Life in the cage
There is only one neutral area on the entire yard, where you can sit and talk to someone of another race, as a human being, an equal, without the stark reality of racial division — the toilets.
Betty Bulldog is the nickname of a rogue Latina correctional officer. She is short, stocky, 40-something, who at first appears to be a lesbian, but has a husband and kids. She rides a Harley to work and is known for being an “inmate hater.”
Soledad’s ‘Breakfast Club’
Conversations run free in the prison’s outdoor toilets
By Tito David Valdez Jr.
Every weekday morning while you enjoy a cup of delicious hot home-brewed coffee, or while you drive the congested streets or highways on the way to work, in a galaxy not so far away, I am exiting the chow hall after breakfast, on my way to a special place on the recreation yard, to meet up with two other convicts, together we are the “Breakfast Club.”
The recreational yard at this minimum security prison is huge, probably one of the biggest in the California state prison system.
There is a brand new basketball court, a tournament-size tennis court, horse shoe pits, volleybal1 court, a soccer and football field, baseball diamond, and a commissary to purchase sodas, chips, and candy.
On a typical weekday, about a thousand inmates sit or mill about the yard; most sit on picnic table benches, socializing, or walk counterclockwise around the track. Four guard towers, one at each corner of the rectangular yard, preside over the activity. Inmates sit in selected areas, designated by race. Institutional racism is alive and well in California prisons.
One picnic table is designated for blacks from Southern California, another for blacks from Northern California, another for Southern Mexicans from San Gabriel Valley, another for Southern Mexicans from Fresno. An entire area with ten tables is for whites. There are separate tables for Mexican nationals from Guadalajara, Mexico City, Tijuana. Even the Asians have their own area.
Racism extends even to the inmate telephones. Ten phones belong to blacks, seven to Hispanics, three for whites, two for Asians and Indians. There are no signs to specify this — everyone just knows.
It is what it is. Territories passed on by each generation of prisoners for decades, since the joint opened up in 1959. This minimum security yard was once a maximum security yard, where hundreds of men over the years have been murdered in the struggle for power. Even the infamous Black Panther, George Jackson, walked this yard in the turbulent ‘70s. There is only one neutral area on the entire yard, where you can sit and talk to someone of another race, as a human being, an equal, without the stark reality of racial division — the toilets.
Surprisingly, there are only six total toilets, three on each side sectioned off by a barrier in the middle, and two urinals, for more than a thousand men on the yard. Such a condition in free society would draw outrage, but this isn’t free society; it’s hell, the belly of the beast. Inmates always have nothing coming.
Each morning, I look forward to taking my morning dump outside, where I can feel the fresh morning air on my buttocks, feel the warm rays of sunshine on my face, and hear the latest gossip.
Taking a dump while your cellmate is inside the cell is not comfortable. Nevertheless, taking a dump outside still affords no privacy, since there are always two other men who will sit beside you.
At 7 a.m., I pull out a small folded up roll of toilet paper from my sweatpants pocket, wipe the toilet seat down once, pull my pants down to my ankles, and sit on the mighty throne ... drop... flush. Within seconds, the usual suspects, the club members, arrive as they do every day, same time, and are about to prepare to sit on the toilet rims next to me. I cannot help but observe each man’s entrance and habits.
On the far left, Malcolm arrives; he’s a lean muscular 50-year-old African American from South Central L.A., a veteran cat burglar, who spent his life ripping off the rich in ritzy Westwood and Beverly Hills. He had a clean con. He obtained jobs from domestic agencies as a handyman and gained access to mansions. After careful planning, he would strike the target home when the owners were out, netting $70,000 days, selling all the purloined goods — jewelry, Persian rugs, and precious paintings — to Iranians and Jews in downtown L.A.
Malcolm is currently serving a 25 years to life sentence for a petty third strike. His two prior convictions were for residential burglaries. He was found by Beverly Hills cops, in possession of someone else’s drivers license (with his photo on it), pulled over simply because he was a black man walking around in a rich white neighborhood.
“Say, Dave, looks like we meet again, to send our tribute to the governor of California.”
“Yeah,” I say, “I’m ready to send my issue to him right now, via air mail!” Drop...flush.
He wets a strip of toilet paper in the sink, then wipes the toilet seat rim, pulls his pants down to his ankles, and sits down on the cold porcelain toilet. He lifts his right leg out of his pants, and plants his foot away from his pants.
“Malcolm, you don’t have to do that anymore, man, this is minimum security.”
“I gots to do it, homie, I can’t get caught slipping. Any mothafucka can run up on your ass if you got your pants around your ankles. How you gonna fight? Know what I mean?” Flush.
In prison, we pick up lots of habits. We don’t walk around the dayroom area with slippers and shower shoes. It’s mandatory to wear state boots or tennis shoes because you never know when a fight or brawl will break out. When sitting on the throne, the rule is to “drop and flush.” We learn this from spending many years locked up in a cell during lockdowns, where you have no choice but to crap in front of your cell partner, whose head may be only three feet away from the toilet.
Soon, Brad arrives; he’s a lanky 45-year-old white guy with long blond hair, goatee, missing teeth, and a complexion — due to years of meth use — cratered with acne. On first blush, you would think he’s a construction worker with his damaged skin. He looks 10 years older than his age. He doesn’t wipe the toilet when he sits, but just pulls his shorts around his ankles, without any concern for who may have been there before him. He pulls out a contraband Bic lighter from his sock, lights up a tiny contraband cigarette, and takes a hit, exhaling the smoke like a shaman. This is a white man’s incense, to rid the air of the foul smell.
“Alright, homies, I got the latest on Betty Bulldog. They’re sending her to work at the entrance door to medical.” Flush.
“Ah fuck, ain’t that a bitch,” says Malcolm. “You can’t get over on her, she is too wise for a mothafucka.”Flush.
“She goes by the book,” I say. “I wonder why they are moving her there instead of putting her ass in a tower, so she can’t bother anybody anymore.” Flush.
“They are trying to make us miserable. They put her in charge of the door, to give prisoners a hard time, so they won’t cone back to medical. Now I won’t be able to meet up with my homeboy from South yard. We used to meet there every afternoon, because the cop before didn’t ask you for a ducat to get in,” said Brad.
Betty Bulldog is the nickname of a rogue Latina correctional officer. She is short, stocky, 40-something, who at first appears to be a lesbian, but has a husband and kids. She rides a Harley to work and is known for being an “inmate hater.” Always in a bad mood, yelling at everyone. She was moved to the clinic after an entire cellblock of inmates filed a complaint on her for disrespecting black inmates who refused to serve food during a racial lockdown. She called them “lazy ass cry babies.”
Just as inmates have nicknames for themselves, they also assign nicknames to guards. If an officer is short, he maybe be called “Tattoo,” the name of the midget in the television show, “Fantasy Island.” If he is fat, he might be called “Shrek,” for the pudgy cartoon character.
“A mothafucka got to stay healthy in prison,” says Malcolm. “You get sick, you puttin’ yourself in the hands of those silly ass reject doctors. You see what they did to old man Smokey?” Flush.
“Man, they really cut him up like Frankenstein,” says Brad. Flush. “Just to remove a small, cancerous mole.”
“I feel sorry for him,” I say. “He’s going to have a huge scar for life.” I notice a long line of inmates developing in front of us, waiting to use the very toilets we’re sitting on. “So what’s the latest with the three strikes?” I ask Brad.
“I heard the D.A.’s office is supporting a change in the law by putting something on the November ballot, to let out thousands of nonviolent offenders.” Flush.
“Come on, you know they’re blowing smoke up everyone’s mothafuckin’ ass,” says Malcolm. “Arnold told everyone in his State of the State speech he wants to build 80,000 new jail cells … they don’t wanna let no one out. We are money to these people.” Flush.
“He’s right,” I say. “I think all these politicians are stepping forward with big promises to change the law only because it’s election year. They want the minority vote. All you got in prison is minorities. It’s bullshit.” Flush.
A voice belonging to a Chicano inmate named Shorty yells out at us from the growing line. “Come on eh, homie has to take a dump; this ain’t no AA meeting.”
Malcolm pulls out a small roll of bundled up toilet paper from his pants pocket and is about to wipe, but stops. He looks like he’s about to fart and does … Flush. “Damn, I been constipated. Prison food is a mothafticka.”
“For sure!” I say. “I try my best to stay away from the chow hall. Too much starchy foods, not enough fiber.”
“Hey holmes,” says Brad. “I used to work in the kitchen. You wouldn’t believe how unsanitary it is in there. They only do inspections once every six months. You know that every convict in that kitchen is trying to get his hustle, to steal and later sell onions, ketchup, sugar, etcetera. He doesn’t give a rat’s ass about looking out for the next man, keeping the trays and pots clean.”
“You been out to visiting lately?” I ask.
“Yeah, it’s getting worse. They got casino-style video cameras everywhere in there. Go figure, they spend a hundred-grand on the security cameras when this is a minimum security prison. That money could have been used to add another visiting day for us, to ease overcrowding conditions on weekends. Imagine, families drive like five hours or more to visit someone and get turned away or only get a couple hours to visit, and get terminated.”
“That’s true.” I say. “Like, what’s the sense of us not being able to come out to night yard? Even level III medium security prisons allow inmates to come out at night. Why is there a metal detector we have to walk through before and after the yard? They don’t even have a metal detector at medium or maximum security prisons! Everything is ass backwards!”
“It’s all about money, ain’t a damn thing funny,” says Malcolm. Flush. “Hey, you notice when a prison administrator screws up at one prison they get sent up to CDCR Headquarters to make policy? HA!”
We laugh in unison as the cold reality of it all hits us. Malcolm pulls out his toilet paper and begins to wipe. Three wipes later, he is finished, places his right leg and foot back in his pants, and is off to the sink to wash his hands, but there isn’t a bar of soap; someone stole it, probably a dope fiend.
I’ve noticed that every man has a different style of wiping. Underneath and upwards. Over to the back and downwards. A style and method learned from early childhood, taught by mom or a grandparent, which still survives adulthood.
“Damn, that felt good,” says Malcolm. “What a relief! I’m going to get my run on. I ain’t going to be like a lot of those cats around here who sit on their asses all day and do nothing, waiting to die. I am still in my prime, got a lot to offer the young ladies out there. My dick can still get hard enough to cut diamonds.”
“You are lying, man,” I say. “I bet you are already impotent. No pussy in a decade will do that to a man.”
“I got hope, you should have some, too, keep hope alive, my brotha. One day, we will be free,” says Malcolm. “They can’t keep us forever.”
As Malcolm leaves the bathroom area, Shorty, the Chicano with bald head, wearing baggy shorts and a wife-beater tank top, walks up to the sink, pulls out a piece of toilet paper, wets it and wipes down the seat, then a third time. He sits down in a hurry, sending his issue to the governor. Drop. Flush. “Damn,” he says. “What the fuck is wrong with you all — you constipated? Why you guys lounge around here like it’s the ‘Breakfast Club’?”
“Holmes,” I say. “You know how it is — we just talking shit.” §
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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