~ from the Los Angeles Metropolitan Detention Center, by Jeff Dietrich

From the Los Angeles Catholic Worker

August 5, 2016

Dear Community,

“Dietrich, I’m gonna visit you some night.” Gabriel sits at the Latino table most evenings watching the Spanish-language TV. With a menacing look and numerous tattoos, he has the image of one who is familiar with both streets and jails. So, when he said he was going to come visit me some night, I was a little frightened.

The Latino table is near the C.O.s desk, and he was always there when I received mail each night. It is rare for an inmate to receive mail every night and even rarer to receive books. “I wanna get a book from you,” said Gabriel. I did not really know whether to be frightened or flattered. White nerdy types like myself who read are often an object of derision in an environment where some people don’t read.

I forgot about it after a few days when he did not show up. But last night he abruptly appeared, his shirtless tattooed body seeming to fill my doorway. It is customary for a fellow inmate not to violate the space of another, so he stood just outside the door. A little flustered at seeing him, I recovered my sense of hospitality and invited him into the cell and introduced him to my new cellmate.

“Robert Dietrich, can I get a book from you?” “Of course, no problem,” I said, beginning to quickly pull out my relatively extensive 50-volume library. “I was looking for a philosophy book,” he said. My library tends to run towards theology and public affairs. Not sure I had what he was looking for.

He checked out Dostoevsky’s Notes From the House of the Dead and one of Dennis’ books, A Walk in the Woods. But I suggested Chris Hedges’ book, The World As It Is, thinking that Hedges’ writing was crisp, easy to read, but critically insightful and intellectually stimulating. And his essays were all brief so if he did not like the book he could figure it out quickly.

He did end up taking the Hedges’ book and I forgot about the incident until two days later when Gabriel again showed up at my door, walking right in and startling me. “Robert, I never went to college or nothing,” he announced abruptly, “but I like to know shit and I know you know shit about how the state works and stuff. That book really lays shit out. He explains shit the way it actually goes down, man. When he says that Wall Street bankers are just like drug dealers on the street, I’m telling you, that’s real, that’s the way it goes down.”

I don’t know what I expected or even if I had any expectations at all. So it is an understatement to say I was shocked at such an immediate and positive response to one of my most favorite books.

I spent the entire day feeling pretty elated and in the evening I had another shock when my walking exercises were disturbed with an unexpected call-out of my name from the “Latino Hood.” “Robert.” I turned to see a heavyset Latino inmate pointing at Gabriel and asking if he could borrow the Hedges’ book next.

Gabriel was effusive about Hedges to his friend Eddie: “Yeah, this guy was a war reporter and he came back to this country and tried to write about what he really saw but they wouldn’t let him. They said, ‘this is what you are gonna write,’ so he just quit.” I volunteered that Hedges worked for the NY Times and that he attended Harvard University, both elite organizations, but that he was for poor people. I told Eddie that I had another of Hedges’ books in my room. Gabriel immediately wanted to know which one it was. He turned to the front of the book, which listed other titles by Hedges. I pointed out the title, but Eddie decided to wait for Gabriel’s book.

I walked away feeling profoundly moved at having connected across such a vast cultural and intellectual divide.

All my love and prayers,