By Richard Gatica
One day I went to my vent and called my buddy, Manny, who lived on the tier above me.
“Hey Manny! Are you hungry?”
“What you got?” he yelled back.
“I can make some bean and cheese burritos with Tapatio sauce and side of hot-cheese crunchies.”
“Shoot it,” he replied.
We stepped away from the air vent.
My defense team put money on my trust account every week. I would buy food from the commissary. I was able to feed the homies who came through. Sometimes it was simply snacks. Other times, we made entire meals. But in some prisons it’s not easy to pass an item from one cell to the next. If our cell door is too low to pass anything, or the cell we want to pass to is above or below use – in those cases, we fish – which is what I was about to do with Manny.
A fishing line is made out of strips of sheet or by using nylon that is taken from waistbands of underwear. Hooks are made from a small piece of plastic comb. We drop the hook into our toilet and flush. The hook will travel into the main drain and be tossed around by the flow and pressure created by several flushings. We do this at the same time with the person we want to fish with. We coordinate our efforts by yelling to each other through the air vents that connect our cells. When the water settles, I pull in my line hoping to find his line attached. Sometimes it takes two or three attempts.
Once the lines connect, they are pulled tight. I soak up all the water in the toilet bowl with a towel. The towel is stuffed deep into the drain to absorb every last drop. Then it is rung out in the sink.
The absence of water creates a powerful vacuum. Air from the cell is sucked into the drain. We do not have to communicate through the vent any more. We can hear each other through the drain, although there is a slight echo. Prisoners also remove the toilet water to smoke weed or cigarettes. We blow the smoke directly into the drain. The powerful vacuum sucks the smoke and odor out and prevents the guards from smelling it. In some places, our ability to communicate through the air vent is poor due to a particular design. In those units, by habit, some people will keep their toilet devoid of water while not in use. This allows them to hear if someone calls them. This is why we call toilets and vents our “telephone.”
I reached into my canteen bag and pulled out the ingredients.
“Hey, Manny,” I yelled, “you want a slice of hot pickle with that?”
I ran the hot water in my sink. I needed it to get as hot as possible to soften up the dehydrated refried beans. I dumped the beans into a large plastic cup, added hot water, stirred and popped a lid on.
I sliced the pickle with a small razor blade. I made four burritos. I wrapped two of them individually in multiple layers of plastic. Each layer was secured with string taken from my sock, one layer on top of the other.
Burritos are naturally shaped to travel through the drain. I was careful not to make them too fat.
I smashed up his portion of the crunches in the same bag in which they were sold. I pressed the air out and tied off the top. I shaped the bag into a form similar to the burritos. I then wrapped it up in several layers of plastic, each layer tied with string.
“Hey Manny! You ready to eat?” I shouted into the now-open toilet drain.
“Man, what took you so long? You got me up here starving.”
“Any more complaining and I’ll take a bite out of one of the your burritos.”
Manny laughed but complained no further.
I tied the burritos and crunchies to the line. I was careful to make sure both ends of each item were secured. I fed them into the drain as Manny pulled. Slowly they traveled from my cell into his.
Manny took in the burrito and disconnected my line. I pulled it back.
Although there was no visual contamination, the first thing Manny did was rinse off each package in his sink. He patted it dry with toilet paper. He then removed the first layer of plastic and rinsed the package again. He repeated the process down to the final layer of protection. He then washed his hands.
Manny opened the finally layer of each package. He removed the burritos, sliced pickle, packs of Tapatio and hot cheese crunchies and sat them on his desk.
He licked his chops and called me to the vent. We no longer needed the toilet so we flushed them and they filled back up with water.
“Richard, they look delicious. Thanks!”
“No problem. Are you ready to eat?” I asked.
“Yes. You ready?”
“I’m ready,” I replied.
“Go!” he said.
Although we were in separate cells and on separate tiers, we ate together. We sat at our tables, closed our eyes and imagined ourselves in a Mexican restaurant.
*Richard Gatica is serving three life sentences for murder in the California prison system. He has also just completed a memoir of his life in prisons, jails and the streets of California, from which this story was taken. His first story for TYTT was Killing Donald Evans, about the night he killed his crack dealer. Contact him at
Richard Gatica – #D48999
Kern Valley State Prison
P.O. Box 5101
Delano, CA 93216
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