Life in the cage
‘I ain’t a racist. But my personal beliefs don’t matter. The bottom line is that I can’t cell up with another race. My people will discipline me, put me in the infirmary.’
In California, institutional racism has led inmates of different races to not get along and fight each other over territory or matters of disrespect. It seems almost impossible to change how things have been running for generations.
Illustration by Gene Ellis
Can’t we all just get along?
By Tito David Valdez Jr.
For decades, California prison officials have orchestrated housing placements of prisoners based on race. A California inmate challenged this unwritten policy in 1997 and a decade later the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Johnson vs. California that race could no longer be a factor when housing inmates. The decision has brought on much anxiety and controversy within the California prison population.
I was in the dayroom where about two hundred prisoners passed time by exercising, playing dominos or socializing. While walking to the water fountain, I heard two inmates conversing during their workout.
“Yo, Malcolm. You see that shit on our institutional video system about cell integration?” asked Tre, a light-skinned buff African American inmate in his early thirties, as he finished up a set of burpees.
“Yup, they aint putting no honky tonk redneck in my cell, playing that country shit. Them white boys are nasty Jerry Springer trailer trash motha fuckas. Putting photos of their cousins up on the wall. They into that shit, homey,” said Malcolm, a dark-skinned African American in his forties, beginning a set of burpees.
“I feel you. I ain’t gonna be comfortable having a white boy in my cell, makes me think about his people who enslaved our ancestors. Shee-it, he try to step up in my cell, I gonna whoop on him, fo’ sho’!” said Tre, wiping sweat off his forehead.
“Yeah, knock his ass out. You gonna go to the hole but you come back with respect,” said Malcolm, drinking water from his cup.
The decibel level was off the charts with the racket of changing gates, radios blasting, prisoners’ chattering, and guards yelling out orders on the intercom system. I walked over near the white inmates’ tables, overhearing their opinions on the racial integration policy.
A white inmate named Brad, who lost his single cell because of overcrowding, expressed his views to another inmate. “They ain’t moving no monkey ass negro in my cell.”
“I hear you, dog. I wouldn’t be able to sleep, having to hear a loud ass talking all the time about baby mommas and rapping to jungle music. I’ll bomb on his ass the moment he steps into the cell,” said Mark, a corn-fed, bald-headed white guy with a swastika tattoo on his neck.
“That’s the only option, holmes. If you refuse a cellie, they take you to the hole anyways.”
“Why are they trying to change what has worked for the last fifty years? Doesn’t make any sense. If the wheel ain’t broke, why fix it?” asked Mark.
“I’m leaning towards conspiracy. They need to build more prisons so they want to push us all to the breaking point. They’ve already taken our weights, conjugal visits. They want us to protest, go off, like Attica.”
“Damn, it would be torture having to wake up to that silly Do-Rag and smell that nasty ass shit they put in their hair,” said Mark.
“Holmes, look at the bright side, when it is dark at night, their teeth will light your way to take a piss. They glow in the dark,” Brad said, laughing.
At 6:30 p.m., the usual time for chow release, two unit guards were opening the cell doors of three different inmates, escorting them to the administration unit office. I looked out my window, curious. The only time they call inmates past six p.m., after business hours, is to give them bad news, like a family member died.
At chow release, which ran late at 7 that evening, I caught up with Brad, who was one of the inmates called out.
“Brad, what did they call you to the unit office for?” I asked.
“Cell integration policy, holmes,” he said, with haste and spite.
“Really? What did they say?”
“They are screening people, interviewing.”
“Tell me, what’s the criteria, are they getting ready to implement the policy?”
“Yeah, they said in about three months. If a prisoner is affiliated with a gang or prison disruptive group, they will probably not be affected. Anyone non-affiliated, they got problems. I’m not affiliated, so it’s going to affect me.”
“I don’t get it, man.”
“Here’s the bottom line. If a non-affiliated white guy is selected to live with a Negro, he has two choices: Either refuse the cellie and go to the hole, or bomb on the guy and still go the hole.”
“Why can’t he just choose to live with the black guy and try to get along, for a day or two, till a white cell opens up?”
“Hey, holmes, prison isn’t a perfect world. There are unwritten rules. White inmates as a whole won’t accept one of their own living with a Negro. Anybody that crosses that line is going to get hurt really bad by his own race.”
“I get it now. But, what will you do, man, if you go to the hole? You will lose all your knick-knack stuff you have accumulated over the years.”
“Rather lose the material things than my front teeth. I’m just going to go with the flow. I’ll first refuse. If they try and force someone on me, I’m bombing on him.”
At evening dayroom, I caught up with Sleepy, a Latino inmate with a bald head and tattoos on his body, standing by a bulletin board listening to his walkman. I wanted to know how he felt about the integration policy.
“Sleepy, what is the word with the integration policy?”
Taking off his headphones, he replied, “It ain’t going to work, holmes.”
“I agree, but it seems like CDCR is going to enforce it. They’re mandated by the Supreme Court and a settlement agreement. They’re already screening inmates.”
“Check this out, the CDCR has done nothing to prepare us for such a major change. When we go to chow, we still sit in our own areas segregated by race. Our phones are segregated. Showers, too. How can they expect us to just integrate overnight?”
“Like, what will happen if there is a racial riot between two races?” I asked.
“Exactly, homey. If we get into it with the blacks, and one of us is housed with a black, that’s an automatic cell fight. Either he will bomb on me or I’ll have to bomb on him. The CDCR has never revealed to us any plan for this type of situation.”
“I see you talk to blacks from time to time. I know you ain’t got nothing against them.” I said.
“I ain’t a racist. But my personal beliefs don’t matter. The bottom line is that I can’t cell up with another race. My people will discipline me, put me in the infirmary.”
Numerous states and federal prisons nationwide racially integrate inmates into the same cells. As a result, inmates are more united, wearing prison blues and standing together against prison officials to fight against oppressive prison conditions.
In California, institutional racism has led inmates to fight over territory or matters of disrespect. It seems almost impossible to change how things have been running for generations.
One evening after chow, two unit guards came to my cell and I was escorted to the unit office. Captain Shields, a white officer who looked like the typical television homicide cop with walrus moustache and beer belly, had my file in front of him.
“Mr. Valdez, you are here to be screened for cell integration,” he said, filling out an application at the top with my name and prison number.
“Alright, where do I sign to refuse?”
“Believe me, you don’t want to refuse,” he said sternly.
“Anyone who refuses will be taken to the hole and lose their privileges. You don’t want to lose your television and radio, do you?”
“Look, I’ll be honest with you. I am not a racist. My best friend, who is free, is a black guy. I just can’t live with another race in prison, my people for one won’t tolerate it.”
“Oh, so you are afraid of what your people will think,” he said with sarcasm.
“Yes, very much. Word going around is that anyone who cells up with another race will be attacked.”
“Have you ever been involved in a racial riot?”
“Yes, in the Los Angeles County Jail, against blacks, April 1995, Super Max Facility.”
“I’ll have to verify that. Why were you involved? I see here that you are non-affiliated.”
“No choice. Had to defend myself. You either stand up and fight or be attacked. And they don’t just throw punches, they have makeshift weapons or place bars of soap in a sock.”
“OK,” he said, looking down at his list of questions. “Could you live with a race other than blacks?”
“No. Nobody but my own race.”
“Come on, how hard can it be to live with someone of another race? There are inmates right now living in four man pods in the dorms, integrated racially.”
“There is a difference between a dorm and a cell. A dorm is an open area. A cell is a tiny space; it’s one’s own sanctuary.”
“If I was in your shoes, as a non-affiliated prisoner, I wouldn’t find a problem with it.”
“OK, let me put it to you this way. Are you married?”
“Let’s move your wife out of your bedroom, put an upper bunk above your bed, and move in Mike Tyson, or O.J. Simpson. A total stranger, convicted felon, someone you know has attitude and is capable of royally kicking your ass. Would you feel comfortable living like that in such small quarters? It’s already hard enough to find a good cellmate of your own race.”
“I probably wouldn’t feel comfortable, but…”
I interrupted him. “Every race has their own beliefs, culture, ideology. You give me a cellie from India, he is going to be cooking curry all day, a stench I can’t stand. Give me an Arab cellie, he might like to play Middle Eastern music out loud, which I don’t really care for. It’s very wrong to force someone to live with another race in such small quarters.”
“So are you refusing?”
“It’s not refusing. I’m just explaining my situation. You are going to put me into a situation where I’ll have to defend myself.”
“I believe you are mistaken. A lot of inmates will choose to comply rather than refuse and go to the hole.”
“That’s your opinion. You don’t live here, I do. I’ve heard that other California prisons have already tried to implement this policy with no success. Inmates are resorting to violence in protest.”
“Alright, based on the interview, I am going to approve you for cell integration. Any questions?”
“I object entirely, and I want you to put that on my application.”
I left the captain’s tiny office, which wasn’t any bigger than a cell, angry, since he made an arbitrary decision. From my experience, the 602 appeal process doesn’t work and takes months to even get a response.
Tyrone, a tall buff black inmate entered the office. I could hear him talking to the captain, sitting directly in front of him.
“OK, Mr. Jackson, you are here to be screened for cell integration,” said Captain Shields.
“Captain, I’m a racist and you ain’t going to put any white boy in my cell, you got that?” he said loudly, pounding his fists abruptly on the desk.
Suddenly, an alarm sounded in the unit office, the intercom speakers relayed, “Code one, code one, unit office, code one.” Five guards immediately stormed into the office, grabbing Tyrone and handcuffing him, escorting him to a holding cage outside.
“What happened, captain?” asked Officer Ritz, a white man in his early fifties wearing a CDCR baseball cap.
“I thought he was going to attack me. He had that look of hate in his eyes.” §
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 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. Visit David’s MySpace at www.myspace.com/prisonerdavid or go to www.inmate.com for information on David’s case.