Life in the cage: Evening dayroom
I fought assimilation, didn’t want to change my college guy GQ look to the prison bad boy look. Finally, after 13 years of imprisonment, I now look delinquent.
An $11 can of Bugler tobacco, the going rate at any Wal-Mart or COSCO outlet, can be broken down to make a whopping $800.
Illustration by Gene Ellis
Life in the cage: Evening dayroom
Conversations with Huero and other inmates
By Tito David Valdez Jr.
Growing up as a Mexican American in an affluent conservative Southern California suburb mostly populated by whites, I had to assimilate to “fit in.”
Dated hot blonde-haired, blue-eyed chicks, became a regular at frat kegger parties, looked and dressed like a skater/surfer. If you had a conversation with me, you wouldn’t be able to detect a Latin accent, for good reason.
I spoke no Spanish, whatsoever. I spoke like a gabacho (white boy).
I grew up with minimum exposure to prison culture or gangs. I had only random encounters like visiting a friend in county jail, or the occasional drive to the barrio to visit the “connection” to score some weed.
I had never been arrested as a juvenile or adult.
My education about the criminal element came from television shows and Hollywood movies.
Then one day, I landed up in the jailhouse.
Since I looked like a gabacho and talked like one, I was not immediately accepted by the pachuco swaying Chicanos nor the Mexican national paisas.
During my first decade as a jailbird, I fought assimilation, didn’t want to change my college guy GQ look to the prison bad boy look.
Finally, after 13 years of imprisonment, I now look delinquent.
Always sport freshly pressed prison blues, walk with pride, attitude and confidence, speak the lingo. I even speak fluent Spanish.
In prison, you see many forms of assimilation.
A black youngster who grew up in a Mexican barrio who only kicks it with Mexicans. A white boy who grew up with blacks, and walks, talks, and acts black. Then the occassional white boy who grew up with chicanos in the barrio, who is by all means a Chicano at heart.
One prisoner comes to mind, his name is Huero.
It’s 6:30 p.m. and it’s time for evening dayroom.
A school bell rings as each guard stationed on three separate tiers racks the cell doors open. Inmates of all races step out and walk down the stairwell, to the middle of the building, where there are twelve stainless steel tables with four stools to each table.
Each table is quickly occupied by prisoners. The first five tables belong to the blacks. The next four are shared by Chicanos and paisas. The last three are for whites. Whites are in the minority in state prisons.
Quickly, the deafening chatter of over a hundred men’s conversations takes over the dayroom. You have to raise your voice continuously to talk to a guy just one foot away. It is no wonder that many old-time convicts are deaf and wear hearing aids.
The majority of men come out of the cell to have social interaction, to play dominos, chess, or pinochle, while others exit to give their cellie cell time out of respect, or to get away from a cell slug.
As the three guards responsible for the cellblock duck into their office to socialize with other guards, the true character and intentions of the block’s prisoners come out.
I find myself a spot to sit down on the cold cement floor, put on my headphones, push play on the CD player, listening to Metallica, battery at a low level. With a pencil and notebook in hand, I write what I hear and see around me.
The dayroom begins to reek of tobacco smoke. A portable CD ghetto blaster, perched on top of a trash can, jams loudly with the latest R&B artist Kanye West’s hit, “Gold Digger.” I feel the party atmosphere.
A couple of Chicanos begin to light up a cigarette next to me as a third Chicano approaches. I listen to their conversations….
“Hey holmes, kick me down a flajo (smoke), said Shorty, a Chicano youngster with oversized baggy jeans, Converse-style , black state-issued tennis shoes, and a white T-shirt. His homie, Flaco, a veteran Chicano dope fiend is wearing a beat-up pair of state issue clothing which says “CDC PRISONER” on them.
“Watcha homie, manana (tomorrow), Huero will kick me down 20 flajos. If I sell them all, I get to keep five flajos. I’ll hook you up.”
“You ain’t right, dog. I’m feinting for one ahora (now). I’ll be back, maybe I can come up big time in the poker game.”
Shorty walked over to the Chicano table and sat at the only empty stool available to join in a game of jailhouse poker with the fellows. Poker cards happen to be contraband and gambling is against the rules. Getting a write-up is the least thing on anyone’s mind.
He hands the dealer a brand new Right Guard deodorant which he pulled from his baggy jeans pocket. The card dealer nicknamed “Chino” hands him five markers, which have the value of one contraband cigarette.
In July 2005, the California Department of Corrections implemented a tobacco ban at all 35 prisons statewide. Tobacco is no longer sold at the prison canteen or allowed in vendor care packages.
Enterprising inmates, who have extensive experience in street and prison hustling, bought up all the tobacco and have hidden it, distributing it to addicted smokers at an exorbitant rate. Two bucks buys a miniscule issue of Bugler tobacco, one Top Ramen twenty-cent soup buys a Zig-Zag rolling paper—$2.20 total to make one cigarette.
For those who are poor, the pages from the small Gideon Bibles in the chapel make good rolling papers, as well as the fancy paper toilet seat covers used by prison staff. The poor can be seen collecting discarded cigarette butts wherever they may be found.
An $11 can of Bugler tobacco, the going rate at any Wal-Mart or COSCO outlet, can be broken down to make a whopping $800. A 40-cent book of 50 Zig-Zag rolling papers can net a profitable $10.
A black market exists where prices for tobacco can only go up as time progresses. It’s hard for prisoners to quit outright. Smoking relieves stress.
Chino, a Chicano inmate who looks Asian, acts as the card game’s “house.” As he pencils in Shorty’s contribution to the game, the lead breaks on his pencil. He kneels down to the floor and sharpens the pencil by rubbing it sideways on the cement ground.
He gets up, sits on his stool erect, and deals the cards like a professional casino employee as he sips on a cup of jailhouse pruno, hidden inside a plastic jug, while taking a hit from a smoke.
I notice his stubby nicotine brown index finger and thumb, accomplished from butts pinched to the last puff, which is a common trademark among even dope fiends.
At the white tables, four white guys are playing their guitars, singing the popular hit “Plush” by Stone Temple Pilots. A couple other white guys are working out, doing push ups in the far corner of the dayroom.
I look over to the blacks table and it’s like watching a prime time sitcom, like Bernie Mac, but with all the cuss words.
“Motha fucka, you a punk sissy, give me TEN!” said Big T, a huge bald muscular black inmate who resembles Michael Clark Duncan, who played the death row inmate in the 1999 movie, “The Green Mile.” He slaps the domino hard on the tables, which creates a loud smacking sound.
“Nigga, you a punk! You can’t beat my slick black ass, give me TWIENTY!” said Tre, a lanky dope fiend, who slaps the domino hard on the table, creating the same loud smacking sound. He jumps off his stool, jumping up and down with excitement, giving his two homies standing in back of him a high-five.
The words “motha fucka,” for all practical purposes, are the most commonly used words in prison—by all races. However, blacks are able to use them with such natural flow, as an adjective, noun, or verb.
“You a lazy motha fucka, I gots the motha fuckin’ paper in this motha fuckin’ game, slap me TWENTY FIVE, nigga!” Again, the domino is slapped hard against the table. The ghetto blaster is now playing Snoop Dogg’s rap hit, “Gin and Juice.”
I’ve noticed that the more intellectual inmates from all races, stay in their cells during evening dayroom, occupied by other more constructive activities. The dayroom is filled mostly with the not-so-intellectual inmates, whose lives are reduced to engaging in socializing or games to pass time. Men only in age, they still retain their juvenile nicknames, like Italian mobsters in Mafia movies. Men who have been a part of the system since adolescence, going to juvenile hall, California Youth Authority, and finally graduating to state prison. Institutionalized men who live and breathe criminality.
The “NO SMOKING” sign on the dayroom wall has no significance. Prisoners are outlaws.
Then, along comes Huero, returning late from our scheduled chow. He sneaks into the chow hall, after his first time through, by jumping over a rail to obtain seconds, and eats with the next cellblock on rotation for the evening.
Huero is a 28-year-old Chicano from Southern California with light green eyes, light skin, slick back light brown hair. At first blush, you would think he was a white boy from an affluent city in Orange County. But when he speaks, you know he’s from the barrio. He tells stories with such charisma that he draws an audience, has a fan club.
When Huero speaks, people listen.
“Horale, homies, that new C.O. (correctional officer) working in the chow hall, she is a firme hina (hot chick), I used to get my freak on with a hina like her.”
“Did your hina have big tits like her too, eh,” said Sleepy, an extremely overweight Chicano who ate a honey bun while sipping state-issued coffee from a mug with tattoo patterns of Aztec warriors and a goddess.
“Oh yeah, they looked just like Pamela Anderson, about thirty-six, double-D.”
“Fuck eh, I wish I could meet a hina like that,” said Sleepy as he bit into his honey bun.
“Homie, you wouldn’t know what to do with a hina like that. She wouldn’t be satisfied with your short dick anyway.”
Everyone in the vicinity erupted in laughter as Sleepy’s face turned red. He had a comeback.
“You must be a puto, Huero, why are you looking at my shit in the shower?”
“Hey, homie, let’s keep it real, there ain’t nothing there to even look at. You are way too gordo homie!”
Like a laugh track, laughter erupted in the background.
Huero had earned his respect and was looked up to. He was known to have socked a youth authority counselor for disrespecting him. Did hole time with the most infamous prison bad boys. Manipulated a female CDC prison counselor to fall in love with him, quit her job, and let him parole to her pad. He had five prior prison terms, always violated parole, never stayed out for more than three months. Has been in the system since he was 14. He specialized in burglaries and fraud, and was currently serving 25 years to life for a non-violent third strike.
A vato named Spanky spoke up.
“Hey, Huero, tell us about that scam you pulled off, where you scored two-hundred grand in one night.”
Huero, with one leg perched back against the wall, took a hit from his cigarette, resembling James Dean, reflected to himself for a moment as if researching his computer hard drive for that file, then took off his prison blue shirt, exposing his muscular arms and chest, which showed through his white wife-beater tank top. On his right arm, a tattoo illustrated every year he had been locked up: 93,94,95,96,97,98…. On his left arm, Aztec art mixed in with tribal designs. On the back of his neck, he wore a tattoo which said: “FUCK AUTHORITY.”
“I was 23 years old, living with this 45-year-old hina who always reeked of cheap perfume and wore layers of makeup that covered up her acne craters. Her old man, a vato from an enemy neighborhood, was locked up in Folsom, I was her Sancho. I used to drive her to visit her old man. She would come out all caliente (hot). I’d fuck her in the backseat, right in the prison parking lot.
“I had no love for this woman, but she took care of me. Anyways, eh, I find out her mom left an inheritance, I saw the paperwork. Five-hundred grand!”
“Damn eh, that’s a lot of feria (money), said one youngster named Lazy, eager to know what happened next.
“Anyways, eh, I talked her into pulling out a hundred-grand from her safety deposit box to ‘invest’ in a drug deal. I told her she could double her money in one night. So I set up the job. Told her to meet me with the money at a hole-in-the-wall motel room in Compton, where the dope man would be. She came as expected and…”
“Hey, holmes, tell me, did she really bring that much in cash?” said SLEEPY, with much interest.
“Hey, holmes, don’t interrupt me; of course it was cash, do you think I’m doing all this for a check?…Damn!…So, she showed up to the motel parking lot and my homie, disguised as a cable guy, robbed her in the parking lot. When she came up to the room, the dope man (another homie of mine), told her she better have the money or else he would kill me. She complied, homie, she didn’t call the cops, she went and got another hundred-grand the next morning and actually paid the dope man for my safe return. My homie then tied her up and told her he was going to let her live but he was going to kill me anyways. I’ve never seen that bitch again!”
“Damn, holmes, you just left her hanging like that?” said Droopy, a youngster who was a first-termer, going home in two months.
“Yeah, I partied for months with that money. Strip clubs, hookers, dope, hooked up my ranfla (car), kicked my crimees (crime partners) down too. Ten-grand a piece!”
Looking at Huero, I thought of Charles Manson. Huero hypnotized his audience with his stone-cold killer eyes, spoke with his hands in a passionate manner, like infomercial guru Tony Robbins or some of the best hustling black inmates I’ve met over time. He was very attentive, listened to every detail when someone spoke. Like a coyote who is always alert, a little paranoid—and misses nothing. I could see how he made that woman believe that she could really make money on her investment.
Huero went on for the next hour, telling stories of his best criminal cons, and chicks he boned. Finally, the bell rang for everyone to lock up.
Huero pulled out a small plastic bag, containing about twenty rolled-up contraband cigarettes. He passed one each to all seven Chicanos, equivalent to about fourteen dollars in value.
It was known that Huero had an inside connection to obtain unlimited amounts of tobacco. No one dared snitch on Huero. Even if someone did, guards would blow off the tip, because they respected Huero; he kept everyone in check.
“Gracias, Huero", said Droopy, “for looking out.” Every other vato shook his hand, paying tribute and giving respect, as if he were the don.
“De nada, homies.”
Droopy pulled out a contraband BIC lighter, a ten-dollar value, which he purchased from Hustle Man, and lit up Hueros’ cigarette for him.
Huero put his right arm around the youngster, as if he was his proud father, smiling, seeing a future in him.
“Hey Droopy, you are getting out in two months, how would you like to come up on a lot of money? I know this vato who lives on Olive Street in your neighborhood….” §
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 email@example.com, 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: