Cheech & Chong’s Tommy Chong takes the high road, looking back on Mission: Incarceration.
By Tommy Chong
On September 11, 2003, I was sentenced to nine months in federal prison for one count of selling water pipes, or bongs if you prefer, over the Internet. A month later I was told where I would be serving my time: Taft Prison, in Taft, California.
This was good news, or at least cold- comfort news, as Taft: an old oil town-turned-prison town formerly named Moron (truth) and later, after a single-term president’s post office portrait, was a two and a half hour drive northwest from my home in Pacific Palisades, the affluent Los Angeles suburb. That meant I would be close to my wife Shelby, and our kids Paris, Gilbran, Precious, Robbi, Marcus and Rae Dawn. It at least assured me weekly visits.
The night before I was to be incarcerated was a hectic, sleepless night, with me, a person considered free-spirited by nature-trying to visualize what jail was going to be like. Up until then I was in real denial, thinking somehow “they” would realize I was being treated unjustly. Every convict is innocent, often framed, inmates like to say, but it wasn’t even my bong company that sent the so-called drug paraphernalia through the U.S. mail, thus creating the so-called “crime.” Either way, this wasn’t up for debate, and ultimately I accepted my fate.
I was being made an example of by a federal investigation with the code name Operation Pipe Dreams for being a notable stoner: “Chong” of Cheech & Chong, the anti-Establishment, joint-puffing duo who made high-comedy records and seven road-trippy Cheech & Chong films, beginning with 1978’s “Up In Smoke.” Surreally, the latter was part of the prosecutor’s case against me. They said I had made millions making fun of law enforcement. On that count, guilty as charged (though we were making fun of ourselves too).
When news of my impending jail time hit the media, Vanity Fair magazine asked to do an exclusive story, with a photo shoot and a writer coming along for the ride up to the foothills of San Joaquin Valley, home to the federal prison camp and an oil heritage museum right out of TV’s “King of the Hill.”
To do it in style, the magazine hired a limousine to take us there. Prior to our departure, the photographer shot pictures of me fully clothed, immersed in my bathtub. The limo and the writer showed up at the crack of dawn, about 4:30 AM, idling in the driveway as Shelby and I prepared for what we called “my vacation.”
I could take my computer and guitar into prison, an ex-con friend instructed me. Wrong. When I called Taft to verify, they told me I could only bring a watch and my wedding ring, a pair of plain sneakers and sweats, either plain gray or white.
As we pulled away from the house, I tried to embed in my mind some of the details of the intimate, rarefied world surrounding me: my lovely bamboo-sequestered house, my swimming pool, all the things I’d appreciated and worked hard to have.
Myra, our housekeeper, was in tears as we departed, with me thinking about the passing enclaves, wondering how many of them inside knew I was going to jail. My neighbors then included Steven Spielberg, the fabled boxer Sugar Ray Leonard, and a few noted lawyers who I’d rather not name. The house Larry David lives in on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is his actual home, and in the Palisades.
Truth was, the whole community was informed of it, as whirling helicopters had deafeningly swept down upon our rolling streets on February 23, 2003, when the DEA, along with the LAPD, fell upon our property and house that morning to bust me.
Shelby sat close to me in the car’s back seat, her body pressed against mine, as if to say, “We are one.” And we were, having never been apart for more than a few months in the three inseparable decades we’d been together. It was virgin territory for us. Shelby’s been my partner in life and often-on stage (my wife is very funny) ever since Cheech Marin and I first called it quits in 1984.
Making way too good time on I-5N, about only ten miles into the leg, the limo slowed, pulling off to the shoulder. It was priceless: We were being stopped for speeding on the way to the hoosegow. The highway patrolman walked up to the driver’s side, doing his Adam-12 routine.
“So, you do know why I’m stopping you,” he inquired in a cultivated monotone. The writer chimed in, attempting a sympathy vote by telling the officer that we were bringing Tommy Chong, “you know, from Cheech & Chong, to jail,” and were “running late.” We weren’t, really, but it sounded good.
The cop peered into the back seat, staring at Shelby and me huddled together, hardly dangerous cargo. “You Mr. Chong?” he said. “Yes,” I answered in a voice that sounded weak to my own ears. The cop took a Hollywood beat, then told the driver to carry on but now abide the speed limit. The news of our infamy didn’t likely shock him, “it’s about time,” he must have thought, but it was a break from the silence, lightening up the foggy morning air, not having been issued a ticket.
The mood, however, was short-lived. As time passed numbingly by, we finally turned off the exit into Taft, California.
Mirroring the absurdity of my situation, here are some facts about the city of Taft:
When it was first added to the map, it was named Siding Number Two, being a stop on the Sunset Railroad. Around 1900, railroad officials decided to name it Moro. But since there was already a coastal town called Morro Bay, they opted, as legend has it, to add an “n” to the name, hence, Moron, a word that as Wikipedia details, “had yet to have associations with mental retardation.” There was thereafter a Moron Pharmacy, and the like. The name didn’t stick, though, as the Post Master General later refused to license a zip code for a place known as Moron.
Today in Taft, there is an “Oildorado” festival held every five years. Use your imagination. I would have fit in fine as a free man in Taft, a city in which its male citizens during the winter months are expected to grow bushy beards. If any man chooses to go clean-shaven, he is made to wear a bolo tie or lapel called a “Smooth Puss Badge,” to get him in line with the program.
The city, now known for its prison (and others in nearby Bakersfield), is also famous for being a meth-hed hot-bed. Meth users comprise twenty-one percent of its population, according to census figures. The barren terrain has hosted Hollywood-ites besides me, with films such as “Five Easy Pieces,” “Thelma and Louise” and “Meteor” having been shot on location there. Legend has it that Taft Prison Camp was built over a toxic oil holding zone.
As the limo drove through the dry town’s main street toward the prison entrance on Cadet Road, I told the driver to stop in a roadside taco stand so I could change into my prison clothes: gray sweats with plain white sneakers. The writer took instamatic snapshots as I changed, donning a couple of extra pairs of underwear. I was told by a former inmate to “double-up” in case I got curtailed overnight in a holding cell. Then I’d have a fresh pair for the next day.
Doubled-up skivvies in check, I was ready to go to jail. We drove up to the federal prison, and were instantly impressed and spooked by how large the complex was, surrounded by cyclone-wire fences and imposing guard towers. It was the real deal.
A committee of prison officials and guards greeted us as we pulled up to the main gates. It was clear they could see the limo approach for about a mile. A couple of Gestapo-looking men wearing leather coats and topped with buzz-cut heads walked us up the stairs into “check-in.” Shelby was clinging to me as if she were going to prison too.
“You can say goodbye here,” said one of the prison officials. Shelby began to cry. This was the moment we both dreaded, the moment we knew we actually were going to be separated for nine months. The official patiently waited, as we hugged and cried, then reassured Shelby by saying, “You can talk to him everyday…they have cell phones in prison.”
Shelby released me and I entered prison. It would be two weeks before I was actually fully integrated into the system, and before I could call home (not from a cell phone), and almost a month before I had my first visit, and my first hug.
Tommy Chong, the author of the memoir “I, Chong,” has reunited with Cheech Marin, and are both touring currently and making a new “Cheech and Chong” film.