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Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Director Visits Stateville -- June 16, 2009

For the last several days, Stateville has been preparing for a visit from the director of the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC). Over the weekend, prisoners were not allowed out of their cells until late in the day because a large crew of maintenance workers were in the cell house cleaning the exterior walls and other places that prison workers can not reach. During my entire time at Stateville, I have never seen so many maintenance workers, and the fact they were here on a weekend is even more surprising. Last winter the toilet in my cell went out on a Friday, and my cellie and I had to urinate in our sink and defecate on styrofoam food trays until Monday because no maintenance workers were available. However, here they were in mass with all types of equipment getting ready for the director's visit.

The maintenance men brought with them a number of ladders and scaffolds. Some of these ladders were hydraulic, and it took some time to be built up high enough to reach sections of the cell house walls which go up about 50 feet. The bird nests which could not be reached by prison workers with their makeshift sticks were taken down. Bird droppings, dust, and dirt were removed from pipes and other fixtures. A hot air blower near my cell was finally cleaned. It had so much dirt caked on it that it did not function this past winter. Unfortunately, the blower's air filter was not bothered with; only the outside was cleaned. I was hoping the opaque windows would be cleaned so we could look out and more light would come in, but apparently, this would have taken too much time. At least the garbage from inside the window sills was removed.

Early Monday morning, prison workers were let out to clean, wax, and buff the lower floors. They worked hard all night to make this cracked floor shine, and fans were still drying the floors when I awoke. The upper gallery floors were ignored. I suppose that no one thought the director would bother going up the stairs. Those gallery floors are cracked, pitted, and look like gravel paths however, and they could not have been waxed and buffed.

For days before the director's visit, the administrators were acting particularly strict and petty. Often, they were seen going from cell house to cell house, making sure everything was in order, and that prisoners' cells were in "compliance." An assistant warden was seen popping in at the health care unit and library unexpectedly. On the day the director came, chow lines were run a bit tighter and there were more guards watching. The lieutenants were all out there, and even the major was supervising. Prisoners were shaken down going to and from the chow hall. Even I was pulled out of line to be frisked. A guard asked me what was in my pocket. I responded, "some ketchup." Then he let me go back in line.

This preparation reminds me of the time when ex-governor Blagojevich was considering closing the 100-year-old Stateville, and sending all the prisoners to the newly built prison in Thomson. (Thomson was built 4 or 5 years ago, and still stands mostly empty.) A group from Springfield, the capital of Illinois, were known to be coming to visit and inspect the prison. For a couple of weeks, maintenance and prison workers cleaned, painted, buffed floors, hosed windows, fixed noticeable plumbing leaks, etc. Even our visitors were treated nicely that week, and asked to contact their state representatives to keep Stateville open. I remember hoping that when the tour came through, it would be raining so they would see the roof leaking and the buckets that would have to be placed across the gallery. However, it did not rain, and the guards' union, as well as local congressmen, were successful in preventing the closure of Stateville.

The director and a large entourage came through my cell house about 2 p.m. All of the wardens of Stateville followed him, along with a major and some lieutenants. The director came only with a few staff from what I could see. He walked quickly past my cell twice, and I only got a brief look at the man who was the center of all this attention. He was a middle aged black man, wearing a suit, and had a short haircut. From word of mouth, I know he is from the Ohio prison system. He is supposedly in favor of inmate programs, but considering Illinois' abysmal financial state, I doubt anything will change around here. The director is also rumored to be in favor of taking out the guns from the prisons, and using that manpower for other duties. In Ohio, no weapons are permitted in prisons, and guards deal with unruliness and fights with pepper spray, physical force, and when necessary, batons.

I do not have an opinion of Illinois' new director yet. Change in the IDOC has mostly been for the worst during the more than 16 years that I've been incarcerated. And when you are at the bottom, you tend to think matters can only get better. How much worse can it be to live in a cage and be treated like an animal?