In Cell Mates & Cell Outs, Curtis Howard educates readers about gang culture and prison politics, by giving us a jarring glimpse of his life as a member of San Diego’s Neighborhood Crips Gang and an inmate in California’s jail and prison system. From robberies gone bad, to prison race riots, his personal accounts are both fascinating and stirring, and some intriguing, yet tragic.
I became familiar with Curtis’s story when I read an article he had published in the Nov. 7, 2012 edition of the San Diego Reader. In it, he described his lifestyle of gangs and drug dealing that led to several prison stints, and the struggles that he has encountered after his latest release. I started connecting with Curtis through a mutual friend, and soon began reading excerpts from “Cell Mates” on Facebook. Each snippet was enticing and had me waiting for the next. The one that captured my attention most was about a fellow inmate named Black Freddie:
Black Freddie was a tall, buffed, charcoal-black skinned dude, who was by far the most feared and resented convict in the entire jail. He patrolled the cellblock throughout the day like a drill sergeant, cursing and yelling at the top of his lungs like a fucking maniac…Black Freddie had temper tantrums that brinked on insanity and he often threatened to choke, beat, slap, stab, or kill any inmate who dared to challenge him. He made it very clear that any man who lost a fight to him would be subjected to rape, or forced into oral copulation immediately afterwards. During these tirades, Black Freddie studied facial expressions of inmates for any signs of doubt or resentment so that he could call them out personally. He often vowed to inmates that he would make their mothers, wives, girlfriends, daughters, nieces, and little sisters victims of his horrendous sex crimes.
My initial reaction was a burst of laughter…one of disbelief that someone so ridiculously crazy actually exists, and also relief that I’m not locked up with him. Just as intriguing, is Curtis’s account of being cellmates with a serial killer while his trial was taking place.
But “Cell Mates” is more than just a narrative about gangs, crime and prison, it’s a book that should be required reading for college sociology classes. I consider Curtis to be a social psychologist for the way he is able to conceptualize gangs and prison as institutions, while tying in his personal experiences to deliver his message, and connect content with context. He breaks down various components of gang culture and prison politics almost academically for those who are unfamiliar, but still connects with folks who are already savvy. He does this by being authentic with his language and terminology.
What I appreciate most is that the book is raw, honest, and responsible at the same time. He doesn’t sensationalize gangs, drugs, or prison in anyway. I feel that young folks who read this book would really get the excitement they need to hold their interest, while also receiving sobering lessons in a way that’s not preachy. In one of his most powerful statements, Curtis writes:
Many young “up and comers” in my community don’t feel that they have earned their stripes until they have been to the Pen, or hurt somebody…I can assure you that the majority of the most courageous, toughest, and smartest guys that I know have never been before…
My only critique of “Cell Mates” is that I was left wanting to hear more stories. I appreciate that it’s concise and to the point, but this is one of those books that I could indulge in for a while. My guess is that Curtis is holding out on us. I’d be willing to bet that this is only a snippet of what he has to share, and there's more to come.