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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Big House -- July 22, 2009

They do not call this prison the "Big House" for no reason. The cell house I live in is five stories high, has 150 cells, and is almost as long as a football field. The building itself has approximately 600 cells, and is longer than a Chicago city block. Decades ago, the building was split down the center, and in the 1990s, the building was again divided. Thus, there are now four general population cell houses, which house about 1,200 prisoners.

The first penitentiary I was sent to was Pontiac Correctional Center. Pontiac has one building that is designed exactly like the general population cell houses in Stateville. Upon entering the building, I was overwhelmed by the sheer size of the structure. Level upon level of cells went upward some 50 feet. Horizontally, cells continued farther than I could see. The blaring noise from hundreds of radios, televisions, and shouting voices was horrendous. I was initially glad to get into my own cage, which although barren, I felt as if I could hide away from the madness. However, the sound did not dissipate, and I came to realize this hellish place would be my home.

I was only in that cell for about a week. All prisons have an orientation process, and after completing it, I was moved to another area of the building. My new cell had curtains, cardboard furniture, a stereo system with multiple speakers, a hammock, a floor carpet, a wood framed glass mirror, and neatly painted beige walls. These belongings were all my cell mate's because I had nothing but the shirt on my back, and the natural life sentence that the judge had recently smitten me with. The curtains made out of thick woven blankets helped block out the blaring noises of the cell house. I soon bought some high tech stereo headphones with large insulating donut pads to keep the noise further at bay. In your cell, with the curtains closed, you could shut out the zoo that existed beyond, to some extent, and I was surprised to learn that life in prison was more comfortable than at the Cook County Jail.

I came to this prison approximately 15 years ago, and all those comforts have been stripped from us over the years. Curtains are no longer permitted, and there is a rumor that the new warden has plans to not permit us to put up a sheet when using the toilet or washing up. Painting your cell is no longer permitted, and stereo systems have been taken away. All you can buy now is a Walkman. Furniture is not allowed. Carpets and glass mirrors are no longer sold. Now you look at your reflection in a warped blurry piece of clear plastic with a reflective back. If you are lucky, there will be a steel desk or shelf in your cell. At least I still have my Koss stereo headphones, which have a lifetime warranty. Without them and my earplugs, I would have no escape from the cell house noise, and may have gone mad.

The cell house I live in now is painted white and gray. Everything is white or gray except the fire hose box which is fire engine red. These drab colors are appropriate for a prison which is so oppressive, and I would expect nothing else from a dungeon. The big house has large windows on its outer wall, but they are cloudy because they are never cleaned. The outer wall is separated from the cell walls by about 20 feet, and at about 40 feet high is a "cat walk." The cat walk is a thin balcony the guards with rifles walk upon. There are many plumbing and electrical pipes exposed on the outer wall. The lower floor is sometimes waxed, but it is cracked and usually littered with garbage particularly during lockdowns. Cell house galleries were built with handrails, but after many guards and inmates were thrown off, bars were put up. I am surprised the designers of these buildings did not anticipate that.

There are other buildings within Stateville's sprawling grounds that house prisoners. The Round House is famous for being the only one of its kind in the United States, and because it was designed based on a psychological theory. The building has four levels of 60 cells that circle a round gun tower in the center (see photo above). From any cell, you can look into almost every other cell in the building, and the gun tower has a line of sight into all cells. The elimination of privacy was thought to deter crime, and was initially thought to be the prison prototype of the future. However, the Round House became the most violent cell house in Stateville, and was closed to general population in the 90s. It now only cells those in segregation, and those with court writs.

The only remaining building still being used to house prisoners, other than the infirmary, is X House. This smaller building holds inmates who are crippled, and cannot walk to chow, orientation inmates, and inmates in protective custody. The seriously ill, and those recovering from surgery, or in need of continual medical attention are kept in a part of the prison's health care unit. Protective custody inmates live on two short wings that have cells double stacked. There are about 50 inmates in protective custody, and they are kept separate from everyone else. Orientation inmates live in the former death row cells. For a few weeks, when I first arrived at Stateville, I was kept there. The former death row cells have no bars, and a solid steel door is used to lock you in. The cells are larger than any I have ever been in, and are 10 feet wide, 20 feet deep, and 15 feet in height. I wish all cells were so spacious.

Underneath the orientation cells in the basement of X House is the lethal injection chamber, and the electric chair nicknamed "Old Sparky." One of the last people to be executed at Stateville was serial killer John Wayne Gacy. Executions have not been conducted at Stateville since they were moved to Tamms in downstate Illinois. For mostly political reasons, the site of executions was changed so that anti-death penalty advocates, who reside predominately in Chicago, would be deterred from protesting outside the prison. However, the move became irrelevant after former Governor George Ryan commuted all death sentences to natural life, and put a moratorium on executions due to the number of people on death row who were found to be innocent. Successive governors have refused to lift the moratorium.

In my opinion, the governor should have put an end to natural life sentences, rather than focusing exclusively on the death penalty. Natural life without parole is a much more cruel punishment than death. It is a lifetime of empty existence and torment. A protracted death sentence. Yes, alive, but dead, the undead. Those with life are also more likely to be wrongfully convicted. Death penalty cases are scrutinized more at trial, and on appeal, unlike those whose cases gain no attention, and must languish in prison, year after year.


  1. Pontiac Thunderdome.

  2. Ex correctional officer- I was in a bar when gacy was put to death. Sad to hear that his procedure did not go well and he suffered.

  3. "Everything is either white or grey"

    The thing that struck me the most upon my release from Centralia CC was COLOR !..everything at Centralia was GREY ! I swore I never wanted to see that color again and in fact before my 1 year bit there for obstruction of justice grey was one of my favorite colors to wear. Now I will never buy another article of clothing in that color. If i got so sick of one color in a year its hard to imagine how you feel after over 2 decades. You and your family are in my thoughts and prayers Paul.

  4. Which building at Pontiac is the Thunderdome? The red cellhouse that goes north/south or the grey one that goes east/west?

  5. Pontiac is different because it is in a residential neighborhood. Stateville looks like the arboretum park in Lisle when you drive past.

  6. I am just now going thru each of your posts. I hadn't seen this video before. It would be good to have it when a person first finds your blog. To see the image of the place where you have lived for 25 years, wrongfully convicted.


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