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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Autism -- October 15, 2009

Earlier today, I went to the prison Health Care Unit. The HCU is a building about a block away from the cell house, and is connected to the hallway that leads to the front gates of the prison and visiting room. The building is one story, but has a number of sections. There is an emergency room, a dental office, a few doctor offices, and a lounge area for HCU staff. In the back is the infirmary where inmates are celled who are recovering from surgery, sickness, or just cannot be placed in general population due to severe physical disabilities or health problems. The HCU also has a few offices for the prison psychiatrist and two psychologists. After waiting in a crowded caged area, my name was called, and I walked to my psychologist's office.

Once a month, I am given a pass to see the psychologist. I have been seeing a psychologist ever since I was transferred here. In 2004, when I was in Pontiac, I intentionally walked myself to segregation, and I refused to come out despite being repeatedly told to leave. Pontiac's Segregation Unit is considered the most punitive, isolating, and harsh prison in Illinois, other than Tamms Supermax. My mother became concerned about my mental wellness because it is apparently abnormal to want to live under such conditions, and she had called the prison administration. I was tricked into being transferred to Stateville by being told I was going to a medium-security prison. Much to my dismay, I was brought here. Stateville was the last prison I wanted to go to. Once here, I was given a pass to see the psychologist, which I crumpled up and threw into my toilet. I was issued another pass, but this time a guard came to my cell to escort me.

Pontiac Segregation, along with Tamms Supermax, house the most violent, dangerous, or unruly prisoners. You are not sent to Pontiac or Tamms unless you have committed, or are accused of, a major rule infraction, or gang organization. I was already at Pontiac, however, and thus I was not transferred there. At Pontiac, you are kept in your cell 24 hours a day except on occasion, thanks to a mandatory federal law that allows you to go outside to be placed in an empty 10 by 5 foot cage. They remind me of dog runs, and I never bothered to accept this "privilege." For fun, dislike, or their antisocial personalities, inmates would bring squirt bottles out to shoot urine and feces at each other from these cages. They also did this from the bars of their cells until the bars were covered over with steel or Plexiglas. Thanks, but no thanks--I stayed in my cell.

Most inmates fear being sent to Pontiac or Tamms. The isolation, confinement, and loss of television and radio for long periods of time is a strong deterrent. At Pontiac, your commissary privileges are taken, and you are limited in property. Inmates also must live on a 1,500 calorie diet, unless they are able to make trades with other inmates. While there, I dropped over 30 pounds, and when I got out, some people who knew the muscle-bound man from before, wondered if I had cancer.

Visitation is restricted to two one-hour visits a month behind glass. On your visit, you are handcuffed, shackled, and chained to the floor. Many a man has been broken by the harsh and isolating conditions at Pontiac. However, to me, Pontiac was not a punishment. I had a single man cell to myself, and did not have to interact with all the undesirable people in prison. In fact, I was quite content to be by myself with my books, mail, and peaceful existence away from the "zoo." Possibly, there is a reason for my different perspective.

I have autism, but I am not like the "Rain Man" or like what most people imagine. I am a person on the high functioning end of the spectrum of this neurological disability. If you met me, you would probably not even know that I was any different from anyone else. Even though I was diagnosed with autism as a toddler, I have always questioned it, as has my father, until not long ago. I have thought my personality, behavior and child development were just my own individual style, filled with idiosyncrasies. Yes, I have always been a bit different, or eccentric, compared to others, but then, who is not? However, in the last five years, autism awareness in this country has greatly increased, and after reading about this disability, I cannot deny that I am somewhere on the autism spectrum.

Although I learned to walk and do many things quicker than other children, I did not learn to speak until much later. Even when I learned to verbally communicate, I was quiet, nonsocial, and introverted, as I am still to this day. Lacking good interpersonal skills, I have been a loner most of my life, with few friendships. As a child, I was very sensitive to loud noises and bright lights, but at the same time, I had an insensitivity to pain. My mother tells me a story that when I was about 3 years old, she smelled something awful burning and discovered that I was leaning up against an electric popcorn maker, oblivious to the burning of my flesh. I do not have a scar on my back, but my sister corroborates the incident. I also had obsessive behaviors and interests. While some kids may play a couple hours on a particular theme, I would play a scenario out for days, if not weeks, and my play was less fanciful than others; I would read many books just to make sure I had certain facts correct. I did not enjoy coloring books, but would create and draw complex mazes and charts for hours.

In junior and senior high school, I was, at times, overwhelmed by all the people I had to interact with. It was incredibly draining, particularly when I attended Lincoln Way High, which has a few thousand students. My parents wondered why I slept so much, and it was not because I stayed up late. I missed a lot of days of school, not to play hooky, but just to give myself a break. On those days that I didn't go to school, I often just hid in my bedroom. School is much about social interplay, and not just studying. Lacking certain social skills, I often did not get along well with classmates. In my high school years, I often was indifferent to students at my school. Other than pretty girls who got my attention, I kept myself limited to a few friends who did not go to my school, and were much older. Although I was not socially adept, I was more mature, both physically and mentally, than most of my peers.

In prison, I have a number of problems that are unique to me, and make my life all the more miserable, if not torturous. Unlike when I attended high school, I cannot escape my environment. I am forced to deal with hundreds of prisoners. Even when I stay in my cell, I cannot hide because my cell has bars, and we are no longer allowed curtains. The constant interaction with a cellmate and numerous strangers, along with blaring noises, can cause great mental anguish and even disrupt my ability to function. Not being able to retreat to a safe place of my own, or have freedom to organize my life as I would like, causes much anxiety and frustration. Connecting with and relating to the various prisoners and guards at the maximum security prisons I have been to is difficult. Since childhood, I have learned to deal with many problems; I have learned to control mental anguish, frustration, and anxiety by keeping my emotions, passions, and thoughts within myself.

Initially, I did not want to see a psychologist, but now I do so willingly. After much resistance, I have even begun to take medication to help me sleep better and to control my anxiety. At the psychologist's office, I discuss certain problems I may have, and she will give me her advice; on occasion she can have some insights or helpful ideas. The psychologist seems to spend more time with me than with the other patients, even though most of them are insane, sexual predators, schizophrenics, or have serious mental conditions. I tend to believe this is because my condition is unique, and that I am not your typical convict.

Today, I spoke to the doctor about my cellie becoming angry at me for putting some of his excessive rolls of toilet paper in his box. After noticing how messy his box was, I was not able to stop myself from reorganizing all his property into neat sections. She wanted to know how many rolls of toilet paper he had (20), and if I knew why he was mad, and how much he was mad. I am regularly moving my cellie's property to put it away or put it in its proper place. However, I have never organized his entire box before. Typically, I care less how sloppy he is, as long as I don't have to see it or deal with it.

The psychologist told me she noticed I was standing in the corner facing away from the people in the waiting cage. She knows how much it bothers me to be put in a sardine can with numerous obnoxious and loud people yelling and talking, but I told her again. I also mentioned how it would be nice if I was at Tamms Supermax where I would not have a cellie, and would have quiet isolation. This concerned her, and she wanted to make sure I was not planning to do something to get myself sent there. I have thought about this often, however, I did not inform the doctor of this. I do not have any plans in the near future to be sent to Tamms anyway, despite how much happier I think I would be. I need to work on my post-conviction appeal, and I realize how my family likes to visit me regularly. Despite how my mother conspired to get me to Stateville to be close to home, and how unenjoyable most visits are due to the noise, I will stay here for now. Possibly, in the future, however, I may be mailing my posts from southern Illinois at the state's supermax.


  1. Hey Paul, your blog posts are very interesting. You paint a real picture of prison life almost better than watching it on TV. Keep writing, & keep working on the new petition. I stumbled on your blog by accident actually searching on the Internet for something about the final disposition of the Degorski case. We are the same age, I grew up in the near western suburbs, and I was interested in following the Browns case as it developed as I was a senior in h.s. at that time and in a "current events" class in fact. After reading all your blog posts here I do remember, albeit vaguely, when you were thought of as the prime suspect. I remember them saying "they got the guy", and so forth. And then nothing came of it. But this is the first I've learned of the Barrington case.

    In any event I think your sentence is ludicrously harsh. I am hoping Quinn will see fit to do something here. I feel I can relate to you a bit because I too am a quiet, thoughtful, somewhat more introverted person with my own eccentricities and such, and as I said we are the exact same age and therefore we likely recall many of the same things from the "good old days" , 93 or so (the year of our last year of h.s. and prior to your incarceration). You're right when you say a sentence of life without is like being the living dead. Even though I'm a free man I read and study a lot about prison and crime and punishment and the law and such; I find it fascinating, although scary. I'm thinking Stateville sounds about like the 7th circle of Dante's Inferno, really.

    Well, in any case, keep writing blog posts as you know by now that there are people out here interested in continuing to read them. You ARE in fact being heard, read, and thought about, even by strangers. I will "link" to this blog and also to the page where people can do something to help (sign their names or whatever) on my Facebook (social networking site in case you don't know it). I was thinking you should also perhaps consider putting together a regular book consisting of your experiences inside and your day-to-day life, in my opinion. Well , hope this message finds you and finds you in (reasonably) good spirits. ~Dino

  2. Hello Paul. I have had my limited experience with prison in the U.S.A. and though in my case my sentence was both deserved and relatively short, I do believe I can relate to some of the things you are going through. I now live a peaceful and completely lawful exisetence in South America, far, far away from the hypocrisy of the U.S. and its dehumanized (in)justice system. I've read through all your postings (very interesting, detailed- they sent me back in time to my days in the pen: I felt a shiver or two up my spine; Lord am I glad to be outta there!)as well as the info on your case and trial at the site, and you certainly appear to have been railroaded. The reprehensible, cold-spirited injustice of your case is probably hard for people to fully fathom, especially if they have not been incarcerated. The inhumane coldness, the loss of dignity and the difficulty one has in retaining a sense of purpose is bad enough when one HAS committed a crime and received a "just" sentence. I'd rather not delve into how one must feel if one is actually innocent or received an unjustifiably draconian sentence. But Paul, I wouldn't say your life is over. Have faith that justice will, eventually, win out. Yeah, the best years of your life may have been "taken" from you, but your life as such at least was not. You have every right to carry this bitterness with you to your grave, but then... who wins? As hard as it may be, you need to find a reason behind all this miscarriage of justice, behind your victimization, in order to CONSTRUCT a meaning from the hell you have been put through, are being put's your only chance to make it all somehow tolerable...
    I now this sounds trite, but what you gonna do? I sincerely hope that you are released ASAP, and that your conviction is eventually overturned, and that you can put your experiences to good use. You are to be commended for making it this far! BTW, you might find some solace reading Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago or One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich: many others before you have been incarcerated under inhumane conditions on trumped-up charges and have come out the other end to tell about it, wizened, and nobler men...

  3. Yeah...i remember how you used to hate lunch in junior high. it took us a long time to get you to relax at our assigned lunch tables. it all makes sense...NT

  4. I never got to know you in High School...I was a few years younger than you and pretty much intimidated by all of the upper classmen. I can imagine how those crowded hallways would make someone with autism feel, as they often made me anxious. I've got to say, I wish I had gotten to know you and I really enjoy reading these posts in your blog. Someone recently shared the location of the blog on a "you know you grew up in New Lenox" facebook page, and there are a number of us reading what you have written. I wish you the best.

  5. This post makes me sad.

  6. Why were you at Pontiac in the first place? Did you get into a fight at another prison?

    1. Good question. Why WERE you at Pontiac in 2004?

    2. When Paul was sentenced in 1995, he was immediately sent to Pontiac Correctional where he stayed until being transferred to Stateville. No reason was given for his transfer. He thought Pontiac was hell on earth until he got to Stateville. Over the years, several organizations and his parents have tried to get him transferred into a medium security prison such as nearby Dixon, but the only places offered were in southern Illinois. Few people would be able to drive 7 or 8 hours to get to those towns to visit Paul, especially his parents, so he stays at Stateville.
      Unless Dixon is horribly overcrowded, I see no reason why Paul could not be transferred there.

  7. enjoy being a loner? I do. Now in my mid-forties, I wonder if I have aspergers syndrome. Only because it's something that others have wondered about me because of my personality Others however think I can't have aspergers because I am married and hold down a job and was able to graduate from college with high grades. How does one determine the difference between aspergers and introverted personality?

    1. Autism covers a wide range of people and that is why psychiatrists now label it "autism spectrum disorder". At one end are those who cannot speak or function on their own. On the other end are those who can be very successful, although may have to overcome certain difficulties albeit they may be almost indiscernible. There are tests you can take to learn where you fit on the autism scale. What I think distinguishes personality from a disorder is when characteristics cause impairment.

      (Ed. note: Paul wrote this months ago. There continues to be problems in the mail room at Stateville.)

  8. I have Asperger's. I feel your pain.


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