Life in the cage: Time in the hole
As the cell door electronically opened, I looked inside and saw a buff bald headed Chicano convict, with tattoos all over his neck, throat, face, and body. He looked me up and down, as if I was a fresh piece of steak.
Where prison’s most wanted go ‘fishing’ (part 1 of 2)
By Tito David Valdez, Jr.
Doing time in solitary confinement can either make or break you. It’s the perfect place to find one self. Being detached of all material possessions, responsibilities, the bondage of addictions like sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll. One is free to pursue knowledge, wisdom and understanding—like Buddhist monks.
Some of the world’s best writings emerged from inside the cage, extending from there like rays of sunshine. Men who found courage, determination, faith, in the face of adversity.
Or a man can delve deep into fantasy, trying to escape his miserable reality to the point where he loses all sense of what is real and what is not. The hole is meant to break a man’s will, his spirit, his hope.
My first evening in the hole, I was awakened around 9 p.m. by the voices of several Chicano inmates shouting to each other.
“Buenos Noches Sleepy. Buenos Noches Droopy. Buenos Noches Goofy. Buenos Noches Shady. Buenos Noches Bashful. Buenos Noches Spanky.”
I laughed, thinking immediately of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as if I was watching a Disney movie. I’d later find out that this nightly “roll call” was a ritual of men showing solidarity, so that no one felt alone in such trying circumstances.
I tried to fall asleep, but could not. Tons of memories raced through my mind. Different chicks I boned. Parties I went to, or organized. Chicks I could have boned. Places I should have gone to but was too busy. Driving buzzed, 120 mph in my ‘vette, on the freeway, listening at full blast to “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N Roses. What it was like to smoke a joint. And that one chick, who did that special something with her tongue ring…. I had to hit it just to fall asleep. Slept like a baby.
It was 7:30 a.m. I was awakened again by the voices of Chicano gangsters, the morning roll call.
“Buenos Dias Sleepy. Buenos Dias Droopy. Buenos Dias Goofy.”
Officer Rodriquez came by, opened the tray spot of the cell door, handing me my fist state prison breakfast on a plastic tray: coffee cake, grits, milk and toast. It was delicious compared to the slop at the county jail. And it wasn’t bread and water like in the movies.
I took my morning dump, brushed my teeth with the nasty toothpowder, and found myself with nothing to do. So I stood by the cage door, which had about a thousand small holes in it, the size of a dime, observing what was going on in the dayroom. I saw a nurse delivering pills to inmates. A guard escorting a black inmate to the law library in leg and waist chains.
After Officer Rodriquez picked up the empty trays, I noticed Chicano inmates in cells across from mine were working out in unison. One guy would run in place, and if he had a cellmate, he would be doing burpees or push ups, and then they would trade off. One inmate, somewhere in the building, was in charge, yelling out:
“Alright homies, ten burpees, listpo, ready, vamanos!” They exercised together for one hour straight.
Still drained from hitting it the night before, I didn’t feel motivated to exercise. So I lay down, thought of the past, was hard timing. I began to notice all-too-familiar sounds of the joint. Officers dangling keys, doors loudly clanging shut, loudspeaker systems blaring out instructions and inmates’ names to report to destinations. I suddenly heard a voice, coming from the next cell over, sounded like a white guy.
“Hey cell 215, it’s your neighbor.”
“Yeah, what do you want?”
“I’m Holloway, what’s your name?”
“Hey, did you eat your butter?”
“Nah, I threw it away.”
“I need it man, could you save it for me next time tomorrow?”
“Yeah, but how do I get it to you?”
“I’ll send you a line. Look at the bottom of the door.”
A piece of packaged bologna, attached with a string, swiftly slid under the half-inch crack of my cell door, barely fitting.
“Do you have any porn in there?” he asked.
“Porn, how do you get porn in here?”
“Chicks who are pen pals, they can send in skin flicks.”
“I just got here man, last night. Do you have any skin flicks I can check out?”
“Yeah, hold on.”
He pulled the line back, attached a small envelope to the string, sliding it quickly under my door.
“Here check this out,” he said.
With much excitement, I opened the small envelope and pulled out the photo, staring at it, getting an instant boner. A college-aged blonde chick, about 19, spread eagle, naked on a bed, totally amateur photo. It was over a year since I had sex. Couldn’t help but hit it, then take a nap afterwards.
I was awakened by Officer Brown, a black, dark-skinned guard working third watch, serving dinner at 3:30 p.m.
“Hey Valdez, you want dinner? Next time, turn your light on in the cell, so I know.” Inmates can refuse meals by not turning on their light if they want to sleep and not be awakened during chow time.
Dinner came on the same plastic tray, spaghetti and meatballs, with Jell-O. Not Olive Garden quality, for sure—more like school cafeteria food. As I was starting to eat with my state-issued plastic spoon and fork, my neighbor Holloway called me.
“Hey, Valdez, you eat your Jell-O?”
“Nah, it’s nasty.”
“Let me have it, I’ll eat it, tell Officer Brown during tray pick up, to let me have your tray.”
After eating my meal, minutes later, Officer Brown without hesitation, handed my entire tray to Holloway, through his tray slot, allowing him to scoop off the Jell-O.
“Hey Holloway, my brotha, don’t be asking me all the time to do this, don’t make a habit out of it,” said Officer Brown.
“Yo, be looking out,” said Holloway.
At 4:30 p.m., mail call. Officer Brown passed out mail for all three tiers. I didn’t get any. I slowly slipped into depression, lying on my bunk, thinking about the past, my new wife, my criminal appeal, and my dad, who was frail when I last saw him wheeled out of the courtroom. Pulled out the skin pic again, hit it, and fell asleep.
Of course, awakened at 9 p.m., for the roll call, by the usual suspects.
“Buenos Noches Sleepy. Buenos Noches Dopey.”
At 6 a.m., I was awakened by the sound of four guards, pulling my neighbor Holloway out of his cell, placing him in a holding cage on the first floor. I got my very first look at him. He was not white as I imagined, but African American, dark-skinned, 6-4, lanky, with a huge ‘70s-style Super Fly ‘fro, with white lotion, and what appeared to be butter, all over his face. He didn’t speak like a brotha.
Officers shook down his cell. Holloway refused to flush his toilet for more than 30 days, so the cell reeked of human waste. I had barely noticed the smell, being de-sensitized to it, after already one year of living with men, in close quarters, where it’s nearly impossible to shit in private. He had old rotten food on his cell door, which was attracting mice.
“Sarge, this guy is Atascadero material,” said Officer Rodriquez. “He hasn’t showered in 30 days. He doesn’t go to the yard. He writes letters to the President of the United States, scribbles letters with happy faces on them….”
“Keep him here another thirty days,” said Sgt. Cook, a Caucasian, about 50 years old, with a walrus mustache and beer belly, suspenders holding up his pants. “He might be trying to play his way to the mental hospital. If he keeps it up, he might be for real. Let me know in thirty days.”
Minutes later, officers escorted Holloway back to his cell.
“Hey Valdez, can I get your raisins from your sack lunch?”
“Yeah, send the line.”
“You like Frank Sinatra, Valdez?”
“Not really, why?”
“He is my favorite artist in the world.”
Holloway started to sing loud, and didn’t stop for hours. The voices of several convicts echoed through the large cellblock.
“Shut up you J-Cat!” yelled a white guy.
“Motha fucka punk bitch, you bests not go to the yard, I’ll knock your ass out!” said a black convict.
“Shut the fuck up mayate, why you singin a white man’s song?” asked a Chicano.
After watching the Chicanos do their daily workout routine after breakfast, I got motivated, did some push ups and burpees to pass time. I felt a rush of adrenaline, endorphins going to my brain. Felt very alert, happy.
Officer Rodriguez approached my cell.
“Valdez, you want to go to canteen?”
“Yes, for sure, how do I do that?”
“Fill out this form, you can go thirtyfive dollars. I’ll be back in ten minutes. Delivery is tomorrow.”
My mouth salivated as I looked at the canteen list. Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Bars, M&M’s, Top Ramen soups, potato chips. Deodorant. Real Colgate toothpaste, not tooth powder. I ordered the entire $35 allowed, giving my form to Officer Rodriguez.
“Valdez, you going to store tomorrow?” asked Holloway.
“Can you get me a Hershey Bar. I’ll trade you a skin flick for it.”
“OK, yeah, no problem.”
At about noon, Officer Rodriguez, with clipboard in hand, came to the cell asking, “Valdez, you want a shower?”
“Yes, let me get my things.”
“You need to roll up your soap and boxers inside your towel, hold it in your hands, then back up to the tray slot, extending your hands out, so I can cuff you up. But first I need to strip you out.”
“Really, butt naked?”
“Yeah, OK, let’s go through the motions. Every time you come in and out of the cell, this is procedure; believe me, I don’t want to look at your ass. Alright now, lift up your hands…now your arms…OK, open your mouth so I can see those cavities…OK, I’m not gay now, but drop your boxers for me…lift your nut sack…alright, turn around, lift up your right leg, now your left…wiggle your toes…now bend over, squat, and cough…now put your boxers back on, and back up to the tray slot with your towel….”
The cage door opened by the touch of a button from an officer in a pod. I was escorted to the showers, walking by a tier of cells, where men with mean mugs stared at me, and was placed inside, by myself. I turned around, backing up to the gate, placing my hands out of the tray slot, as the officer uncuffed me.
“Do you need a razor?”
“Yes.” I hadn’t shaved in about a week.
After a long ten-minute shower, I was cuffed again through the tray slot, and escorted back to my cell, passing by the mean mugs, and having to strip out all over again. Feeling refreshed, I laid back down to relax. I could hear Officer Rodriquez next door.
“Holloway, you want a shower?”
“No, I’m alright.” Rodriguez checked off his name on his clipboard.
At 3:30 p.m., dinner arrived. Officer Brown slid the tray in the slot. It was enchiladas, but didn’t taste like Mexican food, not even Taco Bell quality.
“Hey Valdez, can I get your taco sauce?”
“Yeah, slide your line over. Do you have any skin flicks?”
“Yeah, but it will cost you another candy bar.”
“No problem, I’ll hook you up when I get my canteen.”
After the 9 p.m. roll call by Chicanos, I decided to stay awake late. At about 10:30 p.m., after Officer Brown did his count and left for home, I saw several inmates, each with their own mission at hand, push homemade lines from one cell to another. Each line had a message, food attached, skin flicks. It’s called “fishing.”
It was amazing to see how creative some men are. Creating a bow and arrow with rubber bands and elastic from boxers, shooting lines from one tier to another, a distance of about 100 feet. If anything, fishing was a challenge, a way to pass time.
After the morning roll call and breakfast, Officer Rodriguez came to the cell.
“Valdez, do you want to go to the yard?”
“Yes, for sure.”
“You know the drill, strip out, then back up to the slot, so I can cuff you.”
I was escorted to the recreation yard, which was a large rectangular cage, surrounded by high security concrete walls, barbed wire, but placed in a smaller cage.
“Valdez, you haven’t been classified yet, you will go to the next larger yard after classification, sometime next week.”
I observed the layout of the larger yard. Blacks were in one section. Mexicans and whites in another place. Chicanos were lined up together, in rows exercising, while two convicts led them like conductors on what to do next. Video surveillance cameras were posted in the upper corner of the fences. A guard with a mini-14 rifle stood in a tower, observing both yards.
There was no weight-lifting equipment, no handballs, nothing, just bare grey concrete and fences.
I did some push ups, inhaled the fresh air, and an hour later, it was yard recall. We were all handcuffed by numerous guards and taken to our cells, one by one.
At 2 p.m., canteen was delivered to my cell by Officer Rodriguez, except not as I expected.
“Valdez, since you are in AD-SEG, we have to break down your canteen.”
“What do you mean?”
Officer Rodriguez took my stick deodorant out of the plastic container and placed it in four separate small Dixie cups. Took my Top Ramen soups and opened all ten packages, placing them in a separate paper trash bag. Handed me ten embossed stamped envelopes and two pen fillers to write, throwing away the plastic pen housing.
“Hey, how can I write letters with just the skinny pen fillers?”
“You will get used to it.”
“Why is everything broken down like this?”
“You convicts can make weapons from even plastic. Why do you think we check you all with the wand? Guys have hidden stuff in their ass or mouth. Anyways Valdez, enjoy your canteen.” Rodriguez went on to the next cell.
I was looking at all my store, which I placed on my bed. I figured I had to eat the chips quickly, before they went stale. I worried about the mice, which were said to be living next door in Holloway’s cell. The only thing he didn’t break down was my chocolate bars, 15 of them.
“Hey Valdez, shoot me two candy bars”, said Holloway.
“Alright, send the line. You got any flicks of brunettes over there with big tits and shaved?”
“Yeah, I got a hot one, a three-photo layout of the same chick, in a college dormitory. It will cost you another candy bar, though.”
“No problem, send them now.” I kept my word, sending Holloway the candy bars.
Later in the night, I wrote my wife a long letter. Then hit it to the photos, and fell asleep like a baby.
A week later, I received my first letter from my wife, Veronica. She had come to visit me, she said, but was turned away because I had not been classified yet. I was so excited to get mail, that I spent hours writing her a very long response, telling her also to send me some skin flicks of herself.
I began to work out daily in my cell in solidarity with the other Chicanos. Obtained a few paperback books from the librarian, who made his rounds. I read Stephen King’s “The Stand,” which I enjoyed since it was a very long book. I developed a routine where I had something to look forward to daily. The next meal, the next letter, the next book, the next skin flick from Holloway. The next workout, the next shower, time in the yard….
Thirty days later, I was called to a classification hearing. Escorted in cuffs, wearing my jumpsuit for the first time, and told to sit in a chair, straddled, where four prison officials sat at a table, like a parole board hearing. An older white man, who looked important, in suit and tie, spoke to me.
“Valdez, you were in a holding cage where an incident occurred. Did you see anything?”
“No, I was taking a dump.”
“Ah, we got a smart ass. We can keep you another thirty days, do you want to change your answer?”
“I didn’t see anything.”
“Alright, does the committee agree to keep Valdez another thirty days?”
“Yes”, said all committee members in unison.
I dreaded spending another thirty days in this type of environment, but I immediately thought of the movie “Goodfellas”, where Pauly, the Don, expressly made clear, that when dealing with criminals, you “never rat on your friends, you never talk on the phone, and you always keep your mouth shut.”
Getting out of the hole was tempting, but I didn’t want to be known as a rat. Neither did any other inmate who went to classification that day. Like me, they all got an extra thirty days, pending investigation.
Upon being escorted back to my cell, Officer Rodriguez had a message for me.
“Valdez, you are being moved to cell 315, you are getting a cellmate, pack up your shit.”
“What? Right now?”
“Yeah, pack all your stuff inside your sheet, then tie it, and be ready in ten minutes.”
When I got to my cell, I packed my stuff, and waited for Rodriguez to come and get me. Holloway wasn’t too disappointed.
“Hey Valdez, I can still do business with you, get you some flicks. We can use the toilets; I’ll just wrap the photos in saran wrap, so they don’t get wet, and put them on a sheet, hooking up a sheet which you can flush in the toilet, upstairs.”
“What, what do you mean?”
“Your cellie up there can show you how it’s done. We do it all the time. The toilets are all connected on one system, you can even fish using the toilets.”
“Alright Holloway, I’ll check you later.”
Rodriquez came and we walked together up the stairs, to the third tier. As the cell door electronically opened, I looked inside and saw a buff bald-headed Chicano convict, with tattoos all over his neck, throat, face, and body. He looked me up and down, as if I was a fresh piece of steak.
I stepped in, having no choice, feeling fearful. The cell door closed behind me. It dawned on me that if this guy didn’t like me and threw blows, I wouldn’t last too long standing. I’d have nowhere to escape or run.
He got up from his bunk, exposing his large muscular arms and chest, crossed his arms, and asked me the all too familiar question:
“Hey ese, where you from?” §
Next month: Tito gets an education from his new cellie, a powerful Chicano leader known as “Sleepy,” who grooms him for the rigors of prison life.
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: