Life in the cage: Suicidal tendencies
Rodriguez opened the door and stepped inside, his shoes getting drenched with blood as he checked Danny’s pulse.
One officer close to us commented, ‘Imagine if we could get them all to do this, that would be cool!’
By Tito David Valdez Jr.
New Folsom Prison 1996—Maximum Security
The prison dayroom was packed as inmates arrived to the cellblock from school or work at 3 p.m. It was just another weekday afternoon in the jailhouse. Everyone in a rush to shower, eight men sharing four nozzles, desperately trying to finish before the 3:30 p.m. cell unlock. A rookie officer just finished passing out mail, sliding it underneath men’s doors.
I was standing next to the bulletin board, reading the latest news clippings about the broken prison system when all of a sudden, at 3:26 p.m., a white inmate named Rick, who had long hair and looked like a stoner, approached me with a frightened look, as if he had just seen a ghost.
“Hey dude,” Rick said. “Go check out cell 129.”
“Are you talking about Danny’s cell?”
“Yeah. He lives with Cuban Rigo.”
“Why?” I asked him. “What is he doing, jerking off without a cover on his window?”
“No, man,” Rick answered dismally. “It’s really bad. We are going to be on lockdown for sure.”
“Lockdown? Is he fighting with Rigo?”
“Nah, it’s nothing like that. You ever see Texas Chainsaw Massacre?”
Anxious to find out what the hell was up, I rushed toward cell 129 to look into the cell window.
What I saw was a horrific sight that remains with me to this day.
I met Danny the first day I arrived to the cellblock. He was a young Chicano, about 38-years-old, but looked in his twenties, with a lean muscular build. At 6-2, he towered over most Hispanic inmates. He was charismatic, a good-looking guy with dark hair and brown eyes. That first day he walked up to me and handed me a piece of paper.
“Would you like a flyer?” he asked.
“What, to a party?” I joked.
“Nah, it’s your ticket to heaven. Accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, and you will enter the pearly gates of heaven,” he said with authority and excitement.
I looked at the flyer. It had a cartoon illustration of an imposing castle with huge doors, with Romanesque architecture, and a stick figure entering the gates.
“Will there be hot chicks there, strippers?” I kidded.
“All of that homey. The Lord says we will all be with him in paradise.”
“Thanks, man. What’s your name?”
“Brother Danny. I’m the inmate pastor in the prison chapel. If you ever want to come to service, let me know. I’ll place you on the ducat list.”
“My name is David,” I said, shaking his hand. “Nice to meet you.”
“Same here. God bless you.”
Being a newcomer to the prison system, I wasn’t interested in the Lord. Naturally, I crumbled up the Bible flyer and threw it on the floor, and walked off to get a feel for the environment and people in the unit.
A Chicano inmate named Spanky, playing cards with other homeboys, picked up the crumbled flyer, using it to pencil in the score in his game of pinochle.
Another Chicano inmate approached me. He had a large tattoo on his neck, which read “Cranky”.
“Hey homey,” Cranky said. “You just get here?”
“Yeah, straight from the reception center.”
“Don’t listen to that vato Danny,” Cranky advised. “He is a Jesus freak.
At quick glance, it was difficult to see through the small glass window of the solid cell door into cell 129. The sun cast a blinding glare through the cell window. As I came closer, I could finally see past the glare into the cell. I observed Danny, with a sheet tied in a knot around his neck, hanging from the cell window ledge. His body cast the shadow of an unflinching scarecrow. I didn’t want to believe my eyes.
“Danny! Dammit, dude. Come on, man. Stop messing around!” I yelled, banging on his cell door, thinking he was just making a sick joke.
“Dude, he’s dead,” said Rick. “Look at his face, it’s ghost white.”
“This ain’t just some kind of joke? It’s not April Fool’s?” I pleaded with Rick.
“Hell no. Look at the cell floor.”
Looking down, I could see two large puddles of blood slowly creeping its way toward the crack under the cell door. There was blood everywhere, dripping from Danny’s wrists.
“Go get the guards! Maybe he’s still alive!” I shouted.
“You get the guards, dude. If we report it, we’re going to be interviewed, and have to cooperate with the investigation.”
“Aw shit, you’re right.”
“I think the best thing to do is to let the guard find him when he does the unlock in five minutes,” Rick suggested.
“Good idea,” I agreed with him.
Rick and I walked across from cell 129, sitting down on the floor to get a front-row seat. A real life drama was about to unfold. For one, why did he do it? Or who helped him do it, or was it by the hands of another?
The bell rang, and Officer Rodriguez, a 45-year-old Mexican national, started his rounds, unlocking cell doors, beginning with the top tier. It was 3:30 p.m.
I saw Rigo, Danny’s cellie, entering the cellblock after getting off from his prison job, where he made license plates all day.
“Hey, Rigo. Rigo!” I called.
“Yeah, what’s up?” he said, approaching Rick and me, looking tired from a hard day’s work.
“Don’t go to your cell,” said Rick.
“Why? Did the goners do a search or something?”
“No, worse! They’ll be coming for sure, in a few minutes,” I said.
I decided to show up to the Sunday morning service [EXTR. DEL. P 6]. The chapel was small, with a 100-person capacity. It was jam-packed with at least 150 inmates. There were eight rows of pews on two sides of the room. An altar stood at the front of a stage, a piano to the side, and a large wooden Jesus nailed to a cross, perched high on the wall, in the middle of the chapel. A sign posted above it read: “Jesus Christ—the same yesterday, today and forever….”
I knelt down in the aisle, before taking a seat toward the back, making the sign of the cross, a habit I picked up growing up Catholic.
When I sat down, memories of the Catholic Church came to mind. I was an altar boy, received First Holy Communion and Confirmation. I remember volunteering to clean up the priests’ quarters, and finding lots of empty bottles of wine. I wondered as a teenager if they partied with the nuns.
I saw Danny walk up on stage, stand behind the pulpit, and grab a microphone to begin the service. The conversations of many men, which echoed throughout the chapel, suddenly come to an abrupt halt.
“Gentlemen, thank you for coming to service this morning,” Danny stated with the confidence of a professional preacher. “The Lord has a message for you today. I want you all to open your hearts, your minds, appreciate the many blessings you have. Today I’ll be giving a message of hope, from the book of Psalms. Please turn your bibles to page….”
Bibles were provided at the back of each pew, but most of them were ripped and torn, and pages were missing from inmates who used them as rolling papers or to write notes. I opened the bible in front of me, finding that it wasn’t missing the page from Psalms that Danny was reading from. It was hard to hear, since several inmates close to me were whispering to one another.
“Hey, dog,” said Mark, a white dude with bloodshot, sleep-deprived eyes. “Put me down for the Chicago Bears—score seven to fourteen. What’s the spread for the next game?”
“Seven point spread. Do you want a square for next week’s game?” asked Brad.
“For sure. Put me down—Chicago twenty-one to fifteen.”
“All right dude, give me two mackerels, send them to me with Ziggy tomorrow morning.”
Mark turned to talk to me.
“Hey, dog. You new here?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “Just arrived two weeks ago.”
“Do you get high?”
“Nah…I’m not into that.”
“If you ever need a little escape from reality, I’m the man,” he said as he started another conversation with a guy next to him.
Looking around, I realized that about a quarter of the men at the service were there for other purposes. Just hanging out, picking up porn mags, psych meds, etc. The chapel was a great meeting place to chat without direct observation by prison guards.
Danny’s voice boomed out of the chapel speakers for the next hour before he came to his conclusion.
“You don’t have to live in bondage—in sin and lust—anymore. Jesus can save you! If there are any men who feel the power of the Holy Spirit in this room, come on down right now, and accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior! Amen!”
A black inmate, who looked like James Brown, played the piano, which sounded more like an organ. A few men, who were popping psych meds earlier, smirked and walked toward the altar. A few men with real tears in their eyes walked toward Danny. He laid his hands on them, repeating, “Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Lord….”
Danny then said, “Men, you all have been given a new life, you are now going to be in paradise, with the Lord, when he comes for all of us soon. Praise the Lord! Let’s give a hand to these men!”
The chapel suddenly grew loud. The organ played songs of praise and inmates sang, “What a friend we have in Jesus,” while clapping zealously.
Mark nudged me, pulling out an envelope from his pocket, which contained several photos of nude women.
“You like skin pics?” Mark asked. “Buck a piece.”
I soon learned that prison is about survival—predator and prey. You either belonged to a crew or you were on your own, vulnerable to the best con men and bullies. For some reason, nobody ever bothered the Christians.
It was rumored by a few men in the know that Christians were using the Church as a safe haven. All the misfits, geeks, outcasts, undesirables—child molesters, mafia dropouts, snitches—were regulars. But no one bothered to check their paperwork. Indeed, no one disrespected the Church or its members, holding it sacred, not even the most evil devil-worshipping inmates.
“Hey, Dave,” greeted Danny. “I’m glad to see you are coming to service. I encourage you to come to my bible study every Thursday afternoon. Do you work yet?”
“No, I’m still waiting to be assigned to a job.”
“Then I’ll put you down on the ducat list.”
“Hey, man. Where are you going all dressed up?” I asked Danny.
“I got a family visit. My wife is coming at noon. Here’s a photo of my wife and 13-year-old son.” He pulled out his wallet, showing me their photos.
“Very beautiful family! You are lucky she’s still sticking around. My wife is about to leave me because we’re an eight-hour drive apart. It’s hard for her to get up here to visit.”
“Don’t trip, homey. Once you get a job, you’ll be able to apply for family visits and get your freak on. Three days and two nights in the trailer will do wonders. Fixes everything, know what I mean?” Danny said, smiling.
Rigo, Rick and I sat together against the wall.
“Your cellie is dead,” I said to Rigo.
“Aw shit. Are you serious?”
“Dead serious. He hung himself.”
“Aw man. They are going to roll me up for investigation. Try to pin it on me.”
“That’s procedure. Why do you think we haven’t reported it yet? We don’t want to be a part of any investigation,” I said.
“Fuck, man. I don’t get it,” Rigo shook his head. “He has a visit with his mom tomorrow. He’s never shown any sign of being depressed.”
“Something must have set him off,” said Rick.
“Aw shit, here comes the C/O Rodriguez.”
Officer Rodriguez walked down the tier, opening the cell doors, passing up cell 132, 131, 130, 129…. He looked twice in the cell, and again, then pushed his alarm button, yelling, “SUICIDE, cellblock two, cell 129, need emergency medical help, now!” into his walkie talkie.
The alarm abruptly sounded when he pushed the button. Officers quickly rushed the cellblock, about 12 of them. Rodriguez opened the door and stepped inside, his shoes getting drenched with blood as he checked Danny’s pulse.
“Go get the scissors, right now, hurry!” he squawked to a rookie officer named Tilton.
“Scissors, where are they at?” Tilton stammered. “I don’t know where they are!”
“Come on, don’t just stand there!” yelled Rodriguez. “Help me take this knot off his neck!”
“We gotta wait for the Sarge to show up. That’s procedure. This might be a crime scene.”
“Crime scene? This is a suicide, moron!” shouted Rodriguez.
“How do you know?” Tilton challenged Rodriguez. “Look at his neck…his wrists. Why would he slash his own jugular and wrists?”
“So he could make sure he finished the job,” Rodriguez countered disdainfully. “Just go get the Sarge!”
Many convicts were now approaching from all directions, to get a closer look. Officers were yelling out, “Get down, get down! Up against the walls, now!”
Officer Rodriguez attempted to untie the knot, which was squeezed tightly around Danny’s neck. His uniform was drenched with blood.
The Sarge arrived, shouting, “Rodriguez, get out of there now! Let the inmate go, toe squad is coming. They’ll handle it.”
“I’m trying to save this man’s life!” Rodriguez protested. “Where is medical?”
“He’s dead. Look at his face. Probably been hanging there a good hour,” said Sgt. O’Rourke.
“Shit, I know this inmate. He’s the inmate pastor.”
“Looks like he has a one way ticket to hell.”
Danny held his bible studies in a side room from the chapel. The chairs were all arranged in the pattern of a horseshoe. Danny sat in the middle, facing the rest of us.
“Brothers, today we will study the book of Job. Many men in the bible endured struggles such as ours. They all persevered with the power of the Lord. Please, open up your bibles now to the book of Job.”
I listened to his one-hour lecture and was quite impressed. He was a great public speaker, able to stir up emotions, talk about real life issues. He quoted scripture from memory.
“All right gentlemen, let’s form a circle and join hands, pray for strength, wisdom, courage…Father God, we come to you in the name of Jesus.”
As the guards fussed over Danny’s corpse, one officer close to us commented, “Imagine if we could get them all to do this, that would be cool!”
“Yeah, that would be interesting,” said Sgt. O’Rourke.
They didn’t know we were listening. “Damn, how cold and ruthless. Did you hear that?” I asked Rigo and Rick.
“Yeah,” Rick answered. “But that’s expected. There are always the few sadistic ones. They tell their neighbors and family what pieces of shit we are, fighting over a Top Ramen soup, sitting at dayroom tables playing dominos all day, snitching on someone to get an extra roll of toilet paper.”
“Danny was a firm vato. I’m going to miss him,” Rigo confided.
“Yeah, he was cool,” I agreed.
“Hey holmes, write this number down,” said Rigo. “You got a pen?”
I transcribed the number onto a page torn from one of Danny’s bibles. “That’s my mom’s number. Call her tomorrow for me and tell her I’m in the hole, will you? She’s expecting my call. I don’t want her to worry.”
“No problem,” I said. “Do you think we are going to be on lockdown?”
“Yeah, just for tonight. We’ll probably be off tomorrow,” Rick guessed.
The goon squad promptly arrived, correctional officers dressed in dark green, the prison investigation unit.
“Gooners are here,” I said.
“This is going to take a while,” Rick sighed.
Sgt. Slaughter, part of the goon squad team, asked Rodriguez, “Who is his cellie?”
Rodriguez, looking around the dayroom, focused on us, pointing at Rigo. “That’s him against the wall with the PIA cap on.”
“Aw shit, I am outta here. See you all in a few weeks,” said Rigo.
He stood up, putting his hands behind his back, as the Sarge handcuffed him, and took him into the unit office for an interview.
I looked inside the cell and Danny was still hanging there. Several gooners were inside videotaping the mess, taking photos. It was indeed a crime scene.
The rookie, Tilton, yelled out, “All right everyone, lock it up! Lock it up!” The cell doors were racked open and everyone went inside.
Looking out the cell window, observing the ongoing drama, I could see Danny being placed on a gurney, with a sheet over his head. A man in suit and tie arrived, probably the coroner. The cellblock was completely quiet.
“Say Danny, lately I’ve noticed that you’ve lost weight. What’s up?”
“Yeah, Dave. It’s stress. My wife is about to leave me. I can feel it. I’ve been down twenty years. She’s been by my side all this time. I’ve got a release date in four years, but she’s tired of this life. I can’t blame her. I’ve left it in the hands of the Lord. It’s his will. You know, ever since they took away family visits, it’s hard to maintain a marriage.”
“Yeah, I know. My wife divorced me already. No family visits gave her nothing to look forward to.”
“You think that the overcrowding situation will change? It’s all over the news. I’ve only got four years left. If something changes, I might get out sooner.”
“Nah, it’s a load of crap. If anything, the prison system will expand. You’re lucky, even having a release date. I got life!”
“I know. Listen, I’ll be doing a bible study this Thursday. Would you like to come?”
“Yeah, but only if they are serving donuts and coffee,” I said, smiling.
Danny smiled back. “Good one,” he said.
The day after Danny’s suicide, many inmates in the cellblock walked to his empty cell to take a look inside. I couldn’t help but look also. Nothing had been cleaned up. Puddles of freshly congealed blood—smattered with an array of officers’ hasty shoeprints—blanketed the floor. The smell of death still hung in the air.
Rumors spread quickly that Rigo killed him. But we all knew that wasn’t true because Rigo worked all day and Danny was seen earlier at the hospice, praying with a few lifer inmates dying of cancer and liver complications.
“Damn,” said a black inmate who was hanging out with us, observing the cell. “It seems kind of cowardly for him to go out like that.”
“Cowardly? That’s a man,” Rick insisted. “Takes a lot of guts to take yourself out! Look at all the suicide attempts over the years. Guys wanting attention. Danny went out in a blaze of glory. A one-way ticket to hell, in my opinion.”
“I don’t think he is going to hell,” I said. “For whatever reason he did this, I’m sure God will forgive him.”
Two weeks later, a memorial service was held in the prison chapel for Danny. About 300 men packed the chapel.
It was at this service that we found out the truth of why he killed himself. In his pocket, officers found a letter he received that afternoon from his sister, informing him that his wife and 13-year-old son were killed in a car crash while driving up Highway 101 for a surprise visit. I shed a tear upon hearing this.
Amidst the sound of hundreds of men talking, the black inmate on the piano played the Al Green song, “How Do You Mend a Broken Heart.” A huge homemade greeting card was being passed around for inmates to sign, which would be sent to his mother, Olga.
When it was my turn to sign, I observed the front of the card, displaying a photo of Danny, his wife and son—a picture taken in the Folsom Prison visiting room. Inside, I signed it, writing the following words:
Your son was a modern-day Jesus, spreading a message of hope. He prayed with addicts, the sick, the mentally ill. I’ll promise to carry his torch, to tell his story one day, so that others may appreciate their own life and not take anything for granted.
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.” Visit www.adamcarolla.com. David 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. Visit www.inmate.com for information on David’s case.
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