What Now?

| November 3, 2017 | 0 Comments

“The Camp.” From Prison to Pen, Ralph Inzunza’s New Life, New Book
Ralph Inzunza speaks to guests of Warwick’s of La Jolla of his life journey in prison.

Is there ever anything “good” to be gained for a year in the pokey? Most of us would issue a resounding, “No!” Former San Diego City Councilman Ralph Inzunza might surely agree, even if the experience has led him to an inspired first novel and a fresh, new direction.

Inzunza left office after the 2005 City Hall Cheetah’s corruption scandal. After fighting charges for nine years, then forced to surrender in 2012, he was sentenced to 14 months in Atwater Federal Prison Camp. Now, after three years of writing, Ralph Inzunza has transformed his experiences into a debut novel. “The Camp” is inspired by Inzunza’s journey from conviction to incarceration, with a plot that closely mirrors his experiences with fellow inmates, many whom had received ten, fifteen, and twenty year sentences for non-violent offenses.

Moreover, his novel narrates the unfair plight that many of his fellow Chicano inmates suffer, and the impact of incarceration on American working class families of color.

The story’s main protagonist is a law and order, nerdy politician, a former Deputy Mayor of a large California city, who goes to prison for “dishonest service of government.” As the only person of Mexican descent at the camp with a college degree, who had never smoked a “joint” in his life, he begins to transform in order to survive, and eventually extract his own judicial revenge.

We talked:

LW: Somehow, I think “The Camp” might be as much fact … as fiction! But, OK: it’s a tough one, and won’t endear any reader to our prison system. What do you think you brought to the experience that helped you get through it?

RI: I think the fact that I was in my forties helped immensely. At that age, you’re sort of seen as an older guy, so many of the guys leave you alone. Speaking Spanish also helped; at least a third of the camp preferred Spanish over English. And then, my political skills. Reading where things are headed, or what’s around the corner, as you sometimes have to do in a campaign or at City Hall also helped.

LW: Did you begin writing the book while you were in prison? Has the writing experience been therapeutic?

RI: Thoughts for the book did begin to swirl in prison. I was going to write my own story – Strippergate! I was set to go until I began to meet some of my room-mates, and that’s when I had an epiphany, and realized that it was their story that had to be told. It’s been very cathartic.

LW: You write, “There’s not a day in prison when you’re not hit with adversity.” That surely leads to, “the more you sleep, the less time you do!” Is there anything about having been in prison that helps lead one to a better life when finally out?

RI: Usually, when you get out of prison you’re jaded. The camp is purgatory! You’ve been traumatized, you’re out of touch with most loved ones, and you’ve seen some bad things, so in most cases I would say that being in prison does not lead to a better life. That’s why I’m against mandatory drug sentences, as the more time you do, the worse off you’ll be the day you’re released. I was the exception- I went to a camp for fourteen months, and had a beautiful wife, a family and resources the day I got out.

LW: Unlike being a politician, you write that “ignorance is bliss!” as an essential means of handling the challenges of prison life. What do you mean?

RI: Ignorance is bliss is true in many aspects of life. Do you really want to know everything your family, friends or neighbors are up to, good or bad? I don’t. In prison you’d rather not know what someone’s up to, especially if it’s “no bueno.”

LW: Have you remained connected to any of your fellow inmates or guards? Have they read your book?

RI: I have not remained connected with anyone from my “sabbatical.” I do hope that some of the staff up at Atwater read the book. I hope they’ll have more laughs than anger when they’re done with it.

LW: What has been the biggest change or difference, pre/post prison, in your outlook? Personality? Self-confidence?

RI: This is the best question! Life is cake if you have the right perspective. I stay informed, but I don’t live and breathe on every word that Trump or Faulconer utter, in that I’d rather spend my energy on my family, my friends, or my writing.

LW: In prison, you were nicknamed, “The Mayor,” but you were made janitor. Was that a prestigious job? Any janitorial skills you’re now able now to apply at home?

RI: I was an afternoon janitor – easy compared to the morning shift. The morning guys do the real work. I just had to tidy up from time to time. As jobs go in prison, it was one of the better ones, and as nicknames go in prison, mayor was for sure one of the better ones.

LW: I understand you are not interested in returning to public life; that’s unfortunate for us. With what have you replaced it? Do you still take an interest in our civic life? How do you think San Diego’s doing?

RI: I’m just not that into politics anymore. I find aspects of it to be a joke, and the arena currently saddens me. San Diego’s headlines, too, are troubling: Hepatitus A, L.A. Chargers, homeless in downtown, housing problems…I remember better days.

In the works: “Border Citizen,” about a 14-year old boy growing up during the Chicano Civil Rights Movement in 1982. It will be, says Inzunza, a fictional book that he hopes will one day be a part of high school history classes.

“The Camp,” by Ralph Inzunza, may be purchased at Warwick’s of La Jolla, or online at Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

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