Prison Legal News Interviews Former Prisoner and Famous Actor Danny Trejo
PLN editor and founder Paul Wright caught up with Danny in February 2011 in Marina del Rey, California for this interview. More of a chat over brunch than a formal interview (we edited out banter with the waitress and comments about the food), Danny was the consummate interviewee and spoke candidly about his life path, his views on the criminal justice system and the need for reform.
The interview was interrupted several times by fans, especially children, who wanted his autograph. Danny is a gracious and cheerful celebrity who enjoys and respects his many fans.
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PAUL WRIGHT: So you’re saying you were state raised?
DANNY TREJO: You know, juvenile hall, juvenile youth authority camp, penitentiary.
PW: And you were born here in LA?
DT: Right here in Los Angeles.
PW: What year were you born in?
PW: According to the Internet Movie Database, they can’t seem to figure out how many movies you’ve actually been in.
DT: About 200.
PW: So you don’t know the number either.
DT: I don’t need to read scripts. I just show up, like, what do I do.
PW: Well, that’s pretty good. At this point you’re basically the most prolific and recognized actor in America. Unless they live in a cave, if someone goes to the movies they know who you are.
DT: I was in Capetown, South Africa, and a van pulled up right to our set where we were filming, we were at a high school and all these kids came running across the campus, and I’m looking [saying] “who’s here, who’s here?” And the driver says, “you, Mr. Trejo.” And all these kids recognize me from Spy Kids and Bubble Boy, and different movies that I’ve been in, and now with the Internet anybody that knows how to use a computer can see any movie they want. The rating system now is like the stupidest thing in the world because if Johnny who’s 12 has a DVD every kid in the world is gonna have a DVD. I’ve got nine, ten-year-old kids that [say] “I love you in Machete.”
PW: What about in Mexico or Latin America?
DT: In Mexico it’s funny because we premiered Machete down there. And in the paper they said I was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ.
PW: That’s pretty high praise, to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ.
DT: It was so weird, and my son Gilbert, he’s 23 years old today. He’s going to direct me in a movie, just now he directed me in a video, he’s a punk/rock fan, and then he said, “Dad, you’re as popular as the Beatles down there now.” But when I showed it to my mom, she said that’s blasphemy. And that’s a Catholic country. But they love me down there.
PW: Well, my mom, she’s 71 and she was asking me “why are you going to Los Angeles.” And I say I’m going to interview Danny Trejo. And she says, “El es el actor mas famoso del mundo.” [He’s the most famous actor in the world]. My mom’s 71 and she’s a fan too. It sounds like your fan base is pretty spread across.
DT: My mom’s 85 and I took her to the preview of Machete and I didn’t really want her to see me with the two broads in the pool. And Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino were sitting right behind us. So when the scene’s coming up I said “mom, you might not wanna watch this,” and she said “callate” [be quiet], she loved it.
PW: Where do you live?
DT: I live out in the San Fernando valley. I used to live here in Venice, I used to manage some apartments here. And my mom hurt her knee, her knee’s bad so she can’t really get around. So I got a house near her. I asked her if she wanted me to move in, she said no, no, no, noise and shit. So I got a house near her. And it’s funny ‘cause I live with Mario, another guy named Max. Mario I actually met in San Quentin, when I was doing Blood In Blood Out. I was doing the film; he was a resident, he had a five-year lease, so we hit it up. I talked to him about staying clean, staying sober, and then when he got out he kind of looked us up and he’s been clean fourteen years. So you know, we just do whatever we can.... My kids still live here, my daughter. Her mom had two other kids after we split up, with her husband, and then they split up. One of her sons is autistic, my daughter moved back in with her to help her. And then Gilbert he still lives here with his girlfriend, and my big boy Danny Boy he lives in Lompoc because his mom has hepatitis C real bad. I think it’s a real compliment to me that they really take care of their moms. I’m just really proud of all of them. I’m really blessed....
I’m not supposed to be in a tank top in a restaurant. My partner Eddie Bunker, he would always say that I’d say I have rights. He’d say yeah, but other people have rights too. He did twenty years in Quentin, he’s a writer.
PW: I know, he is arguably one of the best convict writers of the 20th century.
DT: And he used to be my mentor. He got me into films, he got me into the movies.
PW: So you went to prison, when did you start using drugs?
DT: My uncle turned me on to grass when I was eight years old. And it’s funny, when I say that to like a normal citizen they’re kind of appalled. But I say that to a convict, they say okay we know.
PW: That’s our world.
DT: He got me loaded. I threatened to snitch on him if he didn’t give me a fix, I was about 12. And from then on it was just whatever drugs were available.
PW: When did you first go to prison?
DT: I went to camp in ‘59, I got out of there and I went to prison and I went back in ‘62, I got out and I went to the joint in ‘65.
PW: What did you go to prison for?
DT: Actually the last time I went to the joint it was for selling four ounces of pure sugar to a federal agent.
PW: They really get pissed off when you sell them that.
DT: Let me tell you something. Guys that sold heroin were going home before me. They would write the board every time....
PW: The cops are pissed off because you’re ripping them off.
DT: And I didn’t give them back the money. It was only about seven grand but I buried it in my mom’s back yard along with some pistols, a sawed-off shotgun and a hand grenade. I carried them all to my mom’s ‘cause I knew. Once I saw this guy get away I knew. I said, “You know that guy’s a cop.” And he said, “Well I’ve got the money.” I remember [sending] letters, saying mom don’t do any work in the back.
PW: How far did you get in school?
DT: I got my high school diploma in the joint, you know what I mean, and that’s a funny story ’cause all my life everyone’s been telling me I have to have a high school diploma to get a good job.
PW: And you never had to use it once.
DT: When I got into the joint my homies said, “Hey Danny you gotta get into dry cleaning, it’s the best job in the joint. You could press your clothes.” So I put in a ducket for the dry cleaning and I got it back: “This trade requires a high school diploma.” So it all comes back, you know.
PW: And which prisons were you in?
DT: I was in San Quentin, Folsom, Soledad, Vacaville, Susanville, Sierra.
PW: This was back when California didn’t have that many prisons.
DT: And Susanville and Sierra were conservation camps. Susanville’s a joint.
PW: They’ve got four joints in Susanville now.
DT: Oh they do? They used to just have two. It’s hard to say. Prison was an adventure, you know. I’ve got my little cousin right now who I’m trying to get out. He went to the joint when he was 17, and that was 1980. He just got denied another three. So he’s got about what, 32 years.
PW: That’s a lot of time.
DT: Yeah, poor baby.
PW: These were all short stints?
DT: The last jolt was 5 years.
PW: At one point you were doing armed robberies?
DT: Yeah, we were doing robberies. You do robberies for your drugs. That’s the way my uncle taught me.
PW: I just did armed robberies for the money, so I didn’t have the excuse. I didn’t like working too much.
DT: Well you had no excuse [laughter].
PW: I read a great quote, something like, “When I was growing up Chicano in Los Angeles my choices were be a drug dealer or a laborer so I decided to do armed robberies and cut to the chase.”
DT: Yeah, that was it. And you know it’s so weird, like now, things are like a little different in the joint simply because you’ve got that three strikes law here.
PW: I was going to ask you about that, what are your views? Would you have been three struck?
DT: I asked my attorney, he said you’d have had about four [strikes], you’re done. But the three strikes law is the best thing that ever happened for the California penal system. It’s the worst thing that ever happened for inmates.
PW: Well, I think it’s bad for taxpayers too.
DT: Even the guy that wrote the law says it’s being misused. And what they’ve done, they’ve taken all the power away from the judge and put it in the DA’s hands. So you’re going against a stacked deck from the gate. Your adversary, your opponent has all the cards. And you’re coming, he’s got all the cards, this is the deal we’ll make for you if you’ll take this and this. My stepson right now, they just offered him 32 years (he’s 18, went in at 16).
PW: And this is what passes for a plea bargain these days.
DT: They’ve taken all the power from the judge and put it in the DA’s hands, it’s the worst thing that’s ever happened. California, its prison population has to be up just so much. Now they’ve stacked the deck, it’s always up. I remember when you were in the joint, out of 500 inmates maybe you had 3 or 4 lifers. Now you’ve got 200. Life used to be for armed robbery, murder, [something] heinous....
PW: Now you’ve got guys doing life for stealing a slice of pizza or golf clubs.
DT: Yeah, so you’ve got guys doing life for nothing. When I go up there, there’s a whole lot more despair, just because....
PW: Do you go to prisons now?
DT: Oh yeah, any one I can. I’ve been to prisons all over the U.S., because if I’m doing a film I’ll always have them find me a prison to go in.
PW: Do you meet with groups? What kind?
DT: AA, NA, CA or just a pre-release, any ward that’ll have me.
PW: After you got out of prison in ‘69, and you went to work as a substance abuse counselor?
DT: First I worked in a junkyard, in a wrecking yard, and then me and Danny Lebatoff started a gardening business which worked out really, really fucking well. Neither one of us knew a fucking thing, we didn’t even have a lawnmower. Someone wanted us to mow their lawn, we’d say okay, you have a lawnmower, we’d use theirs.
PW: So you’re doing landscaping without the lawnmower?
DT: Yeah, and I was also just doing a lot of volunteer work. You know, talking at schools, doing whatever I could. And this organization called the Narcotics Prevention Project heard about me and a guy named Jimmy Gene, who was also an ex-convict, [and] offered me a job. So I went to work for them and they saw that I was kind of articulate and I was the court liaison for a while, then I was the hospital coordinator. And the NPP was one of the first substance abuse programs here in LA other than Synanon and those beat-you-down kinds of....
PW: They still around? Seems like all the good programs don’t make it.
DT: What happens a lot of times is peoples’ egos start going, “I’m saving all these people.” And all of a sudden they veer off the path. Only reason you’re here is ‘cause of them, it’s not about you. And I’ve found in the 42 years that I’ve been doing this thing that any program that doesn’t adhere to the close steps of recovery that come out of AA and NA seem to fail. And not so much because that’s the only way but because what you’re doing is giving up your ego and saying this is the way I’m staying clean, it’s not my fortitude and it’s not my machismo. This is the way. But you know you just keep coming back. The first time I was introduced to AA was 1959. Once you know about it, it’s always there, it’s always an alternative. I honestly think they should start teaching kids about drug and alcohol abuse in the 3rd grade, saying this is not good behavior. Kids don’t have sex class until the 6th grade, by then they’ve had sex.
Los Angeles city schools are probably the worst in the world. Huge babysitting. My son hated school, got in trouble, got in trouble. They thought he had ADD so they put him on medication, so he started doing more drugs. I had to go to court with him. He had drugs and paraphernalia, he had tagging and chronic truancy. So when I walked into court, I looked at the judge, she looked at me. She said, “Mr. Trejo let’s get one thing straight right now: Heat is my favorite movie of all time.” So she says, “Here’s the deal, I have to place him, he has three charges. You find a facility that he cannot run away from” – ‘cause he was a rabbit, he would run – “and he will not have a criminal record whatsoever.” Her placement was youth authority. So I found a placement in Provo Canyon. I took him off that medication and I took him to Provo. And he made it through 10th, 11th and half of the 12th grade. They found out he didn’t have ADD, he had an IQ of 165, he was a fucking genius.
They found out he had this ridiculous IQ. I said why are you doing so good here? He said, “They said I could get out.” It’s the motivation. And he’s already directed me in a film. He’s 23 years old of age. He’s never seen me drunk, he’s never seen me loaded.
PW: How long have you been sober?
DT: 42 years.
PW: There’s a lot of substance abuse in prison, 80-90% of people in prison have substance abuse problems. And in the film industry a lot of people have drug and alcohol problems.
DT: If you took out all the nonviolent drug offenders in the California penal system, it’d probably drop by about 60%.
PW: When I look at the numbers, I think it’s one of those things. Just because people aren’t in prison for drug offenses, when you start thinking about how many people are in prison indirectly for drugs, then that’s a lot more people.
DT: And you’re kind of unique, doing armed robberies professionally for armed robberies. Most armed robberies are out of necessity.
PW: What was it like doing time in the 60s?
DT: I always say it was an adventure, ‘cause every morning I’d get up and it was an adventure. It was a lot different. There wasn’t as much violence, even though you cross somebody you might get killed, there wasn’t the north, south, Mexican deal, there was a real thin line as far as Mexicans, blacks and whites. You know the whites tied up with the Mexicans because there wasn’t a lot of them that would kill. A lot of them got more sex. They have less sex now. The Latinos and the blacks have always been fighting though. They’re fighting for the bottom. In prison, in the 60s, the whites would tie up with the Mexicans, because they didn’t like the black dudes. And a lot of us grew up, San Francisco, the northern Mexicans are a little different, a lot of them grow up closer to blacks. But the early 70s, they were really bad.
PW: Just out of curiosity, did you know George Jackson?
DT: Yeah, George, he was in Soledad. I don’t want to sound racist.... One of the things that happened is in Soledad, in any joint, if you were a black man who ripped off my cell and I was a white guy I went and killed you. You understood, we were in the game, whoever’s in the game, you know what I mean. There were certain guys that were in the game, there were other guys that weren’t. So you didn’t walk with the booger eaters or the crazies.... Well the thing about George Jackson, Yogi Pinell, those guys, what they did, they started like indiscriminately killing white guys. It didn’t become like, all white guys, or all black guys, it didn’t do that ’till the seventies. That’s when he was like, “the white man,” just completely against anybody that was white. And so when the Mexicans got involved, it was because they were just running down the tier, I think they stabbed about 6 or 7 guys in Soledad, but none of them were really in the game. A couple of them didn’t even really know why they were there, why they were in prison. So that was when the Mexicans just started going crazy too, going after them.
PW: Did you do seg time when you were in prison?
DT: Oh, yeah. In ’68, I went to the hole on May 5th, Cinco de Mayo. I went to the hole, I got out in August. And me and Ray Pacheco and Henry Quijada, we had three gas chamber offenses. It was alleged that I hit Lt. Gibbons in the head with a rock. It was alleged that Ray Pacheco socked a free person. By the grace of god, Lt. Gibbons, I think he knew I didn’t throw the rock at him. I just threw a rock. And he said, ’cause I remember him looking at me like this and leaning and looking at me, I think in his report he said he didn’t know who threw the rock, one of them threw the rock. And then the free person that Ray attacked, they couldn’t find him to bring him into court. So basically it was a reject, they just kicked it. And I came out of the hole in August. When I was in the hole I kind of dedicated my life to helping other people. It was like kind of like the culmination of my life, everything, how cool I was, all the teachers that wrote [I had] a lot of potential, charismatic, all that shit. It all culminated to being in the hole in Soledad, looking at a wall that somebody smeared shit and wrote “God Sucks” in human feces, and I’m butt naked, like this is me, that moment of clarity.
When I was seven years old, me and my dad built my dog a doghouse, and it had a window and it had a carpet. And I stood there, I remembered building that doghouse, and this is me. Fucking ridiculous.
I had socked a guy through a window, this guy who had ratted on us. He was at the window block of my cell, [saying] “fuck you, fuck you” through the metal door. I punched him. And bam, all the way through that window. I throw my hand out, the little wire, ooh got me, ripped it, and I remember saying, “God if you’re there, it’s gonna be okay. But if you’re not, I’m fucked.” And the guard came by and said, “Trejo, let me see your hand.” And for me to stick my hand through it, is like stupid. Bam! But I put my hand through there and he said, “I’ll get the MTA down there.” I was still bleeding all over the cell. I tied a rag around it so it wouldn’t bleed so much, it was literally I shattered a bone. About twenty minutes later, I figure he’s just fucking with me, he comes down and I couldn’t put handcuffs on so he’s like just start walking. And he’s gonna beat my ass, I know it’s a set up. He took me right up to the infirmary and stitched it up and I went back down and I stayed there till August, went to court and it was a DA reject so they let us go back to the yard. I became, I was the first inmate social catalyst. And inmates would report to me on problems they were having.... I was the first one that CDOC ever had.
Peterson was the counselor that was trying this. And what he said was that he needed someone strong enough to be able to talk to the man and not get a rat jacket. So inmates were confiding their problems. And I think for the first time in my life, I kind of enjoyed being of service.
PW: When you were in prison, sitting in that cell looking at “God Sucks” smeared on the wall, did you ever think you would have the life you have now?
DT: I honestly believed that, I mean did you ever dream? I don’t think I had any dreams; my life ambition was to be the welterweight boxing champion of San Quentin.
PW: Which you were, right?
DT: So OK, I made it. No, I didn’t have any dreams of this, it was completely beyond the realm of possibility. Especially getting out ... my ambition was to stay out a year! See if I can make this parole, that was like the dream.
PW: There’s a lot to be said for having modest ambitions.
DT: Now, one of my favorite sayings is I would rather shoot for the moon and miss than aim for the gutter and make it. That’s out of the book of Danny, psalm 7.
PW: And how did you get into the movie business?
DT: By accident. I was a drug counselor, and I was working with this kid who was about 17 or 18 years old. And he would call me and say, “Hey, I’m doing this, I’m doing that.” One night he called me and he was in tears. “I’ve got a hundred and eight days clean and I think I’m gonna get loaded.” I said, “Well come on over and we’ll watch Johnny Carson.” And he was like, “Man, I’m working, can you come down to my job.” It was in the warehouse district, I thought he worked in a warehouse. I thought we were gonna sit out in the parking lot on his break, and smoke. You know, drink coffee and smoke, and after the break he was going to go in and everyone was going to think we were gay, you know two guys sitting out there. And it wasn’t, he was on the set of a movie called Runaway Train with Jon Voight. I walked onto the set and everybody started staring at me. A guy comes up and says, “Hey do you wanna be in this movie?” He says, “You wanna be an extra?” I say, “An extra what?” And he says, “Can you act like a convict?” And I say, “I’ll give it a shot.”
PW: They didn’t know anything about you?
DT: They didn’t know anything about me. Gave me a blue shirt, took off my shirt to put it on, and the minute I took off my shirt I’ve got that big tattoo....
PW: Which I think has been voted the most recognizable tattoo in the world?
DT: International Tattoo Magazine says its the most recognizable tattoo in the world.
PW: So at that point Eddie Bunker was already in the film industry because he had already published a couple books.
DT: And it had already been made into a movie called Straight Time, with Dustin Hoffman. Well, I met Eddie. Remember when Dustin Hoffman goes to meet Eddie in that bar, and there’s a robbery, and Dustin, Eddie says, “Who’s your wheelman?” And this guy, in real life, that was my uncle going to Eddie Bunker, meeting him and saying, “Who’s your driver?” My nephew – I’m about 14.
PW: So art imitates life, life imitates art.
DT: He says, “Are you still boxing?” I like train now, I’m in great shape. He’s like, “We need somebody to train one of the actors how to box.” They were gonna give me fifty bucks for acting like a convict ... and then I think twenty a day.
PW: And this was the 1980s.
DT: Yeah, I was like, “How bad do you want this guy to be beat up?” I’d have done it for another fifty bucks. Eric Roberts was scared... And he never learned how to box so he did whatever I told him. The director had problems with them and he saw that I had the influence. “You fight with Eric in movie.” I didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about. All I knew is they were gonna give me 320 bucks. The director was a Russian, Andrei Konchalovsky. After the first day I trained Eric they had no problem with him. At first he was a little tired, secondly he wanted to learn how to fight. I would take him to the gym.
So the director comes up and says, “You come tomorrow, you work tomorrow.” And then he kissed me on both cheeks, and then he walks away. And I’m like, “This sucker has me teaching this guy how to fight for $320, but if we’re gonna keep kissing each other....” I’d never been with a European.... I don’t care, kisses are gonna cost money. Andrei Konchalovsky, his family were Russian aristocrats. His grandfathers wrote Russian anthems, he has artwork hanging in the Louvre. So he’d never run into anybody like [me].
PW: And obviously one movie turned into another, and another and another.
DT: You know, the first five years of my career, I never even had a name. I was always “inmate number 1.”
PW: You approached your film career as just, keep working. And I think it’s interesting that some of the most successful actors, like Gene Hackman, have said the same thing. Some people say “we need the special role” or whatever. So obviously those are very different approaches to take to a film career.
DT: Right away, I’m starring or I’d never be working, neither would they! It’s just so funny, because I was interviewed one time and they asked, “Don’t you get tired of that? ... Oh it’s the mean Mexican guy with the tattoo.” And I’m like, “I am the mean Mexican guy, what are you talking about?”
PW: I think that’s common. I read an interview with Ed O’Neal, they asked him the same thing. After all those years on Married With Children, don’t you worry about being typecast? And he said, “Well I actually make a lot of money being typecast.” Have you faced any barriers or obstacles getting out, being an ex-con and stuff?
DT: I think I see barriers and obstacles as part of living. Bill Gates is a multi, multi, multi-billionaire, I’m sure he faces obstacles.
PW: Well he came from a family of privilege. His dad was already a wealthy corporate lawyer when Bill Gates went to college, so he could afford to drop out.
DT: It’s only a problem or obstacle if it sends me back to the joint. If I work my way through it, it just makes me stronger, anything that doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. Getting a driver’s license was a fucking obstacle.
PW: How’s the film industry when it comes to employing ex-prisoners? Is it, as long as you do the work?
DT: Exactly. I think society in general don’t care as long as you do the work.
PW: I’m from Florida and I go down and hang out with my relatives and friends, a lot of them are from Mexico, and they ask, “How can these Americans say they have problems finding work when they speak English and they have papers.” And that’s a little bit of perspective....
DT: I worked in a wrecking yard, and me and Danny Lebatoff, we gotta make some money. So we knock on doors....
PW: No one wants to ask you if you’re ex-cons.
DT: And I have found that everything good that’s happened to me has happened as a direct result of helping someone else. I mean everything. If I hadn’t gone down to that kid I wouldn’t be in the movie industry today.
PW: You’d still be a drug counselor.
DT: Which isn’t a bad job but I’m still a drug counselor. For Western Pacific Med Corps. in Glendale. We have twelve detox clinics all across Southern California. I still work there. I do a lot more public relations now than actual counseling.
PW: What’s your favorite movie of all the movies you’ve been in, which is over 200?
DT: Probably Machete. Besides being the lead, I would’ve liked that movie even if I wasn’t in it. After that it was Heat [Ed. note: Which also starred Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Val Kilmer].
PW: Robert Rodriguez, he’s your second cousin. But you didn’t find out he was your second cousin until after you’d already started making movies.
DT: We hit it off like that. He was already down here when he was shooting Desperado. What’s that restaurant at 26 Market Street? But Robert, that was his office when he was casting. I walked into the office and he said, “You remind me of the bad guys in my high school.” And I said, “I am the bad guys in your high school.”
PW: That’s a great line. When I was growing up I used to go down and spend the summers in Mexico with my family. Me and my cousins, we’d go to the theater, and these were the Mexican equivalent of the blaxploitation movies. Have you ever seen El Apando, Camelia la Texana, the Mexican prison and gangster movies? Me and my cousins, we’d be 8, 9, 10 years old and get popcorn and stuff. And when I saw Machete I was like, this is a 2010 version of those great movies we used to watch in Mexico.
Given your experience, both firsthand, having been in prison and your own experience with addiction and all your many decades now helping other people with their addictions, what are your feelings on the war on drugs? I hate using the term because it’s not a war on drugs, it’s a war on poor drug users. But when you got out of prison in ’69 there were half as many people locked up.
DT: First of all, I believe in conspiracy theories, there’s all kinds of them. If we would win the war on drugs, if they would eradicate drugs out of the United States, then about a million cops and prison officers are out of jobs. The war on drugs is more for public calm, public safety, public reassurance, to tell the public....
PW: Public theater.
DT: But the reality is like, and I’m not an advocate of legalizing drugs. I wish they’d legalize marijuana, it’s like fuck it, it’s OK, it’s legal.
PW: Why don’t you think drugs should be legalized?
DT: I don’t know, I don’t think I’m learning yet to figure out a way to show the public that if we legalize drugs there would be this many drug addicts. You would completely put drug cartels, you’d put them all out of the business.
PW: What do you think about when voters turned down the ballot initiative to legalize marijuana here in California?
DT: You got to remember, the three strike law was passed because of Arnold Schwarzenegger. The three strikes law was being defeated, and who was that, the prison guards union got to Schwarzenegger and he got going [funny accent], “if you vote for this, there will be bad men and rapists....” So he literally scared the shit out of people. Worst governor we have ever had besides Ronald Reagan.
PW: Well, Ronald Reagan, he’s the one who enacted trailer visits here in California. So at least we can say that of him.
DT: There’ve been some big mistakes made now, and they can’t repeal the three strikes law because there’d be too many people coming out of prison, but it’s sad to see how many people we have in prison.
PW: As an actor you travel around the world. It always amazes people in other countries that with 5% of the world’s population the United States has 25% of the world’s prisoners. It’s not like we have more crooks or anything else.
DT: I honestly believe that our prison system is tied directly to our educational system. All the kids that are doing bad in school. I go to CYA and I say, “How many people have a high school education?” Out of 100, maybe 5, maybe 6.
PW: There’s a criminologist in Harvard named Bruce Western, he’s done a lot of research on this, and he does really cutting edge work. His research, what he says is the biggest correlation has nothing to do with race and class, the biggest correlation is a high school diploma. Ironically politicians are defunding our education system while they pump money into the prison system, and if it was the other way around....
DT: The teachers’ union, the teachers’ union is probably the best thing that ever happened to teachers, probably the worst thing that ever happened to students.
PW: And you could say that the prison guards union is probably the best thing that’s ever happened to prison guards and the worst thing that’s happened to California taxpayers.
DT: Good point. I mean, we’re earmarked for ten more prisons in the next 5 or 6 years.
PW: Well, they don’t want to let anyone out. It’s not that people are committing more crimes, the crime rate’s going down, but people are going to prison and they’re staying a lot longer.
DT: And the price of people being in prison is twice as much as giving them an education!
PW: Actually it’s a lot more than that. I do a lot of public speaking and I was speaking at Yale, and I asked the professor – in fact I’m speaking at USC tomorrow night – and I was at Yale, I asked one of the professors, “How much does it cost to go here?” And she said, “Undergrads that’s 42 grand a year.” And I say, “Wow, 42 grand a kid, that’s 42 grand on the hoof here.” But then you think about it, in a state like California, when you factor in all the costs, plus the bond issues they spent to build the prison, you could be sending them to Yale. And no one’s talking about doing that.
DT: You used to be able to get a bachelor’s degree. Schwarzenegger took that out.
PW: Bill Clinton’s the one that eliminated Pell grants for prisoners at the national level in the mid-90s. And after that pretty much all the states followed suit. Ironically the only state where prisoners can get a college education is Texas, which is totally bizarre. And I think San Quentin has a university program but that’s privately funded, it’s not taxpayer money.
What are your views on the death penalty? In California they go years without executing people, people are dying of old age on death row.
DT: This is what comes to mind. Richard Ramirez, people who have committed heinous crimes. But that’s a tough one. I was in youth authority with a kid who later got executed, and he went 16 or 17 years and he got killed.
PW: He was executed?
DT: Yeah. And then Tookie Williams. He stayed on death row so long, people try to make him out a hero. He assassinated 2 people.
PW: I think it was four.
DT: You say, wait a minute. I knew some of the guys that knew him. He wanted to be a gangster. So it’s real hard for me to get past that. You know I found Jesus too.
PW: One of the interviews I saw, you have a great line about rappers and street cred.
DT: Well, it’s like if you didn’t get your street cred back in the day, forget about it, you’re an entertainer.
PW: If you’re not an OG, you’re....
DT: And I think, these guys all want to be some kind of gangster, guys buying machine guns. Armed robbers don’t need machine guns. To be able to say I’ve got one, that’s ego. And real gangsters don’t want anybody to know they’re gangsters. So when I see all these phonies walking around out there talking about killing cops, it’s such bullshit man, shut up.
PW: If you had one thing to tell people in prison right now, what would it be?
DT: I think education is the key to anything you wanna do.
PW: Even if you get that high school diploma that you don’t wind up using?
DT: It doesn’t matter, it means you got it. You know what I do now, producing movies, and I have a job and 30 people show up. I’m not gonna interview 30 motherfuckers. I’m gonna say, “How many of you have a high school diploma?” So maybe five of them raise their hands, so I just eliminated 25 people. They eliminated themselves by not wanting to get that high school diploma because they didn’t think it was important enough, they thought all the shit that everybody was telling them was bullshit. So I don’t want that guy or person working for me. Not that they might not be qualified, it’s just my mind tells me they didn’t listen to everybody. Even me, I was in San Quentin trying to get a job. I mean fuck. I’ve got a high school diploma. So that’d be it. I’d rather shoot for the moon and miss than shoot for the gutter and make it.
PW: Is that a Danny Trejo original?
DT: Yeah, another one is when in doubt, do the classy thing. And it just seems to work out. Everything good that’s ever happened to me has happened as a direct result of helping someone else. Everything.
PW: That’s fantastic. Those are all the questions I have.
DT: Give me your card, I want to keep in touch, I want to read Prison Legal News.