Every time the jail door opens, the jarring metallic sound rattles the woman sitting there.
She looks up to find her son and when she doesn’t see him, she crumples back onto the window ledge where she sits waiting.
Benches inside the Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles were being painted the day Sunny Ludlow went to pick up her heroin-addicted son. His 97-day sentence was over and she was there, clutching a bag of his clothes.
Suddenly, he’s at the door. She lunges and they hug.
James Kenneth Fusca, 19, looks good. He looks healthy. Despite having served more than three “terrifying” months behind bars, having been beaten three times and three times taken to the jail infirmary, James looks good.
His mother notices. He’s bigger, she says. His face is fresh and when he talks he looks her in the eye with a gaze she finds steady and calm.
If nothing else, it’s been 97 days without heroin.
Aside from the jail slippers on his feet, James laughs to see he’s wearing the exact same clothing he did when he was first taken to rehab from his home in Santa Clarita four months earlier, after his mother cried in desperation on the phone, begging rehab owner Cary Quashen to help.
Quashen is Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital Executive Director of Behavioral Health and Director of Action Family Counseling.
It’s been 129 days since that first day of intervention, since James flopped onto his bunk bed at rehab in Piru, since the altercation with rehab staff, the head butt, the police who responded and found five outstanding warrants for his arrest.
For nearly three months James was locked up, bounced from one jail to the next, popping up each month inside the Santa Clarita Courthouse waiting to be sentenced.
James pleaded no contest and was convicted in July of five misdemeanors – all committed when he was homeless and stealing to feed his heroin addiction – of drug possession, under the influence, hit and run and petty theft.
On Friday, however, James has done his time and leaves one of the state’s oldest and biggest jails, housing more than 15,000 inmates, and returns to Piru to begin serving 270 days of rehab – this time court-ordered.
Once in the sunshine, flanked by his mother on one arm and the man promising rehab on the other, James confesses:
“This has been a very humbling experience,” he blurts out. “I miss the outside a lot. Before I took it for granted.”
He has more to share before they get to the car. “I’m ready for the program (rehab),” he says, reflecting on jail one last time. “There is no love here at all.”
Did three months in jail do anything to change him?
Time will tell.
Return to rehab
On Tuesday, back at rehab in Piru, in a room next to a bank of lunchtime warming trays – chow mein noodles and crisp steamed broccoli – James shares insights into lessons learned.
“When I first went in, I was scared,” he says.
“They have politics, inmate politics. If you don’t follow what they say, there are consequences. You either get beat up and end up in hospital or stabbed.
“It’s hard to adjust to the whole jail life. I made some stupid decisions,” James says.
James said he chose to side with “Mexican” group because that group outnumbered the other groups.
“I wanted to be safe but I realized I wasn’t safe,” he says.
When he switched allegiance, he was beaten again.
“They have this south-side swindle – basically, ‘gangstas’ who put you to work,” he says, describing “work” as being ordered to smuggle contraband inside his rectum, delivered to him by someone smuggling it the same way.
When he refused the “work” he was beaten again, hospitalized each time in the jail’s infirmary.
One of the beatings was a 40-second assault inflicted by three to four assailants punching and kicking, he says. Another time he was “jumped” and received a similar 69-second “ritual” beating.
James suffered no permanent injury, just bruises, now healed.
“Every time you go to court, if someone is trying to get a message inside or a weapon (delivered inside) they pull it out of their anus. And, if you don’t do it, you get a beating.”
James says he was also told to join the three or four other inmates ordered to deliver a beating.
“I didn’t want to harm anyone,” he says. “I had to beat up people I did not want to beat up.
“I thought I was doing 400 days. I had to weigh the options. Is it better to keep getting my ass beat every time they asked me to do things?”
What were his thoughts about jail when he was recovering in the infirmary after his first beating?
“I didn’t want to be there,” he says, noting he was transferred to a different jail after each beating.
At Pitchess Detention Center, released from the infirmary and back in the “dorm” he shared there with 200 other inmates, James recalls “I didn’t feel safe.
“Every night I was afraid to go to sleep because of the fact that I knew I was going to get beat.
“I got used to the fear, never knowing when something horrible is going to happen.”
On the day of his release, other soon-to-be-free inmates talked of getting high.
“I’m sitting there and they’re all talking about doing some big ass shot and I’m sitting there thinking, ‘I want to get back to Action (rehab) so that I don’t have to come back to jail.’
“I know that if I go back I will surely die in there,” he says.
Then, reaching back into one of his earlier rehab group sessions, James repeats the mantra he was told to repeat: “Because I’m worth way more than that.”
As for the future, James doesn’t hesitate: “I want to work with Cary.”
Then with the humor he showed that first day of rehab: “I want Cary’s job.”
Is it all just talk?
But, there’s reason to believe it might just happen. The reason is sitting in the room with James and Cary.
His name is Ryan Lauermann. He’s been a counselor in Piru 18 years. He was a 19-year-old addict – like James – when Quashen took him in. He’s 33 now.
on Twitter @jamesarthurholt