Life in the cage: Destination ASH
‘You tell the psychologist you hearin’ voices, that you see the devil in your cell at night, that you feel suicidal. They gonna put you up for transfer to Vacaville with the other girls who are there, fo’ sho’!’
‘I did lot of LSD. In fact, I hung out with Dr. Timothy Leary, the media psychologist. We organized RAVE parties in Southern California. He told me LSD was good for my mind, it would make me smarter.’
How ‘nutcases’ find treasure in the California penal system
By David Valdez
Coming to the prison system in 1995, just 25 years old, after spending nearly two years in the L.A. County jail, I was scared, not knowing what to expect. I had already been involved in racial riots in jail dorms, seen men beaten with bars of soap inside a sock, men slashed with shaving razors. I had to fight for my survival. There was nowhere to hide. All my life I had heard stories about the “joint.” Cellmates who were named “Booty Bandits.” Shot-caller inmates who ordered naive young first termers to prove themselves to earn their bones and respect.
My first day on the yard at New Folsom Prison, a maximum-security joint in Sacramento, I saw an African American inmate get rushed by three hardened convicts and nearly stabbed to death. It only confirmed my fears. For nights, I couldn’t sleep, being celled up with desperate, edgy cellmates. I had paranoid thoughts, panic attacks. I decided to finally see the prison psychologist to get some sleeping pills to take the edge off.
I put in a request for sick call and in three weeks I was called to the infirmary. I sat in the waiting area with about two-dozen inmates and listened to dialogue next to me….
“Girl, I need to get to Vacaville, my man is there for dialysis treatment. They got me in this nasty place with a pervert cellie who is trying to get THIS. Honey, I ain’t givin’ THIS up,” said Tanisha, a very young feminine light-skinned African American homosexual queen with beautiful long straight brown hair, flawless complexion, round ass, curvy chest resembling the super model, Tyra Banks.
A more masculine-looking, overweight dark-skinned African American queen with nappy black hair in a ponytail and razor stubbles around his neck, which eliminated any illusion that this was a woman, who went by the moniker “Chocolate,” said: “You know what to do—you tell the psychologist you hearin’ voices, that you see the devil in your cell at night, that you feel suicidal. They gonna put you up for transfer to Vacaville with the other girls who are there, fo’ sho’!”
“How fast they transfer me?”
“They gonna put you on 72-hour suicide watch in the rubber room. Strip you down to nothin’, just a paper hospital gown. When you in there, don’t eat, cry a lot, talk to yourself.”
“You done this before?”
“Yeah. That’s why I am here today. I am tryin’ to get to Atascadero State Hospital. Lots of love there. Hamburgers or pizza for lunch. A menu for breakfast and dinner. Your own room, not a cell. Telephone to get incoming calls. It’s a hospital, not a prison.”
“Wow! What’s I got to do when I get there?”
“Keep playin’ the psychologist. If you and your man don’t work out at Vacaville, come to Atascadero. I’ll be there. We can live in the same room.”
“Don’t the psychologists know who is faking and shaking?”
“Some do, most don’t. It’s like a headache—they don’t know if you got one or not. When you get to the prison library, get a book on psychology, study the symptoms of psychosis, to know how to fool the doctors.”
Sitting there, I drifted off in my mind, thinking what life would be like at Atascadero State Hospital. The delicious food. Freedom. Then I thought of Jack Nicholson getting lobotomized in “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.” No way I could fake mental illness.
After about a four-hour wait in a crowded waiting room, I was called into the psychologist’s office. Dr. Ahmed, a tall, lanky, dark-skinned man, wearing glasses and white doctor’s smock, greeted me.
“Mr. Valdez, what can I do for you?” he asked in a Middle East accent.
“I got life. I can’t sleep. I’m stressed out. I feel paranoid.”
“Paranoid, huh? Who do you think is trying to get you?”
“I get thoughts that the guards placed a bug in my cell to listen to my conversations. I feel every cellmate I get is a spy.”
“Hmmm…tell me, did you use speed or LSD, any other drugs before your arrest?”
"Yes. I did lot of LSD. In fact, I hung out with Dr. Timothy Leary, the media psychologist. We organized RAVE parties in Southern California. He told me LSD was good for my mind, it would make me smarter.”
He began to write down everything I said. He had a look of disbelief, scratching his head every so often. He then flipped through my medical file, read a few pages, skimming them quickly. Then he smiled.
“OK, do you feel I am a spy out to get you, too?”
“Yeah. I feel there is a video camera in here. Are you recording me?” I peered around the room, stared temporarily at the ceiling, then turned to look behind my chair.
“Do you feel suicidal?”
“Do you want to hurt yourself or others?”
Dr. Ahmed continued to write down notes, shaking his head, with a grin of disbelief, as if he had heard these lines before. “Mr. Valdez, clearly your thinking is messed up. I believe you are having side effects from prior LSD and meth use. I will put you on a medication called Flavil to help you sleep, Cogentin to help you with the side effects you will experience with the medication.”
“Yes. Here is a disclaimer form. Review it. Then sign here that you understand the risks of taking psychotropic medication.”
Reading the paper, I felt afraid to even take the meds. Side effects included: trembling, difficult breathing, sexual dysfunction, slow urination, excessive thirst, blurred vision. Feeling the meds might help me sleep, I signed the waiver.
“OK, Mr. Valdez, I will have you moved from building three to building seven, the mental health unit. The unit officer will provide you with ice cubes daily. An MTA will deliver your meds right after dinner. If it’s over 90 degrees outside and you are on the yard, present this card to the yard officer who will follow you to come back to your cell. I will see you in about two weeks, to see how the meds are working. Any questions?”
“Yeah. What does sexual side effects mean?”
Later that night, I was moved to building seven, an air conditioned cell, and told I’d receive a cellmate in a few days.
Right away, I noticed a big difference. The inmates here were very mellow, friendly, didn’t have the hardened prison look. Lots of homosexuals, a few queens of every race. A safe haven.
Every day at noon, when the temperature outside reached 90, guards placed a huge container of ice cubes and jugs of cold water on dayroom tables for anyone who needed them. Inmates taking psychotropic meds must stay hydrated to avoid heat stroke. At 6 every evening after dinner, a white female medical technical assistant handed out pills by sliding a tiny manila envelope under the one-inch crack of the cell door. She checked out mouths to make sure we swallowed the pills.
Alone in my cell at night, without a cellmate, I had the luxury of masturbating when the mood struck. However, after an hour of spanking the monkey, I couldn’t bust a nut. The meds altered my mind and body, I felt lethargic, wished I knew about these meds as a free man, could have lasted hours making love to a woman, instead of being the minute man that I am.
Without yard access because of the hot weather, I spent a lot of time in the dayroon socializing, and discovered that many inmates were faking mental illness—all with different motives. Some were close to their release dates and wanted to collect SSI because mental illness qualifies as a disability. Others were looking to stay in the mental health unit or transfer to another prison.
“Hey holmes, you a fish?” asked a Chicano nicknamed “Spider,” a 25-year old with bald head and tattoos of Aztec art all over his muscular arms and chest. He wore baggy shorts, XXXL grey sweatpants altered into shorts hanging three inches below his knees and just above the tops of his long, white tube socks which he stretched to his knees. He wore a wife-beater white tanktop and classic white NIKE Cortez tennis shoes.
“Yeah, man. I just got here. Came from reception center two weeks ago.
“You don’t have to trip here, holmes. Ain’t nothin’ jumpin’ off. People just doin’ their time.”
“Why is it so mellow here?”
“I’ll tell you like it is, holmes. Me, I got six months to the pad. I’m in max security due to my violent past. I used to gang bang. If I lived in other buildings, I’ll get into trouble for sure. My mom is sick on the outs. I want to be there before she dies. So I’m on a light dose of meds, to stay here in this quiet unit. Why you here, eh?”
“Man, I’m desperate. Got life. Wife left me. I need meds to sleep.
“Hey holmes, you don’t need the meds, you just need to do routina (exercise). Bust down, do some pushups, burpees. It will clear your mind. The meds will fuck you up over time. Make you do the thorzine shuffle, Look at Brad over there, the white boy.”
A 23-year-old with unshaven face, sat at a table alone, his blue eyes staring into space. His blond hair was long, past his shoulders, unwashed, with split ends. His state blues were dirty, wrinkled. He wore black shower shoes. He was a true “J-Cat,” a term given to mentally ill inmates.
“What happened to him?” I asked.
“Too many years on psych meds. You keep taking that shit, you will end up like him. I think the meds are experimental.”
“Really? Like we are test subjects? Lab rats?”
“Yeah, holmes. The shit I’m on, I can’t even get a weso (hard-on) anymore. It’s all about population control, homie.”
Within 10 minutes of talking with Spider, I could sense he was a couple of sodas short of a six-pack. He spoke of a conspiracy theory where all 35 California prisons would one day be used as concentration camps under the rule of the anti-Christ, and New World Order. He smoked too much PCP back in the day.
Later that night, as I was about to fall asleep, just after pill call, the cell door opened, and my new cellmate walked in, carrying all his property in a pillow case.
“Hi, I’m David, from Los Angeles,” I said, trying to be friendly.
“I am Cortez, Hernando Cortez, from Spain,” he said in broken English, with the accent of a Mexican National. A short Latino, about 45 years old, dark-skinned, brown hair, his upper grill of gold teeth glittered when he spoke. He had a mustache like the Mexican revolutionary Zapata, and was slightly overweight.
He placed his property in his locker, then jumped up on the top bunk and stayed quiet. I tried to initiate conversation but he didn’t answer. I figured he had a busy day, wanted to rest. As I started to fall asleep later on, I heard Cortez talking to himself in English and Spanish, a dialogue between two separate personalities.
“Yo soy el Capitan de este barcol (I am captain of this ship!).”
“You are a faggot!”
“Yo soy el hombre mas guapo in del mundol (I am the most handsome man in the world!).”
“You are ugly, a piece of shit!”
Knowing this guy was a nutcase, I forced myself to stay awake. He continued all night, ranting on and on about pirates and gold. In the morning, I asked the unit office for a cell move. No open cells were available. So that day I stayed out of the cell and kicked it in the dayroom to avoid him. He didn’t leave the cell. During count time, while I was back in the cell, I noticed he always read his old Bible, flipping pages back and forth like a madman. The pages were worn from turning back and forth so often. Each page had scriptures highlighted and underlined. The cover of his Bible had a drawing of an old 1600s style map, the kind pirates used, with skulls all over. The initials “ASH” were circled at the center of the map.
During every count, which took place at noon, 4 p.m., 7:45 p.m., 9:45 p.m., and 11:45 p.m., he got off his bunk, kneeled, and prayed like a Muslim, placing his head on the ground. I fought the urge to sleep. However, the meds kicked in and knocked me completely out. At about two in the morning, I was awakened by Cortez towering over me. Suddenly, he grabbed me by my T-shirt and threw me to the ground and began choking me.
To escape, I head-butted him like a WWE wrestler, and he fell to the ground, holding his nose, which bled profusely, dripping blood all over his shirt. “I am Cortez!” he yelled. “Take me to Montezuma!”
Still half asleep and drowsy, feeling this had to be a nightmare, I stared at him, not comprehending what the hell he was talking about.
As he got up and lunged at me, swinging his fists, my first instinct was to kill him, or he would kill me! However, after having listened to his rantings for two days, I thought of a nonviolent solution. I kicked him in the balls with all my strength, and he fell on his ass.
I stood over him and invoked the pirate code: “PARLAY! PARLAY! PARLAY! I want to speak to the captain of this ship!”
He looked up at me, immediately changing his voice and personality and spoke in a deep, raspy tone of a pirate. “You invoke ‘parlay?’”
“Yes, I am ready to plead my case.”
“Tell me, why shouldn’t you die?”
“I will lead you to the treasure, Cortez!”
“Treasure? Where?” he shouted, very excited.
“In the morning, when the sun rises, I’ll lead you to the long-haired lady, who has the correct map.”
His personality changed again, this time to that of a scared child.
He jumped back on his bunk, pulled the sheets over his head, and fell asleep, snoring.
I stayed awake, reflecting on what could have ended up a murder. In the morning, on the way to chow, I told Cortez to follow the other inmates while I contacted the “long-haired lady.” He kept walking. I went immediately to the unit officer and asked for another cell move. Unfortunately, he reconfirmed there were no empty cells.
Suddenly, an alarm sounded in the chow hall. Officers ran from different directions to the scene. I sat on the ground, as other inmates did, per prison regulations, and observed two officers escorting Cortez to a holding cage. Not far behind him, officers were escorting a long haired native American inmate who was often mistaken for a woman. The program resumed. All of us inmates rose from our asses and continued going our way. My unit officer suddenly returned, still out of breath. He handed me two plastic bags.
“Here, Valdez, take these bags and roll up your cellmate’s property. He isn’t coming back.”
“Apparently, he attacked the Indian guy, screaming, ‘Where’s the treasure?’ He is what we refer to as a J-Cat. My sergeant says that he has attacked inmates at three different prisons in the last four months. He has priors. You are lucky he didn’t attack you. He will be transferred to Atascadero State Hospital; the psychologist will be making arrangements.”
I walked back to my cell, and stood waiting, until a guard electronically opened the door. I stepped inside and opened Cortez’s locker and began packing up his property, placing it all in the plastic bag. At the back of the locker, I found a small plastic bag which contained about a hundred different psych meds. He had been palming his meds, not taking them.
The unit officer came to the cell about five minutes later. He was a young white officer who looked like a college student, blond hair, blue eyes, crew cut, lanky.
“Alright, Valdez, thanks for packing your cellie’s shit. You lucky man, you will be having a conjugal visit tonight with Rosey Palm. Enjoy! You will get another cellmate in about two days, when the next bus comes in.”
I handed him the property. The cell door automatically closed. I took the bag of pills and flushed them all in the toilet.
It dawned on me that perhaps Cortez wasn’t crazy…that this was his con to get to Atascadero State Hospital, the “ASH” on his treasure map where he’d find lots of love, hamburgers and pizza for lunch, a menu for breakfast and dinner. His own room…. §
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: