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The Weekly Guide to Doing Time

I was arrested on Feb. 25, 1999. Someone knocked on my door, and when I opened it, there stood eight men and women from the Ventura County Sheriff's Department. They showed me three brown envelopes and said that I was under arrest for a variety of felonies. I went peacefully.


Your idea of jail life might be based on its portrayal in movies like Cool Hand Luke, Jailhouse Rock, or some modern docudramas like The Onion Field or The Shawshank Redemption. You might imagine nutty criminals with colorful names like Sad Sack, Lefty, Shifty and Sean Penn running around playing acoustic guitars, eating eggs, dancing in the Day Room, making license plates and in general just having a blast while they wait to be released into their sweetheart's arms. That's a crock.

The truth, I'm sorry to say, is that jail is a mindlessly regimented, depressing experience that will change your way of thinking forever. Because you're locked up with a lot of scandalous characters, including boosters and dealers and crooked faith healers, you could develop a distinctly criminal way of thinking if you're not careful.

The upside is thanks to the robbers and thieves you meet in jail, you'll never have to pay retail again.

And you do wonder if that "Bubba's Butt Buddy" thing goes on, don't you?


I drove into town with a chip on my shoulder. Six months later feel 20 years older. A year in the tank is like 40 outside. A year inside here, and your eyes open wide.

I was addicted to prescription drugs (Xanax) and tweaking badly from crank (methamphetamine) when I was arrested. Probably about 98 percent of the people in Suicide Watch (the Ventura County Main Jail section—or tank—where everyone stays when they first get to jail) are high on or withdrawing from something, mostly heroin, pills, methamphetamine, alcohol and/ or cigarettes, and it's not pretty. Guys are irritable, ugly, strung-out and angry.

So you spend your first three days in Suicide Watch because everyone is considered a threat to take his or her own life when they're first brought in.

Veterans who know how to "kick" gracefully take advantage of Suicide Watch because the new guys are usually sick and willingly give up their meals. This section tends to be crowded, with bunks overflowing out into the Day Room floor instead of two beds to a cell as you'd find in the regular tanks. Fights are frequent. If you're new, you're better off eating your meals in your cell if you've got one and not worrying about getting a table, since there are more prisoners than seats.


When you get out of Suicide Watch, you're sent to a regular tank, where you eat, sleep and fart with a bunch of other people—gangbangers, drunks, dealers, skinheads, crooks, white-collar criminals and men from all walks of life. The guards don't watch you as closely here.

The Latinos like to sit together, as do the whites and blacks. You should grab a good seat near people of your own kind if you see one. Just be ready to fight for it if someone challenges you. I saw a lot of fights over seating arrangements. The alternative is to eat your meals in your cell until you get located, and that's a viable choice if you don't like to fight or if you don't see any members of your ethnic group around.

Don't ever back down from a fight or you will forever be disrespected by the people in your section. Your own people might work you over if you back down because you have insulted them by your cowardice.

Here's what I mean: I was in the Ventura County Main Jail with a guy everyone called Poindexter, a short, sucked-up white guy with glasses who didn't look like a fighter in any imaginable scenario. Also in with us was a white guy named Steve. Steve got his food one evening and tried to sit at his regular table, but a Latino had taken his seat and told Steve to go to hell when asked to relinquish it. Steve shrugged it off and ate in his cell. When he came out, Poindexter laid into him, spectacles flying, before Steve knew what happened. The fight only lasted a few seconds before the guards broke it up. A brief investigation ensued, and Poindexter was led to the hole, probably for seven days.

This was actually a pretty smart move for a guy who looked like a—well, like a Poindexter. Poindexter was proving he knew the rules, and he was teaching them to Steve. In the process, Poindexter gained the respect of Latinos, whites and blacks alike. You can bet that word followed Poindexter to his next tank and he never had to fight again.

Buckethead was a big Latino who got backed down by a bigger black guy in the rec yard. After that, no one showed him any respect. The consensus: "He shoulda took his ass-whuppin'."


If you know you're going to be arrested: Taper your drug use and wear warm clothes. The season may be different when you're released.

When you are being processed, the deputy will ask you if there's any reason you don't want to be mixed in with the general population. If you say yes, you'll be placed in Protective Custody (PC), which is almost as bad as solitary. There are only a few reasons you would want to be in PC: (a) you're gay and would therefore be ridiculed or worse by less tolerant inmates; (b) you have ratted or snitched on someone in the course of your arrest; (c) you were, at one time or another, a correctional-institution guard, a cop, a judge, or a parole or probation officer; (d) you suspect rival gang members may be held in your tank.

Strip searches and body-cavity searches: Yes, right from the start, to prevent "keistering" (see below). Get over it.

Introduction: When you arrive in your section, you will be eyed and assessed. Don't do anything ostentatious. If you interact with someone, like your cellie, stick out your hand, look him in the eye, give him a firm handshake and introduce yourself, just as in real life—except without the business cards.

Bunk assignments: He who was there first gets the bottom bunk. You can sometimes beat the system if you have a bad back or something, but it better be legit.

Nicknames: When you first come to jail, you'll probably have two nicknames—the one you'd like to have and the one the other cons want you to have. The former will be something cool, like "Ramrod," which, of course, is intended to inspire awe and respect in others. The latter will probably refer to the way you appear to others, something like "Colgate" (referring to your lack of teeth due to a lifelong obsession with crank). Get used to the second because that's the one you'll own.

After you settle in: You will feel terribly sorry for yourself, but remember, there's no crying in jail.


The places I'm talking about qualify as jail, not prison, and there is a difference. The most important one is that a prison is a state institution where you're going to do more than a year. Jails—like the one in Santa Ana—are typically run by cities and counties. Everyone who's going to prison stops off at jail until they're sentenced, so going to jail doesn't mean you associate with a better class of people.

The two places in which I was incarcerated are known as Todd Road and the Main Jail. Todd Road is the Ventura County Maximum Security Detention Center in Santa Paula. The Main Jail is the Maximum Security Detention Center on Victoria Road in Ventura. I've never heard of anyone escaping from either of these Alcatrazes.

A lot of guys who knew they were going to prison were actually eager to get out of the county jail and on to some place like Folsom or Soledad. They wanted to start their routine, and there is less going on—legally and illegally—and generally less freedom in jail. In California, at least, you really are better off in prison than in jail.


Since so many guys come into jail with a monkey on their back, there's a temptation to smuggle in something to tide you over while you're kicking. The traditional technique is keistering. I guess you can figure out what that means.

A guy named Ralph told me that he had keistered a few grams of heroin, a rig (or syringe), a spoon and a lighter. Sounds like a lot to me. Actually, I don't like to think about it.

In prison, drugs abound, but they're expensive. And prison is a bad place to welsh on a debt; they know where you live.

In jail, there were drugs, but the guys who brought smack usually kept it among themselves and close friends. The guys who brought pot or speed did it for show. You'd have to be a fool to do speed or pot in a claustrophobic environment like jail. If you've ever done either, you know what I mean.

Some guys, knowing they were headed for jail, swallowed drugs before they came in and waited for them to pass. I don't want to think about that, either.


I got sixSoul Trains, and I'm outta this place. 42 days, and I'm gone without a trace. Gone like the man with the master plan. Gone with the wind, y'all know what I'm sayin'?

Ted Koppel once spent 12 hours in a cell in an attempt to "experience" the trials and tribulations of the typical inmate, but he missed the point entirely. What's so terrible about being in jail is that the end is not in sight.

One thing I learned in jail is that you can take almost anything for a few hours or even days. It is a testament to human endurance that you can train yourself to think only about the immediate future (one day at a time, AA members?), or that you can trick the mind into thinking that your release date is coming soon when it isn't, or that what you are experiencing is somewhere within the confines of normal human experience when it is absolutely, undeniably not.

In Todd Road, I was introduced to a neat way of counting time by a dreadlocked, snaggletoothed perennial convict named Andr. We were watching Soul Train on TV one Saturday afternoon (every time a good-looking girl did something provocative on the dance floor, all the guys would say, "Damn!" as if they had been castrated en masse) when Andr told me that he had six Soul Trains left to go before his release. That seemed like a lot less time than 42 days, which is what it actually was. After that, all the guys in my tank started using this method. I found out later that this was an old jailhouse trick, at least in California.


Eating and seating arrangements: Sit at the table with guys who speak the same language and are roughly the same color as you. Not knowing this rule when I came in, I ate at the black table. They tolerated my presence until another brother was admitted to the section; at that point, they politely asked me to surrender my seat. Whites and Latinos treat interlopers far less gently than do African-Americans.

The TV remote control: This is an instrument of power, usually controlled by the leaders of the dominant ethnic groups. Don't ever walk in as a newcomer—or "fish"—pick up the remote and start channel surfing. You'll get your ass kicked.

Keistering: It's amazing how much you can hide in your butt, and it's your responsibility to share it with other guys in your ethnic group. But please, wash everything first.

Sharing your commissary: You can spend up to $80 per week (by having outsiders put money in your account) for candy, pastries and cosmetics from the jail commissary. When it's learned that you have money, you'll be approached in different ways about sharing. Share wisely. Make sure you get paid back one way or another. And don't be overly generous. If you give away your stuff freely, they'll think you're their bitch.

Being a slob: An old guy who had just finished doing 13 years walked into our tank and announced, "Whites bathe daily in here." That was good advice. Prisoners are obsessive about cleanliness, and you'll get embarrassed if someone smells even the slightest trace of fresh sweat on you. You also want to keep your cell sink and toilet lemon-fresh.



If you want your stay to last forever, you can hard-time it, which a lot of guys do until they know better. When you hard-time it, you agonize over every injustice; every lousy meal; every lockdown, shakedown and breakdown. It's not worth it.

Better you should develop a routine, a methodical way of dealing with each day that allows you a little individuality and prevents you from going crazy. Some things are set in stone, like mealtimes, lockdowns and head counts, but within well-defined limits, the rest is under your control. A typical routine: get up at 5 a.m., eat breakfast, mop and clean your cell, play cards, watch Jerry Springer, eat lunch at 11 a.m., take a nap, exercise by doing calisthenics in your cell, shower, watch TV and play cards, eat dinner at 4:30 p.m., mop and clean your cell again, read a book, watch TV and play chess, call home or call your significant other (you can only call collect in Ventura County), and finally go to sleep at 9:30 or 10 p.m.

It's not a very exciting life, but it's important to get your exercise and fool yourself into thinking that you have some control over the situation. A good, solid routine is the first thing an experienced convict settles into.

Better still, if you have a talent, you can use the Dave Ortega method. Dave is a longtime Hell's Angel who happens to be a great artist and an expert at doing time. When I came to Todd Road, I noticed that he seemed to have a great routine going for him: he didn't do a lot of chores, he always had the same seat at his own table (a very important status symbol in jail), and he always had plenty of store—or commissary (also very important, within limits). Dave's table, I was told, was the table to sit at if you were in Section B-6, and I made sure I grabbed a stainless steel chair there ASAP. I later learned that after I vacated the spot, one of the black guys even left the black table to sit there.

Dave's secret, beside the fact that his motorcycle-club affiliation conferred a certain amount of jail status, lay in the fact that he was an excellent illustrator who knew how to keep himself busy doing commissioned works for other prisoners, usually for commissary items, since you're not allowed to have currency in jail. He also did other, personal work to keep up his artistic chops and satisfy creative obligations, like greeting cards, on the outs—the world outside jail.

In jail, Dave did excellent colored-pencil work (short pencils are the only drawing tools allowed). His subjects were stylized, smiling-through-the-tears clowns and hoboes, Hispanic ladies, and symbols, logos and tattoo models. On the outs, Dave is involved in different types of painting, murals, illustrations, sculpture and street art and is a recognized Ventura Avenue arts figure.


If you're a musician or writer, you could do what I did in jail: be an entertainer. After I came to Todd Road, I rapped a song at a shakedown when 36 of us were locked in a little room together; thereafter, we actually looked forward to shakedowns so we could have our little talent shows. The song is called "Vato Loco" (Crazy Dude) and goes like this, and don't try to steal it because I've already copyrighted it:

Well, I'm buffed-up, Dawg, 'cause I been to the joint, And I ain't comin' back, if you get my point. I got a heart of gold, hands of steel, And no pimp PD gonna make me no deal. 'Cause I'm avato loco, Insane in the brain. I'm avato loco. Just remember my name Well, my old cellie came and tried to look me up 'Cause Big Money Sonny done hooked him up. But I don't give a shit about no contraband. I just do my time, take it like a man. (Chorus) Today they shook us down and made us spread our cheeks, But the place is so clean that it almost squeaks. They made us lift up ourhuevos, shook out our shirts, But they didn't find squat 'cause we ain't dirty. (Chorus) Big Money Sonny, Hook me up. Big Money Sonny, Look me up.

I wrote poems, rhymes and raps for the guys, authored their grievances and petitions, developed a flexible routine, and exercised and read a lot—about a book a day, and the selection was actually pretty good. I read Roots from cover to cover and fell in love with Elmore Leonard; there was a lot of pulp, too—James Michener, Joseph Wambaugh and a lot of religious stuff. Perhaps the best-read writer in jail is Louis L'Amour, but there's some highbrow stuff if you look for it.

At first I thought I'd never get out; in retrospect, the six months I spent in jail went pretty quickly. I got a lot accomplished, both creatively and spiritually. Some of the guys I was down with were not so lucky.


The Hole: There really is a Hole where you'll be sent for fighting or accumulation of write-ups. It's boring. You get a Bible to read.

Requests and grievances: If you need something, you use a colored "kite"—a special-request form. Grievance forms are available to correct injustices. Fill them out very carefully. They are always rejected.

The law library: Most jails have a great law library, where you may meticulously research your case in the hopes of sidestepping or overturning your imminent or recent conviction. Good luck, Clarence.

Chores: You don't want to be called a slob. Pick up a mop without being asked, and you'll gain respect.

Respecting the hierarchy: The leader of the dominant ethnic group pretty much runs the tank, but individual leaders of the minority groups have a say. Don't even try to force or fight this system. It all works itself out naturally, and it doesn't relate strictly to toughness or physical prowess. It's a testosterone/ serotonin thing. Just be aware of the hierarchy and respect it.

Respecting your cellie: Your cellie or bunkie is your friend, even if he's white and you're black. You must stick up for him and take care of him when he's sick, unless he's a complete asshole. The most racist Latino I've ever met came screaming out of his cell when his white cellie went down from the wrong medication. He brought his cellie meals like a doting mother until the guy got well. I've heard of white-supremacist skinheads who bonded with their black cell mates.

Contact with guards: Never, ever touch a guard. He or she will never touch you either. Crime rubs off, I guess.


There was an Asian guy we called Teach or Teacher, a very spiritual dude, tall and lean, who meditated every morning and kept a low profile. He had some good family who kept him supplied with a lot of commissary—even holy men can't eat jail food. Everyone liked and respected him.

Everyone, that is, except the guy who was stealing his candy. Teach casually mentioned that a lot of his candy was disappearing, and a quiet investigation began. The culprit, a Latino, was quickly discovered—he had left wet sneaker prints on the floor near Teach's cell and the shower. He was stealing Teach's stuff when Teach took a shower.

The Latinos came to Teach and offered to take care of the thief. Teach demurred and confronted the guy near the shower in the approved manner.

The holy man was a master of one of the martial arts. A couple of barefoot kicks, a few well-placed hand chops, and the guy was begging for mercy. No more problem.

As this suggests, jailhouse justice occasionally prevails over ethnic politics. But ethnic pride is pretty powerful. "Mi raza primera" (my people first) is the way my cellie Derly Hinojosa put it. Conflicts might revolve around local gangs, which are usually composed of guys of similar heritage. There can be tanks where a bunch of skinheads (I refuse to capitalize the word as they do), for example, might prey on other, weaker inmates. My friend Mark (not his real name) told me about a horrible instance of this phenomenon.

Mark is an Italian Jew. Not that the skinheads, who often wear swastika tattoos without understanding their grim import, could have figured that out. Skinheads, in my experience, just hate people who are not obviously white or who are weaker than they are. There's no pride because they're not doing anything to be proud of. They're the scum of the gangbangers, the white trash of the prison system.

But I digress. This guy Breaker (not his real name), a skinhead with a few friends in Todd Road, figured out that Mark was a jail virgin and that someone on the outside was depositing money into his commissary account. So Breaker visited Mark and told Mark that he wanted Mark's entire commissary to divide among his friends. Mark fought Breaker over it and got his ass kicked.

Now, prevailing jail wisdom ("The Old Pimp Law") says that should have been the end of it, that Mark had proved his mettle by fighting. But not where skinheads are involved. Breaker and his skinhead buddies came back and kicked Mark's ass time and time again, forced him to order the maximum commissary, and, for insurance, went through his mail and got his sister's address. That's why I can't use Mark's real name.

"They tried to make me their bitch" is the way Mark puts it. You figure it out.

One of the Latinos figured out what was happening (the guards are often clueless). He confronted Breaker, as almost any brave vato would have. There was a fight. That should have ended it.

The next day, a gang of skinheads attacked the Latino with razors and cut him to shreds. The guards carried him away on a stretcher.

The skinheads were never punished. The predators victimized Mark until his release. He still fears for his sister's safety.

I'm not making this up. I hope Breaker rots in hell.


I tell you, I'm getting too old for this shit. I ain't pimpin' for no one, ain't takin' no hit. When my date rolls around, I'll be right out the door. Better check me out good; you won't see me no more.

A lot of guys in jail think that the system is stacked against them, that the justice system is designed to keep everyone coming back, that it's racist.

The truth is, life is stacked against you, and you must struggle to do positive things with each waking breath. If you let your guard down, bad things could happen to you, and jail is one of those things.

If you want my opinion on what's happening in our jails and prisons, I believe it's getting tougher all the time. The once-liberal baby boomers are old fogies, and they're more reactionary than the parents they reviled. A megabillion-dollar industry of political-interest groups—including guards, cops, attorneys, public defenders, district attorneys, police, clerks and jerks, judges and jailers—is dependent on crime. The result is that society's definition of "crime" is getting looser. Sentences are getting longer. Three Strikes isn't three violent felonies; it could be a residential burglary and two stupid, ill-timed misdemeanors, like 11-550s (under the influence).

A pot smoker or even a grower shouldn't go to jail or prison, but they do. It's an easy bust. Imagine getting paid for bringing some loopy stoner, some latter-day Jeff Spicoli, to "justice." There are harder things in life.

Of course, everybody in jail is innocent, dude. After a while, you have to fight to suppress a yawn while listening to another con's story about how some snitch or bitch turned him. I'm not going to take that route. I deserved what I got. Most of the guys and gals in jail know the rules.

You can make a positive experience out of jail. In fact, if you don't want to go back, that's about the only attitude you can take. You will probably never again in your life have such an opportunity to reflect on where you've been and where you're going, to examine your values and to really turn your life around. You can read and write to your heart's content, and if you're a creative person, you might find yourself completely energized by the experience. If you drink, smoke or do drugs, you'll get a chance to clean out your system.

You've got to make something positive out of it or you'll be back, except for a longer time. It's as simple as that.


Don't gloat when you're "short" —when you're close to release. Hide your jubilation. Others won't share your joy.

Wave goodbye politely when you leave. Don't give everyone the finger. You may need those guys again someday.


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