An Inmate Outreach Program of Saint Michael Ministries

Inmate Penpal Listing A Letter from Purgatory – Prison Stories

December 29, 2011  ¤  Listed in : Ruben Cardenas - Stories

I wish I could tell you I had a wonderful childhood, but that would be a lie. The only wonderful thing about it was; how hard our single mother fought to provide for us five kids the best she could. Everyday growing up was a struggle and a battle for survival, and times were always hard. But through it all she never gave up.

At age seven my mother was taken away from us kids by the prison system, so I had to grow up fast. I was lost in a world of pure madness and I became an outcast, too shy to make friends, and I never found a place in school, all the work was too hard for me to learn and no one cared enough to teach me. I started to run the streets because I had nowhere else to turn. My first arrest came when I was only ten, a few more soon followed. I bounced around in the juvenile system from one place to another. No one seemed to notice me, the schools passed me from one grade to the next just to get me out of their class, not caring that I couldn’t read or write, or even spell my own name.

Out of all the haunting memories of my past none has scarred me as deep into my heart and soul as the hunger pains and tear-streaked face of our mother who would sit next to our bed crying and praying to a God that would never answer her as we tossed and turned in pain of having to go without food for days at a time. I remember so desperately drinking cup after cup of water in hopes of stopping the pain, but no matter how much I would drink the pain was always there. Even today I find myself desperately drinking cup after cup of water wishing it would take the pains of my past away.

Shortly after my sixteenth birthday I found myself once again locked away in a cage. I was given a court appointed pretender (Attorney) who was far too busy with his move to a new city to care enough about a young native/Mexican man. After the 10-15 minutes he spent on my case I was railroaded and sentenced to a C.Y.A. (California Youth Authority). It was during this time that two major changes took place in my life. The first was learning I would soon be a father of my first baby girl, the second was my teacher, the beautiful Mrs. Curran with her selfless grace and kindness deeply inspired me. She pushed and challenged me to become a better man so I would be a great father to my beautiful daughter, and she never let me quit.

I started listening to her with both ears and not just one like I was known to do. There was no question I was a terrible kid with plenty of problems, but this beautiful woman looked beyond my past and treated me with love and dignity that I never received outside of my family. She ignited a fire that I craved to learn. I started to teach myself how to read and write ( I continue to study today), because I want to learn all I can so I can give my children a better chance at life so they won’t have to endure the pain and suffering I had growing up. She showed me through action how we can get things done and that there are people who truly care, but its up to you to let them in to help you.

I wish I could end my story here, but I haven’t got a fairy tale ending. You see, they say from birth we are always learning new things every day and for the most part we learn from our own mistakes, unfortunately, this is not always the case. Somewhere down the line after all the cuts, bumps, and bruises we can also lose our way. We can forget how to acknowledge or see the lessons before us and work through the obstacles we face. If you’re anything like me, you lose your way completely. Sure, one can argue its from the lead paint chips I used to eat as a kid, or the madness and chaos in the neighborhood I grew up in, but in the end it all comes back to me and although I wish I could blame it all on drugs, I never used any. I’m the one who built these walls around me.

Twenty days after my nineteenth birthday I’m finally released and its time for me to become a man. You see, growing up I never had a father and there is nothing more important to me than raising my daughter and providing for my family and being there for them like a father is supposed to. I settled into a quiet life with my family, but this would quickly change. My world was turned upside down again, then shattered into a million pieces.

The V.P.D. (Visalia Police Department) and D.A.’s (District Attorneys) office was up to their same old games, they needed to close their murder books and I was an easy mark to help make that happen, so on October 10th, 2003 as I waited on my child custody case to be called, I received a call informing me the SWAT team and Gang Task Force just hit my house. This caught me by surprise because I had just seen my parole Officer only hours ago. He knew I would be in court all day fighting for my daughter. Immediately after the first call, I got another call informing me other houses were raided and word was out I was wanted for questioning in a homicide investigation.

It seemed so strange to find myself in this predicament. No one deserves to suffer for something they did not do. I am truly innocent. I like to believe I’ve learned I can’t blame others for my own mistakes, and ignorance is not a defense when your fighting for your life. But like I said earlier, its easy to lose our way especially when you so desperately want to believe in hope and faith. You see, my biggest mistake was putting my trust in a system I knew from experience, don’t give a damn about me, my family, or the truth. The V.P.D. And D.A.’s office has a long history of hiding the truth, falsifying reports, forcing people to make false statements, lying under oath, and tampering with evidence. This time would be no different. Once again, like a blind sheep being led to the slaughter house, I tell myself, “this time they will get it right and I will be back home soon.” That day has yet to come. So once again, I’m railroaded by a court appointed pretender. I should have seen it coming, all the signs were there. The first day I met her she said I was guilty and when I asked her if she even read my case she said, “no, you just look guilty”. I guess after 500 years of conflict, natives are still viewed as savages and criminals.

An ex-L.A.P.D./Gang Task Force Officer who had done some work on my case was the only person who was honest with me. He told me he didn’t know how they would even want to prosecute my case when there was no evidence or facts, and he didn’t know why my Attorney would even allow the case to get this far, but then he told me in all his 20 plus years in law enforcement he learned how innocent people become fall-guys and I would soon be one of them. So shame on me, I never suspected the woman, a lawyer who held my life in her hands would take it upon herself without my consent, knowledge, or securing any kind of approval from me, tell the jury I was guilty. I had made it crystal clear on many occasions that I was innocent and I only wanted to clear my name. I tried to object to the blatant violation of my right to a fair trial and competent representation, but the Judge simply smiled and said, “its her case, she can do whatever she wants”. Then with a nod and the grin of a crook he told her she was doing a good job.

At age 22 I was convicted and sentenced to death for a crime I did not commit. It was not that I was guilty of all the evidence and facts pointed to me. No, it was all based on my childhood past, although it was only part of the things I had done as a kid, it was enough to make it an easy conviction. When somebody is already prejudiced against you, and only hears about your violent past and very little about the facts of the case, guilty is the only verdict for them to render. It was no great surprise when they came back with the only choice they were given, and less so when they said I should be murdered.

For a time I did feel helpless and afraid, but I remembered Mrs. Curran’s words, “there will be times when we are lost, feeling helpless and scared. But sitting around doing nothing will only bring you more pain. It is during this time that you rise to all challenges and take action to bring about change, because only through action can you make things happen.”

This is true, this is not my end, it is only my beginning. For over 500 years my people have been fighting for survival and this same warrior spirit lives strong within me. So even though I’ve been condemned for a crime I did not commit, I refuse to fall or crumble. I know I must build my mind so I will no longer feel helpless in understanding the judicial process and bring change to my situation. But I can’t do it alone.

The same day I was convicted I was re-housed in the hole (lock-up unit). I was placed in a holding tank for 4 hours before they came to get me. I was even given a pair of black and white striped pants with a matching shirt, which would be my new attire till my departure. The stripes made me feel like I was in an old prison movie. They put me in waist chains and leg shackles then escorted me to my new unit. It was smaller than the general population units; two tiers with one shower and sixteen single man cells on each tier, there are three pay phones, one inside a cage so the guards could lock you inside if they needed to pull someone else out, the same as the showers because only one person was allowed out at a time. There’s a sink so you can get hot water to cook your food or make something to drink. A single TV. sitting inside a metal and fiberglass box in the center of the unit so everyone could see it (with the exception of the first two corner cells). Every movement outside the unit was in handcuffs and leg shackles because the unit is supposed to be for the worst of the worst. So we were deprived of as much freedom as possible. Thirty minutes was all we were allowed outside our cells each day, one day in the unit shower, the next to walk around outside in a cage, it was always alone. So nearly twenty-four hours locked in a cell the size of a small closet was the program.

Two months later I was officially sentenced to death. I wasn’t given a chance to speak, if I had my words would have been, “first off, I’m innocent. I have no remorse because I’ve done nothing wrong, I do have sympathy for the victim because I know the pain of losing someone you love, but today justice is not served. This case has only created another victim, another mother who is losing her son and causing another family to suffer. I know you need someone to blame, but I am not your killer. To my family, I ask you not to cry. This is only a test that I will overcome”.

It was 1:00am when the voice came over the intercom on April 27th, 2007 and informed me my ride to San Quentin was here. I had already given everything away and sent all my important things home. I only had a few things to take with me, I said my good-byes to my friends hoping that if I ever see any of them again it wouldn’t be in the pen (prison). I didn’t ride the Grey goose (bus) with other prisoners. It was just two guards, me and my thoughts in a van headed to my first pen. I tried to watch the dark view of the calm starlit night. I knew it would be my last chance for a long time. I had asked around about death row, but no one knew anything about it. It was like it was some unknown mystery world, and honestly, before my arrest I didn’t even know California had a death row. I had heard the names of many people on death row on TV. Being the sixteenth person from Tulare County and number six-hundred sixty-two on California’s death row, only goes to show how much of a reality it really is.

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After about six hours on the ghost-like roads, we made our way over the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. The morning fog was thick blocking my view of the bay and surrounding area. It was like driving in an old horror movie. As we started to make our way off the bridge the dingy castle-like fortress of San Quentin poked its ugly face through the fog. I started at it intently before it disappeared behind the mountain as the van made one last turn and pulled up to the front gate where the guards deposited their guns. Once allowed in, they drove around the back of the prison where we parked into a giant cage as two S.Q. (San Quentin) guards searched the van. After the search, we drove into the prison passing a few buildings then around the expansive lower yard where a few prisoners were milling about. We pulled up to a large trailer that was R&R (receiving and releasing). When I got out of the van, still in my leg shackles and belly chains, I was surrounded by ten S.Q. Guards who tried to intimidate me by making idle threats. I knew they wanted a reaction out of me, but I wasn’t about to give them an excuse to label me a threat. I was already seen as a monster, because that’s what they have to portray you as to send you to death row, yet that is far from the truth. I may have been found guilty for a crime I did not commit, but I’m not an animal.

They put me through their routine, they like to call “the dance”. A routine I would soon have to do every single day more than once every day for as long as I’m here. I was stripped butt-naked then ordered to raise my arms in the air, wiggle my fingers then ordered to lean forward and shake out my hair and run my fingers through it. I then had to open my mouth, stick out my tongue and twist it around. I then had to lift up my scrotum and penis and expose everything. I was then ordered to turn around and show the bottoms of my feet. I then had to bend over at the waist, spread my ass cheeks and cough twice. They made me do it all again for their amusement, to them it was all a game and although I could feel my anger boiling up and my jaw start to clench tight, I took a minute to take a few deep breaths to cool the inner rage. I was then given some clothes to wear; a plain white t-shirt, blue elastic pants with “C.D.C.R. Prisoner” written in bold yellow letters down one leg, white drawstring boxers, socks, and a pair of black slip-on state shoes. My property was taken to the back to be searched. I was taken to a doctors office and asked about my health, it took just a few minutes and I was able to move around without any handcuffs or leg shackles, so that was a relief. All the other guards went about their business, only one older guard continued to process me in. My second stop was the Psych’s office where I was asked more standardized questions for all new arrivals, all the same questions I’d heard a hundred times before; “are you suicidal?, do you feel like hurting yourself or others?, have you ever tried to hurt yourself?, how do you feel being on death row?, etc…”.I was then given a blue button-up shirt to put on so my photos could be taken, one facing straight, then the other to my left. I was then asked more questions which were standard procedure with all new arrivals; “what is your race? Do you have any tattoos? Are you in a gang? Have you ever been to prison? Do you go by any other names? Etc…”. Afterward I was finger printed and given my first prison number F-70949, which turns out to be more important than my name in prison, but also something I lived most of my life with as I bounced from one place to another, be it a court docket number in the system or a number on a check someone got for housing me in their home. Numbers all meant the same – Identification.

I waited a few hours in a small cage barely large enough to hold a small person like myself, till two guards came to get me. One was a short bald-headed sergeant, the other was a tall skinny white dude. They reminded me of the cartoon rats, Pinky and the Brain. They didn’t say much as they came at me with their stone faces and batons out ordering me to strip out again. There wasn’t much room to move around so it was a struggle and each piece of clothing I handed them was quickly discarded to the floor. I was then given the white t-shirt, boxers and socks back. Everything else stayed lying on the floor. I was then ordered to turn around and slide my arms out of the small portal in the cage so I could be handcuffed behind my back, then I was ordered to get down on my knees, which there wasn’t enough room for so my legs were bunched up against the cage, so they could put the leg shackles on tight intentionally once they opened the cage. I knew then that these guards weren’t trying to just put on a show, they were true asses, not a real threat. Just people who liked to screw with you because you were vulnerable chained up. When I finally stood up they B.S. Started on queue; “we’re going to walk out this door and if you move wrong or look around I’m gonna break you! I don’t care if you know everyone out there. If you say anything I’m gonna break you!!” The sergeant yelled at me, as his partner stood ready with his hands tightly gripping his baton. I wanted to laugh so bad because I knew these clowns were cowards, waiting till I was chained up to start running their mouths. This just goes to show the sadistic mentality of some guards that work here. They were quick to try to force me out, but it was my turn to speak and I made sure they didn’t leave my property, but to think they would carry it was far fetched. I was forced to carry it with my hands cuffed behind my back. It was tough enough to have to wobble up a hill in tight leg shackles that dug into my skin causing it to bleed and the small sharp rocks of the pavement digging into the bottoms of my feet, add an eighty pound bag behind my back hitting the backs of my legs with each step I made was a true nightmare. The corners of their sadistic lips curled as they watched me struggle. I pushed on, showing no sign the weight of the bag was killing my shoulders. Once at the top we made our way to an ugly pale three story building. In front of it was a small circular office where guards came out and patted me down before unlocking a black metal cage around the front door. Next to it was a sign that read: “Adjustment Center, no warning shots fired in this unit.” This was the notorious A/C where rumors said the gunmen were known as head-hunters, because the only shots they take are head shots. I could already hear all the yelling, screaming and banging coming from the unit before I walked in.

Inside the noise was deafening. I felt like I just walked into a Psych-ward and at any second guards would walk by escorting someone in a straight-jacket. I was placed in the center cage on the first tier and strip-searched again by the same two guards that escorted me, I knew they liked it. The rest of the unit guards were busy running yard on other tiers as it was already a little after 9:00am. The units C.C.1 (counselor) gave me a brief rundown about the A/C program, he said it would be about 30 days before I would be called to I.C.C. (Institutional Classification Commit), so I wouldn’t be allowed out of my cell other than for a five minute shower three times a week, because I.C.C. Will have to give me a yard program first, or allow me to go to east block (the main housing unit for condemned inmates). As I waited in the center cage I looked through the dusty window of a door that led down a tunnel-like hallway, I thought this was the entrance to the cell because that’s where most of the noise seemed to come from. It made me think of the dungeon used to house Hannibal Lecther in the movie Silence of the Lambs. It turned out the hallway was so staff could listen to conversations prisoners had between tiers, and for maintenance staff.

Once they were finished running yard out, all the guards gathered in the sargent’s office and closed the door as they plotted how they would intimidate me, which might have worked if all of them didn’t look about my age. They made me strip again, then cuffed me up and made me get on my knees then slide backwards scraping my knees so they could put the leg shackles on, then I was told to slowly get up and walk out of the cage backwards. I was then sat down in the office and surrounded by the guards as the sergeant made more threats. “This is our unit, so if you think you’re gonna come here and screw around we’ll break you. And if I hear you’re giving any of my staff problems I’ll break you personally!” His threats sounded as crazy as the J-cats who were screaming and banging on the doors. For one, I haven’t done anything for them to be scared of me, second, I’m only here to do my program the best they will allow me to, as I fight to clear my name. But they could care less. I was then given one old towel, one sheet, one toothbrush, plastic spoon and fork, bar of soap and powdered toothpaste. I was then taken to my cell on the first tier, it was filthy and I had to get down on my knees then slide back so my legs were halfway out to remove the leg shackles, then I had to slide all the way back in so they could close the door before I could get up.

The cell was a small six foot by nine foot. It had a concrete bunk about two feet wide and six feet long. It took up nearly half the cell. There was a back portal with three bars in front of it on the back wall that was never opened, unless the K-9’s wanted to screw with you. A one piece stainless sink/toilet with a small ventilation grate next to it took up the rest of the back wall of the cell. On the back wall above the portal was a five foot light-box that also contained two outlets and a cable adapter. Above that was another ventilation grate. The door and front wall was steel. The door had two windows and a tray slot so we could be fed and handcuffed without having to open the door, which slid open and closed on a track controlled from the front of the tier. A third window was on the front wall overlooking the bed space. Two padlocks were used on the door, one for the tray slot, and the other to make sure the door was locked tight.

The cell was a horrible mess and empty since there was no mattress and none of my property other than what I had on and was just given, and trash. But it wasn’t as bad as the mess I just walked through on the tier. Bird feces and trash was scattered all about and rats roamed freely, rummaging through it all as they made their way in and out of cells without a care in the world. Hundreds of fly’s buzzed about as they got high off that nasty human feces and urine smell that came out of many of the cells. Tearing my only towel in half, I went to work sweeping all the trash to one corner next to the door so I could start to clean and scrub everything I could reach from top to bottom, paying no attention to all the yelling, screaming and banging that continued into the night. I had finally finished shortly before they came down with the food cart to pass out dinner trays, so I had just enough time to take a quick bird bath and wash the clothes I wore and the few items I was given. While I had to put wet clothes back on, at least I was cleaned before dinner. With all the work and in-processing, I hadn’t eaten all day so I was extremely hungry. They finally came down, latching a metal box to the tray slot so they could open up the tray slot and slide me my tray. The food looked as nasty as it tasted. I tried to scarf it down, but my body would not accept it. I just ended up throwing it all back up. The food reminded me of the slop we would feed the pigs on the farm. It wasn’t like we were actually given much time to eat the food, they were back to pick up the trays within three minutes and they got mad at me for throwing out all the trash that was in the cell. When I asked for a mattress I was told they didn’t have any and I would have to wait until they could find one. For the next week I was told this same story each time I asked. I was forced to sleep on a concrete slab with only a sheet for warmth. This was my introduction to life on death row, and it only got worse.

I think its strange and sad how easy it is for people to forget the many men, women, and children who are made to endure the hardships, degradation, and despair that prison life brings. Prison dehumanizes, tortures and destroys the human soul and spirit till you’re so full of anger and hate that you live in a constant state of P.T.S.D. Society doesn’t know the full picture nor understand what life is like once those iron doors slide shut. Your all alone in an iron and concrete box. Society turns a blind eye to the truth because they’ve been told that I’m a monster, a gangster, a cold blooded killer, an animal. So the general consensus is prisoners are getting exactly what they deserve. They don’t want you to see me with any humanity because that would mean you would treat me humanely, with love, compassion and mercy.

I never claimed to be a saint, I’m far from it. I’m just a man, imperfect, flawed, but growing and striving to become a better person. Today the struggle continues and its still no Sunday picnic. But, as I was able to overcome the struggles of my childhood, I will overcome this struggle. For I am a survivor and will do all within my power to make my voice be heard at all corners of this world and clear my name. Although the twenty foot walls, razor-wire fences, gun-towers, and steel doors are a constant reminder of the harsh reality that, without support from the outside, I will fail, but knowing that there are people like you who want to build friendships with someone like me, and be there for me any way you can, gives me hope for a better tomorrow and puts a smile on my face.

So thank you, and I will be waiting for you to write me……

– Ruben Cardenas – View Inmate Profile

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Ruben Cardenas  #F70949
1-Tamal – Box F70949
San Quentin, CA 94974-0002

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