Life in the cage: Cellmates from hell
Living with another man, a stranger and a convicted felon, inside a cage the size of a gas station bathroom is trying
After taking my morning dump outside at the yard toilets, since I prefer to not crap in front of my cellie, I saw Cleve standing by himself, near the bank of phones, sad, confused.
Cellmates from hell
Sometimes it’s best to keep your cellie
By Tito David Valdez Jr.
Living with another man, a stranger and a convicted felon, inside a cage the size of a gas station bathroom is trying. When things go wrong between cellmates, compromise is sometimes the only key to survival, but pride, selfishness, and greed fuel paranoia and distrust.
And cellmates who don’t trust each other, if they don’t come to blows, look for ways to part company.
“Hey Dave, let me tell you about my now cellie, Dre, he stinks, has horrible body odor,” said Cleve, a 50-year-old dark-skinned African American convict who always wears a Do-rag. “I burn incense and after the scent goes away, it reeks again,” he continued. “I’m trying to find a place to move but it’s too overcrowded, no cells open.” Cleve has spent the last 25 years in and out of the revolving door of the system, and is now a three-striker—for stealing a pair of socks from K-Mart. He sports a trimmed moustache and goatee, speaks slow like a drunk from years of drinking jailhouse pruno.
“Is there anything good about the guy that you can look past the odor?” I asked in an effort to give him a creative coping strategy.
“The guy is a piece of shit, in for robbing an elderly woman at gunpoint. I think he stealing from me. I feel like breaking his jaw but I don’t know for sure if he has been going into my coffee jar.”
“He did or he didn’t. Do you have a way of knowing if someone goes through your shit?”
Speaking passionately with his hands, putting on the concerned look of a crafty politician, he said: “Every time I leave the cell, I set up a trap on my locker door. I put a mustard pack wedged in the corner of the door and close it shut. If I come back and open the locker door and the mustard pack doesn’t fall, I know my cellie is looking through my shit.”
“Have you ever thought maybe the unit guard came in and did a cell search, and could have opened the door?” I said with sarcasm.
“Man, I’ve got other traps, not just one. I put a paper clip leaning sideways on my Folgers jar of coffee. Place a small piece of Scotch tape attaching the lid and jar, marking the level of coffee. Everything was moved and the level of coffee was lower than the marking, when I came back from the yard.”
“OK, let’s assume he did steal a few shots of coffee. Is it worth breaking his jaw and going to the hole and getting an assault charge?”
"It's the principle homie. He could be going through other
shit, hitting it to my old ladies photos in my album. He might be a rat, reading my trial court transcripts trying to make a deal with the D.A. I can't live like this, when there is no trust!"
"Do you ever share your food with him when you eat?"
"I did when I moved in but every time when he go to canteen, he waits until I leave the cell to go to yard to open his canteen items. I come back to the cell and food/candy wrappers, empty soda cans, empty chip bags, are in the trash bag. I like to be comfortable, eat something while I watch a game or movie. I can't even do that now because I feel guilty if I don't share. My momma always taught me to share. Fuck that motha fucka, he has nothing coming. He never eats when I'm in the cell and never offers me anything!"
"Hang in there man, a call will come open soon," I said, with a
hopeful tone of voice.
"I hope so. Shee-it, the only problem is the next guy might be worse, know what I'm saying homie?"
"Ya, I do."
It was a clear sunny morning when I finished jogging around the track. I ran into Antonio, a 35-year-old Mexican National, who is in great shape, has a youthful clean-shaven face, speaks English with a slight Latino accent. He wore brand now grey sweatpants and sweatshirt, with high dollar Nike tennis shoes. His sentence - 30 years with half time. Rumors say he got caught transporting
fifty kilos of cocaine across the border and has thousands of dollars in his prison account.
"Hermano, you got a second?" he asked.
"Yes, of course, what's up?" I said.
"Are you getting along with your cellie?" he asked, while using a palm comb to brush his short dark brown hair.
"I'm looking for a new cellie. My cellie Poncho, he snores all night. Reminds me of that place in Disneyland, where a bear snores really loud."
"Have you tried sleeping with your headphones on, listening to music? or try earplugs?"
"Ya, but it's not working. He is fat, and when he snores, it vibrates the entire bunk."
"Do you have a footlocker in your cell?"
"I've found that rattling the metal fasteners back and forth, which close the footlocker, wakes up a snoring callmate."
"You mean 'the clacking noise it makes?"
"Yes. Try it. It will wake him up and give you enough time to fall asleep before he starts snoring again."
"Alright, I'll try it. Gracias!"
While in the dayroom listening to my Walkman, giving my
cellmate an hour of cell time, I was approached by Tre, a 23 year
old lanky light skinned black guy who looked like rapper T.I. -bling bling with his thick gold chain and gold anchor emblem, sagging baggy pants, white tank top, old school Adidas tennis shoes, Do-rag, and black 'Murder One' shades. All he needed was a trendy sparkling grill on his teeth and he could be cast in a rap video.
"Yo Dave, my man, can I holler at you for a second?" he said, signaling me over to talk to him, against the wall of the mini-canteen so no one would hear our conversation.
"Yeah, what's up?"
Speaking with this hands, his body animated, "Homie, I gots to get a cell move. My cellie Melvin, he is a nutcase. I know you are tight with the building clerk. Can you hook up a call move for me? You knows I can't go to the po-leece and ask, my people will think I'm snitching."
"Wow, how bad is it in there?"
"Motha fucka sleeps with his state boots and state blues on. He showers once a week. Never goes to the yard. Always up in the cell late at night, typing writs for people. Any cat gots to be crazy to pay him to do their legal work!"
"Rumor says he is a good Iitigator. Has he ever won a case?" I asked.
"He think he a jailhouse lawyer. I ain't seen him win one case
since I've been up in there the last three months."
"Are we talking about the same Melvin, the guy who carries boxes of legal transcripts daily to the law library?"
"Yup. He say he do that to protect his clients from sneaky cellmates who want to read their court transcripts. He say they always looking for a way to snitch on a motha fucka, to get time knocked off their sentence, calling the D.A."
"Someone told me he puts all his personal property into a shower
bag and hangs it outside the cell on a hook, whenever he is out of the cell, is that true?"
"Yup. He say he don't want motha fuckas going through his lotion and shampoo, coffee. He even ties up his locker with a rope before he leaves the cell. It's like he don't trust a motha fucka. Look man, you know I get my hustle on, do a little this and that. I'll give you a jar of coffee, can you hook it up?"
"I'll see what I can do. Let me talk to the clerk."
Coming back from chow that evening, I was at the water fountain, reading the bulletin board, when I was approached by Dale, a 39 year old white dude from orange County, who had come to the joint
looking like a rich surfer or skater, lanky-feminine, with long blond hair. Re now is penniless, has the look of a convict, buff, bald heads goatee, sleeved arms with tattoos, a tear drop under his eye, looks like a hardcore criminal, straight from the trailer parks of Humboldt County.
"Hey dog, have you seen anyone selling a Sony Walkman?" he asked, with an angry tone.
"In fact, earier today, Hungarian Johnny, he was on the yard
trying to fetch twenty dollars for one. It had a weird Anarchy symbol on the back, etched with a tattoo gun." I replied.
"That's mine! My scandalous cellie Earl stole
"Why would he do that?"
"Why else. He wants to get high! I thought our unit officer
might have taken it, since he did a cell search today. The cop
told me he didn't take anything. I'm going to have to beat him
down now, no choice."
"Calm down! Are you sure he took it? what kind of guy is he?"
"I hate my cellie. He is a tight selfish bastard! Gets a care package every quarter from his family, a hundred on his account monthly for canteen. He goes through it all in a few days. Never shares. I know his connection loves him."
"Do you ever share with him?"
"I don't have anything to share. I barely make $12 a month on the yard crew, picking up trash. It's barely enough to buy cosmetic items like shampoo, toothpaste, soap."
"Forget beating him down if you go to the hole, you lose everything, all the little knick knack shit you have accumulated over the years."
"Hey dog, all that can be replaced. He is disrespecting me, thinking I'm a punk. I got no choice but to beat him down, it's about respect, principle."
"Have you done anything bad to him, where he is trying to get back at you?"
Inching closer to me, so no one else would hear, he whispered
with a grin, "Well, between you and I, I've taken his toothbrush and wiped it inside the toilet, leaving crud on it. I've pissed in his lotion bottle. I've…"
"Alright, I get it. I don't want to know more. Maybe he found out somehow. You need to talk to him, communicate-"
"I never talk to that idiot."
"He does his own program, I do mine. He tries to run the cell, telling me when I can watch television, when I can come in and out. I've already called him out, told him to fuck off. He won't fight me-"
"There is an empty cell right now, old man Hillbilly Bobs you could move in with him* better than throwing blows."
"Are you kidding? He smells like shit. Doesn't shower. I heard he gets up at night to piss a lot due to his swollen prostate.
Nobody can live with him, not even for a week."
"Look, talk to your cellie. Tell him what's bothering you. Try that first."
"Alright dog, I'll try it."
After taking my morning dump outside at the yard toilets, since I prefer to not crap in front of my cellie, I saw Cleve standing by himself, near the bank of phones, sad, confused.
"Cleves you alright? What's wrong?"
"That motha fucka cellie is stealing my hot sauce and lotion."
"How do you know that?"
"I mark my lotion bottle. The level of lotion was higher after I came back from the yard. Now it comes out watery, doesn't have that thickness to it. Same with my siracha sauce. He doesn't know who he is messing with."
"Don't trip. Just put in for a cell move, talk to your building clerk. Slap him a little payola if you have to."
"I already tried that. Clerk say nothin is open. I'm desperate.
Feel like throwing boiling water on his face, or putting a canned
good in a sock and just going off on his face."
"Don't do that! That's another charge!"
"I've already got life. They aint ever going to let me out anyways, the parole board going to deny me because of my long record.
"Start thinking outside the box. There is always a solution."
"Ya, maybe...I'm thinking of putting some bleach in his lotion and shampoo," he said, chuckling.
"Nah, don't do that, the moment he puts it on his face, he
will look like Michael Jackson."
Antonio was jogging around the track, I caught up to him, and ran beside him.
"How's that snoring problem?"
"It works! I made the clacking noise and he wakes Up. Takes him a while to go back to sleep. Poncho is a good cellie, the only thing is that he snores too loud!"
"Great to see that It worked out."
After speaking to my mom on the inmate telephones, during
afternoon yard, I was approached by Poncho, Antonio's cellie. An
overweight 45 year old hicano, with dark hair and moustaches who's in for robbing several convenience stores to support his addiction.
"Hey holmes, you got a minute?" he asked.
"Ya, what's up?"
"My cellie Antonio, he is a youngster. He watches television all night until 11:00 p.m. I got to be at work in the main kitchen at 3:30 a.m. Lately, I've been waking up a lot for some reason. I think my cellie is hitting it to the Spanish novella programs on Telemundo. Once I wake up, it's hard to go back to sleep. Can you talk to the gabacho clerk and tell him to find me an open call?"
"Ya, but who do you want to move in with?"
"Anyone holmes. If he is hitting it while I'm in the cell, it's a sign of disrespect. I need someone who goes to sleep around 8 p.m. an older vato perhaps, like me. Let me know how much it's going to cost."
"Alright, no problem, let me see what I can do."
The building clerk is like God in prison.
He has the ultimate juice card as a convict. He works directly with the cops. Pack in the '80s, give him two cartons of Camels, and he would schedule your conjugal visit every 30 days, while other chumps on the waiting list had to wait four months to get one.
"Mike, I got a few friends who are looking for cell moves.
Anything coming open this week?" I asked.
"I've got a list here of 200 inmates who also want a cell move.
Nothing new. Only opening right now is Hillbilly Bob's cell," said
Mike, a lanky tall light skinned Jewish inmate, a clever
opportunist, whose blond hair is combed to the side like a
poltician. He wears trendy sunglasses and looks like an
accountant. Rumors say he is in for running a Ponzi scheme.
"Nobody can live with him ! Any other cells?"
"Only one call this Saturday. Two black guys in cell 326, they are going to the dorms, custody level is being reduced. But here's the deal. That cell has a nice Penthouse view of the yard, gets great reception, has turn-on knobs in the sink, extra mirrors, new television stands, shelves. It's Cadillac. Snoop and Rudy in cell 311 want the cell, they offered me $100. Now, for something more than that, I might offer my assistance."
"I got it. Let me make the pitch. I'll get back at you."
After getting out of the shower, I walked to the water fountain
to get hot water and pour myself some hot chocolate. I was approached by Tre.
"Yo Dave! Have you talked to the clerk?"
"Ya, cell 326 is opening up on Saturday, but…"
"Tell me how much he wants!" he said anxiously.
"What?" he exclaimed. "Are you serious? That Jew bastard!"
"You know how it is in here, every man has his hustle."
"Fuck…Motha fucka Melvin is now bird bathing in *-he cell at 3:00 a.m. every morning after I told him he stinks. He paranoid to take a shower with other guys. I can't sleep. Would he take half now and half at Third Draw? I can get him anything he needs."
"I'll get back at you."
Before the cell lock up for the night, I ran into Poncho.
"Poncho, he wants $150. Are you able to afford that?"
"Yeah, but I need my money to buy hobby items to make my hustle.
Sabes que? I'll just put up with the youngster. Won't be the first cellmate who jerks off when I'm sleeping."
"Horale." I said. We both locked up for the night.
About 3 a.m., I was awakened by the sound of grunts, loud banging, and bones hitting concrete. The usual sign of a cell fight. Over the years, I've heard so many of them that it no longer interests me enough to listen. I went back to sleep. It's the same result, two inmates yanked out by guards, bloody, taken to the hole.
In the morning during chow, I heard the news, what happened.
"Hey holmes, did you hear about Dale?" said Sleepy, a chicano inmate who is tattooed down, has a bald head, and is intimidating looking.
"No, what happened?"
"Him and his cellie got into it last night, eh."
"Did they go to the hole?"
"Nah, they are still in the cell. Patching each other up. Black
eyes, Dale has a broken nose. The Unit officer at night must have been sleeping or out roaming around the prison to not have heard it. They got lucky to not get caught."
"How will they avoid being seen by the guards?"
"Ah, they will just act like they are reading the paper or taking a shit when the cop passes by."
"What was it over?"
"I heard that Dale's cellie took his radio and sold It. I heard also that Dale was pissing in his lotion bottle."
I immediately went to Dale's cell to see the situation. They were both wearing dark sunglasses to hide their black eyes, cleaning up the mess in the cell.
"Dale, is everything alright?"
Taking off his sunglasses, his black right eye was exposed, looking
like the dog on the Little Rascals television program.
"Ya Dog, sometimes it takes a brawl to make things right. we worked it all out last night. It's all good. Can you do me a favor?"
"Do you eat your fish tonight at chow?"
"No, I usually give it to Sleepy, who sits at my table."
"Dog, can you bring it back for me. We ain't going to chow for a week or so til the wounds heal."
"I understand. No problem. I'll be back later to drop it off."
Building clerk Mike was on his knees, with a scraper, stripping
the wax off the officers' bathroom floor in the unit. He was bumping the officers portable radio, playing ICE CUBE. The music blasted loud out the speakers, the dial read X-103.9 FM, a station which plays rap and rock music.
"Tre wants the cell, can he give you half now and half later,? What do you think?"
"I don't trust blacks. He has to give me everything up front. The only way I roll, know what I'm saying?" he said, with his baseball cap tipped sideways, reminding me of white rapper vanilla Ice.
"Alright, I'll relay the message."
That evening after chow, the alarm rang. Code One in the dining hall. Several guards ran to the scene, bringing out two
black inmates in handcuffs, placing them in holding cages. I looked to see who it was, it was Cleve and his cellie Dre. A medical nurse was treating wounds on Cleve's face. Upon returning to the cellblock, I asked a black inmate, Pookey, what happened.
"I heard that Cleve broke his cellie's jaw because he was stealing from his coffee jar. I also heard that Cleve was putting bleach in his cellie's lotion bottles."
I immediately walked towards Tre, who was returning from chow.
"Tre, he won't budge; $150 up front."
"Fuck it. Gots to do what I gots to do. Tell him I'll bring it out at dayroom. Two bags of groceries, the rest in books of stamps."
"No problem. Bring it by my cell. I'll take it to him. He
doesn't deal directly with blacks, he is paranoid the white guys
will trip on him." .
"No problem, hook it up. I'll put two jars of coffee in another
bag, just for you homie, for hooking it up!"
At dayroom, I met Mike at the officers bathroom where he was
finishing up putting a 20th layer of wax on the floor."
"Tre wants the cell. Here's what you asked for," I said,
placing the groceries on the ground.
"Thank you. Tell him I can move him tonight. The blacks in cell
326 will be moving out tonight, sooner than I expected, due to
"Thanks. Don't like to see people throw blows over nothing."
"We see this scenario every day, nothing is going to change."
Mike went upstairs to his Penthouse cell on the third tier with
the groceries, sitting it by his cell, counting it all, making sure he didn't get burned or cheated. He came back down the stairs, handing me two jars of coffee.
"OK, here's your usual cut."
"Ever hear of the inmate nicknamed Booty Bandit," he asked, while he sorted the new inmates mugshots behind cardboard bed cards.
"Yeah, the guy who rapes cellmates. Last I heard he got out of the
Corcoran SHU unit."
"Yeah, he got out all right. He is in the unit office right now,
being classified. I'm doing the paperwork. He will be Tre's new
cellmate, going into cell 326 with him tonight."
"Are you serious?"
"Dead serious." §
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