Life in the cage: The idiot box
Lawmakers for years have tried to take away prisoners’ televisions, but prison guards who support this privilege will tell you that the tube is the greatest babysitter.
I started to spend all my time out of the cell in the dayroom or out on the yard, disgusted at the fact that Cranky never left the cell; he remained glued to the television set.
The idiot box
By Tito David Valdez Jr.
Arriving at New Folsom Prison, a maximum security joint, in 1995, I looked forward to being assigned to a cell so I could watch [my new cellmate’s] television. I was anxious to check out new music videos from hot artists [at the time] like Green Day, Sublime and Stone Temple Pilots. Every prisoner is allowed to purchase his own 13-inch color television, so I quickly ordered one from the prison vendor catalog for about $250. I had to wait about 2 months to receive my television. In the meantime, I was assigned to the top bunk in a cell with a Chicano homey from Long Beach named “Cranky.” He was tall, about 6-2, 25-years-old, lean-muscular build, dark-skinned, brown eyes, with Latino art tattoos of men in sombreros romancing hot Latina women, and strumming guitars. Pictures of Latinas, posing next to LowRider cars, lined the cell walls.
“Watcha homey,” he started, “no disrespect, but don’t touch my television when I’m gone. My last cellie, the vato, messed up my volume button. When I’m in the cell watching television, you can watch what I watch. I got life homey, no people take care of me on the outs. I need to make this television last.”
“No problem,” I said. “Do we get cable television in here? Is there a music video channel, like MTV?”
“Nah, holmes, we only get the network channels, two Spanish stations, and an institutional video channel where they put on a new movie once a week.”
“What kind of movies,” I asked.
He told me “Carlito’s Way,” featuring Al Pacino, would be on tonight, but added: “I want to watch it on Friday, though, so we’ll check it out then.”
[6 lines cut from p. 4&5 here]
During my first day in the cell, I could see that, at some point, I’d have to get a cell move. Cranky watched television all day and into the morning, until 3 a.m., constantly switching channels, never watching one program in its entirety, perhaps feeling he would miss something important. [cut 7 lines, p. 5 on Cranky’s tv line-up] Even though he turned down the volume, I couldn’t sleep. The high-pitched frequency and the bright glare of the T.V. screen made me toss and turn. He smoked cigarettes like a train, and the smoke irritated me. Just as I’d begin to fall asleep at 6 a.m., time for chow, the first thing he would do was turn on the television.
He wasn’t even watching it most of time, as he brushed his teeth, took a dump, made his bed, then grabbed a Lowrider magazine to read. When we exited the cell for chow, he left the television on.
“Hey Cranky, don’t you turn off the television when you leave the cell?”
“Nah, it messes up the on/off button over time. We’re coming back to the cell anyways; we’ll watch it then.”
After returning from chow, he started his daily ritual of making a cup of coffee, smoking a cigarette, and watching a play list of shows—from the People’s Court to The Price Is Right, followed by numerous soap operas, then Oprah, then sports.
I started to spend all my time out of the cell in the dayroom or out on the yard, disgusted at the fact that Cranky never left the cell; he remained glued to the television set. His homeys couldn’t even get him to come out to the dayroom to play dominos or cards. He only came out of the cell to shower and eat.
Although I put in for a cell move, it took nearly eight weeks because of overcrowding. I finally moved to a cell that was empty because the two previous cellmates had slugged it out and were sent to the hole to cool off.
When my television finally arrived, I received a ducat to pick it up at the Receiving and Release Department. I rushed back to the cell, perched the television on top of my locker, hooked up the cable, and relaxed on my bottom bunk, viewing what I wanted to watch.
I soon felt the comfort level, which Cranky had felt, the ability to change channels whenever I wanted. I felt the luxury of my own cell, viewing life on the outside in vivid detail on the TV. Couldn’t help but hit it to the hot Latina women on Spanish novellas aired on the Spanish Univision Network.
I stayed up until 3 a.m. those first few nights, alone in the cell, watching the hot chicks on the Soloflex infomercials.
[CUT P.7,8,9,& _ OF 10~ALL OF CELLMATE FLACO STORY]
Dayroom time affords inmates time to come out of the cell and socialize, play dominos, cards or chess. For many, it’s a good way to pass time. For others, it’s an opportunity to give their cellmate time alone. Conversations flow—anything from the latest gossip about prison issues headlining the papers to horror stories about cellmates. I caught the tail end of a conversation regarding my former cellmate, Cranky. Two Chicanos were talking about him.
“That vato Cranky, my new cellie, he told me not to touch his television. I am not a pescado [fish; slang for new inmate]. I am not a kid. He must think I’m a pendejo [fucking idiot; stupid asshole]. I’ve got more time in than he does. That’s a selfish vato, to treat me with disrespect like that,” said Dopey, an older veteran Chicano serving life who had just arrived at New Folsom after doing a two-year Special Housing Unit program at Pelican Bay State Prison for a staff assault.
“You are probably better off moving out. No use in getting into another beef. Just put in for a cell move, they got some open cells in C-Block,” said another older Chicano named Huero.
“I have pride, holmes. This vato needs to be checked. He shouldn’t be disrespecting cellies like that. Watcha, mañana, watch what happens.”
“Horale, holmes! Don’t do anything drastic,” said Huero, laughing, as he took another hit from his flajo [cigarette].
The next day during dayroom, Cranky was walking in circles—lost—as if he had received bad news from the outside, a “Dear John” letter perhaps. I wondered if Dopey might have done something evil to him, like put a knife to his throat, threatened him. Curious, I walked around the dayroom listening to my Walkman, standing close to Dopey, catching a conversation between him and Huero.
“Just like that homey? You poured water in his television?” said Huero.
“Yeah, holmes. He came back from his shower, and when he pushed the button, the television didn’t come on. He kept pushing the button, like trying to bring a heart-attack patient back to life, and it never came back on,” he said, laughing. “Homey, I would pay big money to see the expression on his face again!”
“Horale, that was smooth…firme [cool],” said Huero.
[CUT P.11-12 (_ PG.]
After receiving a “Dear John” letter from my wife, Veronica, I was moved to the psych unit, building seven, and assigned to an empty cell on the first tier, where I met Hillbilly Bob and Jamie, two white guys in the cell next to mine.
“Howdy! They call me Hillbilly Bob. I’m from down South, Tennesee. What’s your name?”
“David. I’m from Southern California.” I shook his hand and observed his appearance; he looked like a man who lived on the street, homeless.
Bob was about 6-1, blue eyes, a unibrow, nose hairs run amok, full white beard, long straggly white hair—a hippie version of Grizzly Adams—an acne-cratered and sun-damaged face, beer belly, several missing teeth, and reeking of the stale odor of cigarettes. His state-issued blue shirt was wrinkled, bearing holes and stains. He wore patched grey gym shorts, and shower shoes with bare feet. I tried not to notice his horribly long and putrid toenails, which he probably hadn’t trimmed in years.
“Dave, this is my cellmate, Jamie. He has a girl’s name, but he is all man,” said Hillbilly Bob.
“What’s up, dog?” said Jamie, shaking my hand, holding a tumbler of coffee with the other.
Jamie looked like a punk rocker, a rebel of the ‘80s, about 5-10, lanky, in his mid-40s; he wore an “Anarchy” symbol on the back of his bald head, numerous other tattoos on his forearms, a walrus mustache and stubbies on his face. His clothes resembled his cellmate’s, torn and stained, but at least he was wearing Vans tennis shoes.
I couldn’t help but stare at Jamie’s coffee cup; inside was darkened with algae-like stains, a common trademark of convicts. They say that the stains in the cup help retain the taste of coffee. I’m of the opinion that the stains are a marker of a lazy institutionalized man who won’t even make the time to wash his cup. If he wipes his ass like he cleans his cup—which is never—he must have skid marks.
Hillbilly Bob went to stand in line for a shower. I spoke with Jamie, to pass time.
“Yeah dog, I’m from the San Fernando Valley. I got 125 years-to-life under the Three Strikes Law. It’s bullshit, man. Rapists and child molesters are getting less time. All I did was get caught with a little dope,” said Jamie.
“I hear you, man. Tell me, what’s up with the people here; everyone is different than in the unit next door.”
“Nearly everyone here is doped up on drugs. The psych’s will give you some powerful meds if you tell them the right things.”
“Really? What are you on?”
“I take Cinequan after 7 p.m. to help me sleep. If I don’t take it, I’ll pace on the cell floor all night. I’ve always been hyper, since I was a kid.”
“Is your cellie on the same meds?”
“Nah, he’s on heart medication. Anyone that takes pills is in this unit.”
“So what kind of meds would help me?”
“I don’t mean to interrupt you, but they are doing unlock right now on the first tier. I want to get back in to watch NASCAR. I’m spending the entire day and weekend in the cell watching sports. Hey dog, I’m getting my package this weekend; my family sent it two weeks ago. Can you spare a bag of tortilla chips? I’ll pay you back when I get my package.”
“Yeah, no problem. I’ll grab them right now,” I said with no hesitation.
“Thanks, dog,” said Jamie, grabbing the bag of chips from me when the officer opened our doors.
“Your cellie looks like he can probably eat a whole bag to himself. Does he mind that you stay in all weekend to watch sports?” I asked jokingly.
“Dude, my cellmate is like me; we both watch television all the time. It works out really good. He has his own and I have mine. All right man, got to split,” said Jamie. The officer in the pod closed the doors electronically.
Later, after evening chow, I met up with Jamie and his cellie, waiting for the officer to unlock their cell door. I looked inside their cell and both televisions were on, but no one was inside.
“Jamie, dude, why do you both leave your televisions on when you go to chow?”
“Me and my cellie, we are trying to fuck the state. Any opportunity we have to use excess electricity, we work them. They pay for the electricity bill, we don’t,” said Jamie.
“Plus, every time you push the button it takes away days, months, years from the television. An Asian inmate, who used to work on an assembly line in China putting together televisions, told me that if you push the button over two-thousand times the circuit board is programmed to short circuit the television. They make it that way so you have to buy another television,” said Hillbilly Bob matter-of-factly.
“Wow, I didn’t know that!” I said, suppressing laughter. In my mind, I thought what nonsense that was.
The officer racked the cell doors open and everyone locked up. I came out to the dayroom because I had a ducat to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous group, which was an hour and ended at 7:40 p.m., just in time for count.
Upon returning to the cellblock, I passed by Jamie’s cell to say hi. Hillbilly Bob, with his headphones still on, was asleep on the bottom bunk while his television beamed intermittent, dark and bright flashes of light on his entire body. Jamie, also with his headphones, appeared to be sleeping, his television flashing too. As the doors were racked open electronically by the officer in the pod, I saw Jamie through the rectangular window of the cell door, awakened by the sound of closing cell doors, grabbing a thin long stick underneath his blanket, assembled from eight pencils glued together. He lay back comfortably and used this convict “remote control” to change the channel.
I support inmates’ having televisions. It’s our only window to the outside. Lawmakers for years have tried to take away prisoners’ televisions, but prison guards who support this privilege will tell you that the tube is the greatest babysitter. Inmates are obedient, complacent, and afraid of raging against the machine, which could put them in the hole, and cause them to lose their television privileges.
What would life be like without the television? It would force inmates to use their brain, to think, or do something productive with their time. An inmate could learn a new language, how to play an instrument, to read and write, get a college degree…. Or, simply interact with another human being.
I watch two hours of television nightly. Anymore than that, I feel guilty, as if I’ve wasted my time. During weekends, I never watch sports. In my free time, I study law, so I can help myself and other inmates fight against oppressive prison rules and conditions.
I’ve come to use the television responsibly; I’ve realized that excessive use of the television can lead to negative side effects: becoming depressed, delusional, overweight, anti-social. In free society, wives and children would be a lot happier if dads would simply get off their ass and do something productive and family-oriented on weekends, rather than watch nonstop sports or trying to escape the reality of their free lives. One thing I know for certain, my dad, who is 69, retired and also incarcerated, is watching television right now, enjoying sports on weekends in the comfort of his own cell. He is trying to escape the reality of prison life by pushing the button.
No matter what, though, TV or not, I still got lots of love for my dad. §
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: