In the hole
‘You need to realize where you are. In a hellhole, with killers, rapists, real criminals, ese. Sabes que? It’s every man for himself. No honor amongst thieves.’
‘Hey homie, no disrespect, but for one, you got to cut that hair. This isn’t a country club or Woodstock Festival. You are in the joint ese—with men. The vatos will think you are weak, a homosexual.’
Life in the cage
In the hole - (part 2 of 2)
Where ‘all you have is your word and your balls’
By Tito David Valdez Jr.
As the cell door electronically opened, I looked inside and saw a buff bald-headed Chicano with tattoos all over his neck, face and body. He looked me up and down as if I was a fresh piece of meat. Perhaps my shoulder-length hair made me look feminine.
I stepped in, the cell door closed. He asked me the all-too-familiar question: “Hey ese, where you from?”
Answering that question was tricky, seemingly trivial, but could have deadly consequences. If I claimed a city that happened to be an enemy neighborhood of his, he would have no hesitation to throw blows with me.
“I don’t bang, just a regular Chicano, who grew up in Downey, California. My name is David.”
“Horale holmes. Me llamo Sleepy. Watcha, I got a homie who is suppose to move in here so don’t make yourself too comfortable,” he said in well-spoken English with a Mexican accent from the barrio. “You can put your things in the locker over there.”
He sat back on his bunk, sitting on the end of his futon mattress which was rolled up, against the far wall. He firmly held a pen-filler in his right hand and continued to draw Aztec art on a square plain white handkerchief.
To familiarize myself with my new cellmate, I offered him some of my canteen, asked him a few questions.
“Would you like some chips? I got some candy bars too.” He got up, grabbed a piece of plain white typing paper from a folder in his locker, and laid it flat on his bunk, pouring chips out of the paper trash bag, which I handed to him.
“Gracias homie. I haven’t had chips for a while now.”
“So, where are you from? Where did you grow up?”
“I’m from Mexico, Mexico City. I run with Southerners, not with the paisas. I stayed out in El Monte when I got arrested. Did you remember that club in El Monte called Florentine Gardens?”
“Yeah, I used to throw parties there. I know El Monte very well. How long have you been down?”
“Since 1991. Serving time for second-degree murder, killed a vato from an enemy neighborhood who was out to kill me. Got fifteen to life.”
“Have you been to the parole board yet?”
“Yeah, holmes, but they will never give me a date to go home, too many write-ups. I got too much violence in my jacket. Had to prove myself here and there, to survive over the years.”
“Really? I just started my time. This is my first time in the joint. Can you give me some advice on how to survive in here, without using violence as a means to an end?”
“Hey homie, no disrespect, but for one, you got to cut that hair. This isn’t a country club or Woodstock Festival. You are in the joint ese—with men. The vatos will think you are weak, a homosexual. Second, homie, you got to grow a mustache. Every Chicano vato has one. No moustache is a sign that a vato might be gay. And damn homie, you got to get a change of jumpsuit when they do clothing exchange next week. The one you got on right now is too small, too tight. Like those jean pants, Sergio Caliente.”
I felt offended. Who was this guy to tell me how I should look? But I wasn’t going to debate with him. He might kick my ass. I asked more questions.
“You said you have a homie in here. Why did the officers move me in here instead of him?”
“One thing you will learn homie in here is that nothing goes according to plan. The placas [cops] don’t even follow their own rules, so you just got to be patient. If you don’t learn patience, you will lose your mind.”
“How long have you been here in the hole?”
“I’ve been in this cell for about eight months. Waiting to be transferred to the Corcoran SHU.”
“How did you get here?”
“Beat down a cellie pretty bad. He tried to pull a power trip on me, telling me when I can stay in the cell and when I can’t. I smashed his television set on his head, after I knocked him out. Shit happens.”
“So, do they give you extra time for that or just hole time?”
“I got an assault charge. The D.A. offered me two years; I took it. But it was worth it, holmes, that guy won’t be trying to control cell mates anymore.”
“I’m going to get on my bunk, I’ll let you get back to drawing.”
I started to write my wife a letter when, minutes later, the prison chaplain came by passing out Bibles.
“Inmate Valdez? Who is Valdez?” asked the older lanky balding Caucasian man in his early 60s, with clean-shaven face, and the presence and personality of the typical, on-fire-with-Jesus preacher.
I jumped off my bunk, eager to see why he wanted me.
“Yes, that’s me.”
“Hello, I’m Chaplain Ray. Are you Protestant or Catholic?”
“I’m agnostic, don’t believe in anything.”
“I wanted to let you know that we have Protestant literature available, if you are interested in reading something while you are here. Would you like a Bible? Jesus is always here for us when we need his help. Would you like also two address books?”
Sleepy lifted his head from his drawing and directed his voice at me, “I am Satanic, get one for me so Jesus can save me.”
“Yes, I’ll take two Bibles and two address books,” I told the chaplain.
Officer Rodriquez, wearing a smirk on his face, let out a quiet chuckle, and opened the tray slot, as the chaplain handed me two paperback Bibles, along with two small address books.
“Thanks chaplain,” I said.
“If you ever need someone to pray with or anything, just write me a kite, addressed Chaplain Ray, Protestant Chaplain.”
Officer Rodriquez closed the tray slot, and commented: “I hope you guys actually read the Bibles and not use the pages as rolling papers.”
Sleepy grabbed a Bible and an address book, placed them in his locker. I climbed up on my top bunk.
“Watcha homie, whenever you write your people’s address and phone numbers, never write down the real numbers or street names,” said Sleepy.
“What do you mean?”
“Look, check out mine.” He grabbed his address book from under his neatly folded white state-issued T-shirt, and opened it.
“You see right here, the name Guadalupe Hernandez, the last name is not Hernandez, but it’s really Cortez. The street name she lives on is not Olivera, but Olive. The address really has four numbers, notice here, it has five, I put that extra last digit there on purpose.”
“Tell me, what is the purpose of doing that, writing different names and numbers?”
Sleepy got up, speaking passionately with his hands, as all veteran convicts or ex-cons do when they try to explain something or make a point.
“Some cellmates are snakes. Some will go through all your shit when you are out on the yard—your photos, your letters. They might even try to write your old lady or mom. Everyone in here trying to hustle, come up. So always be smarter than your cellmate. Think ahead.
“Wow, cellmates actually do that?”
“Hey homie, look around here. The hole is packed with nothing but hardcore criminals—prison’s most wanted. They ain’t here for being nice. You need to realize where you are. In a hellhole, with killers, rapists, real criminals, ese. Sabes que? It’s every man for himself. No honor amongst thieves.”
To pass time, we both did our own thing. He continued to draw. I continued writing my wife. Officer Rodriguez came to the cell door, interrupting our routine.
“Yard time! You both going to the yard?”
Excited to get out of the cage for a while, we both replied at the same time, “Yeah!”
I jumped off my bunk and Officer Rodriguez told me to sit on the stainless steel chair at the far end of the cell, and face the wall while my cellmate stripped out and cuffed up. Then, it was my turn. We were escorted to the larger yard, searched and wanded; then the cuffs were taken off once we set foot inside the yard.
Officers let in a few inmates at a time, while we waited until everyone arrived. Sleepy offered to cut my hair.
“Hey holmes, before I introduce you to the homies, let’s get rid of that hair. The place provides us with an electric trimmer every yard day. I can give you a number-one cut right now.”
“Yes, for sure, let’s do it”, I said.
One of the yard officers handed him the trimmer and he positioned the setting to the shortest length, number one. He buzzed nearly all of my hair off, leaving just a very short length. I went to the far corner of the yard, washed my head in the small porcelain sink, as I watched stubbles of hair slowly disappear down the drain.
The yard was soon full of Mexican and white inmates, everyone in boxers and shower shoes. Across from us, in a separate large cage, were all black inmates. Sleepy called me over to talk to the fellows.
“Horale homies, this is my cellie, David, he just drove up from L.A. County, he is a regular vato, no neighborhood. Grew up in Southern California. He runs with us. He will be participating in the routine today.”
It was like meeting all the associates of a Mafia family, like in the Godfather, but these were tougher men, tattooed down, each with their own nickname, shaking my hand, giving me their respect. Sleepy introduced them all….
“This is Droopy from Harbor Area. Dog from San Gabriel Valley. Huero from San Fernando Valley….”
As I shook their hands, they each said, “Mucho gusto, homie.”
They carried themselves like field marshals, shrewd warriors, fearless, ready for action. They were different from many of the Chicanos I had met in general population.
Soon, two Chicanos organized the warriors into four rows. A few white guys stood near the sink, engaging in conversations. Then, the workout began. I found a place near the back, since it was my first time; I needed to learn the routine.
The two convicts yelled out, “OK, homies, we will start off with 100 arm rotations…. Ready? Vamanos!”
It was like watching old film clips of Hitler’s SS Army on the History Channel, where they walked in perfect formation, moving as one terrifying, formidable force. Each of us moved in perfect unison as the different exercises were called out, everything from “Navy Seals,” to “Belly Busters,” to “Burpees.” Sleepy was beside me, in the next row.
“Hey homie, we do this for about thirty minutes,” he said. “If you get tired, just run in place.”
Soon, after ten minutes of the workout, I was burned out. So I ran in place. After the workout was over, we got into one line, and shook hands with the two convicts who led the workout.
“Gracias homie,” each man said, appreciating the routine they put together.
After stripping out and being wanded again, we were escorted one-by-one to our cells. Once we arrived, Sleepy spoke.
“Hey homie, I’m going to bird bath. Get on your bunk, por favor, and when I finish, you can bird bath after me.”
With the displeasing thought of seeing a naked man just inches away from my face, I asked, “You are going to shower here, right now? Don’t we get showers on every third day?”
“Check this out homie. Some people might do that, wait till the placas come on the third day to shower us, but we are Southerners, we take pride in ourselves. Bird baths are mandatory.”
Without placing up a sheet to cover himself as he showered, he stripped naked and began to lather up his body with soap, as he stood next to the sink, using a state-issued cup to pour water on himself. Water fell to the floor and he used white towels to soak it all up, afterwards.
Within ten minutes, he finished. He wiped down the floor with shampoo, using the towels, cleaned the sink, then hung the towels on a homemade clothesline he had created using dental floss. He then sat on his bunk, starting to draw again.
I jumped off my bunk, gathered my soap, shampoo and towel. For some privacy, I tied a sheet from one end of the bunk to my locker.
I took a birdbath. It seemed very demeaning, yet it was the only way to stay clean, and not stink.
I cleaned up the cell, the sink, and then got up on my bunk. Felt very refreshed, relaxed. Started to take a nap. My snoring caught Sleepy’s attention.
Sleepy got up, and started to lather up the floor with shampoo. I woke up from the sound of the faucet running, and saw him cleaning. I thought perhaps I didn’t wash the floor to his satisfaction. Maybe it upset him. I kept my mouth shut. He spoke to me once he saw I was awake.
“Hey homie, check this out. It’s my responsibility to tell you that you can’t nap at all during the day from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. It’s all mandatory here in the hole to roll up your mattress. Mandatory for you to always wear your shoes during that time too.”
“Why, what’s up with that?”
“Officers are known to open cell doors electronically on purpose. We aren’t getting along right now with the blacks. All it takes is for you and me to be napping and the blacks come in the cell when the doors open. Not only will they catch us off guard, the homies will discipline us for slipping. You got to always stay alert at all times. Be ready for war.”
“Are you serious?”
“Dead serious. We discipline those who take naps. So for your own good, roll up your mattress. No naps.”
Dinner arrived at 3:30 p.m. Chicken casserole slop. We both did not eat it. After chow, I ran out of things to do. Sleepy continued to draw. Drawing was his escape from reality. He was very good at it. Then, an hour later, it was mail call.
“Valdez, last two?” said Officer Brown.
“That’s me—six, zero”, I said, telling him the last two digits of my prison number. I jumped off my bunk and Officer Brown opened the tray slot and handed me three letters. He closed the tray slot and continued walking to the next cell…”Thompson, last two?”
I received letters from my mom, wife and aunt. Excited to get mail, I spent about an hour reading the letters. I kept my wife’s letter and began to respond to it. Writing with my skinny pen filler and notepad, throwing the other two letters in my locker.
“Hey, homie, I noticed you threw your mail in your locker, still in the envelopes,” said Sleepy.
“Yeah, I can only answer one at a time. Is there a rule against that?”
“You ain’t right homie,” he said, laughing. “Watcha, remember I told you about scandalous vatos in here?”
“Yeah, you told me to always change numbers of letters on names and addresses.”
“You need to tear off the return address, too, off any letters you receive, and flush it. This way, your cellie can’t write your people.”
“People actually do that too?”
“Yeah, holmes. Let’s say I was one of those scandalous vatos. Wrote to your wife. Told her to send me a hundred dollars to help you with canteen. Made up some excuse as to why you couldn’t go to canteen yourself. Not knowing what is going on, she will probably send the money to me. By the time you and her talk, I’ve already received and spent that money. You got to be on your toes, homie. I am just trying to teach you how to survive in the joint.”
Feeling I owed something to him, for looking out for my best interests, I offered him some Top Ramen soups inside our small plastic state-issued cups, poured hot water from the faucet, used the chili flavor seasoning packet, and talked, while I sat at the corner of his bottom bunk, on cold steel, since his mattress remained rolled up.
“Hey homie, you play dominoes?” he asked.
“Yes, do they have them I here?”
“No, but I made some.”
Sleepy pulled out a full set of dominos, which he made from the backings of Bibles. Each piece was the size of a real domino, had the number etchings on each piece.
“Wow, that’s brilliant,” I said.
“It works homie. You want to keep track of points?”
“You think that’s brilliant, watch.” Sleepy pulled out his line, from his locker, sliding it to the neighbor's cell, then stood on the toilet, speaking to someone through the air vent.
“Hey, Rascal…. Rascal, hey homie!”
“Yeah, homie, what’s up?” responded Rascal with the raspy voice of a smoker.
“Hey, shoot me your lighter homie. I want to light up a flajo. Hook it up to the line.”
“Horale homie, be looking for it right now.”
Sleepy obtained a lighter. Using the pages of the Bible Chaplain Ray had brought by earlier, he tore a page out and rolled up a cigarette.
“I didn’t see tobacco on the canteen list; do they sell it another way?” I asked.
“You can get anything in here for the right price.” Sleepy lit his cigarette, taking a hit, like rap mogul Suge Knight, smoking a Cuban cigar.
We played dominos to pass time, until 9 p.m., when the roll call began.
“Buenos Noches Sleepy, Buenos Noches Droopy, Buenos Noches Goofy, Buenos Noches Rascal, Buenos Noches David….”
After the 7 a.m. roll call, breakfast arrived. Pancakes with oatmeal, toast. No taste, bland. I felt extremely sore, the workout routine from the day before worked muscles I never used before. I walked around the cell to loosen up the muscles in my calves.
“You sore, homie?”
“Yeah, I don’t think I am participating in the 8 a.m. cell workout this morning.”
“Be strong, homie. Try, do the best you can. If you can’t, just run in place. The homies are watching our cell, as we are also watching theirs. You got to keep me motivated.”
At 8 a.m., the workout began. I did my best, five minutes worth, and could barely even run in place. Sleepy, who had mastered the entire routine, was sweating profusely, within just thirty minutes. I could only strive to accomplish such a feat, but not today.
After the workout and the birdbath, Sleepy offered input about exercising.
“Hey homie, the reason we do this mandatory workout is because it keeps us strong, alert, and ready for anything that comes our way. Do you notice how good you feel after a workout?”
“Yes, for sure. But don’t you get sick of the same old routine every morning and on the yard every three days?”
“Of course, like anything you do over and over, it gets old. But to learn discipline, you have to train your mind to tolerate pain. You get used to the routine in here after a while. You look forward to ‘busting down,’ working up a good sweat.”
I got up on my bunk, sat back on my rolled up mattress, and wrote my mom a letter, while Sleepy continued to draw his Aztec art on a handkerchief.
A voice suddenly came from the air vent, sounded like Holloway.
“Hey Valdez, flush the sheet, I’m ready down here. I’ll send you up some flicks!”
I yelled back through the air vent, “Not now, later!”
“Come on man, I gots a sweet tooth. Hook me up!”
I turned to Sleepy, “Hey, do you know how to hook up a line, using a sheet, flushing it down the toilet?”
“Yeah, homie. But check this out. That vato you are talking to is crazy. He is also a mayate. Not even his own people respect him. He is no good. He is hiding something, not going along with the program. He never showers, never comes out for yard. You are your own man, but I advise you, homie, cut him loose, it looks bad if you associate with him.”
“I don’t think the guy is really crazy. He is probably fooling the psychs.”
“It doesn’t matter. He is mayate. You are Chicano. You don’t share your food with mayates. The homies would discipline you for that if they found out.”
“Alright, how do I get rid of him?”
Sleepy got up on the toilet, and yelled into the vent.
“Hey you, cell 215!”
“Valdez, is that you?” asked Holloway.
“No it’s his cellie, Sleepy. You yell into this vent again, I will kill you. Or I’ll send one of the homies on a mission to kill you, once they let you out of that cell for classification. You got it?”
“Yeah, OK. Sorry, man,” Holloway said, with the voice of a mild-mannered white accountant.
Sleepy then started to wash the cell floor with shampoo and water, around the toilet, and the sink. Then, he arranged everything in his locker, wiping dust off. I thought he might be an obsessive/compulsive personality.
“Hey, why do you clean the cell so much, it’s not like we go outside and bring in dirt every day?”
“We homies try to stay clean. It’s mandatory to clean the cell three times a day. Look at the bottom of the cell door right now, lots of mayate curly hairs, dust flying in. Every time we piss, drops hit the floor. There is lint that falls off our navy issue blankets. If I don’t clean it, it’s going to smell like piss in here. I tell you what: Tomorrow, you clean. We will take turns everyday.”
“Alright, let’s do that.”
Dinner arrived at 3:30 p.m., the usual time. Tuna Casserole with nasty vanilla pudding that tasted like NyQuil. It was another lousy meal, time for Top Ramen soups again. After our inexpensive homemade meal, I climbed up on my bunk, letting out a really lard fart. Sleepy stood up angry.
“Hey homie, didn’t any vatos tell you in the county jail, the rules on farting?”
“No, I lived in mostly dorms.”
“No farting openly in the cell. If you have to fart, sit down on the toilet, let it out, and then flush. We take that as disrespect. You also don’t ever piss, fart, or shit, while your cellie is eating or drinking.”
“Damn, there are so many rules; it’s like living inside a prison, enclosed in another prison, walking always on thin ice.”
“Homie, it’s like this for a reason. Like Scarface said, ‘All you have is your word and your balls.’ Respect is everything in prison. Lose respect; you got nothing coming, like your mayate friend, Holloway.”
After the 9 p.m. roll call, the cellblock was quiet, except for the few black inmates talking to each other through the air vent, using it as if it were a phone. I took off my Jap Slap shoes, unrolled my mattress, and began to fall asleep. I then heard screaming, coming from what looked like cell 345, which was across from our cell. A young black inmate was screaming for help.
“Help me! Help me! Deputies, officers!”
He kept banging on the doors but no officers responded. At the pod, the control booth where the officers were standing, they were reading magazines and drinking coffee.
Many men in cells began to bang their doors, in solidarity. Possibly believing someone could seriously be ill and in need of medical attention. Everyone yelled out, “Man down, man down!”
I got off my bunk to check out the action, looking out the thousands of small holes of the cell door. Sleepy kept drawing, uninterested.
An alarm finally sounded, as officers dropped their magazines, and ran up the stairs to cell 345. Officer Brown, the unit officer, opened the cell door, pulled out his pepper spray and sprayed someone as other officers rushed in.
Out came a lanky feminine-looking light-skinned black inmate with long hair and in cuffs. Then, a large muscular, dark-skinned older black inmate, squinting from being pepper sprayed. They were escorted to holding cages on the first floor.
“Hey Sleepy, don’t you want to see what happened?”
“I already know what happened. Cell 345 is home of the Booty Bandit. This isn’t the first time he tried to rape a cellie.”
“Really? Why do they keep giving him cellmates? Shouldn’t he have a single cell?”
“Like I told you before, sometimes people do not do their job. My homie still hasn’t been moved in here yet, right? You are still here. We put in for that cell move two weeks ago.”
“What’s going to happen to that youngster they pulled out who was raped?”
“He will go to the hospital, then be transferred to a ‘Sensitive Needs Yard.’ Protective Custody. Do you see what I mean about looking feminine in the joint?”
“Yeah, I get it.”
Nearly thirty days later, I was taken to classification along with everyone who was in that holding cage two months prior, who witnessed the white guy getting stabbed in the back.
We were all released from the hole. The assailant was never caught. The committee labeled me an “associate” of Southern Mexicans, due to officers observing me participating in the workout routine. The committee told me that I could appeal the decision once I arrived at the Level IV maximum-security prison I would ultimately be sent to.
When Officer Rodriguez came to open my cell door this time, I didn’t have to strip out or cuff up. I carried my things in a tied up sheet, preparing to move from Building 6 to Building 5, general population. I shook Sleepy’s hand on the way out, giving him my respect, leaving a few Top Ramen soups and candy bars, which he could later eat when he was hungry.
Sleepy was disappointed once I exited, because his new cellmate was waiting outside to be placed in the cell, a vato who wasn’t the homie he put the cell move in for.
I moved into a cell with a 19-year-old Chicano youngster, a homie from Long Beach. He had also lived in dorms in the county jail, so he was not schooled on the convict code. I shared with him what I learned from Sleepy as the days progressed, tales of what the hole was like. A place I told him was full of hardened criminals.
A couple weeks later, I finally got to see my wife. Visits in the reception center were two hours long, non-contact, behind a Plexiglass, talking on a phone, just like the county jail. She sat there, so beautiful in appearance, yet, I had never touched her, or kissed her, even on the day we got married in the county jail.
I heard Holloway got transferred to Atascadero State Hospital after officers had to extract him from his cell for refusing to come out when officers attempted to go inside and flush his toilet. The Booty Bandit ended up transferred to the Corcoran SHU.
Two windows over from me was JD, the rapper from the county jail, visiting with his wife, a woman from the record industry, who married him in the county jail. Rapper Ice Cube was funding his criminal appeals, so he was in good spirits.
And to the far left, at the last non-contact visit window, in the visiting area designated for guys in the hole, was Sleepy, my old cellmate, who was visiting a fine-ass Latina chick. Pretty girls always seem to gravitate to the bad boys.
When my visit was over, on the way out, I threw up a peace sign to him, and he raised his clenched fist to me, showing solidarity.
I was looking forward to finally getting out of Delano Reception Center, and transferring to a state prison, where there would be weights to work out with, televisions in the cells, and conjugal visits.
During my 45 days in the hole with Sleepy, I didn’t hit it once, since I couldn’t even fart without him being suspicious.
Editor’s note: David’s first conjugal visit, scheduled for February 1996, was cancelled by prison officials at New Folsom Prison when then-Gov. Pete Wilson passed an emergency regulation disallowing all life-term inmates from the conjugal visit program. David’s wife, Veronica, divorced him seven months later. David hasn’t been laid since Dec. 1, 1993, nearly 13 years.
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: