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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Birds of Stateville -- May 20, 2009

In the general population cell houses of Stateville live over a hundred birds. These birds are sparrows; they are small, light gray birds except for the males who have some darker brown and black markings. Birds have lived inside the prison for years, and I assume long before I ever came here. The birds used to be able to travel freely in and out of the prison through large barred windows that are kept open half the year. However, last year the prison administration ordered screens to be put up to get rid of them. Fortunately, this did not work and they are still here in great numbers.

I like the birds of Stateville. Life is very dreary and depressing in prison. Oftentimes, I feel like a zombie, but the birds are amusing, interesting and cheerful. I watch them hop around looking for food or nesting materials. I hear them chirp and sing to each other. They sit and sing from window sills, the gun tower balcony, plumbing or electric pipes.

The courtship rituals of the birds are such I have not seen before, and involve the male bird conducting an elaborate dance around the female while chirping to impress her. If the female is unreceptive, she will peck at the male to go away, but he does not give up easily. Quite surprising is their passionate mating rituals that last a half hour or longer. The female will fly fast and recklessly, being closely followed by the male until landing on the ground where the male will pin the female down and they will peck at each other. Initially you might think they are fighting, but they are not, and occasionally their beaks will lock as if they were French kissing. The birds will flap around on the ground and in different positions until getting up to fly again. Then they repeat this ritual.

Sparrows are resourceful and smarter than one would expect. When thirsty, they will go to a leaking faucet. They turn upside down or hover like a Hummingbird to get a drink. They also will fly through a couple of doors at night to get into the prison shower. Their nests are elaborately made from garbage they find laying about: string, wires, pieces of cloth, broom straws. A scavenging bird finding no food will sometimes beg at the cell bars. I have turned to see a bird on my bars, chirping at me as if he were demanding food. I will always oblige such a courageous bird with a treat. Even when the birds do not beg, I will occasionally throw small pieces of bread, cookie crumbs, or their favorite, doughnuts, on the gallery, to the annoyance of the workers who must clean it up, or end up cleaning the bird droppings.

Today, when I came back from my visit, I noticed gallery workers had devised long poles by tying together broomsticks. They were using them to knock down the bird nests above. A guard was also using the butt of his rifle to knock down nests that were built underneath the balcony on the cell house outer wall. There were nest materials and tiny dead chicks all along the gallery wall. I was sad, and angered by this sight. A gallery worker seemed full of pride as he was pointing out to people the little dead birds. I said to him, "Do you take pleasure in killing baby birds?" He responded that it was not his doing and just his job to clean it up. It was a cruel sight to behold, but then again, the world is a cruel place.

My cellie will occasionally joke that I am the "bird whisperer" because of my fondness of the birds and my low voice. I have contemplated capturing a bird to make my pet. However, the guards would never allow this, and I would have to hide it. Years ago, I could have made a Tweetie bird cage out of Popsicle sticks and placed it in the back corner of my cell. But, I would not have done this. I live in a cage, and although I am fed, I am not happy. I am away from my family and friends, and have had all freedom stripped from me. I would be condemning the bird to a lonely, miserable life--trapped in a cage and unable to fly.

Big Yard -- March 2009

When we are not on lockdown, the prisoners usually get two "recreation" periods a week. Rec is about 2 hours long, and consists of groups of prisoners being herded into one of three yards or the gym. "Big Yard" is Stateville's south yard, and favored by most prisoners. The Big Yard is literally big with plenty of grass, a quarter mile running track, basketball and handball courts, tables, telephones, and weights. The other yards are small, and consist of just two basketball courts surrounded by fence and razor wire. It is very cramped and there is nothing much to do but play basketball. I rarely ever go to the small yards.

It was nice to be on the south yard after being confined to my cell for a month. The last time we had "big yard" or any "recreation" was in February. The best thing about south yard is the space. I look upon the grass in such a way that I can avoid seeing the fencing, razor wire, gun tower, prison buildings, or any of the prisoners I must live with. For a few moments, I will pretend that I am alone and free.

The weights and benches on the yard are in very poor condition. There are also not many of them so prisoners must share by taking turns, or at times, arguing about them. Four benches made of welded steel and bolted wood, a steel incline bench with no seat, an unstable preacher bench made for a midget, and parallel bars make up all the south yard's equipment. Along with this are about 30 bars with weights welded onto them. These bars are not weights you would find at a health club, but scrap iron exposed to the elements. They are rusted, some are bent, uneven, or broken. There are no free weights or dumbbells to prohibit, or at least discourage, prisoners from using them as weapons.

Like the weights, the telephones are in the same shape. There are eight telephones, but only two of them work. We are allowed to use a phone brought to our cells, and I almost never use the yard phones so it is not much of a loss for me or possibly for any one else.

After walking the track for awhile by myself, I went to the weight pile. I avoided any crowd of people and used weights or equipment not being used or by only a few. I was careful not to aggravate a herniated disk in my lower back. My back pain can be severe, but I pushed myself through it. Before working out, I had chewed a few strong anti-inflammatories, but even so, I paid the price later for exercising. I don't regret it, and today was a relatively good day.