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An amazing life - an interview with Jim Dagenais
An amazing life -
an interview with Jim Dagenais
thanks for agreeing to talk with the Chiang Mai Mail. Your last job, as you
say, was working for the prison service in Afghanistan and, eight months
ago, you retired and are now living in Chiang Mai.
JD: Well, yes, maybe!
CMM: OK, so you were
born on the south side of Chicago and served in the US Marines for 2 years.
What came next?
JD: In 1964, I started work as a structural iron worker - we were called
‘the cowboys of the sky’. Boy, was that a dangerous job. I worked in New
York, Las Vegas, and Chicago. We had very little in the way of safety gear
- in one of the most dangerous jobs in the US!
Mai Dangerous’ - Jim Dagenais.
In the summer it was hot - the iron would burn you. In the winter we worked
in freezing weather - rain, fog and snow. But …we built all those high
rises. I spent most of my time on southern Lake Michigan building new steel
mills, 200 ft up with nothing but fear and atmosphere between me and the
ground. We used to ride the iron …you had to look out. You could be 50
stories up and steel beams would come at you.
The job was addictive, with the adrenaline rush keeping you going. It was
said that the main qualifications for this job were that you needed a size 2
hat, a size 5 jacket and balls like coconuts, (translation - small brain,
plenty of brawn and well…balls like coconuts).
CMM: Wow, so then what
JD: I studied for a degree in criminal justice, which took about 8
years, during which time I also worked as a reserve police officer. After I
qualified, I took a job as a criminal investigator and narcotics agent at
Pelican Bay State Prison.
CMM: Tell us about
Pelican Bay. What is it exactly? What are the prisoners like?
JD: Pelican State is huge. You know, there are about 900 staff and
there are some real mean characters in there - California’s most dangerous
inmates. They were mostly ‘predators’ on the hunt for the weak ones. Types
like child molesters, informants …anyone who was not a righteous criminal
CMM: But where do these
guys come from?
JD: There are 33 prisons in the state of California - if you are in one
of them and you misbehave, you’ll probably end up in Pelican Bay. Rapists,
murderers, drug traffickers, plus many of the leaders of the 100 or so
Southern Mexico Mafia gangs end up there as well.
The prison is full of the most brutal and ruthless gang leaders. The gangs
are race-based - Mexican, Latino, Caribbean …out to kill each other, even in
prison! Methamphetamines and heroin are the reason for that. People think
the drugs are brought in by prison officers - that’s not true, it’s mostly
women, the wives and girlfriends, who bring them in on prison visits.
They’ll fill a balloon with heroin and pass it across to the prisoner, who
stuffs it up his butt so quick you won’t even see it on the cameras. The
other way is that they swallow the balloon and later make themselves sick by
CMM: Tell us about the
JD: You can almost feel and smell the evil there. You have to watch
yourself - most of the prisoners are armed with knives. It’s so easy to
make a knife - all you need is some spring steel that’s hard, much harder
than the mild steel that the cell doors are made of. A bulldog clip -
that’s made of spring steel. You take a piece and work at a door, rubbing
up and down, you eventually cut a slice of mild steel off that door. Then
you just sharpen it, hone it on the concrete and you’ve got a blade.
CMM: Did you see many
JD: One time I saw two prisoners on the ground - it looked like the one
on top was trying to kill the one underneath - then I noticed that the one
underneath was stabbing the one on top with a blade. I couldn’t rush
forward in case I got in the way of the gunner. I just hoped the gunner
could see what was going on. He could - he shot the guy underneath straight
through the head. His brains and blood just whooshed out.
I was also present at the biggest prison riot in California. Another time
…a guy came staggering up to the gate and muttered he wanted to turn in a
weapon. He turned round - there was a knife sticking out of his back. We
sent him off in an ambulance to have it surgically removed. In 1999, while
I was trying to separate 2 prisoners, I was stabbed and seriously wounded.
CMM: What happened to
the Taliban prisoners?
JD: The Taliban prisoners were kept completely separate.
CMM: You retired from
the Pelican Bay job in 2005. What happened then?
JD: After a few weeks I was going crazy …the adrenaline levels were
going haywire. This life is really addictive …I applied to a couple of
private companies to go to Afghanistan to help with prison officer training;
first to Kabul, then across to Herat.
CMM: What were
conditions like in Kabul?
JD: It was real challenging but very rewarding. All our food had to be
brought in by road and it was bad. Kabul is real primitive. In the winter
they burn animal and human shit, tires, trees - anything to keep warm. The
air is yellow thick with dust and it stinks of human excrement …no toilets.
We were living in temporary, makeshift huts. We would have dust storms
where you just get hit by a wall of dirt …that’s Afghanistan. It’s just
rocks and dust. The only electricity we had came from a generator. Most
people get very little electricity.
CMM: And what are the
JD: Well, there ain’t much water so they don’t wash from one month to
the next. You know …they never clean their teeth. Ain’t that something?
CMM: And your Afghan
JD: They really got a lot out of it. We were running 10 week academy
courses and then dropped back to 6 weeks. We taught riot control, weapon
use, offensive and defensive tactics. When I left, they cried …now, you
wouldn’t get that in the States would you?
CMM: How about the
situation in Afghanistan - what do you think will happen there?
JD: Well, I think they’ll be OK eventually - they’ll get it together.
CMM: What made you
decide to live in Chiang Mai?
JD: Well, I’ve fought in the toughest fighting force in the world, had
the most dangerous job in the world and worked in the most dangerous prison
in the world. Thailand, and especially Chiang Mai, is retirement friendly
and Chiang Mai itself is a vibrant city. I’m learning Thai and I’m going to
keep on with that - I will probably die here.
CMM: Finally Jim, I
understand the Thai ladies of Chiang Mai have a nickname for you …
JD: They call me Chiang Mai Dangerous!
Note: The ‘cowboys in the sky’
were immortalized in the famous photograph of steel workers perched on a
beam high above the ground whilst working on the Rockefeller centre in
1932. You can buy t-shirts based on this picture in the Chiang Mai Night
According to a report in 2003, Afghanistan’s prisons, following 23 years of
armed conflict, were crumbling after years of neglect and the lack of
trained and qualified staff. Amnesty International urged the Afghan
Transitional Administration to reconstruct the prison system in a way that
protects human rights.
Some of the most notorious gangs in the United States are transported and
housed at Pelican Bay State Prison. Pelican Bay is known to be a war zone
and battlefield to different gangs clicking and fighting for power and
seniority. Many attacks and even murders on the street, some even hundreds
of miles away, are called from the gang leaders, also known as Shot Callers,
and are called from right inside their SHU cells. SHU stands for Security
Housing Unit and is even more secure than the rest of their maximum security
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