PrisonTell Your True Tale

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By Richard Gatica


I wake.

I’m serving life in prison, but today I will be as free as any man can be. I climb out of bed and check my window for fog. There is none. If there was, for security purposes, there’d be no yard.

I turn on both light and radio. Linkin Park sings of personal change. I’m a morning person, so I rock it, loud and proud. I wash my face and brush my grill. My head is shaved so no further grooming is necessary. I make a cup of coffee using warm tap water. I fold my covers and clean my floor.

All is lovely.

Meals are served inside our cell and at 6:28 my breakfast is delivered by porters. They’re nosey so I wait for them to push down the tier before I get down to business.

I separate the items necessary for my freedom. Today I use pancakes, six slices of wheat bread, Rice Krispies, sunflower seeds and chocolate chip cookies. I crumble it up on a small space of floor. The crumbs must be small. It’s tedious work and takes me thirty minutes but it brings me peace.

I spread the crumbs at the base of my door. The airflow passes over the pancake portion of the crumbs, reducing its moisture content. I scoop up all the crumbs, place them in an old tortilla bag and hide the bag in the folds of my prison-issued jacket – smuggling it to the yard the way many have done with shanks.

I pace back and forth, beaming on coffee, listening to the radio and loving life. Every 20 laps or so I’m sure to sneak some mirror time.

At 8:27 I get dressed for work. At 8:40 my door opens. I work the yard crew. I go outside and collect food and trash carts from the housing units. I’m paid four dollars a month, but the job allows me to go outside while other prisoners remain in their cell.

It’s bitterly cold this morning. I’m nervous about being stopped, searched and the crumbs discovered. But I’ve been doing this for nine months. The key to invisibility is to speak only when spoken to. The guards pay me little attention.

The yard is huge and empty. The guards in towers occasionally look down at me as I work. I wear sunglasses to mask the direction in which I cast my eyes.

As I push a cart across the yard, I see my beautiful sparrows. At first, I had only one. Now I have forty-six. They are perched in a cluster inside loops concertina wire atop a 16-foot wall in a corner of the yard. The loops protect them from larger birds.

As soon as the sparrows see me, they start chirping and flapping their wings. I wish they’d quiet down; they’re attracting the guards’ attention.

I pass and wonder if this confuses or depresses them. But feeding them is forbidden and if I’m caught I will lose my job and won’t be able to feed them any more.

I sweep and pick up trash. I set out basketballs, footballs, soccer balls and Frisbees for the prisoners.

The sparrows’ song travels across the field. They’re anxious for me to finish. I tell the guard I’m ready for yard release. He looks around briefly, inspecting my work.

“Yard release – five minutes,” he says into his radio.

I start walking around the track. Behind my sunglasses my eyes shift from sparrows to guards to the housing units.

I’ve trained the sparrows to perch in the same spot at the far end, the least used part, of the yard. I walk the track toward them. As I near, my hand slips inside my jacket and I remove the tortilla bag. My timing must be perfect. I need to be directly under the sparrows when the unit doors open. At that moment, the guards will have their backs to me as they focus on the prisoners.

I’m slightly off pace. I slow. The gates open.

The sparrows go wild. In this commotion I make my move. I open the bag and scatter the crumbs beneath the sparrows. Their beautiful song is the only sound I hear. It is lovely.

I walk twenty yards farther along the oval track, then turn to face them. There is now so much movement on the yard that I go unnoticed.

I stand and watch the sparrows. Lil Sergio is the boldest of all. He has two dark patches on an otherwise light-grey chest. He looks down at the crumbs then looks at me. He tilts his head sideways as if asking me if it’s time.

I smile.

Then he dives. My heart pounds in my chest. It’s a 16-foot vertical drop. Four feet before he hits the ground, he pulls his chest muscles back, extends his wings, pivots his tail and lands gracefully atop the field of crumbs. I laugh and clap.

Lil Sergio looks at me again, then pecks the crumbs. The sparrows above him sing. Then they dive. First two. Then five. Then twenty. Then all.

Other prisoners see what I do. Most mock me. It’s silly, even crazy, they say, for me to waste such time and effort feeding dumb birds. But their eyes are not mine.

I walk to the opposite end of the yard. I find a spot on the wall and lean against it. Across the yards, the sparrows are pecking away. They fly back to the wire each time someone passes and dive again once it’s clear.

As their stomachs fill, some fly off for the morning. I select one and close my eyes. No one can tell that my eyes are closed. I lean my head against the wall and I imagine myself to be that sparrow. I rise and I fly and I am free. I fly six miles north. I come to a house and land on the open kitchen windowsill. Inside an old woman sits at a table drinking coffee. I chirp. She sees me and beams. Her pale-blue eyes fill with compassion. The valley of wrinkles that covers her face is a sign of hard work and wisdom.

“There you are! Eat your breakfast.”
At my feet are bagel crumbs. I peck until it’s gone. She smiles at me. I realize she needs me as much as I need her. I turn my head sideways and chirp. She smiles.

“See you tomorrow, sweetie.”

I fly away.

I open my eyes. I am back on the prison yard against that wall. Guys are playing basketball and handball. Some are jogging. Others do pull-ups. Most walk in small groups gossiping like schoolgirls.

None of this interests me.

I look across the yard and select another sparrow. I close my eyes and with his image in my mind I lean against the wall behind my sunglasses.

I fly eight miles west to a schoolyard and see children at play. I land on a low branch of a tree near a chubby boy. He sits alone – rejected by the other children.

I chirp.

He looks up and sees me. I rise and I fly and I spin. I zip past him and return to the branch. I look at him sideways.

He smiles and claps.

“How beautiful you are.”

I chip and hop.

Deep in his eyes is the pain of loneliness. Tomorrow I will visit the same spot. He is new to me, but I can see his heart is warm and in no time he will dig into his lunch sack and offer me a Frito. I will sing for him and he will smile and I will fly and someday he will, too.

My radar beeps. I sense movement to my right. I open my eyes. Sergio has joined me on the wall – the guy I named the sparrow for. His nickname is Bird. I guess someone thought he looked like one, but his real name is Sergio and, like I was saying, he’s the one I named the little sparrow after.

Sergio is going home in six months. He’s in for drugs or guns or something. I forgot. He’s tall, handsome, slim and athletic, charismatic and funny. He’s kept his heart warm in a cold prison. Tattoos cover his body. He also has a sexy girlfriend. I’ve seen her pictures and I’m looking for an excuse to see them again, but I think he’s on to me. She’s lovely.

I flip up my sunglasses so he can see the direction of my eyes.

“Do you wish you could dive like that?”

Sergio watches the sparrows dive and climb, like fighter jets.

“Fuck, yeah.”

His voice is barely audible, but I detect passion. We watch the sparrows in silence. Sergio knows when words are unnecessary. He’s the only person on the yard I’m comfortable with.

I’m a loner, an outcast, an oddball. I can’t connect with most people. I find them dull and without depth. Sergio is the opposite and I wonder why we even connect. He’s extroverted, a socializer and popular among the other inmates. Sergio ponders the words of Plato and can digest Socratic dialogues. But he is surrounded by tiny men with limited thought processes. They are twice his age and struggle to obtain their GEDs. I met him in the prison library one afternoon. He reached across a book cart and handed me The Alchemist. It opened my mind to a realm that I did not know existed.

Sergio’s mind is mature enough to understand that I’m not crazy. Everyone deals with a lifetime of incarceration in their own way and Sergio sees that peace I find through sparrows is my way of grasping life.

Sergio suggests we walk and we do. The sky is partially cloudy. I look up and see the outline of the full moon ahead.

“How many people on this yard do you think even realize the moon is there?”

“Probably none,” he says.

We soon find ourselves near a patch of sun. The patch is next to the bed of crumbs. As we talk I notice that the sparrows are watching him from atop the sixteen-foot wall. They’re reading his body language. I’ve provided food for many months. When few people are on the yard, some will come so close that I could touch them. But Sergio is a stranger, so they watch him.


Finally, they dive and land nearby and eat from the field of crumbs. They consume crumbs in comfort. Then they rise and sing songs of gratitude and soon yard is recalled.

That night, I turn off my radio and climb into bed, time to be alone with myself. I had a wonderful day and can’t wait for tomorrow.

They serve Fruit Loops tomorrow and my sparrows love those.


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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?”

“Hell, yeah!”

“All right.”

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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By Richard Gatica

The day before I killed Donald Evans I did not even know he existed. The day he died I was smoking crack cocaine and when I smoke crack, nothing else matters. Not family, not friends – not even God.

Each time that I smoked crack, I could hear little demons and their excited little whispers. I knew what I was doing was wrong. That pleased them even more.

At the time, I was out of money and robbing drug dealers on the streets of Los Angeles. Crack was everywhere then. Black dealers would stand in the dark shadows near street corners and sell to people as they drove up in cars. Sometimes several dealers would share the same spot and race to the customer as soon as he pulled up. A half-dozen hands would thrust through the car window, each with a display of rocks. The customer would make his selection according to size, color, and weight, as if he were buying precious jewels. He would then speed off and the dealers would run back into the shadows.

I was driving around at five in the morning looking for a dealer to rob. It was still dark. I was planning on simply snatching the rocks out of the dealer’s hand and speeding away. I found no one at my regular spots, which was odd even at that hour. It seemed as if the cops had just done a sweep.

I drove further into the slums and finally seen a woman standing on a corner. I asked if she knew where I could get some crack. She said yes. I told her to get in. She had me drive a few blocks. I could tell she was a smoker herself. Probably a prostitute. They were called “strawberries” – women who sold their bodies for crack. I once saw a strawberry actually perform fellatio on a dog for a hit of crack.

So as this strawberry directed me to a dealer, I knew she would be willing to rob him. After driving a few blocks, she had me pull over in front of a house. Donald came out from the shadows. He was dirty and I saw that if he was a dealer, he was his own best customer. Donald walked up to her window and showed her some rocks. I asked him to pass them to me so I could see them more closely. He was hesitant at first. I told him to hurry before the cops came. He passed the rocks to me. As I pretended to inspect them I put the truck in gear and stepped on the gas. The truck shot backwards. I had put the truck in reverse by mistake. Donald the crack monster held on to the passenger side door unwilling to surrender his product. I put the truck in drive and it shot forward in a cloud of smoke.

People came out of the shadows and started throwing objects at the truck. Through all of this Donald held on tight. The strawberry started screaming like there was no tomorrow. For Donald, there wasn’t. I gathered speed and started zigzagging down the street in an attempt to shake Donald off, but he held tight.

Somehow he got the door open and was swaying back and forth on it. I seen this as an opportunity to smack him up against a light pole or parked car but every time I would get close the door swung inward.

Donald’s last words were, “I’m going to kick your fuckin’ ass.”

For suddenly he was gone. He had fallen off the truck and was sucked up under it. We were doing about sixty miles per hour. His body slammed against the undercarriage. The rear tires lifted off the ground. Donald never had a chance. He bounded and rolled and slid down the street and came to rest under a parked car.

I drove a few more blocks, made a series of turns, pulled over and told the strawberry to get out. She turned to me and asked, “Aren’t we gonna smoke some rock?”

I yelled at her to get the fuck out before I killed her. I would have hit her face against the dashboard until she was dead because she was delaying me from smoking my rock. She tried to get out but the door handle was gone. Donald must have taken it with him. Maybe he was holding onto it and it broke off, causing him to fall. Finally, the strawberry climbed out of the window and as she did, she told me to never ask her for a favor again. Later, I learned she was killed by one of her tricks soon after that.

I went back home and found that my beautiful wife had left me – I wonder why. I thought we were doing pretty good. At least I had my rock. I smoked it in the living room alone. As soon as the rush came I went to the window and peeked through the curtains watching for any suspicious activity. I stood there motionless for over an hour trying to detect any danger. I seen an old lady walk by with a cart and could see that she was covertly talking into a police radio as she glanced my way. They thought I was so stupid!

I finally laid down on the couch and started to formulate a new plan for my next rock. I had just killed a man for a fifteen-minute high and an hour of paranoia.

I went to sleep and woke up to the sound of the police banging on my front door. I tried to run out through the back door but found more police waiting for me back there.

I was arrested but not for killing Donald. I was arrested for stealing the truck that I used to kill him. The police did not connect me to killing Donald for another sixteen years.

Donald was a black man. He was forty-four years old. I was twenty. He had a long rap sheet but nothing very serious. He was addicted to crack just like me.

He died from what is called “eggshell” cracking of the skull. Imagine taking a hard-boiled egg and dropping it, then rolling it around a little. His left ear and most of the left side of his face and neck were torn off as well.

I often look at the autopsy report and photographs as a reminder of what drugs can do. When I was a little boy at school playing on the monkey bars, I never imagined that I would one day be addicted to drugs or that I would kill another man to support my habit or that I would spend the rest of my life in prison.

As I said, prior to killing Donald I did not know he existed. Yet because of our mutual addictions, our fates will forever be entwined. His body is rotting in a dark cold grave and mine in a dark cold prison. The distance between us is very narrow and if there is a God may He have mercy on our souls.


RICHARD GATICA 1Richard Gatica of a former prison gang member and crack addict who is serving three life sentences for murder in the California prison system. He has completed a memoir of his life, from which this story was taken.


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