How I Found My Father in Prison: A Story of Compassion

By David Vartabedian 11/09/17
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Here’s a wild story for you… I’m not exactly sure when it happened, sometime like 1986 or 1987.

I want to tell you a little bit about my father. First and foremost, my father was a wonderful man who provided for his family. He was that kind of guy, and I mean, this guy put his family first. He would sleep on the floor so his kids could have a bed. He would give his children his last dollar so they could eat.
He was a lifer in the Navy — he joined when he was 17 and retired at 37. He was in eleven major conflicts in the South Pacific and a decorated veteran. He was a businessman as well as a real estate broker. I learned so much from him.
When I arrived at Los Angeles County jail (which houses over 5,000 people), they take you into the basement with several holding cells, where you wait to be processed and then sent upstairs to your housing unit.
As I shuffled down the corridor in chains, my wrists and ankles aching from the steel digging into my skin, I walked towards my holding cells. I happened to glance into one of the other cells on my right and I froze.My father was sitting right there on the ground in front of me!
I was overwhelmed with emotion to see the man I knew as the rock in my life, sitting on the floor, beaten down and defenseless. My dad would never back down to anyone, he was always the protector and I had seen him go toe-to-toe with some of the toughest characters.
The discrepancy was too much for me and a wave of nausea came over me.
“Dad!” The guard shoved me from behind with force telling me to keep moving.
All I could get out was, “listen for your last name and they’ll put us in the same dorm!”
I had to keep moving through the dungeons of this medieval-like castle with the sounds of chains, cell doors slamming, and people screaming and crying. And the stench was overwhelming.
I knew my dad had been in Chino, but I wasn’t exactly sure when he was being shipped.
To give you an idea of the whole thing, when you are processed at the Los Angeles County Jail, they house you in the dorms for several days or weeks, depending on how full the jail is. Afterwards, you are assigned to a cellblock.
I knew my father’s health was not in good shape. He’d had a stroke partly because of the stress from his court cases. When I was sent upstairs to the housing unit called 9500 dorms, in the 9000 block of the county jail, I realized my father had not heard his name, so we were not placed in the same dorm.
What the hell had happened to him? Where was he? Now I was worried sick.

The LA County Jail is so crowded all they can do is move bodies around. You could be transferred from one dorm to the other or another part of the jail to another at any given moment.
You can never fully settle in or relax because they are always moving you and circumstances are changing from one moment to the next. Everything is suspect and dangerous due to the instability of the madhouse.
I spent one eternal day in the 9500 block and was then transferred to the 9400. As soon as they opened the door to let me in, I saw my father sitting on one of the bunk beds.
He was with a bunch of guys from 18th Street gang. I was so happy and so horrified to see him sitting there. His poor health was more pronounced now. He had been robbed downstairs in the holding cells; they had taken everything he had in his possession as well as his shoes. The guys in the gang had given him a pair of shower shoes tagged with 18th St.
I knew one of the guys — I’d dealt drugs with him on the street. I told him how grateful I was (and I am to this day) that they took care of my father and gave him a pair shoes. We shot the shit for a little while, and then I found a bunk bed for us to share.
My dear father was so tired and sick. We only had about two weeks together before I was shipped off to Chino to do my state time. I “caught the chain before him” and he was sent off to federal prison for his evaluation.
Throughout my life, I learned what to do from my dad and what not to do. He took some big risks and also made some bad decisions that put him in this vulnerable position.
He had been involved with a development project with bankers and mortgage companies and the project went south. The group made decisions that were against the law and eventually, this landed my dad in prison.
There are three systems in jail or prison. One is County Jail, two is State Prison and three is Federal Prison. He had to do a short term for the state of California as well as the Federal government. He was housed in Chino State penitentiary as well as Terminal Island Federal Penitentiary.
In the transition from State to Federal prison, it is a standard practice they take you back to the county jail. Once you’re in county jail, you get picked up by the feds and taken to the Federal Correctional Penitentiary at Terminal Island.
Since he had already done his time atChino State Prison, which was a receiving center as well as a state penitentiary, he had already served out his time in the State Prison System.
At this same time, I was being transported from San Luis Obispo County jail to Los Angeles County Jail. They picked me up on felony warrants for prescription forgery, as well as sales of cocaine and heroin. Minor stuff.
Los Angeles County Jail is one of the craziest facilities I’ve ever done time in — fighting, stabbing, robbery, raping, you name it, it’s happening there.
They sent both of us to Wayside Max. It was the highest security of all the county facilities. The reason we went there was that we were both going to the penitentiary. It was the weirdest thing to do time with my father, obviously mixed emotions. I was happy I was there to help him, I was also very sad that our lives had come to this.
I knew a lot of guys when I got to Wayside Max. The dorm we were placed in housed everyone warded to the state or federal penitentiary. In prison, everything is racially segregated. Whites stay with the whites, blacks stay with the blacks, Mexicans stay with Mexicans. The dorms filled with the Aryan Brotherhood, Black Gorilla Family, MA. Any of the northern Mexicans have to be placed outside of the dorm.
A few of my friends from Long Beach had a place in the dorms for us. Every morning, I would make my dad’s bed, help him to the bathroom, walk with him to the chow hall. We would sit and laugh and play cards with my homeboys.
One particular event I remember. You’re allotted 15 minutes on the phone and there’s a sign-up sheet and the correctional officers manage the sheet. I was signing up for the phone, and I asked if I could put my father’s name to get him 15 minutes as well, so we could call my mother back to back.
The correctional officer said, “You’re in here with your father? Wow, he did a great job.”
I responded with, “Fuck you! You don’t know anything about my father.” They took me into another room and gave me “flashlight therapy.” I had some major bruises on my head, nothing to the face because they don’t want it to show.
When I went back into the dorm where my father and all my homeboys were, it was the weirdest feeling. I always saw my father as the strongest man in the world but here he was pretty beat down and I was able to take care of him for that brief time.
Then the day came when it was my turn to be shipped to the penitentiary. I left my father. I was pretty choked up holding back the tears and just hoping his journey would be safe.
In the next few days, when I arrived at the Chino Prison Processing Center, I was greeted by one of the inmates handing out bedding. He said to me, “You’re Pop’s son. We knew you were coming. Everything will be taken care of for you.”
I was sent to my cell, which was everything you might imagine, just like out of a movie. Three or four tiers high, the smell would just kill you. People screaming and yelling, fires burning, crazy.
I was laying on my bunk thinking, how the fuck did this happen to me? I’m in prison, and there’s nothing I can do to get out of here. I was morose. Here I was, just a kid, a surfer from suburbia who had landed in one of the worst places on earth... A living hell.

A few hours passed. Someone came to the cell and handed me a pack of cigarettes and some instant coffee.
The guy told me, “This is from friends of your father.” It was like I was in the fucking mafia. My “celly”, who shockingly turned out to be kind of fucking crazy, said to me “You must have some juice in here. You must be somebody. No one gets cigarettes on the first day.”

**This is an excerpt from the book I am writing “12 Steps Without God”**

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