LIFE IN THE CAGE: Another day, another hustle

Hillbilly Bob had a 'clean' hustle at the California Mens Colony. Illustration by Gene Ellis

Hillbilly Bob had a ‘clean’ hustle at the California Mens Colony. Illustration by Gene Ellis

by Tito David Valdez Jr.

California Mens’ Colony, Medium Security, 1999

I started off my day, just like any other morning, with hundreds of hungry men walking anxiously up a flight of stairs, single file in our prison blues, to enter the large chow hall. At the end of the cafeteria-style line, plastic trays slid out of a rectangular hole, simmering with the day’s slop.

I sat down at an unoccupied table to eat my entrée, which consisted of bland powdered eggs, oatmeal, two thin flour tortillas, pinto beans, and mystery meat, which was supposed to be sausage links. Two miniature packets were provided as condiments: a taco sauce and state-issued coffee.

“Hey dog, can I get that taco sauce?” Jamie, a white lanky inmate in his late forties with a tattooed bald head, hollered at me from his position in line nearby. He was known for his dragon breath from drinking too much coffee and chewing tobacco at the same time. “You know I’m poor, dog,” he added in an effort to make me feel sorry for him.

“Nah man, I’m going to use it on my eggs, give it some flavor,” I replied.

“Can I get your coffee, dog?” he asked, sounding like a transient trying to bum a dollar.

“Sure.” I tossed the packet of state coffee to him in hopes he would just leave me alone. He caught it. I could hear him begging other inmates at the next table as he worked his way up the line. “Hey dog, can I get your coffee…?”

One of the three empty seats at my table was soon filled by Sleepy, a youthful Chicano with tattoos all over his body—symbols of criminality and rebellion. His prison blues were freshly pressed; he smelled of Mennen aftershave lotion. His prison boots glimmered with a spit-shine polish.

“Hey homey,” Sleepy said, “that vato Jamie, he sells those coffees. He doesn’t drink them. Gets a dollar for thirty packets.”

“Really? I always see him with a coffee tumbler in his hand, I assumed he drank coffee.”

“Nah, he drinks nothing but jailhouse pruno. That’s one of his hustles to pay for his alcohol habit. He is a beggar without a conscience. Man, he never brushes his teeth. Have you ever gotten close to him?”

“I already know, man. Just look inside his tumbler, the stains…looks like the bottom of a riverbed, full of algae.”

“Yeah holmes, he is on biker status,” Sleepy chuckled.

A kitchen worker named Spanky approached us from the back of the serving line and handed Sleepy two items.

“Here homey, for the spread tomorrow night on the yard. Two onions. Just get me a mackerel at the cantina on first draw,” said Spanky, an overweight bald-headed young Chicano wearing a kitchen apron.

Horale. Can you get me some tortillas?” asked Sleepy.

“Yeah homey, but you know I got to charge you. Dollar for twenty. I don’t have a pay number, and this is my hustle.”

“I’ll take care of it.” Sleepy put the onions in his pocket.

“That’s a good deal — twenty for a dollar. The canteen sells them ten for a dollar-fifty,” I said.

“Yeah homey, I always deal with Spanky. If you ever need onions, tomatoes, cheese, bell peppers, oranges or ketchup, you know, for making pruno, he is the man.”

After our meal, we walked out of the chow hall together and noticed three guards talking with a black inmate inside a holding cage, stripping him out. He was on his way to the hole.

“Sleepy, can you see who it is?”

“Yeah, that one mayate…they call him Pookey. He’s the vato I buy my gambling tickets from every weekend.”

“Oh yeah, I know him. He always wears the do-rag and lots of jewelry. I didn’t know he ran the gambling pools.”

“He probably got busted for one of his many hustles, someone probably ratted him out,” said Sleepy.

“Every man has to have some kind of hustle in here. Pay numbers are low, even for those who work a full shift. How can a man survive on just eighteen dollars or less a month? I sure can’t,” I said.

“You know what my work supervisor told me homey, who has worked here for the last twenty-five years?”


“The rate for prisoners’ pay hasn’t changed since the 1970s. Still seventeen cents an hour. Ain’t that a bitch?”


I first met Pookey when I arrived at the California Mens Colony, a medium security prison in San Luis Obispo, California. He stood up on a bench of the bleachers facing the baseball diamond while nearly thirty inmates approached him to obtain something he was passing out.

He was in his late thirties, always wore a do-rag on his head, African American, tall and lanky, a chain smoker.

“Get your TV guides, just a Top Ramen soup!” he shouted with a raspy voice.

Inmates rushed him like paparazzi, Top Ramen packages in hand, dropping them in a laundry bag in return for a piece of paper typed with information on both sides. I approached him with curiosity.

“Excuse me, what kind of TV guide are you selling?” I asked.

“My friend, you must be new here. Here, take one on the house,” he said smiling, exposing his missing three front teeth.

I glanced at it, seeing that it was nothing but a computer printout of television programs for the week, printed on a copy machine.

“How much do you charge for this?”

“A soup a week, or pre-pay me and get four weeks for only three Top Ramen soups. I deliver each week’s issue right to your cell, if you subscribe.”

“You must make a killing!”

“I get by. Just trying to get my hustle on. Do you like porn?”

“Yeah, what do you got?”

He opened up his legal folder, pulling out three manila envelopes, each had a different magazine: Hustler, Barely Legal, Swank, and Cheri. “For you, my friend, all three, just ten dollars,” he said with a smile resembling Eddie Murphy. “Do you got any coffee,” he asked.

“In fact, I do, two jars of Folgers. I’ll be back.”

Within minutes, I returned, buying the magazines with the coffee. I rushed to my cell and hid them under my mattress.

Later on that evening, right after dinner, I saw Pookey on the yard, hustling something else.

“What are you selling now?”

“You know those two jars of coffee you gave me?”


“I broke them down and am selling dollar shots. I can make ten dollars out of a five dollar jar.”

“That’s brilliant! You got to show me more of your hustles. I find it interesting,” I said.

“Let’s take a lap around the track. I’ll show you all the hustles that go down in this joint. Just observe and listen.”


We entered building three and in the shower area there was a white guy washing clothes in a bucket. At first glance, anyone would think he was a gay boy. He looked feminine, thin, delicate.

“You see that white boy over there,” said Pookey, pointing to him. “They call him Maytag. He will wash your clothes for fifty cents an item. Skid-marked boxers, one dollar. You won’t ever find me washing a mothafucka’s boxers, but he don’t have no shame. He pulls in a good hustle, about two hundred dollars a month. Lazy mothafuckas around here won’t even put their dirty clothes in the laundry bag to send it to the institutional laundry each week.”

“Damn, that’s a lot of money! Not even the few privileged inmates in PIA [Prison Industry Authority] make that much!”

“You’re right! They work their asses off all day, like slaves, and make about a hundred a month making license plates, boots, and furniture.”

We walked outside of building three and saw an older white man, digging through the huge trash bin. The bin reeked and flies could be heard buzzing around.

“That’s Hillbilly Bob. He looks for potato chip bags and the plastic wrappers from the hoagie rolls we get in our sack lunch. He makes jewelry boxes and women’s purses, sells them for twenty dollars each. Inmates send them to their daughters or wives.”

“Are you kidding?”

“Check it out.” We walked toward an older overweight Mexican national inmate nicknamed Wesos, who was listening to ranchera music on his Super III radio while drinking coffee and sitting at a table. He had four beautiful jewelry boxes and two purses for sale. Each item shined like expensive jewelry as the setting sun reflected in its recycled material.

“He sells them for Bob, on commission. He amigo, what you want for those?” asked Pookey.

“For you, twenty dollars, my friend. You buy two, only thirty,” he said in broken English.

I picked up a jewelry box to see the craftsmanship, original, handmade from nothing but trash. “Excellent work,” I said to Wesos, putting the box back on the table.

“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” said Pookey.

We continued to walk around the track and entered the dimly lit recreation shack. Inside, we found Brad, a white inmate with long hair, resembling a stoner, who was painting a nude woman while glancing back and forth at a page from Playboy magazine. A Super III radio blasted the rock band AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” The room reeked of cigarette smoke.

“Brad here sells these original paintings on the internet through a third party — an art gallery — for five-hundred dollars a piece,” said Pookey.

“Wow, how does he get that much? People in society can buy something like that for ten dollars at a Wal-Mart or Kmart,” I said.

“He gets that kind of action because they are autographed by Charles Manson. You see at the bottom corner, Brad simply stencils in the name ‘C. Manson’.”

We exited, walking around the track. A black inmate approached us wearing light blue hospital scrubs.

“Yo Pookey, you still want to see the dentist tomorrow?” said Malcolm, who was about 6-3, 250 pounds, looked like a college football player.

“Yeah, put me down. I’ll take care of you later,” replied Pookey.

“Alright homey, be looking out,” said Malcolm.

“What’s that about?” I asked.

“You know, getting to see the dentist or any doctor around here takes about three months. I gots a toothache right now. I gave him five bucks, he puts me on the list to see the dentist right away.”

“Good to know. Does he deal with anyone other than blacks?”

“Homey, he deals with anyone who has green. You gots money, he will even bring you band-aids, cotton swabs, anything you can think of, directly to your cell.”

Along came another inmate, a short blond-haired white guy named Rick, carrying several items, hidden underneath his jacket.

“Hey Pookey, here’s your ice,” said Rick, as he reached below his jacket, pulling out a plastic bag.

“Thanks, man. Take care of you later.”

“Alright man, don’t forget, you owe me three,” said Rick, reminding him.

“I got it, don’t trip.”

“What’s that about?”

“I hook him up with dollar balls of coffee. He brings me ice from the main kitchen every evening. He only charges two dollars a week. Nothing like a cold soda with ice while watching a prime time sitcom. You dig?”


“Alright homey, I’m out for the night. Talk to you later,” said Pookey.

On the way back to my cell, I laughed out loud, thinking of Hillbilly Bob. He made a living committing crimes while free and in prison he had been reduced to making women’s purses.


After about six months at the Mens Colony, I observed the hundreds of hustles of many men. I learned that the most profitable and best hustles were those kept secret, but even those were exposed because in the joint everyone knows each other’s business.

I met up with Pookey, after the evening chow, in building three, first tier.

“Yo Dave, see all those mothafuckas standing next to Cedric’s cell, cell 119?”

“Yeah, what’s up?”

“Dead giveaway. They all fronting Cedric off. They forget this aint the streets, po-leece see everything that go on around here.”

“What do you mean?”

“Look now, white boy Ray, he is bringing his color television set to Cedric’s cell. It’s like the homeboy shopping club. Traffic in and out of that cell all the time.”

“OK, I get it. It’s like a crack house.”

The top hustlers in the game were easy to spot. They tried to be low-key but always openly displayed their royalties, wearing bling: Rolex watch, gold necklaces, rings with diamonds, expensive designer sunglasses, clothing and tennis shoes the average inmate can’t buy in the prison vendor catalogs. They went out of their way to say, “Hey, look at me, I’m cool.” Such blatant in-your-face attitude catches the eyes of opportunistic guards or jealous inmates who would rat them out for an extra roll of toilet paper. The best hustlers basically tell on themselves.

“Yo Dave, I want to show you the kingpin of all hustlers. The man is right here, hanging with us in the joint. See that big black guy smoking a Cuban cigar, surrounded by the entourage of men?”

“Yeah, isn’t that the rap label producer?”

“You got it, Suge Knight, founder of Death Row Records. He is selling a dream to all us niggas that anyone from the ghetto can be a superstar. He no different than a preacher man or politician.”

“Yeah, but Suge is a multi-millionaire.”

“So is minister T.D. Jakes.”


Three months later, I caught up with Pookey on the yard.

“Did you hear what happened to Cedric? I heard he got busted.”

“Yeah, goon squad hit his cell. They found a DVD player with twenty porn movies, cellphone, cash, even women’s panties…heard he was playing the female art instructor up in Education,” said Pookey.

“Wow. How can someone accumulate that much stuff under the radar?”

“It’s all about hustling, homeboy. Manipulation. We all human. Everyone has a price or weakness. When you were on the outs, didn’t you ever want to be a rogue, a rebel, break the rules, like steal something from work?”

“I’ve been very tempted.”

“In life, you got to takes the risks if you want to get ahead. You can’t get ahead in here if you relying on a rat ass state prison pay number. Shee-it, a closed mouth can’t get fed,” he said, his body animated, speaking with his hands.

“You got a point.”

“Being in here ain’t no different than being free. Everyone in the world is hustling and when you doing wrong, you already know the consequences. But you ain’t thinking you going to get caught. You think you are special, invincible. The world is yours, like Scarface said.”

“You know man, from all the hustles you have shown me, I gotta give respect to Hillbilly Bob and Maytag. They got honest hustles. Doing something positive and productive. Just like you. Everyone else, they are sealing their fates, getting busted is the only outcome.”

“People forget where they are at and how they got here. That brings me to the oldest hustle in history,” said Pookey.

“What’s that?”

“See Tanisha over there?” I looked over and saw a very feminine long-haired African American queen standing by her cell door. She wore altered jeans made into shorts, cut high in the crotch, custom halter top white blouse, red lipstick made from Kool-Aid, her chest pushed out showing off her implants.

“What does she charge?” I asked.

“Don’t know, never went there, but damn…she got ass.”

“Yup, looks just like a woman.”


Two months later, four goon squad officers were in Pookey’s cell with a K-9 dog, a German shepherd. In just minutes, the dog came out wagging his tail, a high-priced Michael Jordan athletic shoe in his mouth. An officer grabbed the shoe, giving the dog a treat and started tearing the shoe open with a knife. He discovered a medicine baggy full of white powder. The officers gave each other a high five. The dog barked with excitement, started going in circles, chasing his tail. His trainer gave him another treat.

An hour later, they walked out of the cell with four plastic bags full of property. Cellblock Officer Ruiz, locked up all of us in our cells and spent four hours taking inventory of the rest of Pookey’s property, carefully placing it all into cardboard boxes. Pookey had about 300 canned tunas, 200 sodas, and 500 Top Ramen soups, among other things.

After dinner, the dayroom and showers were open. I caught up with Sleepy, who was waiting in line for the shower.

Horale, holmes. Another one bites the dust.”

“What’s the word?” I asked.

“Same shit as always. He had cash money, cellphone. Heard he was hustling the female dental assistant up in medical.”

“I always thought Pookey had a positive hustle. I never made him out for being that guy.”

“He just bumped up his game. Trying to come up. You know, when you think about it, we always fuck everything off ourselves in here. We don’t even get oranges, honey, or sugar anymore, due to the pruno makers.”

A white inmate named Rod approached me, interrupting our conversation. He was about 5-4, balding, mid-50s, and wore bottle-thick glasses, which magnified the size of his eyes.

“Hey Dave, I heard you type up 602 administrative appeals. Can you type this for me? I’m appealing a disciplinary write up where I was found guilty of ‘staring at female staff.’”

He handed the papers to me. I looked at the write-up; his arguments took up about three pages. His defense was that he was cross-eyed and on Thorazine, a powerful psych medication.

“Yeah, I can type it up for you. One dollar per page.”

“You take stamps?” §

Tito David Valdez Jr. writes from the minimum security Correctional Facility in Soledad, Calif. David can be reached by email at, 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 or go to for information on David’s case. This article originally appeared in the print version of The Rogue Voice.


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