Life in the cage: Parole granted
‘Fuck that parole board! That is why I don’t even show up when they ducat me. I just want them to leave me alone. I’m content on leaving here in a pine box.’
Will the parole board want to talk about the way he killed his young wife, go over all the gruesome details and relive that nightmare which happened 20 years ago?
What you gonna do when you get out of jail?
By Tito David Valdez Jr.
At 7 a.m., a school bell rang echoing loudly in the quiet cellblock, signaling time for morning chow. Three guards on three tiers racked the cell doors open as hundreds of men stepped out, salivating at the mouth like Pavlov’s dogs, walking down the stairwell to have their bland breakfast. Soon, the dayroom filled with chatter, sound levels blowing off the decibel charts.
Exiting the cellblock, I walked down a long well-lit corridor with about a hundred men, passing guards who were pulling men over randomly to search for contraband, into a large cafeteria-style mess hall. Kitchen workers, unseen behind a stainless steel barrier, serve food on trays shoved out of a rectangular hole. I grabbed my tray and was directed by a guard to sit at the next available seat. Three convicts were already at this table, which sat only four.
“What’s up, Dave?” asked Brad, a white veteran convict locked up for 35 years. His shoulder-length blond hair was tied up in a ponytail; he had a slight bit of oatmeal on his walrus mustache and goatee as he ate another spoonful.
“I’m all right man, just disgusted at all the characters I see around here daily,” I said.
“You talking about the guards or the inmates?” asked Brad.
A black inmate at our table named Tre joined the conversation. He spoke with the voice of a gangster rapper. “Shee-it, lately we ain’t seen no hot female guards. In the past, we gots lots of young luscious rookies coming through here. You know, the sight of a beautiful female cop gives a motha fucka hope.”
A Chicano inmate named Sleepy offered his take. “This shit does get old, but what can you do? Just keep your head up, walk proud, don’t let no one get you down,” he said with a thick barrio accent.
Nearly every day at breakfast inmates exchange the latest gossip or snivel about prison conditions. Today was no different.
“See that motha fucka over there, Pookey, with the DO-RAG on?” asked Tre. Pookey was smiling, speaking to a group of black youngsters at his table, selling gambling tickets for that night’s televised football game.
“He going to the parole board today and he always gets one-year denials. That lazy ass sit in his cell all day and night and watch television. He ain’t participating in no self-help programs. Been down only seventeen years on a fifteen-year to life sentence and he gets love like that, where a white boy I know, named Tanner, he gots everything the board ask for, and gets a three-year denial at each hearing.”
“Hey holmes, my homey Spider is getting five-year denials. They keep bringing up his past, all his write-ups when he first came into the joint, in the seventies. The board doesn’t care, eh, if he is praising the Lord now and trying to be a better person,” said Sleepy.
“Fuck that parole board! That is why I don’t even show up when they ducat me. I just want them to leave me alone. I’m content on leaving here in a pine box,” said Brad, with authority.
“Well, you know, there is a latest ruling in the courts which could potentially help a lot of lifers get parole dates,” I said.
“You know that is a load of horseshit. Look around you; everyone in the joint for the last two decades has been waiting on that one case that’s supposed to open up the floodgates. I ain’t buying into that; it’s a pipe dream,” said Brad.
“But what about the few guys we have seen get out, get a parole date?” I asked.
“The board has to let out a few people once in a while, to make it look like they are doing their job. I know who white boy Tanner is and he happens to be going to the board today too, with Pookey. We will have to see what happens,” said Brad.
Three parole board members sit at a table, drinking freshly brewed coffee obtained from the guards’ lounge.
A lovely woman says, “After going through today’s caseload, I feel that only one guy should be eligible for a parole date.” She points to a file with a black man’s mug shot; he smiles widely despite lacking three front teeth.
A black man, dressed in suit and tie, says, “Are you joking?”
“No. I’m serious. Look at his institutional conduct, his confidential files. Here’s a guy who knows how the game works, an honest man who will tell us what he is truly all about. I’m always skeptical of the guys who come in here showing us certificates, citing any one of the twelve steps, passages from the Bible, like they are trying to impress us.”
A white man speaks, “I agree with her. Out of the twenty files I went through last night, this guy deserves a date.”
The woman said, “All right, let’s get this caseload over with. I want to make it out by 3 p.m., in time for Oprah. Officer Ortiz? Can you please call our first inmate for the day, inmate Gonzales, last two digits: thirty-six.”
Officer Ortiz, a 65-year-old Hispanic man close to retirement, gets up slowly from his seat, walks as if he has a prosthetic leg, and calls out, “Señor Gonzales, last two: thirty-six, come inside.”
A court-appointed white attorney, who speaks with the swishy voice a gay guy says, “Officer, I’m Mr. Evans, assigned to handle the Gonzales case. I’ll be interpreting as well.”
Evans walks in with Gonzales, a Mexican national, they both sit before the board members at the table.
Whispering to his colleagues, the black board member says, “Another year denial. He doesn’t even know how to speak English.”
Tanner, a 37-year-old lanky white guy wearing prescription glasses who has never been to prison before, waits patiently to be called for his parole hearing in the Board of Prison Terms lobby. It’s been three years since his last hearing. He’s nervous, anxious, feels like taking a dump—his asshole puckering like a guy who just slammed crystal meth. The last inmate who went in there talked for three hours to the board. Tanner’s mind is racing, thinking about what the board will ask him. Will they ask him about what Step 3 is from Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step traditions? Will they want to talk about the way he killed his young wife, go over all the gruesome details and relive that nightmare which happened 20 years ago? Will they ask if he has any remorse?
He paces the room back and forth. An hour later, the door opens as a 40-year-old Mexican National inmate nicknamed Huero comes out, angry, while his appointed attorney named Evans, speaks to him in Spanish like a gringo still learning the language.
“Amigo, Gonzales, todo esta bien. El ano que viene, tu pueden salir [Everything is OK, next year, you will go home].”
“Why you not say I go to Mexico?” asked Huero, who was born and raised on a ranch in Sonora, Mexico.
“You have to establish parole plans in the United States, in Los Angeles, California. Comprende?” said Evans.
“Yeah, I understand. But I get deported. Go back to Mexico. No stay in U.S. No family here.”
“Ah, don’t worry; we will have a better chance next year. Stay in your prison education class. Your English is getting better.”
Officer Ortiz, the doorman, calls out, “Mr. Tanner…Tanner…last two digits, nine-zero, please step in.”
Tanner gets up from his seat, feeling nauseous, lightheaded, dizzy. He walks into the room, his counsel already seated next to the empty chair he will occupy. He sees three people sitting behind the table; he knows they have the power of God (just like the 12 jurors who found him guilty). They would ultimately decide his fate. Would he spend another three years with his stinky and nasty worthless biker cellmate? Or would he be going home, sleeping on a real mattress and getting laid?
At afternoon yard, I ran into Brad while he was doing his workout—dips and pull-ups on the bars. He was buff for his age, looked healthier than many youngsters.
“Hey Dave, what did I tell you?”
“What happened?” I asked.
“Tanner got another three-year denial. This is why I gave up hope a long time ago.”
“There has to be a good reason.”
“The reason is that they know he will succeed and stay out if they give him a release date.”
“Really, you think they only let out the fuck-ups, knowing they will come back?”
“Not always. They have let out some guys who didn’t pull the trigger, who were accessories or who had kidnapping charges. But look at the big picture, holmes. Tanner has a master’s degree in communications, which he earned in the joint. He has three vocational trades, a positive psych report, a lovely new wife and two stepchildren. His parents are still alive. He has a job already lined up working for a television station selling advertising. He doesn’t even have one write-up in twenty years!”
“Wow, that’s hard to do in here.”
“Check it out, he’s coming around the track right now. Tanner…hey, Tanner!”
Slowing down from his jog around the track, Tanner approached us with the look of a beaten animal—defeated, sluggish—his eyes filled with raging despair. I sensed he had been crying; his eyes bloodshot red.
“Yeah, what’s up, Brad?”
“Hey man, tell Dave what happened.”
“Another three-year denial,” Tanner confided. “I don’t get it. They keep bringing up the crime as the sole reason. Yes, I killed my wife, but it was out of rage. I caught her in bed with another man when I came home. I was remorseful. I explained how I was wrong and how I want to be a contributing member of society again. Showed them my certificates, proof of my accomplishments. All they said was that I must be a good manipulator of staff to have not been issued any disciplinary write-ups in twenty years. Ain’t that a bitch?”
“I heard they do that a lot, holmes. Even use a petty CDC-128-A Counseling Chrono’ to deny parole. What else happened?” asked Brad.
“My family hired a good Jewish lawyer, Horowitz, to represent me and he even got the victim’s mother to come to testify that the family forgives me for what happened.”
“Any chance of appeal?” I asked.
“The attorney will be appealing the decision. But he says it will take about two years to run its course through the courts. I’m fucked, man! What am I going to tell my wife when I call her at 4 p.m.?”
“Hey holmes, tell her to start looking for Sancho again. He will have to fill your boots for now,” said Brad.
Pookey, a dark-skinned 42-year-old African American inmate, waited in the lobby for his name to be called. He rolled up a contraband cigarette using pages from a Gideons Bible as rolling paper, while talking to another black inmate names Reese, who was also waiting to see the board.
“Yeah homey, tobacco is getting expensive now. Three dollars for a rollie. I gots to get me a can of Bugler somehow.”
“Damn, Pookey. You ain’t afraid of getting a write-up for contraband? Any write-up in your file, no matter how minor, can cost you three years by the board.”
“Shee-it, I ain’t worried about no write-up. I live for today, homey. Tomorrow ain’t promised to no one! Thug for life!”
Inmate Reese, a 55-year-old man who looked 65 from excessive worry, was organizing all his paperwork, which consisted of certificates, family support letters and some of his poetry that won awards in national writing contests. He intended to show this to the board.
“Yo, Reese, my man, they don’t give a shit about all that stuff. They already got their mind made up before you go in, haven’t you figured that out already?”
“Why you say that, homey?”
“The three-member panel is like the television show American Idol. They already know who the winner is going to be but they go through the motions each week just to look good, to make it looks like they are earning that money.”
Pookey lights up the rollie with a contraband Bic lighter, which he pulls from his sock. “Shee-it, hundred-grand a year, just to pick and choose which loser gets released…that’s love. Where can I apply?”
“I don’t believe that man. You are always blaming the white man for all your problems. Look at you, can’t even follow the rules in prison. How do you expect to ever be released?”
“I don’t care if they release me or not. I’m happy just being me. Alive.”
“Mr. Brown…Mr. Brown…last two…zero-zero, please step inside,” said Officer Ortiz.
“That’s me!” said Pookey, smashing his rollie lightly on the bench, leaving ashes and placing it in his pants pocket. “I wasn’t going to come today but I heard they got a hottie in there deciding cases. They say she looks like Paula Abdul.”
“Mr. Brown, your prison file here says they call you Pookey. That happens to be the name of my dog. Tell us, why should we release you into society?” asked Ms. Smith, a middle-aged white woman with shoulder-length brown hair and eyes, a former homicide cop. She smelled of expensive perfume and hairspray.
“I should be released because I don’t plan on ever coming back here, fo sho!”
“But inmate Brown, you have several disciplinary write-ups in the last ten years: possession of a cellphone, manufacturing pruno, possession of narcotics, masturbation in front of female staff—” listed Mr. Fuller, who spoke with a British accent.
“Nah, I beat that one, supposed to be dropped down to a counseling chrono. I was putting Vaseline on my hemorrhoid. She thought I was flashing her during count.”
“Looks like you can’t even follow the rules in here. Look at your thumb—nicotine all over it. Tobacco is contraband and you are still smoking,” said Mr. Hanson, an African American man who was a former chief of police. Pookey’s eyes remained fixed on the pack of Camels exposed in this man’s jacket pocket.
“Yeah, but I smoke because my homeys kick me down. It ain’t cool to turn down someone who offers you something for free, dig?” He smiles, exposing his missing three front teeth on his upper grill.
“We see here in your confidential file that you have cooperated with staff on several occasions. We commend you for this,” said Ms. Smith.
“Had to do what is necessary to survive. Ifs you all release me, I wouldn’t hesitate to call in to John Walsh, the fugitive hotline, if I saw someone on America’s Most Wanted. I just trying to be an outstanding citizen and do the right thing. I’ve learned a lot from watching the television show COPS.”
“OK, tell us, if we were to let you out today, what would you be doing? Do you have any job offers, support letters to show us?” asked Mr. Fuller.
“Nah, I didn’t have time to get any of that. But I can tell you this: I’m going to parole to my mom’s house and just chill, watch Jerry Springer, soap operas, and Oprah. Just like I’m doing now. I’ll collect a monthly SSI check since I’m taking psych meds. I ain’t going to hang with homies any more. I am going to look out for my moms; she is all I have.”
“Very commendable. One last question, do you have any remorse for the crime you committed?” asked Mr. Hanson.
“Board members, I killed a guy who beat up my sister. He pulled a knife on me. Shit happened. Any man who hits a woman deserves to be punished. Can I get a witness?”
“Yeah, that’s true. My step-dad wasn’t a nice guy,” said Mr. Hanson.
“I’d probably defend a family member as well,” said Ms. Smith.
“All right, we have heard enough today. We are glad you chose to not have counsel because these lawyers go on and on about nothing for hours. Mr. Brown, please step into the small room for a couple minutes, we will have a decision,” said Mr. Fuller.
Lined up, waiting to go back into the cellblock, I asked Brad more about the parole process. I am a lifer and one day I will be in front of the board to make my plea for release so I wanted to know more, what to expect.
“Brad, so what can I do to better improve my chances for release someday?”
“There is nothing you can do, holmes. You got three board members who are always former law enforcement. They all have built-in prejudices from dealing with criminals every day. It’s always a toss-up who they are going to let out and who they are going to keep. But I can tell you one thing, I wouldn’t be surprised if they let out Pookey today. He is one of the luckiest mayates I’ve ever seen. Back in the ‘80s at Quentin, I saw a guy stab him with a bone-crusher in the chest and he survived.”
“What happened, why did he get hit?”
“Rumors were that he was a rat.”
“Really? No way, not Pookey.”
“All right, holmes. Catch you later. They’re calling my cellblock.”
“Mr. Brown, will you please step back in,” said Officer Ortiz.
Pookey—sporting his DO-RAG, wrinkled prison blues, and represented by no attorney—put his feet up on the desk and leaned back comfortably in the chair.
“Mr. Brown, don’t make yourself too comfortable,” said Mr. Fuller.
“I already know. One year denial, right?”
“It is the decision of this panel, based upon the preponderance of the evidence, that we find you suitable for parole. Parole is GRANTED. Our decision will be reviewed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, but we can assure you that, due to your cooperation with staff over the years, he will affirm our decision. In about ninety days you should be a free man,” said Ms. Smith, smiling.
“Do you have anything to say before we call in the next inmate?” asked Mr. Hanson.
Pookey got up from his seat and went behind the table to hug every board member. Pulling out his contraband Bic lighter from his sock, he spoke to Mr. Hanson, pointing to his jacket pocket.
“Dog, can I get a smoke, a real smoke? I’m a citizen now, like you!”
“I guess technically you are. For sure, dog. Here’s a Camel, on me.”
Pookey lights up his Camel cig and walks out of the room with the swagger of a pimp, his pants sagging.
“I just love this guy’s honesty,” said Mr. Fuller.
“Five dollars says he’ll be back in ten days,” said Ms. Smith.
“Ten dollars says he’ll be back in seven days,” said Mr. Hanson.
“Twenty dollars…in twenty-four hours,” says Mr. Fuller.
“Fifty dollars says he won’t ever make it out. He’ll get a write up before then,” says Officer Ortiz to himself, not saying it aloud, smiling, while he looks at Pookey’s mug shot, taking the case file back to case records.§
Tito David Valdez Jr. 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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