Like most San Diegans I didn’t have a clue as to what the La Mesa prison was like. These guys filled me in as best they could. I had a hard time believing the stories.
  • Like most San Diegans I didn’t have a clue as to what the La Mesa prison was like. These guys filled me in as best they could. I had a hard time believing the stories.
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This hand-written manuscript arrived with a request from the writer to withhold his identity.

I am a third-generation Southern Californian. I graduated from Upland High School in 1962. Unfortunately, it looks like I will spend my 30-year high school reunion in a Mexican prison. I have an Associate of Science degree from Chaffey College, Alta Loma. My major was lithography (offset printing). I spent 15 years as a job shop pressman. The only time I was out of work was when I wanted to be. I started my apprenticeship at the corner of 45th and Western in Los Angeles the year after the Watts riots. Among other places, I’ve lived and worked in Newport Beach, Las Vegas, Sacramento, Lake Tahoe, and Oregon.

I’ve talked to several other Americans since I’ve been here, and every one of them has said someone ought to write about this place.

I’ve talked to several other Americans since I’ve been here, and every one of them has said someone ought to write about this place.

The pressures of that lifestyle plus a heart attack caused me at age 36 to seek a career change. I’ve always been around boats, fish, and the water. I was two years old the first time my father took me to Catalina. When I was in my early 20s, I worked as a deckhand on a long-range sportfishing boat out of San Diego. I loved the work, but I was under pressure from my family to get a “real job.” I always wanted to return to fishing, so at age 36 I came back to San Diego and the sportfishing business. I worked several seasons out of here and San Pedro and Long Beach.

You will need $40 to buy your way out of work. Pay the head guy in operations, not the foreman or anyone else.

You will need $40 to buy your way out of work. Pay the head guy in operations, not the foreman or anyone else.

Like a lot of guys, I got tired of taking other people fishing, so I drifted into the commercial end of the business. I’ve chased albacore tuna from Guadalupe Island, Mexico, to a couple of hundred miles inside the Canadian border. I’ve looked for lobster all around San Clemente Island and all over the Cortez Bank and fished rock cod around every island and bank from Cedros Island, Mexico, to the Farallon Islands off San Francisco. I have enough sea stories to fill a good-sized book.

During the off-seasons, I learned shipwright skills and worked in various boatyards up and down the coast. As the fishing business has declined. I’ve spent more and more time in the restoration and repair of boats.

Fnd out who the head guard is on a shift and give him 50,000 pesos.

Fnd out who the head guard is on a shift and give him 50,000 pesos.

I did some work on a yacht here in San Diego. I was hired to crew on the boat and deliver it to Puerto Vallarta. No problems on the trip down, and we made it there in seven days. But my latest adventure began when I was returning to San Diego, the Tijuana cops arrested me on Revolucidn at 9:30 one morning.

I’ve told you my story, and now I’ll take you inside La Mesa prison for your first three days. I’ve talked to several other Americans since I’ve been here, and every one of them has said someone ought to write about this place. I guess I’ve been elected.

The first stop was the Tijuana police department for fingerprinting and to be observed by Tijuana cops. I couldn’t believe the number of cops that poked their heads in the door to look at me.

If you still want to smoke, I would suggest loading up on Faros. They are cheap, about 30 cents per pack. Stash your good cigarettes.

If you still want to smoke, I would suggest loading up on Faros. They are cheap, about 30 cents per pack. Stash your good cigarettes.

Next we went to my hotel room. I was in a car with two TJ cops. We were followed by another car with four more. My hotel room was searched, my property seized, and we returned to the police station.

I was placed in a holding cell at the tourist division while the cops did their paperwork. I signed the statements when told to, and the arresting officers then placed me and my property in a car and I was taken to the Federales.

Throughout the whole arrest procedure, I was treated in a very professional manner by the police.

I am sure many people have had different experiences, and in no way would I question their stories.

I can only speak for myself. It could be that since I treated them with respect, I in turn was treated respectfully. I don’t know, but it is a younger generation of cops and more professional.

The Federales have a two-story building with holding cells in the back. The jailer takes your shoelaces and your cigarettes. The cells have mattresses on the floor. I was placed in one of the holding cells around one o’clock in the afternoon.

About 2:30 I was taken to the doctor’s office. I was asked by a Mexican doctor if I had any chronic illness or contagious diseases. I said no, but I did have a partially paralyzed right arm due to polio at age seven. I showed him my shoulder and popped it in and out of the socket a couple of times. Mexicans all like to see that. I was returned to a holding cell.

Two Mexican prisoners had been brought in while I was at the doctor’s office. This was my first contact with other prisoners. One guy was a coyote, running illegal aliens. The other guy had shot another Mexican in some dispute. They both spoke some English and I speak some Spanish (enough to get in trouble). Along with me, these guys were in on federal charges. We spent a couple of hours shooting the breeze.

One of these guys had been in La Mesa Penitentiary. Like most San Diegans, I knew there was a penitentiary in Tijuana; and like most San Diegans I didn’t have a clue as to what it was like. These guys filled me in as best they could. I had a hard time believing the stories. The worst time I had ever done was three days in the San Bernardino County jail for drunk in public.

A jailer appeared, and I was escorted to a room on the second floor. It was here an employee of the U.S. consulate general introduced himself, explained my rights, translated my statement, and arranged my phone call to the States. I signed the statement and was returned to my cell. The two other guys were gone.

Around nine in the evening I was escorted to a Chevy Suburban, along with a female prisoner. I was handcuffed in the back and taken to La Penitenciaria de La Mesa.

The first time I crossed the border to TJ was in 1962. My misspent youth led me there and to other border towns very often before I was 21. Many times I found it necessary to use mordida to keep myself or my buddies out of the Tijuana jail.

I remember crossing during Nixon’s Operation Intercept with a buddy of mine. From the late ’60s through the mid-’70s, I owned a trailer on the beach in Ensenada. For years I spent at least two weekends per month there, so I’m not some green gringo who got snagged the first time he crossed La Linea. As I sit here in my cell thinking back, I can remember many times I could have been tossed in here. This time my luck ran out. Oh well, make the most of the time.

I’ve been called a survivor. Twelve years of living as a Shelter Island wharf as a commercial fisherman has made me extremely streetwise. In the time I’ve spent here, every survival skill I’ve ever learned has been tested. I have absolutely no need to exaggerate anything.

Well, I guess I’m ready to go inside any time you are. Welcome to La Mesa.

If you are here on a Federal offense, chances are you arrived late in the evening, especially if you’re a gringo. I think they don’t want to shock you. Your first stop is the office where the paperwork is exchanged. Then you’re taken to the infirmary where a Mexican doctor “examines” you.

There is a trusty there who asks you if you needed cigarettes. If you smoke, of course you do. He “kindly” offers to run and get you some. He checked you out to see what kind of money you have and how much. Your change comes back in pesos. You pay him for the run and give him cigarettes.

The doctor sits there and watches the whole thing, never saying a word. He is “examining” you. You pay around $3.50 for a pack of Mexican Marlboros. But worse, the trusty knows how much and what kind of money you have. Hide your money. You will need it.

You are now officially a nuevo, a new guy. When I first arrived, all nuevos were housed in a cell on the third floor, in an area known as Las Tumbas. The name is self-explanatory. This is the prison within the prison. It is to be avoided at all cost. If you have committed an offense within the prison that warrants being sent there, bribe the guard. Two days before I arrived, a guy hanged himself there. He called his parents and told them he loved them and that he couldn’t take two more months in Las Tumbas. What surprised me was, when they cut him down, they found $35 in his pockets. I’m amazed that no one stole the money off the body. People have been killed here for much less than that.

Your first night is spent in the edificio nuevo, the new building. The cells here aren’t bad. There are two tiers of bunks three high, an auxiliary bunk, and some have one guy on the floor. I spent my first five nights on the third floor in the middle of the Tombs. We had as many as 14 guys sleeping in one cell. That’s crowded, especially if you’re on the floor and someone spits from the third bunk. Fights start over things like that. To avoid problems, when forced to sleep on the floor, I try to get under the bunks. There’s about 18 inches of clearance. It’s tight, but no one can stomp on your head.

On your first night here, I doubt if you’ll sleep at all. I know I didn’t. I was befriended by a youngish guard. He was delighted to be able to use his small amount of English, and communication was established.

He told me something I’ve carried with me, and there isn’t a day that it doesn’t cross my mind: No preocupes. Those words can mean the difference between survival and a very sick head.

It means don’t worry, but I’ve taken it to mean much more. Chances are the reason you’re here is your own fault; accept that. Bitterness will eat you alive; get rid of it. You are going to be here for a while; accept that. The Mexican judicial system moves very, very slowly. Use the time here to your advantage. Study. Learn Spanish (Mexican).

Right now you’re confused and afraid. This is perfectly normal. Keep your mouth shut, your eyes and ears open, and your brain working. Most of all, TRUST NO ONE except for Mama Antonia. She is the Catholic nun who lives here.

How you handle your money is your business, but I do have a few suggestions that could save your butt. You will need $40 to buy your way out of work. Pay the head guy in operations, not the foreman or anyone else. If you refuse or don’t have the money, you will spend your first 45 days doing some of the worst labor you could imagine. The foreman speaks English and he hates Americans.

If you have it, it would be wise to put $20 on a tab at the little store in the holding area. Tell the store owner, his name is Miguel, that NO ONE else is to use your tab. Keep no money on your person except what you can afford to lose.

At your first chance, open a trust fund through the American Consulate General. If I had known you could do that, I would have saved myself $250 the first week. It costs $15 a month but is well worth it.

I have found the best way to hang onto your money is to wear long-sleeved flannel shirts. Roll the sleeves up, and roll your larger bills up in your sleeves. When you go out in the yard, wear a jacket. Try to snag a couple of pairs of prison pants and shirts. The shirts have long sleeves, and until you can get supplies sent here, they will work. I’m talking about what cash you want to keep on hand. Not more than 150,000 pesos (about $50 at the exchange rate of 3000 pesos to the dollar). Keep everything else in your trust fund.

Here’s some prison money terminology you’re going to need. A luca is 1000 pesos. Mexican prisoners will continually hit on you for a luca. A kinina is 500 pesos. While these are just coins, they still add up, and a luca will get you a big cup of coffee. I suggest you carry only a few, and keep them in different pockets so they don’t make noise.

You now have enough information to survive your first day. You are awakened early, around 5:30 in the morning. You are taken to the center of the new building for lista. Your first and middle names are called. You answer by giving your last name.

Remember, you are being looked at, sized up for what you are worth. These first three days are real tough. If you’re wearing new tennis shoes, figure you’re going to lose them. Either that or fight three to five prisoners with knives. The choice you have is how you handle it.

Next you are taken to the “big door.” That’s the main gate. It’s about 6:30 in the morning. You and the other nuevos are led through a small gate to a holding pen. You will get to know this area well. It is here you will meet with your lawyer and the American consulate and be notified of matters concerning your case. The little store I told you about is in the back of this area. You will have to pass through a gate to get to it.

There is a guard shack at the gate by the store, and the guard opens the gate with a string. Ask permission to pass through the gate. Try to open your account when there aren’t too many people around. Don’t flash your money.

A word of warning. In this area you will make contact with quite a few Mexicans who speak English. They will try every hustle they know to separate you from your money.

It’s almost time for grito. You will go through this ritual for the first three days. Mama Antonia usually explains the process, and if she is there, this is a good time to introduce yourself. It is also a good time to ask her if she will watch over your valuables for a few days.

Grito lasts three days. There are three shifts of guards here, and they work 24-hour shifts. This way all the guards get to take a look at you.

A word about the guards. Treat them with respect and you will be treated with respect. Always ask permission to pass through the gate. Con permiso (with your permission) is the accepted phrase.

Some guards are bribable. Twenty thousand pesos will get you out of most minor offenses. The worse the offense, the bigger the bribe.

Bribes work to your advantage. If, for example, you want to get into a certain cell in the new building, find out who the head guard is on a shift and give him 50,000 pesos. If you or your friends on the outside are having trouble getting something through the gate, 10- to 20,000 pesos will usually suffice. Mordida is an accepted practice. Try to find out who the head guard of the building is. The information will come in handy. Also, a cup of coffee or a soda from time to time is good for little favors.

When you come out of grito, Mama Antonia has coffee and sandwiches ready for you, and you return to the holding area. There is a pay phone near the guard shack. Now is a good time to start making your telephone calls.

If you smoke, figure you’re going to buy about three times the number of packs you usually buy. They are going to be bummed off you continually. If you ever wanted a reason to quit, this is a good one. It’s fun to turn them down.

If you still want to smoke, I would suggest loading up on Faros. They are cheap, about 30 cents per pack. Stash your good cigarettes.

In these first three days, you are fingerprinted, your picture is taken, and you’re interviewed by a social worker and given a “psychological test” to see if you’re violent. During this time you will see other Americans. Try to learn as much from them as you can. Sometimes a cup of coffee and a cigarette can gain you much information. Ask what to expect in the yard, who to watch out for, how they handled the same thing you’re going through now.

This is a critical time. Make contact with your family and friends. Get in contact with the American consulate general. Ask him questions. You will find that very little information is volunteered. Ask lots of questions.

After grito you can go into the main yard, and you’ll notice a lot of the Mexican nuevos will start to drift in. I would suggest against going into the main yard for the first couple of days. Get your money stashed. And don’t make the mistake of thinking you’ll be out of here quickly. It just does not happen that way. Use those first three days to your advantage.

Try to get back to the new building by three in the afternoon. There are several reasons for this. First, a line starts to form to get into the building yard. As a gringo nuevo, you don’t want to get stuck in that line. Second, you want to beat the other prisoners back to the cell so you can get a bunk. Remember you are only supposed to be in this cell for three days.

You probably sleep a little the second night — not much, but you manage to grab a few winks. Undoubtedly your cell is overcrowded. If you are able to get a bunk, you probably sleep a little better.

The next day, once again it’s time for grito. You are taken to the holding area for the same process. Now you can see the reason for running a tab at the little store. You can get your coffee without having to flash your money. As far as the Mexican prisoners go, No tengo nada. I have nothing. Look them in the eye when you say it. Show no fear.

If you’ve made contact with your people on the outside, they are undoubtedly confused as to what to do. If you have no money, you are going to need some fast. Have them set up that trust fund. A couple of hundred dollars you can lay your hands on will make all the difference in the world.

You will need clothes. The prison is supposed to furnish you with two sets, but in reality that’s a joke. I suggest three pairs of Levis, six T-shirts, six pairs of socks, three pairs of swim shorts, two or three flannel shirts, two or three cotton shirts, two pairs sweat pants, two sweatshirts, shower sandals, a used pair of tennis shoes, shorts, and personal hygiene items. It would be very handy to have a duffel bag with a lock. A bicycle lock cable would also be handy.

Try to scrounge up some prison clothes that fit you. They are a good name brand of work clothes. You will also need a bowl, a couple of plastic containers with lids, a spoon, a cup, and a couple of towels.

During the time you’re in the holding area, you will undoubtedly come in contact with Mexican lawyers. Hiring one is totally up to you. I would caution you that they too are out to get your money. Here again, I would talk to the American consul and get feedback from him. Remember, Mexican justice moves very slowly. Don’t be pressured into anything. The Mexican lawyers all want Americans for clients.

If you do decide to hire a Mexican lawyer, here’s a tip. Put the money for his fees in a joint bank account. Pay enough to cover expenses, but he doesn’t get the fees until you go free. This is pretty much standard procedure.

Once again, try to get back to the new building in the early afternoon. Also, tonight when you check in, ask the guard what your tanque is and your number. Memorize them; you will need to know them. Try to get some sleep tonight. Tomorrow is the end of grito, and we have a big day. f you sleep like I do, you are awake long before that rooster outside the wall starts to crow. Once again you go through the same ritual. You are taken to the center of the building for lista. Have you found out your tanque and your number yet? We’re going back there today. Don’t worry if the guards don’t have it yet, though they should by the third day. We can find out at operations if they don’t know.

Down the stairs of the new building, through the “patio” (the main yard), out the gate, down the path, past the garbage barrels, through the “little door,” and into the holding area. You’re starting to get the route down.

You see those guys loading the garbage barrels on that truck? If you haven’t paid your $40 to get out of work, that’s just one of the jobs you will do. Whew, that garbage stinks.

You will notice a sign above a door to the right of the “big door.” It reads “Operations.” This is where you find out your tanque and your number. This is also where you will find the head guy to pay to get out of 45 days of miserable work.

But first you have your final day of grito. Once again you go through this ritual. The third shift of guards gets to look at you. Back to the holding area. If you have been watching the main yard, you will notice that by 10:00 in the morning it’s starting to fill up. Both the basketball and volleyball games are in full swing. The animals are out and about in the zoo. The ones to be really alert to are the junkies. Especially if they’re sick.

A large group is starting to form at the big door. If it’s a Thursday or a Sunday, the crowd there is larger than usual. These are visiting days. Tuesdays and Saturdays are conjugal visiting days. Most of the guys in the group are waiting for visitors, but some of them are waiting for you. I’m not trying to frighten you or anything like that. You’re a nuevo, and that’s just the way it is. Every nuevo goes through it, and being a gringo makes it just that much worse.

Among other things, you will be called gringo, gavacho, and guero. Most of the time it is not meant to insult you. How you handle yourself is up to you and the situation. Remember, there are times when discretion is the better part of valor.

Do you have your money stashed? Okay, I’m ready whenever you are. Through the little door and into the jungle, the main yard. Try to find another American to walk around with you the first couple of days. There is safety in numbers, and it never hurts to show the rest of them you have friends.

As we go through the little door, you will notice that the phones are in a small cage to your right. Now that you’re finished with grito, you won’t be able to get back to the notification area as often, so you will have to use these phones or the pay phones in front of edificio nuevo.

Let’s retrace the steps you’ve been taking every morning, back up the path from the big door. This time, instead of turning left when we reach the fence, we turn right.

As we walk down the “street,” you will notice stores, restaurants, the bakery, and other places to spend your money. Don’t buy anything unless you need it. Everything is highly overpriced. Until you get some supplies and find out where you’re going to live, keep your spending to a minimum. Just what you need to survive.

Here at the end of the street is what I call the “12th and Broadway” area. If you want to buy a nickel or a dime of weed, this is the spot. Unlike the other 12th and Broadway, these cops are on the take. The dealers all pay the cops for the right to sell weed here. Now, if one of these cops catches you, you’re off to Las Tumbas. Don’t ask a stupid question like how are they going to know. The dealer will snitch you off in a heartbeat if the cop asks him.

Remember, a gringo stands out like a sore thumb, and this place is full of snitches. Twenty thousand pesos should be enough of a bribe to keep you out of the Tombs.

At 12th and Broadway we’ll take a left. We are going back to the area where the tanques are. You need to know this area. This is where you pass afternoon lista. As we walk down 12th, notice that it’s kind of narrow. Be careful in narrow areas. Keep your eyes open, and be sure you give other prisoners lots of room. Any time three or four start to gather around you, there is going to be trouble. Get moving fast. Head to an area where you know there are guards. Don’t run or panic. Just walk fast. This is another reason you should know other Americans here. It’s best not to go wandering around the yard alone, especially when you’re new.

I’m sure you’ve noticed what appear to be little apartments. As we wander the yard, you’ll see that they are all over. On Broadway they are mostly on the second story with stores underneath, and on 12th are some that are two stories high. They are called carracas, and they are condos. If you have the money, they are for sale. The going rate is anywhere from $1000 to $30,000.

There are advantages to living in a carraca. The biggest is that you will have a degree of privacy. Your valuables can be kept under lock and key. You have a place to cook and eat without everyone bumming your food. If you’re married, you have a place for conjugal visits. You can watch whatever TV programs your set will pick up. In other words, all the comforts of home in prison.

A month or two before you’re ready to leave, you put your carraca on the market and sell it for a profit. Make money in prison in real estate. How about that?

Along with the advantages, I can see certain disadvantages. The main one is getting your supplies from the big door to your carraca without losing all your groceries in the process. The more money you have, the more protection you can hire.

Remember, the banditos watch that big door like hawks. They know that visitors bring food and money. In the eyes of a sick junkie, your food can be sold and your money can make him well. In his eyes, all Americans are rich.

Let’s continue our walk down 12th. We’re almost to the tanques. On your right you will notice where the line for meals forms at the cocina, or kitchen. If you live in a tanque, this is where you come for your meals.

Now we enter a large courtyard where the tanques are located. They are lettered A, B, C, etc. They have a barred door on the front and, actually, they are small cell blocks. Instead of cells, they have tiny carracas. These sell for $2000. You can rent one of these condos for around $100 a month.

If you find yourself forced to live in a tanque and you have no money to rent a carraca, you will have to sleep on the “freeway.” That’s the hallway between the carracas. It’s out of the rain and that’s it.

You will have to buy a foam mattress and blankets. Nothing is furnished. During the day your bedroll and spare clothes are kept in a storage area. It is not a pleasant way to live. You sleep with one eye open.

At 3:00 in the afternoon, you have to pass lista. Everybody shows up in front of their tanque. The courtyard gets real crowded. A guard and a runner are assigned to each tanque. As a nuevo, your name and number will be on the last page. There is no such thing as common courtesy here. When I’m in the yard and have to pass lista, I stand on the outskirts of the crowd. I don’t like to be surrounded. I like to wait until the crowd thins out. I’m in no rush. Give the guard your number and your name. If you miss afternoon lista, you will have to track down the guard and pay him a kinina to get checked off the list. Miss lista too many times and you go to Las Tumbas.

Ready to continue the tour? Let’s walk back along 12th to Broadway. This corner is where a lot of fights break out. About a week ago there was one heck of a knife fight. I saw the hassle from a distance. From what I understand, they cut each other up pretty good. One guy lost an ear. I guess they both lived.

Let’s walk down 12th toward the main yard.

You will notice more stores and condos. We’re coming to the place where three guys were killed. It happened my third night here. It was a family dispute.

It seems like some guy was visiting his brother. Apparently there had been bad blood between these two families for quite some time. The other guy saw the two brothers walking along 12th. He went to his carraca, got his Uzi, and came back and blpw the two brothers away. A bystander was hit and killed too. How many prisons have you heard of where the prisoners have better guns than the guards? The Uzi disappeared and hasn’t been seen since.

The guy who did the shooting was taken to Las Tumbas. The comandante interviewed him personally. He told the comandante that he expected to spend the rest of his life in the Tombs, and there was no way he was giving up his Uzi. He will do better than most guys there. The guards and the other prisoners respect him. The last time I saw him, he had the first cell in the Tombs all to himself. I’m sure by now he has several cellmates. He has a radio and he plays any station he wants to. I’m quite sure he runs that cell.

As we continue on down 12th, we’re getting close to what I call Market Street, which opens into the main yard. Down the middle of the yard are the volleyball and basketball courts. To the right are more stores, and to the left are more carracas. You’ll notice that a lot of the higher-priced condos have lockable security bars and gates. The owners have the keys. I’m sure the guards have a set too.

Also notice the parking area for “baby taxis.” These are little pushcarts that hold five or six little kids. On conjugal visit days, the couples with kids pay the “taxi driver” to push their kids around the yard while they slip off to a carraca and make more little kids.

From this end of the yard we can see the big door. Let’s walk down the left side of the yard. Across the way, you’ll see more stores. On the left are more condos. These are in the $15- to $20,000 range.

Across from them is the school bathroom. You don’t want to go in here by yourself. You will be robbed.

Now we’ll turn right and go back up the path to the new building. We turn left through the guard gate and into the building’s patio. This is a nice area to sit in during the morning and evening. It’s fenced in and away from the general population.

Next door they’re building another concrete building just like the one you’re in now. It looks to me like they are trying to upgrade the prison.

Let’s sit out here in the yard. You should be out of Las Tumbas tonight. That is, if nothing out of the ordinary happens. On my last night, there was an escape and nobody was moved. I spent a total of five nights on the third floor.

When they finally did move me, there weren’t any open bunks. I spent my first night on the floor of a cell on the first floor. It’s after lights-out when they move you. As I rolled out my bedroll on the floor, one of the guys spoke to me in English.

His name was Emilio, and he had been here three and a half years. We shot the breeze for a couple of hours. His wife lived in North Park. His father had made his money in the smuggling business. This man became my friend. This was the first night’s sleep I had in five nights.

The next day we had a long talk and he explained what life in a cell was like. He was an old-timer, and he led the cell by example. Later that day I was informed they had put me in the wrong cell. I was moved down the block to the “nut tank.”

This was some sort of game the guards were playing with me, a gringo with no money. I had already met one of the “nuts” in the yard. He was an older fellow who spoke English. Three of the other Mexicans I didn’t know, but they seemed harmless enough.

The one that worried me was a guy in the middle bunk. He spoke English as well as any American, and he claimed to be one. He had a Mexican surname. He also spoke excellent Spanish.

Among other things, he claimed to be a former Marine, CIA agent, hit man, and World War II and Korean War vet. He was either well read or watched a lot of TV. He never shut up, and he did start to worry me when he talked about cracking open heads and eating the brains. Especially since I slept on the floor, and the guy in the top bunk looked like a vulture. The whole time I was in there I slept with one eye open.

In the morning at breakfast time, when they open the doors. I’d stop at my friend’s cell. I’d have breakfast there and then take a nap.

In the afternoons my friend and I talked. We had many of the same interests. Those talks helped prepare me for life in this place. I met the other guys in the cell. I paid my last 20,000 pesos to bribe my way into his cell and out of the nut tank.

Finally, after 15 days I could sleep with both eyes closed and for more than 20 minutes at a stretch. You have no idea how good that felt.

If you have little or no money when you get here, you will probably end up in a cell. It is much better than sleeping on the “freeway” in a tanque. It all depends on how crowded the cells are. When they open the new building, it will help. Like the jails and prisons in the U.S., this one is overcrowded.

Life in a cell is an endless routine. You’re awakened around 6:30 for morning lista. A guard and his help come around and call your tanque. They know you’re there, but you have to respond. Most guys usually sleep or doze until breakfast.

Anywhere from 7:00 to 8:30, they open the cell doors for breakfast. You take your bowl and walk to the entrance of the cell block. The kitchen crew serves you out of large kettles. Breakfast consists of a watery soup with vegetables, potatoes, and usually some kind of meat. Sometimes there is rice or beans along with it. I have found that selective dining is the safest way to eat. I don’t eat the meat. It is old and it tastes it. I usually give it to one of the other guys. You also get two tortillas with breakfast. You return to your cell to eat.

In the morning you can take a shower, and sometimes the water is hot. The showers are at the entrance to the cell block. You can also take a “bird bath” in your cell, but the water is cold. I personally refuse to take a cold shower so I use the main one. It’s usually at least lukewarm.

The next high point in the day is water time. The turnkey opens the cell doors, and you put your gallon jugs out for drinking water. They usually furnish a gallon of water for seven guys. Anything else you have to buy. The cheapest way is to pay the runner. He fills the jugs, so if you slip him a couple of lucas he will usually give you extra water. Make sure you keep some in reserve. Some days the water truck doesn’t show up.

If you want to take a shower or go out in the patio, this is a good time to do it. I enjoy sitting out there in the morning and evening.

If you want to go into the main yard, they usually let everyone out around ten in the morning. If you do decide to go, you will be out for most of the day. Whether you get back in during the day depends on the guards. A soda will usually get you back in. Be careful how you bribe the guards. Otherwise they will expect it all the time.

Lunch is served anywhere from 12:30 to 1:30. If you go in the yard, you will have to stand in line at the cocina. Lunch is the same as breakfast, except you get three tortillas.

If you decide to spend the day in your cell, you can read, write, sleep, play cards, and that’s about the extent of your activities. If you don’t have some way to occupy your mind, you will go stir crazy.

In the afternoon you have to pass lista, the same as in the yard. It’s easy in a cell because they come to you.

In the late afternoon you get atole. This is powdered com meal with sugar and milk. I’ve never been able to develop a taste for it. Along with it you get a bolillo, a roll of bread, and they are good. I like to save some beans and make a bean sandwich for dinner. The trouble is, they only give you one.

As you can see, the food here leaves a lot to be desired. If you’re an American with no outside help, you will have a very tough time. You can survive but just barely. If you have no way of supplementing your diet, your health will suffer, both mentally and physically.

Sundays are the worst. The water truck doesn’t deliver, so you don’t get free water. You only get one meal. The Mexicans usually get visitors who bring them extra bread and things. If you’re an American with no outside help, this can be a very depressing day.

In the evening I like to go out in the yard by the new building. It’s pleasant and I like to get some fresh air. When I have a few pesos, I like to have my coffee there. I enjoy talking with a couple of the older guys.

I’ve found that there are quite a few Mexicans here who have spent a lot of time in the United States. They all like to talk in English. My next-door neighbor went all the way through school in Long Beach. Several of the older guys who like to sit on the patio speak English, so it’s a pleasant way to spend an hour in the morning and the evening. It’s out of the mainstream, and you don’t have to watch your back all the time.

From what I understand, before they built this new building, life here was really bad. Once you went through the big door, you were really on your own. You had to sleep in the yard in the open. At least now you have a roof over your head, a two-inch foam mattress, and a blanket. If you leave the building, you have to leave your bedding there.

Within the last couple of years, I guess the human rights groups have done some good things here. One of the old-timers told me that up to a couple of years ago, if you ate the food here you would get sick.

I also heard there was an average of two stabbings a day. I believe it. That yard is a dangerous place. It may look tranquil, but I always keep my eyes open and my guard up anytime I go into it. The only time you can relax is when you’re in your cell. That barred door may keep you in, but it keeps “them” out.

(Editor's note: Prison officials are now in the process of tearing down the carracas in La Mesa and relocating outside the walls the wives and children who have lived with inmates.)

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