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“I never achieved chocolate status”: Conversations with a reformed convict

Interviewer’s note: I met Cesar two years ago when he started working at my local coffeehouse. During the time I’ve known him, I’ve gone from seeing Cesar as a loud, obnoxious, “smart-assed” barista to understanding him as one of the rare “success stories” of the American correctional system.

Having gone from the penitentiary model – where fallen members of society could reflect on the error of their ways and fix themselves – to what Angela Davis now calls the “prison-industrial complex”, devoted to warehousing the people that “middle America” no longer wants to deal with, the prison system in California is now larger – and much worse off, especially considering that it is one of two state budget items that is “locked in” as a percentage of outlays – than many in countries that have hit Amnesty International’s watch list for poor treatment of prisoners.

Cesar’s story becomes even more compelling in this light. In essence, what follows is the story of someone going from what most of us imagine is one hellish state – a constantly-pressing drug addiction – to another – prison, even if as “cushy” as Claremont may have been – to a relative state of normalcy. This is the first part of a two-part interview with Cesar, where he discusses his life before his conviction for residential burglary and the mundaneness of his incarceration. The second part of this interview will appear in JMB 2.2 in June 2001. (Scott Schaffer)

What did you do before your fall from grace? What was your everyday life like back then?

Professionally, my career was single and multi-unit retail management, which is a really cool way of saying that I can operate one to seven units (restaurants, stores, etc.) at a time. I had been a manager and district manager for Mrs. Field’s Cookies for a number of years as well as a training manager for Domino’s Pizza, bakeries, candy stores, and things of that nature. I was always a top performer and paid well; but due to my addictive behavior and my ability to become bored very easy I never lasted more than a couple of years at a job. I like retail for its social environment. The thought of sitting behind a desk or standing on an assembly line or driving a truck or any other kind of bullshit like that gives me limpdick. I need to be surrounded by people talking, laughing or more importantly being the center of attention. I crave the limelight. Maybe my mother didn’t hold me enough as a child or some sort of crazy whacked out shit like that, but I have a constant need to feel like people are being entertained by my thoughts and actions. That’s probably why I’m always the manager and the boss.

Socially, I was a fucking animal. For a number of years, previous to being married, I was the lead singer and frontman for hard core bands, which meant that my emotional insecurities were properly fed and well cared for. Most of my friends were addicts and musicians too. We were all out of fucking control. For fun, we would dive in and out of each other’s trucks driving down Santa Monica boulevard on our way to Oki Dogs while listening to GBH or Slayer. Afterwards, we’d go up to Hollywood Hills where we would drink until we puked so we could drink some more. Our drug of choice was whatever was handy. Alcohol was easiest because it was legal. Cocaine was the most fun until we found speed. Rocket fuel. Dope. Shit. Crystal methamphetamine. That was the shit.. One good blast and you’re good to go…and go and go and go. Once we found speed, it was all over. There isn’t anybody who can tell me they that there is a person alive who does go fast and whose life hasn’t been all fucked up over it. It’s a crazy-ass drug. But I ain’t gonna lie, it’s a lot of fun, too. Have you ever had ten to fourteen hours of hard core, nasty filthy sex? Or played cards for two days straight? Or stayed up for thirteen days? The hallucinations are unreal.

Spiritually, I believed there was a God but I never knew what to believe. In retrospect I guess I never really wanted to believe. To have belief one must also have Responsibility – something I tried to avoid at all costs, all the time. I dropped out of high school one week before graduation. Anyway, I knew God was out there and looking back I knew he was trying to get my attention, but I wasn’t having any of it. If I’d have listened, maybe things would have turned out differently for me. But I don’t know if that’s what I would’ve wanted. If it took everything that I’ve been through to shape who and what I am today, then I guess I wouldn’t change anything. Because for the first time in my life, I am completely comfortable and happy with the jacket that I wear.

Did you “choose” to start using and burglarizing? What went into that choice?

I had always been using, ever since I was thirteen anyway. I discovered sex, marijuana, and alcohol that year, which was 1978. A good time for a stereotypical American boy-to-be in the height of puberty. Rock ‘n roll was still sexist; sex wasn’t deadly; and drugs were a prelude to sex. Especially in the South Bay beach communities of Los Angeles, which was where I grew up. From San Pedro on the south, to Marina Del Rey on the north life was “cajjjjj” (pronounced “cazh,” short for casual). It was all about surfing, getting high and kicking back. They say that addiction and alcoholism are hereditary. Man if that ain’t the fucking truth, then nothing is. My father’s a loadie from way back and his father before him. I used to carry a lunch box to high school, a Muppets lunch box. I thought this was the funniest thing. And in the lunch box I had an “Animal” thermos-he was the crazy-ass drummer for the Muppets. In the thermos was whatever bottle I could get my hand on that day or week. Usually it was cheap wine – Thunderbird, Nightrain Express or Mad Dog 20/20.

The first time I tried coke was when I was fifteen years old. My girlfriend’s aunt was a big coke dealer in the South Bay and turned us both on to it. I remember thinking that this was what getting high was all about: Staying up all night and watching the sun come up was too fucking cool. To this day that moment right before the sun comes up, when the sky changes from black to purple to blue is still my favorite time of day. I was always down for trying something new. LSD, mushrooms, Ecstasy, Heroin, GHB, whatever; it didn’t make a difference to me.

As far as burglarizing, that came up out of need. At a time in my life when everything was so fucked up and I had sunk so far that I was living on the streets, I would do just about anything to get loaded. You wouldn’t believe how much easier it is to find somebody who will get you high and party with you all night than it is to find somebody who will let you crash on their couch for the night. Anyway, I had this friend who said he needed a favor, was anybody willing to help him. At the time I was kicking it with a bunch of tweakers. Now this was a guy who on numerous occasions got me high and asked for nothing in return. To make a long story short, he had some goods stashed in a garage where he was worried he had been seen. I went back on my bicycle, picked up five fishing poles and a tool box, and brought it back to him. He took these to his dealer and came back with a sixteenth of an ounce of dope. Two plus two equals four. I got it. Being up all night, tweaking, walking around was an amazing way to come up. You wouldn’t believe how many idiots leave their garages wide open. And the bigger the idiot, the cooler the toys he has in his garage. Mountain bikes, tools, art, and other little goodies oh so easy to trade with the dealer. Unfortunately, I got really good at it and graduated from part-time cluck to full-time thief.

What habits or everyday things did you have to change when you went into prison? What was easiest to get used to? hardest?

As far as habits go, the most obvious habit was the hardest to kick: drugs. I remember sleeping for days at a time the first month or two. I remember my face breaking out in acne and humongous-sized zits. I’m talking fucking huge, man. And they weren’t just regular zits; they would break open and ooze horribly. I remember waking up in cold sweats in the middle of the night from drug-denied sleep. In county jail, all the different pods (areas and floors of the jail facility) had vending machines. There is nothing more an addict craves when they’re not high than chocolate or anything else with sugar in it, but especially chocolate. The only way an inmate could achieve “chocolate” status was to have money on his books that he could purchase a vending card with. This meant that there had to be somebody on the outside that you didn’t fuck over, somebody that didn’t see how fucked up your life had become, or somebody who hadn’t given up hope on you yet. I never achieved chocolate status in county jail.

Nothing is ever easy to get used to. Being locked up is a horrible way for a man to live. I cannot describe what living in a ten by six foot box with a one by two foot window with another man is like. I cannot describe how horrible the food can become and yet no matter how horrible it is, you’ll still eat it. But I’ll try.

There was this time when we all sat down for chow and there was what appeared to be a big clod of lumpy mashed potatoes topped with fucked-up looking gravy on top of it. Man this was some sick shit. Your fork went into it, but didn’t want to come out of it. Everything stuck together like congealed goop. It was the worst consistency a food could be. And the taste was pretty much on an equally shitty level. After chow, I asked my friend Adam, who worked in the kitchen, “what the fuck did you do to those potatoes?” His reply to me was, “What potatoes?” Turns out the “potatoes” were actually overcooked noodles and cheese. That’s all I’m gonna say about that.

But probably the hardest thing to get used to was the unexpected. My third or fourth day in LA County Jail I watched two gangbangers beat the fuck out of each other over which cartoon we were going to watch. At three o’clock everyday it was usually Spiderman, but the new guy who didn’t know the routine wanted to watch Power Rangers. They beat each other bloody over Spiderman and The Power Rangers. What the fuck kind of sick shit is that? How do you know that’s going to happen and how do you prepare for it? Because that’s pretty much the way you have to live your life when you’re incarcerated. You learn to see things before they’re going to happen and know what your role in it is going to be. If a fight breaks off, does it involve you or not? If it’s in your race, you can better fucking believe it. You better get ‘em up, no matter what. If you’re a Wood (white boy) and some other Wood is getting fucked with by a group of black dudes or getting pressured for his shit, you’re gonna get ‘em up. Even if he’s never shared his shit and you’ve never seen the man before. It’s a given. It’s normal.

Describe your everyday routine in the pen.

I was being held at a CCF – Community Correctional Facility. A privately owned mini-prison for low-risk felony offenders. It’s fucking scandalous, man. If Joe Fuckwad, the half-wit mayor of Fuckwadville decides that Fuckwadville needs a new golf course and the easiest way to pay for it is to build its own prison, then basically Mayor Fuckwad becomes Warden Fuckwad. It’s that simple. Where the prison system was once owned and operated on a governmental level, it is now the fastest growing industry in the state of California. Not only can Mayor Fuckwad run a prison with a profit and loss conscience but he can now use the inmates to build a brand new golf course on Fuckwad Blvd. in the city of Fuckwadville. Hectic.

I was very fortunate. The CCF I was at, Claremont Custody Center, is in beautiful downtown Coalinga, California had a really good education system. There wasn’t enough jobs in the facility for all the inmates, so some were forced to go to school. For most people, this is a fucked up way to do your time. Going to school means no job – you can’t do both. No job means no money. No money means no tobacco (everybody smokes), or soap, or candy, or whatever else a convict needs. Fortunately for me, God had placed two blessed angels in my life, Phil and Monica Bingham. Not only did they send me packages with food and clothes and cigarettes and candy, and put money on my books (having “books” is kind of like having a bank account at your facility), but most important of all, they would accept my phone calls and write me letters filled with hope, encouragement, and love. God bless them both.

Anyway, I had to go to school. The class that I was enrolled in was called CHANGES – Changing Habits and Achieving New Goals Empowers Success. I know, I know, it’s really cheesy and campy, but it really works. The class was a six-week course geared toward helping a convict beat parole. Statistically, eight out of ten dudes is back in within a year. I’ve now been out two years and I don’t see myself ever going back. So for me, the class was a great thing. This inspired me to get my GED. So I enrolled in that next. I forgot how difficult school could be and how much I hated homework. Hats off to everybody who has the ability and patience to not just graduate high school, but go on to years and years of college.

After graduating – and yes, we had graduation ceremonies – the teacher offered me a job as math tutor in the GED department. I also forgot how much I loved math. To me, math makes sense. There was a time in my life when I enjoyed school and I was really good at it. In elementary school, I was in the MGM program–Mentally Gifted Minors. I spoke two languages, Spanish and English, and was skipped from the fourth to the sixth grade. So this job was a real godsend. Plus, it was the highest paying job – fifty-six dollars a month. And yes, I worked forty-hour weeks. And no that was not a typo. It was fifty-six dollars a month. To you that may seem like shit, but to a convict, that’s the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I was also watch clerk for the sergeant’s office. In other words, I typed up all the sergeant’s business-related paperwork. Both jobs were totally cushy. And I thank God and give thanks to my buddy Steve, who got me both jobs. He was our MAC representative – Men’s Advisory Council. He was our voice in the office and when he saw the jobs available he made sure I got them.

In my recreational time, I went to church a lot. Sunday nights were convict services and I was on the church council, sort of like a mini-minister. Me and four other convicts would plan the sermons, lessons, and services for the evening and act as go-betweens for God. Monday night was Bible study. Reverend Mike was an old biker, a retired gangster, and born-again Christian who had acted as our sponsor. This was straight Bible study – we studied the history and translations through the Holy Ghost of what God wanted us to read in the Bible. It was unbelievable. This is probably where I was at my happiest and where I got the most out of my time. I no longer go to church, but I still live my life and hold these lessons the way that I understood them then, and I am still learning now. Wednesday night was living life in everyday routine through lessons from the Bible. Friday and Saturday nights, they’d rent us movies. It was like going to the drive-in. There’d be this little tiny TV high up in the air at the top of the wall and 150 convicts sitting in their chairs eating their popcorn. Also, I’d play cards – pinochle mostly, but just about anything you could get four dudes to gamble on. A soup a hand. Soup is used like currency. By soup, I mean Top Ramen. Soup is actually a loose translation of what I’m talking about. What you do with the soups is get five or six of your buddies to all chip in two or three soups. You put the soups in a trash can with hot microwaved water; then when the noodles are ready, you empty the water and add the seasoning with whatever dry goods are available – Chili, Cheeze Whiz, tuna, chicken, mayonnaise (just a little for consistency), crackers; like I said, whatever you’ve got. Mix it all up and serve it up. I know it sounds sick, but it’s straight up stoner food. Anyway, Top Ramen is sort of like dollar bills, it’s just representational. A Top Ramen costs thirty cents at the store. The game could actually be played for soups, or at thirty cents a soup it could be for candy bars, tobacco or whatever. Playing pinochle with your homeboys was really fucking cool.

When and how did you decide to “become normal” again? What did you do on the inside to start that? What kind of institutional support or from other inmates did you have for this?

This is where all thanks go to God. I had mentioned before that God was trying to get my attention at various times in my life but I wasn’t listening, due in part to my environment – scandalous sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. Now however, all I had was time to listen. Upon first entering county jail, I met a fallen minister; I think his name was Dixon, but I can’t be sure. He held daily Bible lessons in the afternoon and prayer group in the evening; I went to prayer group in the evening, and admittedly for all the wrong reasons, for my own selfish needs. I would go to prayer group and pray to God that I’d be set free for the crimes that I had committed. Cool, huh? Anyway, within a few weeks, Rev. Dixon had talked me into attending Bible studies and with a short amount of time later, I heard the Lord and he touched my heart. This was the hardest thing to understand being locked up – that this is what God had wanted me to do.

My first day of court my lawyer had pointed out to me that the cops had fucked up their paperwork, and that I could walk out of court a free man that day. But like I said, the Lord had instructed me to spend some time cleaning up and clearing out my mind. I had learned a lot within those two months and a part of me down deep inside was excited to know what I would learn in the next eleven more. So I read the Bible a lot. And listened to my conscience. Do you know what conscience means? Check it out: Con means “with” and science is another word for “knowledge”. With knowledge. And since my conscience came from my Bible, then I understood it to be that my knowledge of what was right came from God. Like a stick that keeps a tree straight when it’s growing, my conscience is what I clung to grow straight reaching for the heavens.

I had read somewhere prior being to being locked up that half of the greatest minds alive are locked up; and although I didn’t know it then, I now know this to be true. There are some good motherfuckers behind bars, and some gifted souls, too. The prison system is probably our biggest opportunity for tapping into our greatest resource – people. I made some unbelievable friends and met some amazing people while I was locked up. Your race and your fellow convicts become your friends and loved ones. You make a lot of friends, but you only get close with a select few. They become your family. My family was very supportive of my faith and my religion. Again, I feel as if they are angels placed in my life by God. It was with their support and their belief in my belief that I was able to continue growing spiritually. I’m sure you’ve heard the term “jailhouse religion” and know what its meaning is: false, temporary faith. This term is a convict’s worst enemy if he’s trying to find faith. The need to be believed in and thought of and understood as real is very vital to the foundation of his faith.

Describe your efforts to renormalize. What did you have to relearn after your release?

I had pretty much renormalized prior to being set free. Allow me to explain. After you sober up and clear your head up a little, instead of holding to some sort of routine and mindset for how you’re going to do your time, you begin to notice things. Little things at first, then you realize the little things are the ones you appreciate the most, thus becoming the biggest, most important things. For example, in prison you get one pair of boots (that never fit), three boxers, three T-shirts, three button down shirts, three pairs of socks, and three pairs of pants. Now when your clothes get dirty and need to be washed you take them to the laundromat, or if you’re fortunate enough, to your laundry room where you keep your washers and dryers. In prison, you wear them in the shower while you scrub them down with a bar of soap (washer). When you’re done, you and your buddy grab opposite ends and wring them out as hard as you can (dryer). But that’s only if they get really, really dirty in between laundry days. Once a week, you take your three pairs of everything to laundry exchange and get three other different pairs of things. Get it? You get somebody else’s clothes which were somebody else’s clothes. Gross, right? I couldn’t wait to be able to do my own laundry.

Now as you’re reading this and you get hungry, you can always cruise on over to your refrigerator and grab a bite to snack. Or you can head on down to your local 7-Eleven for a nacho plate filled with cheesy goodness. In the joint… too bad. You ain’t got no refrigerator, and you ain’t got no 7-Eleven. If you’re lucky, you and your homies can pull together some soups and maybe some Cheez-Whiz for a “spread.” I couldn’t wait to be able to cook a real meal.

If you get bored or you realize that you’re going to be late for the movie you’re about to go see, or that you’d better get in the shower now so you have time to get ready for work, you have what’s called “freedom.” Believe me, all of you out there take this for granted. How can you not? Freedom is free unless you know otherwise. A convict knows otherwise. You can only truly know about things through experience and if you’ve never experienced a lack of freedom, you never know how valuable it can be. What if the size of your entire house was suddenly the room you are sitting in? And what if that house/room had to be shared with a complete stranger? Think about that for a minute. But in this room, there was no television, no telephone, no stereo, no closet, nothing of what makes life comfortable. You had a mattress with a steel frame (bed), a two by four foot locker (closet) that contained everything you were allowed to own, and the only decoration you were allowed was a couple of pictures of loved ones far away, and a one foot by two foot window of a world you think you’ll never see again. Those are the kinds of things that made me want to get myself together and “get normal.”

Author: Cesar Dominguez, who until his thirteen months in LA County Jail and Claremont Custody Center in Coalinga, California, had avoided prosecution through a variety of miracles and bureaucratic mishaps, now works as a café manager in Silver Lake, California.

Published inIssue 1.3Issues
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