Life in the cage: A momentary breath of freedom
A trip to a Salinas hospital offers a brief escape from prison
By Tito David Valdez Jr.
In the last 13 years I’ve resided in four different California state prisons. While housed in maximum security for the first six years in windowless cells, I never experienced a moment outside past 3 p.m. I missed out on sunsets, the smell of fresh evening air, the sight of bright stars or the moon.
I’ll never forget the first evening I spent outside when I arrived at CMC in San Luis Obispo, a medium security prison. I roamed around the prison yard like a kid,, with much curiosity, joy, and excitement until 9:30 p.m. Bought a pint of rocky road ice cream and a cold Coca Cola at the mini-canteen, which is open all day. The cells had real glass windows that opened up, and I was able to smell the fresh coastal air even while in the cell.
During each bus ride from one prison to another about every three years, I was shackled in chains, hands and feet, along with 60 other inmates, while a Correctional Transportation officer was stationed at the back of the bus, holding a shotgun in his hand. I savored each bus ride, since it was my only temporary escape from the state prison grounds. I was able to view the mountainside, the acres of farmland, real cars, chicks riding bicycles, see what freedom was like. While passing, many motels on Interstate 5 or Highway 101, I’d spot many of the popular chains of motels in which I had partied as a young man. Places like Motel 6, Comfort Inn. Reminded me of better days.
Housed currently in minimum security since 2002, I’m at the end of the line. As a life-term prisoner, there is nowhere else I can be transferred to. I’m anchored in Soledad, like the sunken Titanic. Days pass without a change of scenery; it’s Groundhog Day every day. I view freedom only through whatever I see on the television screen.
I finally got the opportunity to get out of the cage recently, and it was three hours I’ll never forget.
Ask any employee or prison guard who works in a California prison if they drink the water. Publicly, they won’t answer the question. Privately, they will tell you, “Hell no!” All California Department of Corrections and Rehab employees bring their own bottled water to drink. Not even Johnny Cash in the movie, “Walk The Line,” would drink the water at Folsom Prison, and that was decades ago. Things haven’t changed.
I’ve done my best to stay away from drinking the water, stocking up on lots of sodas and V-8 vegetable juices. However, the abundance of sodium and sugar in such products finally, took its toll.
Three months after passing a kidney stone one morning, and experiencing the pain equivalent to a woman bearing a child, the prison doctor scheduled me to be transported to an outside private hospital in Salinas, California for an ultrasound procedure.
The medical department doesn’t tell an inmate when he’s being transported, nor to what hospital, for security reasons. The night before the scheduled transport, medical staff informs the inmate not to drink fluids nor eat for 12 hours. Before those 12 hours are up, the inmate is awakened in the wee hours of the morning and told to report to Receiving and Release. I was awakened at 5:30 a.m. by my cellblock officer, who told me to be ready in 10 minutes. I reported to Receiving and Release and was greeted by two correctional officers who had a pair of two-piece, shirt and pants, orange jumpsuits for me to put on, as well as leg chains and wrist cuffs. Shortly after a strip search, where officers made sure I didn’t have a handcuff key or .22 pistol keestered up my ass, I was handcuffed and placed in a small white GMC van along with three other inmates. The windows were tinted very dark. The seats in the van only sit four and face each other. The seats inside were a welded rectangular cubicle surrounded by sheet metal pocked with small holes about the size of quarters to see through. The steel frame inside the van which mounts the seats is welded to where it would be extremely difficult for an inmate to attempt an escape through the back door.
Within minutes, the van was in motion, going outside the prison perimeter, then beyond the prison gates, en route to Salinas up Highway 101. I peered through the quarter-sized holes for a view of my lost freedoms. Immediately, I felt nauseous from my claustrophobic seat in the moving vehicle. For the last four years, I’d never been outside the prison compound, never been in a car. I immediately smelled the fumes from the exhaust, which gave me a headache.
In the van, there was one other Hispanic, and two black inmates. All of us were quiet, trying to savor the moment, appreciating the very freedom we have been denied as we observed life outside through the holes. In the front of the van, two correctional officers chatted while listening to the radio station Z-97.9 FM, a Top 40 format station. The old school song “Freaky Tales” by Oakland rapper TOO $hort was playing.
“Dude, I’m taking a cruise to Ensenada this weekend, it’s a three-day deal. We leave from L.A. Going to try and score a hot babe,” said Officer Ruiz, a youthful 22-year-old Hispanic man, with short, buzzed dark hair, brown eyes, tan skin, and no mustache. Looked like a white boy surfer with a tan.
“Shee-it, you gots to get all you can while you are young,” said Officer Mack, a mid-40s African American correctional officer with a beer belly, who resembles comedian Bernie Mac. “When you marry, it’s like being in the joint with conjugal visits once a month. You lucky if you get some pussy twice a month.”
“You got it bad! I went balls out and spent a grip of cash on new threads to impress the ladies. You got any advice, give me some game.”
“My brotha, you just got to spread your paper around. The ladies will come to you. You pick what you want, like you at a Tijuana whore house.”
Listening to their conversation, I reflected on what I’m missing out on: A career, home, car, a large selection of women to choose from; the freedom to take vacations at any time, to barbecue on Sunday afternoons, to drink beer, eat pizza on demand…. I looked out the window through the small holes and saw another van following us. Two guards occupied the van as back up security to make sure nothing funny happened. They had two shotguns.
Feeling trapped, desperate and hopeless, my mind drifted to fantasy scenarios. Where was the Unit, the A-team mercenaries who could save me, whisk me away to freedom — the ultimate escape? What would life be like on the run as a fugitive? If the van crashed by some unfortunate circumstance, and if I fled, where would I go? Like the pigeon who leaves the cage temporarily and always returns, I felt fear, as if I could not imagine my life being outside the cage. I’ve been so used to being a jailbird that any thought of being free, faced with real responsibility, makes me afraid.
I focused again on the scenery outside the van. I saw migrant workers in the fields. A young couple driving in a Corvette convertible. A family of four, driving to who knows where. I observed the signs off the freeway, signaling that we passed the city of Gonzales, and farther up, Chualar.
The van exited the freeway at the Salinas offramp and minutes later we pulled into the parking lot of the Salinas Hospital at the emergency room entrance. The four armed guards got out of both vans and one guard opened the back door. All four inmates hobbled slowly to the entrance, our feet making a clacking sound from dog tags placed on the leg chains.
Two middle-aged Filipina women, just getting off work, looked at us as if we were part of a freak show. They whispered to each other and laughed as they continued to walk towards the parking lot.
In the hospital, no one sat in the emergency room waiting area. I immediately recognized the distinctive, antiseptic odor of the hospital, an odor I remember when I was a free man visiting my dad when he was ill. We were told to enter a small room to the right and sit down on the chairs provided. About 15 minutes passed. We inmates and the guards were entertained by Officer Mack, who was the only person standing up as he cracked jokes, like a comedian on the NBC TV show, “Last Comic Standing.”
Speaking with his hands in a passionate manner, like veteran convicts do, he said, “I was working on the overnight shift in D-Block the other night, and was reading the outgoing inmate mail. A slick cat tried to mail out his stinky boxer shorts to his girl. I went up to his cell and told him he can’t do that. He told me, ‘I’m just hopin’ if I send my drawers, she’ll send me her panties, so I can scratch and sniff.’”
Everyone erupted in laughter. Officer Mack is a natural comic. He just looks funny, and he ranted on, “I read another inmate’s letter. He was writing to Jenny Craig Center headquarters to ask for a pen pal. Brilliant. You notice most of the women involved romantically with prisoners are just a little on the heavy side, not model material…”
The laughter continued.
Out of nowhere, an unattractive, lanky female nurse with short blond hair and pale skin came into the room and said, “Inmate Rogers? Who is inmate Rogers?” Her tone of voice, deep and distinguishable, sounded homosexual, like many of the flamboyant queens who roam the yard in state prison.
“That’s me, I’m Rogers,” said a light-skinned African American inmate, who had dirty short dreads, like a broke-ass Lenny Kravitz.
“You need to drink this right now. It’s for your colonoscopy. I’ll be doing your exam,” said the nurse. She handed him two tall containers of sulfate to drink.
After taking a closer look, the female nurse was for sure a man. A transvestite. As she left the room, everyone laughed out loud, and Officer Mack said, “Damn, was that Dustin Hoffman? Bitch looked like a mannequin.”
“That mothafucka doin’ MY colonoscopy?” asked the African inmate in a sarcastic and frightened tone of voice. Everyone laughed.
A couple minutes later a very hot looking mid-20s woman came into the room, a radiologist, saying, “Is there a Valdez in here? Valdez?”
I stood immediately to full attention, as if answering to an Army drill sergeant. “That’s me.”
“Come here, follow me,” she said in a flirtatious tone of voice.
I hobbled in my leg chains, following her, checking out her heart-shaped ass, hugged by tight black cotton pants. Right behind me was Officer Mack. “Valdez, you lucky man, that girl has ass. I am gonna hang out with you while she does the exam.”
I was directed into a small room that had a high-tech computer screen flickering, and told to lay down on a padded table. The sign on the door read “ULTRASOUND.” Officer Mack uncuffed my hands and waist chains. The woman, who introduced herself as Betty, then told me to lay down on my back. I was able to get a closer look at her. She looked Indian, but didn’t have the dot on her forehead. She resembled Halle Berry, had a youthful dark tan complexion with huge brown eyes, short brown hair. She smelled really good. I recognized her perfume, a scent reminding me of an ex-girlfriend — Anais Anais.
“Mr. Valdez, just relax,” she said with a heavy Hindu accent. “I am going to put some lotion on your abdomen.”
She lifted my two-piece top jumpsuit to my chin, spreading the lotion on my rock-hard, six-pack abs. There was a warm sensation, like rubbing Vick’s, reminding me of those sex lubricants that are available at porn shops in the shady parts of Hollywood. I was getting a woody, since this is the closest I've been to any woman in many years.
She began to rub a hand-held scanner on different portions of my abdomen, pushing buttons on the computer, taking photos, hitting keys about every five seconds. I could tell she was impressed with my physique. My right hand rested on the padded table, just one inch from her crotch. As she moved the device around, her body moved forward towards me, her crotch rubbing on my hand. It reminded me of the times when I got my hair cut at the expensive beauty salon and the hot-looking stylist was rubbing her crotch on my hand resting on the armchair. I don’t know if it was intentional; it just happened.
I didn’t dare move my hand. I swear I could smell her glistening wetness; I could tell she was attracted to me. Officer Mack stood behind her, looking at the computer monitor, curious like a kindergarten student.
“Yo, Valdez,” he said. “I’m looking for George Lopez’s big fat head to show up on the screen. How many babies you having?”
The woman spoke up, ignoring Mack. “Mr. Valdez, turn on your stomach. I need to get a shot of your kidneys.” She wiped off the lotion from my stomach with a towel. It was like after a hot sex session with a woman,, where she wipes the leftover fluids off with a wet rag. She started to spread the lotion on my lower back, in the left kidney area, pulling down my jumpsuit pants just a little. I had a woody still at about half stance.
“Okay, Mr. Valdez, turn over now, on our back again. I need to get a shot of your bladder.” She slowly wiped the oil off my back and then spread more hot oil right below my belly button, pulling down my pants about a mere two inches from the hairline around my boner. She spread the oil with her hands and then moved the hand-held device around it was too much to handle. I immediately thought of the hot chicks at the massage parlors where, for an extra $50, the masseuse would give you a handjob.
“You excited, Mr. Valdez,” she said, as if she had succeeded in a plan to arouse me.
“Yes, very much. I haven’t been this close to a woman in many years — thirteen to be exact.”
“It’s okay. This happens often with young men like yourself. We should take a break. I can see on the screen that you have urine in your bladder. Go to the bathroom. I’ll come back in about five minutes.”
As she left the room temporarily, Officer Mack threw me a white fluffy towel, which landed on my lap. Betty had handed it to him. “You made an impression, Valdez. She is going to tell all her friends about you today. You will be the highlight of gossip.”
“Damn, Mack, it’s just being human. If you were in my shoes, it might happen to you.”
“She’s pretty fine. Don’t trip. I’ll keep it a secret. Go to the bathroom. Hurry. She’ll be coming back shortly. Make it quick.”
Officer Mack didn’t allow me to close the bathroom door, standard procedure. His job is to keep an eye on me at all times. As I attempted to urinate in the clean porcelain toilet, I missed the rim, attempting to piss with a woody. A bright stream of yellow urine sprayed in three different directions, hitting the wall and floor. I flushed the toilet many times, out of habit. Then I heard Betty come back into the room.
“Officer, why does he flush so often? Is he taking a number two?”
“No, he is just institutionalized. These convicts live with men in cells for so many years and it’s all about respect. They flush to eliminate the sound and any odor when urinating.”
I returned to the table and Betty finished off the exam, taking photos of my bladder. I then slowly pried myself off the table and Officer Mack cuffed my hands and cuffed the chains to my waist, and I hobbled outside the room. Betty gave me a wink and a smile as I went back to the original room where other inmates were awaiting their turn. I wondered if my boner made her day.
While sitting there, I listened to two black inmates, who had already seen the doctors.
“Damn, Homie, mothafucka on North yard can’t get it right, out for thirty seconds on the yard, and we got lockdown again. Can’ts even make it to the canteen. The youngsters are out of the pocket, nothing ain’t gonna change, Homie.”
“I bet you were happier than a mothafucka to get out of your cell today and come here.”
“Yup. I got a cellie, all he do is shit, eat, fart, and watch television. He never leaves the cell. I can’t even get a cell move due to the lockdown. I’ve felt like goin’ off on him many times.”
“I feel you, Homie. You don’t wanna get another beef for assault. Keep the faith, Homie. A change is gonna come.”
I sat comfortably in my chair and savored the moment of being free in the outside world, inside this hospital. I watched every nurse go by and stared at them like a pervert. Some winked and smiled, others wouldn’t even look at me.
As the last inmate returned (an old Hispanic man who also had a colonoscopy), we hobbled into the emergency room lobby. At 9:30 a.m., the room was filled with families, all of them staring at us like we were a Louisiana chain gang as we hobbled out.
As I walked across the empty parking lot, having a perfect view of the mountains, streets, houses and cars, I again fantasized of a mercenary team coming to get me, whisking me away by helicopter to some foreign country. I started to imagine what a night in Bangkok would be like, or Germany, what I would eat, or drink….
My fantasy was shattered as I was told to step inside the small van, and back into the small cubicle cage where the four of us were squeezed in like sardines facing each other again for the return trip to Soledad. The back door was slammed shut and all I could see was the sunlight coming through the quarter-size holes all around the steel cage. Two guards got into the front of the van, and started up their conversations again.
“You goin’ to the staff barbecue tomorrow?” said Officer Ruiz.
“Nah,” Officer Mack said. “I’m working a swap, getting overtime.”
“Trying to get all that paper, eh? You going to miss out on some good chicken tomorrow.”
Within 20 minutes of driving south on Highway 101, which seemed to last only 10 minutes, we pulled into the prison grounds, and officially I was back in the compound again, my time in free society over. We got out of the van, the guards uncuffed us, threw us our original prison blues, and we were on our way back to our cells in no time.
Walking down the corridor back to my cellblock, I felt comfortable — at home. I greeted all the familiar personalities along the way. Fortunately, when I arrived at my cell, my cell mate was not there. My cellblock officer opened my cell door and I entered, immediately placing a DO NOT DISTURB — TAKING A DUMP sign in my cell window, and, well, you know, brought out the container of lotion, and thought about Betty….
It may be another four years before I get an opportunity to step outside the prison again. §
Tito David Valdez Jr. resides at and writes from the minimum security Correctional Facility in Soledad, Calif. Listen to his radio segments on prison life on the nationally syndicated program, “The Adam Carolla Show.” For times, visit www.adamcarolla.com. Tito can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by mail: Tito David Valdez Jr. J-52660, CTF Central E Wing Cell 126, P.O. Box 689, Soledad, Calif., 93960-0689.
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