Posted by: Bill Tracy | April 28, 2010

Hold the Cheese, Please

Treat a man as he is and he will remain as he is. Treat a man as he can and should be and he will become as he can and should be.

-J. von Goethe

Who Moved My Cheese?

The 1998 best selling book Who Moved My Cheese? Perhaps its simplistic message is one the California government needs to hear.

If you were around the business world in the late nineties, you might recall a book called, Who Moved My Cheese? Published in 1998, it lingered long on the best seller list while management types gobbled it up. Subtly adopting the “rat race” view of the working world, the book portrays workers and managers as mice looking for cheese. Its simplistic message is that when the cheese runs out you have to go find more. The cheese always runs out, circumstances always change, and we must adapt to the change or fail, or so the book says. The author, Spencer Johnson, portrays workers not only as little rats but rats that don’t have sense enough to look for more food when the pantry is empty. Sales estimates for this mountaintop wisdom run somewhere between five million and 25 million copies. Here in California, in 2010, we’ve now found out who moved the cheese. It was Robert Preston Ferguson, master criminal and a man now known internationally as the “cheese thief.” Apparently, knowing who moved the cheese isn’t enough though. There’s more to it. The irony of this seems lost on the California criminal justice system.

On January 6 of this year, a jury of his peers convicted Ferguson of the felony crime “petty theft with priors” for having concealed a $4 bag of Tillamook shredded cheese in his pants and walking out of the store without paying his respects to the cashier. This is the crime that made him infamous. He was also guilty on another count of the same charge for having snatched a woman’s wallet in a convenience store when she turned to attend to her sick child. Yep, Ferguson is a criminal, no doubt about it. The District Attorney in Yolo County, rabid with righteousness and ambition as are nearly all of his ilk, was pressing for 25 years-to-life under California’s pernicious three strikes law. Ferguson, somewhere around age 53 has spent 22 of the past 27 years in prison based on 13 prior convictions, most burglaries, none of them violent. In prison talk, he’s “doing life on the installment plan.”

Shredded Cheese

This is a different brand but the same type package of shredded cheese that Ferguson stole from a California food store. People have been given life terms for stealing less in this state. Ferguson probably thinks he's lucky to only have to exchange seven years of his life for the $4 package of cheese.

I know Ferguson. I may or may not know Robert Ferguson personally, but after working with prison inmates for nearly 10 years, I know thousands like him. These are people trapped in a vicious web of political deceits, an apathetic, even narcissistic citizenry and their own psychological institutionalization. Their lives are being sucked dry sure as a spider sucks the juices of a fly caught in his web. Ferguson, first is mentally ill. The psychological evaluation to help determine sentence says he’s bipolar. Second, he is a product of the “correction” afforded by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation over 22 years. The rules, behaviors and values that enable you to survive in prison are not the ones that make you successful on the outside. Matter of fact, they are quite different, sometimes even antithetical.

A fundamental rule of prison survival is amoral opportunism. Always be on the lookout for opportunity, and seize it immediately when it shows up. If a guard or a staff person turns his back on a set of keys or a pair of scissors, you snatch them, put them down your pants and go looking for a good place to hide this treasure. After 22 prison years, that value is ingrained, and Ferguson has little choice when a woman in a store turns her back on her wallet to deal with a sick child. It’s simply habit meeting opportunity. He’s grabbing it and heading for the door. In 22 years of prison, no one ever told him this was wrong. Only the “lames” on the outside would let such an opportunity pass. Ferguson has learned his lessons well. To expect him to instantly change his behavior when he walks out the prison gate is not realistic.

Based apparently on Ferguson’s psychological evaluation, the judge declined to three-strike him, to put him away for life. Ferguson got seven years. So, the state of California over the next seven years will spend somewhere between $125,000 and $750,000 to keep Ferguson away from Tillamook cheese. I think Tillamook is pretty good cheese, but not that good. California isn’t getting the cheese message.

The “Who Moved My Cheese” book is often summarized in a few general rules:

  1. Change happens.
  2. They keep moving the cheese.
  3. Anticipate change.
  4. Monitor change.
  5. Adapt to change quickly.
  6. Move with the cheese.
  7. Smell the cheese often so you know when it is getting old.
  8. Be ready to change quickly and enjoy it again and again.

California must not have read the book. The cheese got really stinky and moved a long time ago here, and the people running the government don’t realize it. The government says by June of this year, the state will be spending $40 billion it doesn’t have. Around $10 billion is being spent every year to keep master criminals like Robert Preston Ferguson out of the deli department. Meanwhile, schools don’t have enough money to operate, and colleges and universities have to raise tuition beyond what ordinary citizens can pay. Yet the “law & order” fantasy crowd still demands people like Ferguson be kept in prison. They don’t have the money to support him in prison, but they want him there anyway. Ferguson and 170,000 other people are resident in California prisons; another 150,000 or so are on parole or under some kind of criminal justice supervision. The prisons are so overstuffed with people, the federal government has ordered the state to release inmates as a solution. Truth is, most of these people we’re imprisoning are sick, like Ferguson, and should be cared for in a way that will address their healing – something that would surely cost less than 35,000 prison guards and 5000-volt electric fences on a 24/7 basis at 33 prisons.

Tillamook County Creamery Association

According to the Wikipedia site, this is the Tillamook County Creamery Association building near Tillamook, Oregon. They make pretty good cheese, worth doing a seven-year prison stretch, says California "cheese thief" Robert Preston Ferguson.

Prison has become society’s “problem child” baby sitter, but it’s one we can’t afford. Ferguson and the people like him are essentially incapable of functioning normally in society. Most are mentally ill in one way or another, and many require medications to keep them reasonably stable. The majority is drug addicted. Almost none have education or work skills that could enable them to be self-supporting. Most have been in “the system” for years and, like Ferguson, have adopted wholesale the values of prison. So, what’s the answer, if not prison?

I keep thinking of a quote from the 1950s television show, Highway Patrol. The gruff Broderick Crawford plays Highway Patrol Chief Dan Mathews. When someone suggests he doesn’t have any faith that a persistent criminal can be rehabilitated, he says:

“I’ve seen a hundreds like him. They’re all alike. They’re from broken homes, crazy parents. They start off by stealing penny candy, then it gets bigger. So we put ‘em in jail, and they serve their time, we put ‘em back in jail. It’s a merry-go-round. Maybe jail’s not the answer, but that’s all we’ve got.”

Looks like 50 years later, it’s still all we’ve got. It’s not a new problem. If there is a solution, California surely hasn’t found it. Maybe they should hire Ferguson as a consultant – at least he knows how to find the cheese when it gets moved.


  1. “…I know Ferguson. I may or may not know Robert Ferguson personally, but after working with prison inmates for nearly 10 years, I know thousands like him….”
    Well, sir I DO know Bobby Ferguson personally. This is a person who has committed thousands of burglaries in his short time as a free man. He once tried to set his grandmother up to get robbed. She worked as a cashier in a popular restaurant, and took the daily receipts to the night drop at the bank. He stated that he “didn’t want to rob his granny”, but had no problem with someone else doing it, as long as he got a cut.

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