Life in the Cage: Institutionalized
I’ve had to adjust to years of eating crap food, not getting laid, dealing with misfits, having too much time on my hands.
You don’t need women, man, to be happy. Think about it. They are a pain in the ass, drama queens. More than half the guys in the joint are in here over some woman in some way or another.”
Conversations with a veteran convict
By Tito David Valdez Jr.
Off Highway 101 in Soledad, California, I reside at the Correctional Training Facility, a Level II minimum security prison, located on prime real estate on the Central Coast. A gated community surrounded with manicured lawns, 24-hour security, like the places of the rich who live on Sunset Plaza Drive in the Hollywood Hills.
Inside the gates, the recreation yard resembles a large country club golf course with luscious green grass. There are horseshoe pits, a baseball diamond with bleachers, basketball court, volleyball court, and tournament-style tennis court, not unlike the facilities of Leisure World, where old folks retire.
It’s a place where lifer convicts end up to get away from all the madness of harder maximum security joints, where long lockdowns are frequent. Non-lifers, with less than a year left on their sentence, reside here as well, preparing for their eventual release into society.
I ended up here after five long hard years in the tougher joints by staying out of trouble. It was a difficult task, where a mere fistfight, or possession of porn, could land you in the hole and transfer you to a higher level security facility.
I’ve had to adjust to years of eating crap food, not getting laid, dealing with misfits, having too much time on my hands.
I’ve always stressed out over the mail, waiting for visits that sometimes don’t show up, and making the next phone call. I finally had to go on psychotropic medication to help me sleep, to uplift my spirits. Due to stress and worry, I developed stomach ulcers.
Among the convicts on the yard, some who walk around burned out and defeated, with their mean mugs and pumped up chests, there was Brad, an older Caucasian convict in his mid-60s, who always had a smile on his face. I approached him one day to find out his secret to happiness. What he shared, his viewpoint of doing time, remains with and bolsters me today.
My encounter with Brad took place while he was relaxing, reclined on the luscious green lawn, reading a novel. He looked so comfortable, able to block out conversations around him. His long blonde and white hair, which fell past his shoulders, moved slightly with the wind. His arms and shoulders were well built, much like some of the youngsters who exercise religiously. Prison had preserved him. He looked in his late 40s. Reminded me of Fabio, the romance novel character.
“Excuse me, I’d like to speak with you for a few seconds…. My name is Dave. So, what are you reading there?”
“Da Vinci Code,” he said with a smoker’s voice.
“How is it so far?”
“Ah, it’s all right. Doesn’t live up to the hype. My name is Brad,” he said, extending his hand for a handshake. “What brings you here, if you are looking for tobacco, I’m not that guy. That Brad is in the hole.”
“Nah, I’m coming to you for some advice. I heard you have been down 30 years. I’ve been down 13 years. I’m feeling like I’m becoming institutionalized. I’m getting burned out, I see you happy all the time, I want to be happy too.”
“Well, Dave, doing time is a state of mind,” he said, as he sat up in an Indian style position. “It's what you make of it. You got to focus only on the benefits prison has to offer you.”
“Benefits? What benefits? This is a nasty place to live.”
“Well…for one, you don’t have any responsibility here. No bills. Do you realize how hard people are working out there each day, just to make ends meet? Flooded with bills in their mailbox, borrowing from the banks, using credit cards, just to balance their budget. Bombarded with bills from insurance companies, electrical, gas, trash, rent, mortgage, phone, cars daycare, cable, internet service, NetFlix—you name it. Did you ever live on your own?”
“Well, then you know how it feels to stress out, not knowing if you will have enough money to pay the next month’s bills. Here, everything is done for you—for free. Every week, someone does your laundry, your sheets, blankets. Every morning and evening, a hot meal awaits you at the chow hall. You don’t even have to buy the ingredients from the market nor prepare it. It’s hot and ready, just for you. The kitchen workers get up at 3:30 a.m. just to prepare you a meal. Not even a wife or girlfriend will get up that early for you.
“That’s a good one! Speaking of old lady, I haven’t been laid in 13 years. How have you coped with the lack of female intimacy?”
“Dolores and Rosey Palm. They don’t whine, complain, you don’t have to buy them gifts, and they are always ready when I need a little action. You don’t need women, man, to be happy. Think about it. They are a pain in the ass, drama queens. More than half the guys in the joint are in here over some woman in some way or another.”
“Man, but it sucks living in a cell and waking up with wood, and there is another man in the cell with you. You see them shit, smell their farts, some snore and keep you up all night.”
“You got nothing to complain about. Right now as we speak, there are fifteen Mexicans living in a modified garage in Bell Gardens or a one bedroom apartment in Van Nuys, struggling to make ends meet. Imagine the odor of 15 people farts, it’s like a gas chamber.”
“But prison is such a dangerous place. I still walk around looking over my shoulder, always alert, even though this isn’t a hard joint.”
“You got nothing to worry about here. People just want to do their time and go home. Guys who get hit, they deserved it, they did something wrong, they had it coming. Didn’t pay a dope debt, wrote someone’s old lady, disrespected someone. There is actually more danger out there; do you ever watch the news? Car accidents due to drunk drivers. Carjackings. Home invasion robberies. The gates around us, they protect us from the crazy people out there.”
“You have a great outlook on life in here. I’ll let you get back to your novel. I’ll get back at you another time.”
“Alright, Holmes. See ya.”
The next day, after the morning meal, I walked out to the yard. It was a beautiful morning, no fog or low clouds, pure sunshine and clear blue skies. Walking towards the exercise/workout area, I could see Brad in the distance, alone, as he always was—a loner.
He had on his walkman headphones, wearing a white wife-beater T-shirt, exposing his large triceps as he did a set of dips on the bars. After a few seconds, he walked over to do some pull-ups on another set of bars. I happened to catch him just as he finished his workout, and caught up to him as he was taking a walking lap around the track.
“Damn, how have you been able to keep up your physique? Most guys your age, they look tore up in here.”
“Doing time is like parking a car in a garage for a few years. If you take care of yourself, you will remain young. The guys who are tore up, they are too busy chasing tobacco, pruno, dope. You always see these usual suspects at the clinic, complaining about their health.
“Speaking of the clinic, we got really shitty health care.”
“Well, not really, man. Look at the benefits. How many people out there even have health care? Many can’t afford it. They can’t even afford to pay for the pills that are prescribed. Here, we sign up, see a doctor in about 3-4 weeks; and you not only see a doctor, but the pills he prescribes, you pay nothing.
“Yeah, but most doctors are quacks, I’ve seen some get escorted out of here due to misconduct. Look, the feds even had to come in and take over.”
“It’s the same thing out there, man. Freaky gynecologists probing their woman patients when they are sedated, psychologists doing experiments with patients. Don’t you ever watch the news, Holmes?”
“Yeah, but I really don’t pay attention to all that. I watch Primer Impacto, the Spanish news program, and I’m usually checking out the women newscasters’ legs or cleavage. I like your point of view. I see you out here every morning, do you even have a job?”
“I’m A1-A medically unassigned. I fooled the doctors; they think I have a back problem. I told the psychologists I’m anti-social, can’t work around people. I get all the full privileges the inmates with jobs get. I learned long ago that I won’t work for the man. This is my time. I do it the way I want to do it.”
“How do you pass time, don’t you run out of things to do?”
“Well, I love to read. I’ve got a handful of pen pals I write. They order me subscriptions to magazines and newspapers like ‘Men’s Health,’ the ‘L.A. Times,’ ‘Esquire,’ to name a few.”
“Man, how can you even read in the cell? Cellmates always distracting you, talking, moving around up and down off the bunk.”
“I haven’t had a cellmate in 10 years. I’ve got a single cell, I live in Y-wing. Fooled the psychologist, told her I get homicidal thoughts. Since there is no ‘lights out’ in California state prisons, I stay up until about 1 a.m. every night reading, listening to the radio, about the time the guard comes around for the 1:15 a.m. count.”
“I can’t stand that, man, when the guard at night, shines his flashlight into my face. It wakes me up every time.”
“Look at the bright side. They are making sure you are alive, OK. We are valuable assets to the state. How many people out there do you know, who have someone checking up on them 24 hours a day, to make sure they are okay?”
“What do you mean?”
“For instance, if someone were to attack you right here on the yard, guards from all different directions will run to the scene, to save you. You got your own bodyguards at your disposal, they are looking out for your best interests.”
“I never looked at it that way.”
“Look, man. Picture this place as if you are the king of a palace. Everyone here works just for you. You are retired at age…?”
“Thirty-six. Guys your age out there are either unhappily married with brat kids, balding, trying to make another dollar to support their family. Or if they are single, some are contracting herpes or syphillis, from being too promiscuous. You will live a long life in here with a positive attitude. If you ain’t getting laid, you won’t catch anything.”
“All right, Holmes, I’m going to take a leak. I’ll catch you another time.”
“All right, man.”
The next morning, after morning chow, I went looking for Brad. He had opened up my eyes to so much. I was eager to find out more. I saw him sitting at a bench, which was a neutral area. He was writing an address on a brown envelope.
“Hey, Brad, where did you get those brown envelopes, aren’t those indigent envelopes that poor inmates use?”
“Hey, Holmes, I’m poor. I have no money on my books. The state provides me with 20 state envelopes per month for free to write my pen pals.”
“I heard about that. So it’s true. Wow, that is a whole book of stamps, a $7.50 value. I bet you stress out on the mail everyday, waiting for letters.”
“Nah, man, the pen pals I write talk about the same shit. How unhappy they are out there, living in their own prison. I’m like a therapist, just here to listen. I wait for the guard to bring the mail to my cell door. I don’t even open them up right away, I wait until I got nothing to do, then I open them.”
“Why don’t you ask your pen pals to send you money?”
“Nah, man, I’d rather have them send me thirty-pound care packages every quarter from the food vendors. When there is slop for chow, I prepare my own meal in the cell. I’ve got a hot pot, a hot plate to fry food on. After I cook, I sit on my bunk and watch one of the first-run movies on the institutional video system.”
“That’s one good thing about this prison, we get those first-run
movies before the public even gets them.”
“Yeah, man, sometimes after midnight, if you tune into Channel 12, you can get some really good stuff: Pay Per view boxing, wrestling. Our Direct TV system must have a malfunction.”
“You know what’s weird? I noticed the other day that foreign nationals get placed in education programs here to learn English, yet, when their sentence is expired, they get deported back to their country. Does that make any sense?”
“Makes as much sense as me having four vocational trades and I never did shit on those classes. All I did was show up and got credit and a certificate in the end.”
“Would you believe that I spent three years in a Vocational Auto Mechanics class and got a certificate in Brake/Engine Repair, Air Conditioning, Transmissions, and never worked on a car?”
“Ya Holmes, I believe it.”
The next morning, I saw Brad just getting off the phone. I approached him to talk some more.
“Dude, how often do you use the phone? MCI charges outrageous rates. Up to $20 for a 15-minute call.”
“I don’t pay the bill, man, I only call collect. So long as they tell me to call, I call.”
“Did you get a haircut? I can tell, looks like they cut off a good inch or two off the back.”
“Yeah, Holmes, the inmate porter in my unit, he is assigned as a barber. I gave him a Top Ramen soup as a tip. Imagine, people out there, they pay a barber from $10 to $50 for a haircut. You get the same service here, for free!”
“I’m really starting to see the benefits, like how we get free toilet paper, free state soap, free razors.”
“Yeah, man, you got it. Look only at the benefits. I’ll share some game with you, man. Sign up for all the self-help groups you can got into. You know, NA, AA, even the church programs.”
“They all have a budget each year to hold a special banquet. They bring in food from the streets: Carne Asada, real steak, Subway sandwiches…. Isn’t that awesome?”
“I’ll do it man, how do I sign up?”
One morning, I decided to stop talking to Brad. After listening to his advice for two weeks, I started to feel real comfortable in prison.
I realized that he was indeed institutionalized. As a lifer, who had been denied parole in 10 separate hearings, he had given up all hope of ever getting out. Like a good therapist, he figured out creative coping strategies of how to deal with a bad situation.
Feeling the comfort of prison, I understood why seven out of 10 inmates return to state prison within six months of being released.
Prison officials do not offer any realistic training or plan to teach an inmate responsibility, or real life skills, or trades, that might actually help an inmate stay clean and trouble-free upon release.
How can one expect a parolee to survive and become a productive member of society, when for years all his basic needs have been taken care of, when he is not obligated to do anything useful for him self?
Upon release, he is kicked out into society with $200, little or no family or community supports, and barely enough money for a single night at the local run-down motel. Or, he’s given a motel voucher that places him right into a drug or crime zone, where he is tempted to go back to his old ways. Unfortunately, many do re-commit crimes and return back to prison.
You probably think we have it easy in prison after reading this story. If some people had their way, all prisoners would be fed just bread and water and be kept locked in a cage 24 hours a day. Fortunately, the legislature, representing the people of California, feels that prisoners are human beings and should be treated with some dignity, being offered at least some minimal luxuries during their imprisonment.
Along with many lifers, I haven’t given up the legal fight.
We spend countless hours in the prison law library, trying to find a legal loophole, filing briefs in court, without an attorney. Due to the lack of legal experience, of course, most writs are denied by judges.
The very few lifers who do get out, gives others hope that one day we will be together with our families again.
Without hope, we would end up like Brad. §
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. Read more of his "Life in the cage" series here: