Sheriff Joe Arpaio – attracted international media attention to the human rights violations: murders by guards and gang members, dead rats in the food, cockroach infestations…
While incarcerated, Shaun was forced to reappraise his life. He read over 1,000 books in just under six years. By studying original texts in psychology and philosophy, he sought to better understand himself and his past behaviour. He credits books as being the lifeblood of his rehabilitation.
Shaun tells his story to schools to dissuade young people from drugs and crime. He campaigns against injustice via his books and blog, Jon’s Jail Journal. He has appeared on the BBC, Sky News and TV worldwide to talk about issues affecting prisoners’ rights.
As a best-selling true-crime author, Shaun is presently writing a series of action-packed books exposing the War on Drugs, which feature Pablo Escobar and the Cali Cartel.
Shaun’s Social-Media Links
Blog: Jon’s Jail Journal
YouTube: Shaun Attwood
LinkedIn: Shaun Attwood
Goodreads: Shaun Attwood
Facebook: Shaun Attwood, Jon’s Jail Journal, T-Bone Appreciation Society
We Are Being Lied To: The War on Drugs (Expected 2017)
The Cali Cartel: Beyond Narcos (Expected 2017)
Two Tonys (Expected 2017)
T-Bone (Expected 2020)
Shaun Attwood’s True-Life Jail Experience
Hard Time 2nd Edition Chapter 1
Sleep deprived and scanning for danger, I enter a dark cell on the second floor of the maximum-security Madison Street jail in Phoenix, Arizona, where guards and gang members are murdering prisoners. Behind me, the metal door slams heavily. Light slants into the cell through oblong gaps in the door, illuminating a prisoner cocooned in a white sheet, snoring lightly on the top bunk about two thirds of the way up the back wall. Relieved there is no immediate threat, I place my mattress on the grimy floor. Desperate to rest, I notice movement on the cement-block walls. Am I hallucinating? I blink several times. The walls appear to ripple. Stepping closer, I see the walls are alive with insects. I flinch. So many are swarming, I wonder if they’re a colony of ants on the move. To get a better look, I put my eyes right up to them. They are mostly the size of almonds and have antennae. American cockroaches. I’ve seen them in the holding cells downstairs in smaller numbers, but nothing like this. A chill spread over my body. I back away.
Something alive falls from the ceiling and bounces off the base of my neck. I jump. With my night vision improving, I spot cockroaches weaving in and out of the base of the fluorescent strip light. Every so often one drops onto the concrete and resumes crawling. Examining the bottom bunk, I realise why my cellmate is sleeping at a higher elevation: cockroaches are pouring from gaps in the decrepit wall at the level of my bunk. The area is thick with them. Placing my mattress on the bottom bunk scatters them. I walk towards the toilet, crunching a few under my shower sandals. I urinate and grab the toilet roll. A cockroach darts from the centre of the roll onto my hand, tickling my fingers. My arm jerks as if it has a mind of its own, losing the cockroach and the toilet roll. Using a towel, I wipe the bulk of them off the bottom bunk, stopping only to shake the odd one off my hand. I unroll my mattress. They begin to regroup and inhabit my mattress. My adrenaline is pumping so much, I lose my fatigue.
Nauseated, I sit on a tiny metal stool bolted to the wall. How will I sleep? How’s my cellmate sleeping through the infestation and my arrival? Copying his technique, I cocoon myself in a sheet and lie down, crushing more cockroaches. The only way they can access me now is through the breathing hole I’ve left in the sheet by the lower half of my face. Inhaling their strange musty odour, I close my eyes. I can’t sleep. I feel them crawling on the sheet around my feet. Am I imagining things? Frightened of them infiltrating my breathing hole, I keep opening my eyes. Cramps cause me to rotate onto my other side. Facing the wall, I’m repulsed by so many of them just inches away. I return to my original side.
The sheet traps the heat of the Sonoran Desert to my body, soaking me in sweat. Sweat tickles my body, tricking my mind into thinking the cockroaches are infiltrating and crawling on me. The trapped heat aggravates my bleeding skin infections and bedsores. I want to scratch myself, but I know better. The outer layers of my skin have turned soggy from sweating constantly in this concrete oven. Squirming on the bunk fails to stop the relentless itchiness of my skin. Eventually, I scratch myself. Clumps of moist skin detach under my nails. Every now and then I become so uncomfortable, I must open my cocoon to waft the heat out, which allows the cockroaches in. It takes hours to drift to sleep. I only manage a few hours. I awake stuck to the soaked sheet, disgusted by the cockroach carcasses compressed against the mattress.
The cockroaches plague my new home until dawn appears at the dots in the metal grid over a begrimed strip of four-inch-thick bullet-proof glass at the top of the back wall – the cell’s only source of outdoor light. They disappear into the cracks in the walls, like vampire mist retreating from sunlight. But not all of them. There were so many on the night shift that even their vastly reduced number is too many to dispose of. And they act like they know it. They roam around my feet with attitude, as if to make it clear that I’m trespassing on their turf.
My next set of challenges will arise not from the insect world, but from my neighbours. I’m the new arrival, subject to scrutiny about my charges just like when I’d run into the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang on my first day at the medium-security Towers jail a year ago. I wish my cellmate would wake up, brief me on the mood of the locals and introduce me to the head of the white gang. No such luck. Chow is announced over a speaker system in a crackly robotic voice, but he doesn’t stir.
I emerge into the day room for breakfast. Prisoners in black-and-white bee-striped uniforms gather under the metal-grid stairs and tip dead cockroaches into a trash bin from plastic peanut-butter containers they’d set as traps during the night. All eyes are on me in the chow line. Watching who sits where, I hold my head up, put on a solid stare and pretend to be as at home in this environment as the cockroaches. It’s all an act. I’m lonely and afraid. I loathe having to explain myself to the head of the white race, who I assume is the toughest murderer. I’ve been in jail long enough to know that taking my breakfast to my cell will imply that I have something to hide.
The gang punishes criminals with certain charges. The most serious are sex offenders, who are KOS: Kill On Sight. Other charges are punishable by SOS – Smash On Sight – such as drive-by shootings because women and kids sometimes get killed. It’s called convict justice. Gang members are constantly looking for people to beat up because that’s how they earn their reputations and tattoos. The most serious acts of violence earn the highest-ranking tattoos. To be a full gang member requires murder. I’ve observed the body language and techniques inmates trying to integrate employ. An inmate with a spring in his step and an air of confidence is likely to be accepted. A person who avoids eye contact and fails to introduce himself to the gang is likely to be preyed on. Some of the failed attempts I saw ended up with heads getting cracked against toilets, a sound I’ve grown familiar with. I’ve seen prisoners being extracted on stretchers who looked dead – one had yellow fluid leaking from his head. The constant violence gives me nightmares, but the reality is that I put myself in here, so I force myself to accept it as a part of my punishment.
It’s time to apply my knowledge. With a self-assured stride, I take my breakfast bag to the table of white inmates covered in neo-Nazi tattoos, allowing them to question me.
“Mind if I sit with you guys?” I ask, glad exhaustion has deepened my voice.
“These seats are taken. But you can stand at the corner of the table.”
The man who answered is probably the head of the gang. I size him up. Cropped brown hair. A dangerous glint in Nordic-blue eyes. Tiny pupils that suggest he’s on heroin. Weightlifter-type veins bulging from a sturdy neck. Political ink on arms crisscrossed with scars. About the same age as me, thirty-three.
“Thanks. I’m Shaun from England.” I volunteer my origin to show I’m different from them but not in a way that might get me smashed.
“I’m Bullet, the head of the whites.” He offers me his fist to bump. “Where you roll in from, wood?”
Addressing me as wood is a good sign. It’s what white gang members on a friendly basis call each other.
“Towers jail. They increased my bond and re-classified me to maximum security.”
“What’s your bond at?”
“I’ve got two $750,000 bonds,” I say in a monotone. This is no place to brag about bonds.
“How many people you kill, brother?” His eyes drill into mine, checking whether my body language supports my story. My body language so far is spot on.
“None. I threw rave parties. They got us talking about drugs on wiretaps.” Discussing drugs on the phone does not warrant a $1.5 million bond. I know and beat him to his next question. “Here’s my charges.” I show him my charge sheet, which includes conspiracy and leading a crime syndicate – both from running an Ecstasy ring.
Bullet snatches the paper and scrutinises it. Attempting to pre-empt his verdict, the other whites study his face. On edge, I wait for him to respond. Whatever he says next will determine whether I’ll be accepted or victimised.
“Are you some kind of jailhouse attorney?” Bullet asks. “I want someone to read through my case paperwork.” During our few minutes of conversation, Bullet has seen through my act and concluded that I’m educated – a possible resource to him.
I appreciate that he’ll accept me if I take the time to read his case. “I’m no jailhouse attorney, but I’ll look through it and help you however I can.”
“Good. I’ll stop by your cell later on, wood.”
After breakfast, I seal as many of the cracks in the walls as I can with toothpaste. The cell smells minty, but the cockroaches still find their way in. Their day shift appears to be collecting information on the brown paper bags under my bunk, containing a few items of food that I purchased from the commissary; bags that I tied off with rubber bands in the hope of keeping the cockroaches out. Relentlessly, the cockroaches explore the bags for entry points, pausing over and probing the most worn and vulnerable regions. Will the nightly swarm eat right through the paper? I read all morning, wondering whether my cellmate has died in his cocoon, his occasional breathing sounds reassuring me.
Bullet stops by late afternoon and drops his case paperwork off. He’s been charged with Class 3 felonies and less, not serious crimes, but is facing a double-digit sentence because of his prior convictions and Security Threat Group status in the prison system. The proposed sentencing range seems disproportionate. I’ll advise him to reject the plea bargain – on the assumption he already knows to do so, but is just seeking the comfort of a second opinion, like many un-sentenced inmates. When he returns for his paperwork, our conversation disturbs my cellmate – the cocoon shuffles – so we go upstairs to his cell. I tell Bullet what I think. He is excitable, a different man from earlier, his pupils almost non-existent.
“This case ain’t shit. But my prosecutor knows I done other shit, all kinds of heavy shit, but can’t prove it. I’d do anything to get that sorry bitch off my fucking ass. She’s asking for something bad to happen to her. Man, if I ever get bonded out, I’m gonna chop that bitch into pieces. Kill her slowly though. Like to work her over with a blowtorch.”
Such talk can get us both charged with conspiring to murder a prosecutor, so I try to steer him elsewhere. “It’s crazy how they can catch you doing one thing, yet try to sentence you for all of the things they think you’ve ever done.”
“Done plenty. Shot some dude in the stomach once. Rolled him up in a blanket and threw him in a dumpster.”
Discussing past murders is as unsettling as future ones. “So, what’s all your tattoos mean, Bullet? Like that eagle on your chest?”
“Why you wanna know?” Bullet’s eyes probe mine.
My eyes hold their ground. “Just curious.”
“It’s a war bird. The AB patch.”
“What the Aryan Brotherhood gives you when you’ve put enough work in.”
“How long does it take to earn a patch?”
“Depends how quickly you put your work in. You have to earn your lightning bolts first.”
“Why you got red and black lightning bolts?”
“You get SS bolts for beating someone down or for being an enforcer for the family. Red lightning bolts for killing someone. I was sent down as a youngster. They gave me steel and told me who to handle and I handled it. You don’t ask questions. You just get blood on your steel. Dudes who get these tats without putting work in are told to cover them up or leave the yard.”
“What if they refuse?”
“They’re held down and we carve the ink off them.”
Imagining them carving a chunk of flesh to remove a tattoo, I cringe. He’s really enjoying telling me this now. His volatile nature is clear and frightening. He’s accepted me too much. He’s trying to impress me before making demands.
At night, I’m unable to sleep. Cocooned in heat, surrounded by cockroaches, I hear the swamp-cooler vent – a metal grid at the top of a wall – hissing out tepid air. Giving up on sleep, I put my earphones on and tune into National Public Radio. Listening to a Vivaldi violin concerto, I close my eyes and press my tailbone down to straighten my back as if I’m doing a yogic relaxation. The playful allegro thrills me, lifting my spirits, but the wistful adagio provokes sad emotions and tears. I open my eyes and gaze into the gloom. Due to lack of sleep, I start hallucinating and hearing voices over the music whispering threats. I’m at breaking point. Although I have accepted that I committed crimes and deserve to be punished, no one should have to live like this. I’m furious at myself for making the series of reckless decisions that put me in here and for losing absolutely everything. As violins crescendo in my ears, I remember what my life used to be like.