I was making a pot of coffee while putting the finishing touches on my upcoming Cheech & Chong book when my cell phone started ringing a jazz tune. I’ve had the phone for over a year but still don’t connect jazz with phone calls, so it played for quite a while before I realized what it was and answered. “It’s Marc Emery,” a voice cried out. My pot–shot memory immediately associated the name with great weed and I got a flashback high just hearing his voice.
Marc and I go way back – me farther than him, because I’ m a bit older, obviously! These days he’s my assignment editor and I’m just a column writer, hacking away for a little dough. I think I like Marc the most because he has a beautiful wife, Jodie, and I love beautiful women; Jodie always wears dresses and smells pretty, and that alone turns this old stoner on! I also like Marc because he believes in cannabis as much as I do. He smokes regularly, fights for it to be free, and goes to jail for it – like I did in 2003. I think I did more time in jail then he did, [Editor’s note: that’s true – Tommy did nine months in 2003, and Marc did two months in 2004] but that’s irrelevant because it’s not about how much time you do, it’s how you survive the experience and what you gain from it that counts.
Marc had called to ask me to write about something he’d heard reports of. “There’s some kind of deadly illness wreaking havoc in California’s desert prisons,” he said, “they call it Valley Fever”. It was sickness I had witnessed firsthand and written about in my book The I Chong: Meditations From the Joint. Valley Fever has left some of central California’s inmate population permanently disabled, in wheelchairs, often in hospitals, and sometimes dead. Prisons are the unhealthiest places to be in. The food is unhealthy garbage, with too much starch and sugar all cooked with lard. I was lucky to do my time in a Federal Prison camp similar to the one Martha Stewart was in, with access to gardens and all kinds of good things to eat. The leader of the American Indian sweat lodge – where we could munch on thistle seeds and drink rosemary tea – tended an herb garden. We had microwaves to make our own food, which was sweet, especially if you were a celebrity immediately welcomed into the prison’s best “car” or group. Our car cook was Eric Larson, doing twelve years on a bogus coke bust. Now free, Eric is again caddy for golf great Marc Calcavechi. I met Eric the second day I was behind bars, and he invited me to join his guys for a meal I will never forget: a chicken burrito stuffed with fresh garden vegetables, and seasoned with hot peppers grown by Eric himself. He would start preparing dinner right after the afternoon prisoner count around 2:00pm, and we would eat at 6:00pm. Each meal was so fucking good, I dream about them to this day! Eric was not only one of the best cooks, but also one of the camp’s best jocks. At 6’ 4” and 185 pounds, he was in great shape – thanks to his workout routine, which included weightlifting and a five-mile run every day. He had been able to lift real weights in other prisons, but this camp banned them because the guards, who were mostly women, were afraid of the muscle-head prisoners. However, Eric and other inmates kept makeshift weights around the prison yard and would sneak in workouts with one or two inmates keeping an eye for prison staff. The rules of the prison were designed to keep the prisoners pissed off at the guards, and guards attended “hate sessions” to keep them brainwashed and afraid of the prisoners – they had to learn to hate for their own protection. It took me a while to see the logic behind this, but after a few months I came to realize how easily the guards and prisoners could be conned by the cons, so they had to destroy any sense of civility.
There are quite a few people in jail who should not be there. However, many are real criminals who need to be locked up to protect society – but they also need to be rehabilitated while they are there, and that is not happening. Pot growers, sellers, and the users of any drug should not face incarceration for their habit. The people who run these prisons depend upon having more prisoners than they can house, simply to keep the prison budget growing, and they have no incentive to rehabilitate anyone. It’s a cash thing. America operates on the money system, or corporate greed. The prisons in America are privately owned, collecting money from the government to operate. Each prisoner represents a certain amount of cash allotted from our tax dollars, but only a fraction goes to toward the care of each prisoner because the less money paid out means the more put in private pockets.
Of course, helping prisoners is not the intent – a prison’s inhabitants have no rights to things like health care and as far as the owners are concerned, guards are just a step up the food chain from the prisoners. So what if the inmates and staff get sick or die? After all, the inmates wouldn’t be in prison if they had behaved properly, and the guards are making a living doing the work, right? That’s what the prison officials think while they pocket millions of dollars. Sick inmates are not their concern.
While I was incarcerated, Valley Fever was sweeping the prison. Taft Penitentiary was built on an abandoned oil treatment dump, and the contaminated soil had been deemed unfit for habitation. Because the sickness came from the soil, all the prisoners and guards hid inside whenever wind or sand storms blew across the area. Even working outside in the gardens may have contributed to the problem, though we stayed indoors if there were high winds. Valley Fever mimics the flu, with coughing, lethargy and fevers. It’s a fungal infection in the soil that runs from Texas and Mexico through New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and southern and central California. It gets roiled into the air by residential development, erosion, agriculture, windstorms and even earthquakes. One in thirty suffer permanent disability or death, yet virtually nothing has been done to prevent or diagnose the cause of this recurrent sickness and fatigue.
Journalist Jesse McKinley researched and wrote about Valley Fever for the New York Times on December 30, 2007. He discovered shocking information about California’s gulag of prisons; according to the Times, Valley Fever has afflicted 900 of the 5,300 inmates at California’s Pleasant Valley state prison since 2001 (the prison’s maximum capacity is officially set for 2,000 inmates – a startling example of the dangerously overcrowded American prison complex). Eighty guards have gotten the fever, and one has died. Outbreaks rise each year, and in 2006 there were 535 cases at Pleasant Valley. Twelve prisoners in the central California system have died in the past three years, and thirty-three have died in five western states recently. Arizona had more than 5,500 cases of the fever within its prison system in the year 2006 alone! Even drug dogs working the border at Texas and Mexico have died from inhaling the fungal spores. These are startling facts. It’s systemic poisoning of the most marginalized of people, including African-Americans, Latinos, drug users, and the poor, all of which make up most of the jailed and their jailors. Even though people are dying from Valley Fever, the deaths and illnesses are always hushed up. When I was in Taft, they finally took one inmate to the prison hospital after he’d been sick for about a month, and he died there that night. The prison quietly cremated him the next afternoon. He had no rights while alive, and certainly none dead.
This is America, where prisoners have no rights – and where my boss Marc Emery will be in all likelihood if he gets extradited. If the DEA and Justice Department get their way it would be another travesty of the Drug War. Most Americans believe they live in the best country in the world, and America certainly has the military might, the bombs, and the bullets to invade any country our leaders choose. But what kind of country puts their citizens in jail for being black or poor, or for feeling happy? Yes, they put people in jail for being happy – smoking pot makes us happy. They put me in jail for no other reason than to make an example of a too-happy hippie. Smoking pot makes me feel good, which is why I smoke it. I believe the Grace of Mother Nature is what will save this planet of ours; Earth can heal itself now, just as it has before, and will do again. Our job as humans is to bear witness to the wonders that rule this Universe, and the best way to witness anything, I think, is to smoke the finest sensimilla, sit back, and smile at the absurdity of it all. Remember: God is a Stoner – He is known as The Most High, right? Amen, brothers and sisters! Keep smokin’.