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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Commissary -- December 9, 2009

My cell house was finally able to receive commissary goods from the prison store. It has been over a month since B House has been permitted to shop. Inmates have been very disgruntled the last few weeks after our shop date was cancelled twice, and then pushed back several times. However, on Monday, we were happy and excited when cell house workers were sent to the commissary building to pick up our store purchases.

Many prisoners were out of food and other supplies. The few who had merchandise were hoarding it, or taking advantage of those who were without by selling things at a ratio of one for two. Thus, the buyer had to pay that person back double of what he borrowed. A couple of prisoners in every cell house make a living by running a one-for-two store. Many who cannot wait till the next shop date, or who are waiting for money, will borrow from these stores. Sweets, coffee, and particularly tobacco (when it was still being sold in prisons), were the biggest sellers at these stores. Coffee is now the #1 sought after item, and inmates will often buy what is called "coffee balls" for a dollar. A coffee ball is instant coffee poured into a small bag and tied. It looks like a golf ball sized bit of coffee. I have never purchased anything from these stores, and never had a need to. I am the ant in the ant and the grasshopper fable, and never go hungry.

It is a lot of work for cell house workers to pick up and pass out commissary goods to approximately 300 prisoners, particularly this Monday. Although commissary workers fill the bags and mark them with a name and cell number, it is the cell house workers that stuff the stapled brown bags into large heavy duty plastic garbage bags, and stack them on carts to bring to the cell house. There were considerably more store purchases than customary, and seven carts were loaded high with bags. If I had been able to see the procession of carts moving to our cell house, it would probably resemble a slow-moving freight train.

At the cell house, the plastic garbage bags are brought to their respective galleries. The plastic bags are torn open then, and the brown paper bags are placed in front of the cells by matching the numbers on the bags with the cell numbers. Cell house workers only come out on their assigned shift. However, on commissary days, all cell house workers are let out.

While inmates do all the strenuous labor, guards will go cell to cell giving inmates their receipts along with an ink pad. Prisoners are required to sign their receipts, and give their right hand fingerprints. This procedure is done to prove inmates received their store purchases. If there are any complaints made later, guards can check the signature and prints to see if they match. Signing your name is also attesting that you received everything you were billed for. However, guards are too busy to stand by your bars, wait, and watch to see if you received all your merchandise. At times, prisoners will lie and say they did not get something they did, or contrarily, a guard will not accept the word of an inmate telling the truth, and he will be ripped off. I will ask a guard to stop for a moment before going to the next cell when I have made an expensive purchase. This is probably unnecessary because I have been at Stateville so long, and most of these guards have known me for years. They know I would not lie to try and get something for free.

My hyper cellmate was eagerly awaiting his commissary bags when workers began to pass them out. When his bags were placed in front of our cell several feet away from the bars, he asked me if I could read his receipt which was stapled onto a bag. I read off the list, and my cellmate was upset that the gym shoes he ordered did not come. For a couple of months, both my cellmate and I have been trying to buy a certain running shoe, although they are of poor quality. My cellmate who jogs in circles in the small yard, and the 1/4 mile track on the large south yard, and in the cell for hours, has nearly worn the soles off his shoes. My cellmate was also upset that his fruit pies were substituted with Bear Claws, though he must not have been too unhappy because he ate all ten of them in a day and a half.

All I ordered was a pair of gym shoes and two pens. I write so much that I am continuously going through pens. Because there is a limit of two on pens, I am often using pencil. This journal entry, like most of my others, is written in pencil. And I see that I am going to have to find some more pencils because I only have one now that is longer than two inches. Apparently, the size of shoe my cellmate and I wear is out of stock, and commissary workers were too lazy to fill an order for just two pens -- because I did not get a bag.

I am angered by the Illinois Dept. of Corrections making a profit from my incarceration. Illinois prisons are allowed to overcharge prisoners 25% on all commissary purchases. On top of this, Stateville has been breaking the law to make even more money by adding 3% to the prices before adding the 25% allowed by legislation. An audit was recently done showing Stateville's commissary earning $2.3 million in 2008, $500,000 dollars more than permitted. Stateville has responded by saying they believed they could add costs for commissary staff, utilities, and warehouse space before adding the 25%. However, the 25% is supposed to include these expenses. Stateville has also been caught not using competitive bidding, and giving contracts to friends and family of prison administrators.

The reason B House has not shopped in over a month is due to a lockdown, and the laziness of the commissary supervisor. Recently, overtime, which has been abused by Stateville staff, has been cut to save money. Staff's reaction to this has been to work even slower than they were previously. They want to force the administration's hand to hire more unnecessary staff, or let them continue to make double time and six figure salaries along with their plush benefits. The supervisor of the prison's commissary says that if he and his civilian workers are not allowed to make overtime, they will only be able to let prisoners shop twice a month. Earlier this year, inmates' four shops a month were cut to three, and now the supervisor wants to see if he can push it to two. Rumor has it that our new warden is not going to let him get away with this, and has threatened to fire him if work does not get done.

Stateville offers a variety of merchandise for prisoners to buy. I have been told it has more selection than many other prisons in the state, albeit Stateville does not sell a number of products that are sold in minimum or medium security prisons due to security reasons. For example, I cannot buy a pencil sharpener, and am currently writing with a dull pencil. Occasionally I scrape it down with my toe nail clippers. Another example is toothbrushes, which are only 3" long and made of flexible rubber. State toothbrushes given out to the indigent are hard plastic, but only 2" in length. I must almost stick my hand in my mouth to brush my back teeth, and I often drool on myself when brushing.

Stateville is the only prison in Illinois, except Tamms Supermax, that does not allow inmates to go to the commissary to make purchases. At other penitentiaries, prisoners tell a commissary worker what they want though a plexiglass or wire mesh window, and the workers fill their bags. The bags are then rung up at a register by civilian staff. There are a number of disadvantages to not being allowed to shop like everyone else. When you fill out a list, often you do not know what you are getting, or if the item is in stock. If present at the order counter, you could look at the product to see if you wanted it. At the register, you could also try on a pair of shoes to see if they fit. Stateville prisoners must guess how much money they will have on their account when the orders are filled. They cannot make last minute additions or substitutions. Furthermore, those at other prisons do not have any problems with being charged for items they did not receive or shoes that do not fit.

Although most prisoners would like to shop at commissary, there are some who do not, and there is probably a good reason for Stateville's shop in abstentia policy. Regularly, people at other prisons, particularly maximum security or high-medium security institutions, are coerced or beaten at commissary for their purchases. At Pontiac Correctional Center, I often saw people have their bags taken by force. Typically, a victim will give up their store when threatened, but there are times that people have been severely beaten or even stabbed. The weak and non-gang-affiliated are often targeted. However, being in a gang is not always protection, because gang members must pay dues, and are at the mercy of their mob leaders. White men, especially younger men from the suburbs who are often thought of as soft, and typically are, are also preyed upon more. Suburban white prisoners often have more money and do not know how to react to intimidation and violence. At Cook County Jail, I was regularly protecting white people from the gang bangers, and other thugs. Although I was only 18, white, and from an affluent suburb, I was not your typical suburban teen. Despite having autism, I was not a coward, and often went without fear. I did not fear the hoodlums in the county jail. I feared a natural life sentence where I would be put in continual anguish, torment, and misery until the end of time.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

My 35th Birthday -- November 30, 2009

Many mornings, I wake up and do not know the day of the week. Sometimes, I will forget not only the day, but the year. However, this morning, I could not escape the dismal reality that it was my 35th birthday. Over the weekend, I had called home, and was reminded that Monday was my birthday. I was also asked if I received any birthday cards. Apparently, a number of people had sent me cards, and were interested to know if I had received them. Other than a card from my sister that she mailed in October, I had to answer no. The incoming mail at Stateville is regularly weeks behind. At this time of year, it is even worse. It seems that long after this sad milestone in my life has passed, I will be reminded of it time and time again. The Yuletide will be here, and I will still be receiving late birthday cards.

I do not look forward to my birthday anymore, nor have I for almost two decades. A birthday is yet another reminder of how old I am, and how many years I have been incarcerated. Today is the 17th birthday I have had while in prison or the county jail. Next year, my birthday will have the significance of my being locked up for as long as I had been free. I will have then had exactly 18 birthdays before and after my arrest. Certainly, that fact will not elude me, and I will brood about it for a long time.

When you are young, a birthday is indeed a time to celebrate and be happy. A birthday is not only a special day for friends and family to commemorate, but represents a period of both physical and mental growth. You are becoming stronger, faster, bigger, smarter, and more attractive to the opposite sex. Every year brings new freedoms and power. Your potential is becoming realized. However, for a man, or at least for myself, it is down hill after 25. Those that mature quicker typically decline quicker, and now every day is one day closer to my death. There is little to nothing to fulfill or give meaning to my existence, and there is nothing to look forward to. There is just time ticking away, wearing you down until there is nothing. Don't wish me a happy birthday. It is only a day of sorrow.

Today was a day like many others, except for a few subtle distinctions. At noon, my name was called for a visit. Having been expecting a visit, I was ready to leave with my cell in compliance, and had my state blues on. I was escorted to gate #5 by a guard without much delay. There are a series of gates leaving or entering the prison. Gate #5 is the last one you approach upon entering, and is always manned by a guard who lets traffic through. I waited in a cage for a while until I was permitted to go to the strip search room, which is just before gate #3. Some wardens have made a fuss about all the gates being locked, but for the vast majority of my time here, gates 3 and 4 are left open. They are redundant, and only cause more work for the guards, and annoyance for the numerous people who must go through them. After being searched, I went down the stairs into the visiting room while looking to see who had come to visit me. Although there were many people there, my table was empty.

The visiting room was crowded, and noisy on this last day of the month. I was hoping some prisoners had used up their maximum 5 visits, but this was not the case. I was sitting at an odd table which was lower than the stools attached to it. These tables are unique to Stateville, and it prevents people from passing items under the table or touching. The guards and cameras have an unobstructed view of the inmates. I sat on my stool waiting for my visitors to arrive. At times, I inconspicuously used my fingers to close my ears, trying to muffle the loud and obnoxious chatter. I grew more and more irritated as time went by. Finally, a female officer approached me and said she was going to call to find out the reason for the delay. Another 30 minutes passed after this, until I saw my mother come down the stairs. I had waited over an hour, and she had been waiting over three hours. It was already close to 2 p.m., and we had less than a half hour to visit. I spent half this time listening to my mother tell me about an unfriendly, unprofessional, and lazy guard at the visitors' waiting room, and then instructing her to get the guard's name so we could report the matter. I also gave her instructions on how to deal with such a problem in the future. Considering the non-confrontational nature of my mother, and her friendliness, I probably wasted our little time. However, by then, I was too angered and irritated to have a good visit anyway.

I came back to my cell in a poor mood, though I am typically unhappy. I was only more dissatisfied, and more bitter about my life than usual. I also was very hungry, having not eaten since 7 a.m. I had planned to eat some vending machine food during my visit, and therefore had skipped lunch. I was going to skip the prison supper as well. For supper, we were being served turkey-soy meatballs with two slices of bread, corn, and applesauce. The turkey-soy meatballs are of the worst quality, and often you bite into pieces of bone and gristle. It is probably made of turkey scraps, including beaks and feet, with soy meal ground into it. For my birthday, I decided not to go out for meals to prevent myself from having to deal with the people imprisoned here anyway.

I saved my appetite for the Monday night football game. I was making burritos for my cellmate, a neighbor, and I. Using flour tortillas from the commissary, and also store-bought roast beef, cheese, refried beans, and rice, I made an enormous meal. Preparing and cooking all this food was time consuming, and a little difficult, especially considering the means at my disposal. For example, heating the water: I needed to boil the water by using a makeshift stinger. Stingers are no longer sold at maximum security prisons due to boiling hot water, bleach, hair straightener, or other acidic substances being tossed into people's faces, mostly guards. Burritos are a favorite meal among the Mexican population here, and they will even fry the burritos on metal bunks or stools with plenty of butter. I will not go to such lengths, and I prefer non-fried or grilled food. Burritos are not one of my favorites either, but it is one of the better meals I can make with what we have available. As I began to roll up the burritos, I heard Hank Williams say "Are You Ready for Some Football?" And, yes, I was.

There is a commercial for Monday night football that has been getting a lot of air time lately. There is some man going about his job or life on a Monday morning. He is unhappy with his boring life, and nothing seems to be going right for him. But, he then remembers there is Monday night football, and he is happy. Similar to the man in the commercial, I was looking forward to the game, and knew it was finally here.

This Monday night was a key match-up between the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints. Most of the prison cell house believed the Patriots would win this game, despite the Saints' undefeated record and the most explosive offense in the NFL. I like a number of players on the New England team, but I knew the Saints had a clear advantage, and should not be underdogs. I found myself rooting for the Saints, and predicting their victory. It brought back memories of when I was friends with a bookmaker before my arrest, and I watched games with him where there were thousands of dollars on the line.

In the first quarter, I thought possibly I had made a mistake in my prediction. Although the Saints scored on their first drive, they accepted a field goal rather than going for it on a fourth down to secure a touchdown. The Patriots, contrarily, were more aggressive and took a fourth down chance and got into the endzone. The cellhouse was cheering, and banging their cell doors. The excitement of this game was similar to a playoff game. However, by the beginning of the 4th quarter, it was over with. The Saints were dominating, and a few of the best players and even the coach of the Patriots, had given up. The final score was 17 - 38, and after the game, one of the most brilliant coaches of the NFL looked like he was going to cry in a post game interview. I enjoyed the Saints' win, and choosing the winning team, but I did not like seeing the Patriots so devastated by the loss.

Even with the conclusion of my birthday ending with a big victory, I doubt I will remember it in the years to come, unless this journal still exists. I do not remember any of my birthdays in prison. Even my 34th is a loss to me. In prison, I live to forget, and birthdays are particular days I wish not to remember. Despite not remembering last year's birthday, I recall many of my birthdays when I was a free adolescent or child.

One of my more memorable and better birthdays was my 17th. I recall this birthday almost as if it was yesterday. I spent the evening with a few friends, and a number of girls, after a long train ride to the northwest Chicago suburbs. My friends presented me with a number of odd gifts. Mixed drinks were made, and Brian had prepared trays of lasagna. Brian was a pretty good cook, and the meal turned out well. Brian nor I drink, but the girls were drinking and quickly began acting silly. I remember Brian's little brother, Jeff, who was only 12, making out with a half naked high school girl. Brian's mother came home late from working, but by that time, only Brian, me, and a handful of girls were still there. Jeff was already knocked out in his room. The rest of us slept overnight, with most of us on blankets on the floor. I did not wake up until well after noon the next day.

The last birthday I had before my arrest was my 18th. I had a heated argument with my father that day about my curfew time. My father and I, unfortunately, did not speak that often, and when we did, it was usually to lock and ram horns. Soon after my birthday, I spoke with Bob Faraci, one of Brian's friends, who quickly offered me to stay at his place with him and his wife, and I accepted. Eighteen days later, Bob was to (allegedly) kill Dean Fawcett, and contrary to my interrogating officer, I knew nothing about it. Regardless, here I am in Stateville, 17 years later, serving natural life without parole. Birthdays....who needs them? Who wants them? Not me. I wish I could have stayed 17 forever.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Thanksgiving Day -- November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving Day is much like any other day in prison. The only distinction is that we get a little better food for lunch, and we are on holiday schedule. A holiday schedule does not mean anything special for inmates. Contrarily, it means we remain in our cells all day except to pick up our lunch and dinner trays. Other than kitchen workers, and a few cell house helpers, there are no prison details. Holiday schedule is not for the inmates, but the guards and staff who work here. They are able to take the day off, or be lazier than usual while earning twice the pay they normally would. More than likely, holiday schedule will continue until Monday.

I slept poorly during the night, despite wearing a pair of ear plugs. I awoke at 5 a.m., when my cellmate was using the toilet. He had a sheet up blocking my view, but it is only about five feet from where my head was. Having to live in such close quarters is something most inmates get used to. However, I have been in prison for about 15 years, and I still am not comfortable with the confines of space. After getting a drink of water from a bottle I keep on the floor next to my bunk, I went back to sleep with my head in the farthest corner from my cellmate.

I woke up several more times before I finally got up for the day a few hours later. My cellmate was dolling up for a visit he was expecting. I made myself a cup of tea, and let it sit a minute while I fed the birds. The sparrows were particularly hungry this morning, and squawked at each other until they realized there was more than enough bread to go around. I flicked out more food than I usually do. It is Thanksgiving Day, and the birds deserve their holiday meal too, I think as I feed them.

My breakfast consisted of a square of crumb cake on which I spread commissary peanut butter, and two small self-serve containers of generic corn flakes. I don't drink tea often, but it was a good combination with the cake. I ate my breakfast on my bunk as usual, as I flipped through the channels on my TV, looking for news. I learned that Governor Quinn granted 133 clemency requests. All were filed during the Blagojevich administration. The Governor made a statement to the press that the petitions were long overdue to be answered, but there was little follow up about the type of clemency granted, or the cases involved. I speculate that most of them were for people who already served their sentences, and were not newsworthy.

My cellie's name was called out on the loudspeaker for a visit. His was the first name of almost 50 announced today. More visitors come to Stateville on Thanksgiving Day than on any other day of the year. My cellmate told me the visiting room quickly filled up to capacity, and when he left there was a huge number of prisoners waiting upstairs for tables to open up. All week has been crowded, even on Tuesday when I visited with my father. Despite holiday visitation being limited to one hour, many visits were cut short or cancelled. Sadly for many prisoners who wanted to be with their family on Thanksgiving Day, an identical visiting room across the hallway remains empty. Apparently, the prison administration is indifferent, and does not want to make accommodations, or intentionally wants to dissuade visitors. Possibly they will say that they lack the extra couple of guards to oversee the other visiting room, but of course, that would be a lie.

While my cellmate was on his visit, I exercised. I typically wait for him to leave to work, chow, or whatever, to work out. The cell is small, and I feel uncomfortable exercising when he is here. I also want to be courteous and not annoying, distracting or cramping his space. My work out is an intense cardio-calisthenic routine, but is brief. I am done within an hour's time.

After working out, I washed up in the sink. I have become accustomed to bathing out of my sink for so many years that a shower now seems odd. When I bathe, I put a bed sheet up that is secured at one end by a hook, and at the other end by pushing it under my cellmate's mattress. The sheet follows the mattress back to the back wall, so it is an L-shape, which gives me a square area of privacy up to my chest. I fill my sink up with hot water using a piece of cardboard to block the drain. I attempt to get the water and suds to fall into my toilet, but plenty goes on the floor. I have a floor rag that I lay out to absorb some of the water, but mostly to prevent water from moving underneath my bunk where my cellmate and I have our boxes and other property.

While I was rinsing off the soap suds, the loudspeaker announced stand by for chow. This typically means that we have a half hour, and sometimes up to two hours, so I was in no hurry. However, a few minutes later, I saw people being let out for chow. I was not going to miss my Thanksgiving Day meal, and I scrambled to dry off, dress, and put my cell in apparent compliance. When I left the cell, there was a pile of items thrown haphazardly behind my bunk, a puddle of water under the toilet, my hair was wet, and I had no socks.

Despite the early chow line, we were forced to wait in one of the chow halls for an hour before given our styrofoam trays to take back to the cells. On Thanksgiving Day, and most other holidays, we do not eat in the chow hall. We just pick up our food in styrofoam trays, and leave. This is supposed to be a quick process, like a drive through, but not today. I spent the time talking with a man from another gallery who I do not see very often. I talked to him through a cyclone fence about stocks, real estate, and financial trusts. He will be released soon, and he has been trying to learn about these matters before he leaves. He intends to raise capital for a real estate business by selling cocaine. I tend to believe he will not be the next Donald Trump, but come quickly back to prison.

Finally, the guard unlocked the gate and allowed us into the serving area. While in line, I asked an old man if chicken hawks eat turkey as well. The man goes by the name "Hawk Eye," however, after he was suspected of being a pedophile, I began to call him "Chicken Hawk." The old man was not amused, but those who overheard were. I was more entertained yesterday when the man was jogging around the gym with a known homosexual in the lead. My cellmate brought this to my attention, and I immediately knew why: the chicken hawk appeared to be chasing the chicken.

Because of the holiday, prisoners' laundry was not picked up. When I returned to the cell, I cleaned up my mess, and began the unpleasant task of washing my clothes by hand. For so many clothes, I slowly filled up my correspondence box with hot water from the sink. As I dumped mug after mug of water into the plastic box, I added more and more clothes to the soapy water, and swished them around. Afterward, I put the lid on and let them soak while I ate my Thanksgiving Day meal.

My lunch consisted of two trays: one warm, and one cold. In the warm tray was a scoop of collard greens, stuffing, macaroni and cheese, and a couple of pieces of turkey-soy loaf with gravy. Turkey loaf is processed turkey that is similar to meat loaf with added soybean meal. Inside the cold tray was a salad with not only lettuce, but onion, green pepper, and tomato. Although guards have a full salad bar, prisoners only receive lettuce throughout the year. Also in the cold tray were two biscuits, noodle salad, and a small prepackaged slice of pumpkin pie. We were also given a little cup of sherbet, but I traded mine for another slice of pie.

I saved my cold tray for later, but ate the warm one while I watched the DVD "Angels and Demons." I read the Dan Brown novel years ago, and it was good to see the movie, although it lacked depth. The food was better than we usually receive, but not as good as the homeless receive from charity groups in Chicago. I was disappointed that we continue to be fed processed turkey-soy, and it has been many years since prisoners in Illinois have been given a really good Thanksgiving Day meal. If these meals were served 20 years ago, the guards would have been dealing with a riot.

After the movie, I wrung out all my clothes and used the soapy water to clean out the toilet. I then used the large steel toilet to rinse my laundry. Although this method is exceedingly quicker than using my sink, I did not finish for two hours. As I write this journal entry, it is 9 p.m., and a few of my socks are still drying. It was a cold, wet day, and I was not able to get a cellhouse help worker to turn on the hot air blower until the second shift.

I did not go out for the dinner meal of bologna sandwiches. Instead, I used the hard boiled eggs we were given for breakfast, and my cold lunch tray to make an egg salad. I was only given two eggs, but my neighbors gave me their eggs, and so I had six. It was difficult cutting up the onion, green pepper, and tomato without a knife. I ended up using my toenail clippers to chop up the onion and green pepper slices. The tomato was torn apart with my nails, and the eggs were shredded with a plastic fork. Despite my method, the egg salad turned out to be pretty good.

The rest of the day I spent reading. Months ago, someone gave me three "Soldier of Fortune" magazines. I made time this evening to read them. I used to read this magazine often, but the Illinois Dept. of Corrections placed the publication on their banned list. The inmate who gave me the magazine had come from a southern penitentiary where the guards are more tolerant to this type of publication. In fact, a guard may have given him these.

When I decided to write about my Thanksgiving Day, I planned to conclude with what I was thankful for. However, now that I have reached that point, I find it very difficult. My life is a torturesome existence, and a turkey loaf meal does not relieve much of my anguish. Let me try though to give some thanks....

I am thankful for my deluxe set of Koss stereo head phones that I am wearing now that keep the continuous zoo-like noises at bay, and from driving me insane. I am thankful to the nurse who just brought me my medication so I can gain some sleep and escape from this miserable place. I am thankful for my strength of will and character which has helped me survive these many years spent in the worst maximum-security prisons of Illinois. I am thankful for my memories before my incarceration, and those few that have made me happy after, including the women who have come and gone in my life. I am thankful for my parents who have never given up, and have suffered along with me. Finally, I am thankful for those who support my freedom, and hear my voice beyond these prison walls.