A good day in hell
Editor’s note: Nearly three years ago, publisher Dell Franklin wrote an article about his visit to inmate Tito David Valdez Jr. at the California Mens Colony, a prison on the outskirts of San Luis Obispo, where until recently he was serving a 25-years-to-life term for conspiracy to commit murder. David now resides at Soldedad Prison. Dell’s aritcle touches on racism, brutality and the rare simple pleasures found in prison life. Dell never submitted his article to the local papers, but feels now is the time to publish it in The Rogue Voice as a companion piece to David’s “Life in the Cage” column, which this month depicts the situation and environment in which he was sent to jail—unfairly.
A good day in hell
A rare moment of tranquility in the belly of the beast
By Dell Franklin
I received a distressing letter from David Valdez, an inmate in a state prison. We’ve been corresponding since around Christmas, 1999, after he wrote me about a piece I’d published in the local alternative paper, New Times.
I found David’s letters to be incisive, witty, eloquent, alive with an undercurrent of street wisdom and anger. Despite his predicament, and the shafting he received from the system (see this month’s “Life in the Cage”), and the term he faces (another 15 years to life), David is consistently upbeat. But I sensed in his last letter that he was very down, and I was worried. I know he would never do anything drastic, but still, upon visiting him several times and listening to his detailed descriptions of life behind bars, I knew he was suffering badly and felt he was calling out to me for a visit, so he could pour out what was on his mind and in his heart.
I am much older than David and he confides in me, perhaps finding me a substitute father figure, for his own father is imprisoned on the same charge and case that convicted David, and the two have not seen each other in more than 13 years. I know how much a three-hour visit means to David. I believe that David is a natural writer of depth, feeling, imagination and intellectual capacity. I have encouraged him to write, if for no other reason than to overcome in some way the misery of the confinement he faces daily: The boredom, claustrophobia, lack of companionship and sex, finding outlets for his frustrations, and just plain surviving. Yet, this is all food for writing, and because he can talk about it, and write it down, he is more than an inmate to visit out of sympathy, but also excellent company.
I visited him on a Saturday afternoon before Easter. At one o’clock I was filling out a small form with personal information which I had to show a guard at the long front desk before I could be inspected. As I did so, I felt an immense presence looming beside me. I looked up and discovered a muscular, massive black man filling out a form. I nodded and said hello. He said hello back. We were the only two people waiting to get in.
“How’s it goin’?” I asked.
“Man,” he said, “I just drove all the way from the redwood forest, up by Crescent City. Beautiful up there. I got some cool photos. I damn near fell asleep driving down here, 500 miles. I’m bummed out. I got a speeding ticket.”
“Who you visiting?”
“My brother. This is his third prison in three years.”
“Man, he’s lucky to have a brother like you.”
He shrugged, looking me over, a white man nearly 60. He wore wire-rimmed glasses and had a refined face and intelligent eyes. He asked me who I was visiting. I told him about David.
“Good for you,” he said. We walked up to the desk and withdrew everything from our pockets for the guards to inspect. We took off our shoes, had our forms stamped and OK’d after they were run through the computer, and walked through the metal detector. We passed. We were given our shoes and turned over our keys and had our wrists stamped and stood at the iron door, until it buzzed open. We walked outside to another gate and waited for it to buzz open, and then we were out front by the picnic tables on a grassy lawn, where low-risk inmates were allowed to visit with family and friends.
I dreaded this part of the visit. You see, once entering the visiting area inside, you go to another desk and hand the guards your form and then they page the inmate you are visiting. One usually waits half an hour to an hour before they come out. During this time, there is nothing to do but stand in the packed, noisy visiting room lined with vending machines, tables, and chairs, or you slip through a glass door onto a patio area with a few benches and picnic tables. The area is enclosed, and only a little sunlight hits the pavement and its few small trees. Here you sit, observing faces, the hand-holding, the checkers and chess and card play, wondering what drove each inmate to his fate. Such a different world than we know, or want to know. Yet, out here, there seemed a muted sense of joy, because at least for a few hours these inmates were somewhat free, though they could do no more than touch their loved ones in certain areas.
David, who has female friends visit (all solicited through local papers), told me that if an inmate touched a woman in a responsive area, or vice versa, he lost his visiting rights for six months, and his life became more of a nightmare. David said the toughest thing about female visitors was going without sex. As a young man in his prime, it drove him half mad.
I was lucky this visit. David’s mother and brother had visited him in the morning and were preparing to leave. Perfect timing. David was at the entrance and surprised to see me. I met his mother and brother. After they left, we drifted out to the patio, as we always did, the inside room forever crowded. It was chilly. I came prepared, bringing a long-sleeve shirt. The huge black man, Allen, stood in the middle of the patio, arms folded across his chest, shivering as he waited for his brother. I was about to call out to him when he walked back into the main room. I told David about him. We talked easily. Yes, he had been severely depressed, about as low as he’d felt in some time. His case, which was on appeal, was stagnant. The possibility of facing another 15 years in this place was corroding his sense of hope, which was about the only thing keeping him going.
How does one cheer up a person facing such a situation? You can’t. You’re just there. What really disturbed David was that to appeal his case, a very viable one, he needed a high-profile,, high-powered lawyer, but to land such a rare commodity he needed twenty-grand and a headline case. He had neither.
We talked a lot about women who visit prisoners. Observing an obese, rather homely white woman read the bible to a black man with the torso of an NFL football linebacker, who held her hand in his lap, David concluded, from studying his own website, that there is a culture of women who had “a thing” about visiting and forging romantic relationships with inmates.
“These are not show-stoppers,” he said. He sighed. “They know they are all we really have. You sit and hold hands, like that couple. You can’t touch them. I think they know they have this power over you, because you cannot reject them as they’ve been rejected outside the cage. They must realize how horny we are, how horny I am, just bursting, ready to come in my pants…it’s been so long since I’ve been with a woman.” He looked around, continued: “I have my picture in my website (he’s a handsome lad) and I get feedback. Things are looking up. As you can see, most of these women are unattractive rejects, but a stripper from the Bay Area contacted me. She sent me pictures. She is a knockout. We’ve been corresponding. She’s coming tomorrow, Easter Sunday, and I can’t wait to meet her. I’m excited, been excited all week. A beauty right out of Playboy magazine, and let’s face it, man, all I got to keep me going is porno magazines, and the guards don’t allow much.”
David has had three years of college. He’s no gangbanger. There’s no use going into his case. He’s not a hardened criminal or sociopath, but he will be the first one to tell you that everybody incarcerated in prison claims to be innocent, framed, sold out, entrapped. David never needed to be rehabilitated, which, in prison, is a joke.
Allen re-entered the patio. Beside him was a tall, lanky man, much thinner, less muscular. I waved at Allen and they came over to where we stood near a bench in the shadows. I made introductions all-around and we shook hands. While Allen’s grip was strong but not overpowering his brother Wilson’s was a quick, light squeeze. He had wary eyes, but there seemed a swagger, a glow to him, and I was reminded instantly of a young Richard Pryor with his expressive face and emphatic hand gestures. Right off he was garrulous, taking center stage as we all stood and Allen rolled his eyes at me.
“Man, you got to watch yo’ ass out there, ‘cuz you don’t know who you gonna run into, what they gonna do, you might end up in here, in this hole, like me.” He was addressing me, a person who’s never spent a minute in jail. “That’s the way it gettin’ t’ be. Can’t do nothin’, can’t trust nobody. Man, half the dudes in prison these days are here for political reasons, or drugs, but won’t nobody say it, especially the authorities. Man, it’s like, we don’t want these niggers and ‘spics on the streets, so we build a fence around ‘em.”
I’d always believed you had to screw up pretty badly to get stuck in jail, but then I’m white, and most of the white people I knew who committed drug offenses got haircuts, put on suits, found good lawyers and ended up on probation after going to Mickey Mouse rehab programs. A joke. A game. A racket. “Sounds like Russia,” I said to Wilson, “you know, the Gulag Archipelago.”
He smiled. “Gulag-mothafuckin’-Archipelago.”
For the obvious reason that we were all fairly new to each other, there was a bit of tension in the air and we all started talking at once. Wilson had transferred from a tougher prison. As he and David exchanged areas where they were celled here, I sensed this tension. In the all-male world, men feel sexually threatened and paranoid. So Wilson exclaimed he was no homosexual, that he liked women. David nodded, very relaxed. He is always calm, engaging, never overbearing. We all stood shivering until Wilson spotted an empty concrete bench in a patch of sunlight and suggested we move there.
We did. But before we sat down, I suggested, as always, that I buy David something from the vending machines, a ritual. David likes burritos, chips, cokes. He had already eaten with his mother, but, since it was cold, I bought us some hot chocolate. Inmates are not allowed to carry money or touch the machines, so Wilson pointed out two candy bars he wanted. We had everthing together and went back outside to sit on the bench with Allen, who refused any treats. David sat across from us in a plastic chair he had pulled up.
We discussed how county jails in the L.A. area were rougher than state prisons. The gangs imposed their wills and sometimes a newcomer had to pay for protection, and often those who could not afford it urged their lawyers to move up their cases, suffering the consequences, so they could at least got the hell out of this murderous maelstrom alive or, at least in one piece.
The conversation evolved fluidly from us. We were a small group separated from other groups, mostly families, an island among other islands. Allen mentioned that Wilson had an AA degree from a junior college down south. Allen was a collage graduate who taught grammar school down south. The principal was critical of his teaching methods, and accused Allen of losing control of his classroom, and never supported him, and showed him little respect. We discussed the bureaucratic obstacles he faced—principals, superindendants, parental groups, etc. Allen was insecure about his job. He was also engaged to an Irish Catholic woman (Allen went to Catholic schools until college), and because they were both deeply religious they remained celibate, and Allen, not one to seek sex elsewhere, was extremely frustrated. Wilson grinned at me, then talk of his recent conversion to Christianity and the New Testament. I asked him if he believed in heaven and hell and the afterlife.
“You know it, man. Don’t you?”
“No. I think we find heaven and hell here on earth, and all the other bullshit in between.”
“Man, you soundin’ like an atheist.”
“No,” said David, whose new cellmate professed around-the-clock passion for Christ. “He’s like me, an agnostic.”
Wilson set off on a religious monologue. We all gave him room. He was not fanatical, or righteous, but sincere and prodedural in his explanations. He was knowledgeable. It seemed, suddenly, as we sat there in the sunlight, that this had turned into a very good day, like four people sitting around a table at a sidewalk cafe in Paris, discussing life and worldly problems. We all had something to say and listened politely. There was a lot of laughter and enjoyment and good fellowship. Most importantly, there was a feeling of trust among us, so that nobody held back. I felt blessed, high on life.
During a lull, Allen said: “Man, this is cool. I mean, why can’t blacks and Mexicans and whites get together like this in the real world, out there, like we are here? Why’s there have to be this…separation, guys on different sides, all this fear and paranoia, hating each other?”
“Because that’s the way they want it,” Wilson said, and David nodded.
“Man, first thing they do in here, they want you on separate sides, at each others’ throats. They don’t want harmony. They WANT us to hate each other. Some of them prisons up north, some of the guards, they are nothin’ but sadists, wanna take hardcore black and Mexican gangbangers and turn ‘em on each other like fighting cocks, like pit bulls. They don’t give a damn if they kill each other. You got dumbass redneck guards with high school diplomas; they make more money than my brother, a school teacher, and they got more security because they got a stronger union. Prison industry. Keep our asses locked up in here ‘long as they can, so they can build more prisons and give more of these peckerwoods jobs. It’s bullshit!”
Allen nodded. We talked about race. Allen was outraged that a man like Clarence Thomas had replaced Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court—a civil rights giant replaced by an anti-affirmative action pygmy, a man who did nothing for his people and in fact turned his back on his people.
“Bush put him in,” Wilson said. “What you expect? Now his kid, George-junior, gonna put in another sorry-ass pygmy just like Thomas, only he be a Mexican kiss-ass this time.”
“Thomas isn’t black,” I said. “He’s an Oreo. This was Bush’s dirty trick on the liberal establishment. Now his kid’s got a whole bunch of Oreos in his cabinet.” Wilson’s eyes brightened and he grinned. “You mean the cookie—black on the outside, white on the inside.” He winked at me. “Like my bro’.” And he laughed as he and Allen slapped hands.
David was quieter than the rest of us. He seemed to savor just taking everything in, adding a nugget from time to time. David is seldom opinionated, irrational, illogical, despite the anger and resentment he feels each day. He is an excellent listener and observer.
“This is great,” he said at one point. “This is one of the best times I’ve had since I’ve been here.”
The visit, almost three hours, flew by. It was time to go. We all stood as a voice over the loudspeaker informed us visiting hours were coming to a close. We walked to the entrance of the crowded visiting room and shook hands all around, and David and I hugged, and soon Allen and I were walking out the gate together, back to the fence that buzzed and opened, and the steel door leading to the front desk that buzzed and opened. We collected our keys. Allen then mentioned the speeding ticket he’d received. “It was the cop’s attitude.” He, shook his head in a weary resignation. “Like I was a criminal. I wanted to to grab his ass and shake him up. I feel the same way every time I talk to my principal. That’s why I’m so religious. I have to be. It allows me to control myself and keep from hurting people who hold power over me, who treat me like a house nigger.”
We talked about his brother on the way out to the parking lot. Allen wanted only that Wilson stay out of trouble. He wasn’t a criminal, just didn’t have enough sense and good judgment to stay away from the wrong people and bad situations, and keep his mouth shut around cops. Allen had to drive all the way to L.A. after coming from Crescent City. I sensed he wanted to keep talking. Under different circumstances, perhaps, we could have had a drink. I always need a belt at the local tavern after a visit to the prison. I told Allen I hoped to see him again. He told me he’d be back in a month. He felt very positive that his brother had told David WHY he had gone to prison, while David mentioned his own story.
“Man, he doesn’t tell anybody anything. That’s a good sign.”
I got a letter from David a few days later. Like me, he was high from our Saturday visit, but he felt a flood of despair the following day when the stripper never showed. He sat in his cell all day, unable to read or write, stoked with excitement, waiting tensely for his name to be called over the loudspeaker that blared throughout the prison grounds. Neatly dressed, freshly showered and shaved. He grew angry and bitter, wanted to lash out at something, anything, at the world, the stripper, the whole damn system, but was powerless to do so, and just sat there, his sole consolation being an Easter Sunday dinner that was a notch above the usual swill. §
Dell Franklin is publisher of The Rouge Voice. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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