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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Mission Impossible -- July 11, 2009

As an inmate at a maximum-security prison, and without access to various tools and other resources, I have learned to improvise a lot to improve the quality of my life. I sometimes call these more difficult improvisations "mission impossibles" because of their doubtful success. This week, I took on a number of these missions.

Prisoners are allowed small, 3-speed, clear plastic fans. I have one, and it vibrated off my shelf, and fell onto the concrete floor. One of the plastic blades cracked off. My mission, if I chose to accept it, was to repair my fan.

I took off the front cover, and forced the blade from the axle. Looking at the broken blade, I thought this was an easy problem to fix, if only I had some super glue. However, we do not have access to any type of glue. There were two routes I could take, neither of which were very promising: I could tape the blade back on, or melt the blade back on.

I decided to begin with the taping idea because if that failed, I could always go on to the melting option. Prisoners do not have access to tape, however, I pealed off the clear tape used on our mail to seal envelopes that have been opened and inspected in the mail room. I carefully, and slowly removed the tape from several envelopes. I then meticulously secured the two pieces of the fan blade together. I thought I did a very good job, and it was time to test its integrity.

I turned my fan on to the lowest speed, and watched with anticipation. The fan worked perfectly, but I wondered if it could withstand a higher speed, so I turned the dial again. The blade spun around as if there was nothing wrong with it. At that moment, I thought I should not test my luck. Here is a fan blade, held together by used Scotch tape, and I should just be happy. However, I was not, and I had to see if it would survive full speed. Not long after turning the dial, the blade broke apart and made a loud noise.

After pealing off all the torn tape, I began to attempt to melt the pieces together. Matches are now contraband in Illinois' prisons since smoking was outlawed. I had to create fire another way. I untied two wires on my fan, and then struck them together like flint. Sparks came off the wires, and I held a wound paper stick with a cotton swab fixed to the end. The cotton swab had been taken off a Q-tip that had some petroleum jelly on it. Whenever I do this, I feel a bit like Bear Grills in the survivor show "Men vs. Wild", but it works, and soon I had fire. I put a plastic spoon into the fire, which melted, and I dribbled it onto the fan blade. I coated the break with this melted plastic, being careful not to burn myself or get the fan blade too hot. The melted plastic quickly dried. The blade did not look pretty, but it if worked, that is all that matters. Again, the blade stayed together until I put the fan on high speed. It then broke violently. I surveyed the damage. I could not melt it back together again. Mission Impossible #1 ends as a failure. However, I learned of a man whose fan died, and I convinced him to give me one of his blades.

A few years ago, the Orange Crush team, a special tactical squad equipped with shields, batons, tear gas, and dressed in soldier boots, knife proof vests, helmets, and wearing bright orange jump suits, tore through Stateville like a tornado. They tossed inmates' cells, looking for contraband. In their reckless search of my cell, my radio was thrown on the floor and broken. A speaker was dislodged and shorted out. The radio also had a crack across the top, and the door for the batteries was also damaged. Later when I turned my radio on, I discovered that not only was the right speaker dead, but reception was almost gone. This week, I became determined to repair my radio--mission #2.

The radio is made of clear plastic, and thus I can see inside it. However, the radio is fitted with security screws to prevent inmates from opening them up. To get at the wiring, and the board, I had to pry out a speaker cover. I then broke off a couple of pieces of plastic to pull out my broken speaker. I discovered that one of the small wires leading to and around the tweeter was shredded. I tried various ways to repair the wire, but it was not possible.

I found someone with an extra speaker the following day. He owed me a favor, and gave it to me for free. Cutting the wires to the old speaker, and then stripping them, I tied the ends tightly around the solder of the new speakers. I finally had two working speakers, and was about to close it back up, but I figured I should also try to repair the antennae wire. Something was wrong with it, and it was not that I live behind concrete walls and bars that prevented me from getting reception. Using a paperclip as a hook, I pulled out the internal wire leading to the antenna. I determined there was a short in it, and pulled out another wire that goes to the batteries, which were not needed because prisons no longer sell large batteries. I used this wire to replace the antennae wire. Unfortunately, in the process of tying this wire onto the board solder and the screw of the antennae, I pulled out another wire. This wire was a power wire, and needed to be soldered and could not be tied. Lacking solder, I used my all-purpose Scotch tape to tape it on the board. Trying to do all this from the speaker hole, and a smaller hole in the back was very tedious, time consuming, and difficult. It was tantamount to building a sail boat inside a glass bottle. However, I finally finished, and everything was working until a slight bump dislodged my precarious repair job.

I was very frustrated. After many hours of work over a period of days, the radio was broken again. Indeed, it did not work at all now. The prison does not allow you to send out your radio for repair, and they no longer sell radios in maximum security prisons. This mission was apparently too difficult for me. I turned to a man who had graduated from electronic school before coming to prison. He was able to open up the radio, and had solder to reconnect all the wires. He fixed all of this, and even repaired the volume knob, which had been shorting out. I sent him some Tuna fish and postage in gratitude.

I was disappointed in myself for failing two missions in a row. However, I redeemed myself by making rice crispy treats without having any marshmallows or a hot pot. With my own recipe of boiled pancake syrup, poured on top of rice crispy cereal, a touch of oatmeal, peanut butter, and peanuts, I was able to make a decent replica. The treats were not as crunchy as they should have been. They came out more like granola bars, but for my first try ever to make a desert, I thought it was a success.

The following day, I made watch bands for my cellie and I out of a couple of prison baseball caps that had velcro strips. Our watch bands had long ago broken and because the prison does not sell new ones, we had resorted to taping our watches to our bunk posts. However, with some borrowed items, the thread and velcro taken out of the baseball caps, and a skillfully bent paper clip, we now have professional looking watch bands.

In prison with a natural life sentence, life is very meaningless and devoid of purpose. However, when I am able to complete difficult tasks and be creative, I feel productive and have a sense of accomplishment. Many of my so called "mission impossibles" are probably trivial problems that most people would not take any pride in solving outside these walls. However, on the inside, there is a totally different perspective.