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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Cracker -- September 19, 2009

My cellmate goes by the name of Cracker. Although it is usually a derogatory name people of color use against Caucasians, it does not bother him. He grew up in a predominately Mexican neighborhood, and joined a Mexican gang. Those that knew him, and were his friends, called him Cracker. Apparently, over the years, he came to identify himself with the slur, and the name has stuck with him. I refuse to call him Cracker, but almost everyone in Stateville does.

Cracker's real name is Jon, and he once was a member of the "Maniacs." Jon grew up in Elgin, Illinois where, apparently, there is a large gang element. He joined this gang when he was young, and was often in and out of juvenile detention centers or youth homes. He has told me he missed his entire high school years while in juvenile prisons. When he was 22 years old, he was in a confrontation with a rival gang. He pulled out a gun, and shot and killed one of them. For this, he was sentenced to 40 years at 100%. He will not get out of prison until he is 62.

Jon does not deny his guilt, and has told me about the shooting. Although at the time he thought his actions were justifiable, and there was a possibility that his own life was in jeopardy, he now regrets what he has done. He still maintains some friendships with certain gang members, but long ago he ceased being a member, and regrets ever being in a gang. I do believe he is a much different person from the man who entered prison. Not that the Illinois Dept. of Corrections has "corrected" him; it has not. Time and maturity, however, affects everyone, and looking at another 29 years in prison tends to change most people's perspective. Forty years was an excessive sentence, in my opinion, and I hope he does not end up serving all of it.

Jon is 33 years old, but he looks older than his age with already wrinkled skin, and a bald head. He is a gangly 6'2" man with light freckles and an orange beard. If you would give him some green clothes and a hat, he could pass for a leprechaun if he was short. In fact, today while watching the Notre Dame college football game, he remarked that he could be the Fighting Irish mascot, and I must agree with him. Although my cellmate once identified with being a Mexican gang banger, it seems he has now embraced his roots of being an Irish Catholic. He has a great knowledge of Celtic history and customs. He is also a dedicated Catholic who regularly reads one of his many Bibles, and prays on his rosary beads.

Jon and I have been cellmates since Feburary. He does have some annoying habits, and we are far apart politically, but he is the best cellie I have had at Stateville. At a maximum security prison where you are often on lockdown, and live in a violent environment, it is exceedingly important to have a cellmate you get along with. You share the same small space for days, weeks, and sometimes for months at a time. You must learn how to live together for long periods of time. It is not easy, and I have had problems with the cellmates that have led to violence. However, Jon is friendly, very polite, and courteous.

Some prisoners do not know how to occupy their time, and will expect a lot of interaction with their cellie. I am not one of those people, and neither is Jon. We will play chess, cards, and Scrabble once in a while, or on occasion, watch a movie together. We also have a good rapport with each other, unlike most of my former cellies who I had avoided conversation with, or would never have considered interacting with more than necessary. Although we share the same cell, and get along well, we are mostly preoccupied with our own interests and pastimes.

Jon spends much of his time reading and exercising. He has several Bibles that he reads, including a huge hardback illustrated Bible that looks like it is a collector's edition from the Middle Ages. I kid him by saying that he will not win any extra points in heaven for how big his Bible is. I also tell him there is no longer a parole board, and he need not try to impress chaplains, guards, or other staff. However, Jon does not just have his Bibles as show pieces. He does read them every day, and has a good understanding of theology, particularly Catholicism. He is currently taking a correspondence class in religious studies. He also reads many novels and nonfiction books. He is currently reading a very basic book on physics.
Almost every day, Jon will do cardiovascular exercises for several hours. He will jog in place for enormous amounts of time. Prisoners will often poke fun at him for his continual jogging. The other day, a guard told him he was already caught, and there is no point running now. I will tell him that he is like the Energizer Bunny, that just keeps on going and going. And I don't always say this with a smile because it can be annoying to have a man jogging for three hours in this small cell. I am trapped on the other side of the cell while he exercises, although he will stop or switch places with me if I express a need to do something at the other end.

Jon is overly obsessed with dying in prison, or being so old when he is released that the remnants of his life will be worthless. Thus, the major reasons for his extreme cardio workouts and embracement of religion. He also is a vegetarian, and will not eat any type of meat. He has declared himself some unusual sect of Catholicism to be served a special diet tray without meat. Nearly every day, I will notice him staring in one of our plastic mirrors, dwelling on his aging face and the loss of his hair. I tell him he is fortunate these are plastic mirrors. I also hide one of my mirrors, not that he will crack it, but because his constant handling wears away the reflective surface on the back. John is planning to file a request for executive clemency soon, asking for a more lenient sentence. He goes out of his way to appear to be a model prisoner, which can be annoying at times. He actually thanks guards for locking him in his cage.

Jon is a very hyper, restless, and anxious person. He usually contains himself because he realizes it is annoying to others. However, sometimes he will bother me. He can, on occasion, ramble on for hours speaking very fast. He has made fun of me for my typically low pitched, and thoughtful speech, saying I am like "Lurch" from the Adams Family. I counter by saying if I am Lurch, you would be "Cousin It" on the show, if you only had hair on your head. His response will be an imitation of Lurch, the butler, saying "Y-o-o-u-u R-a-a-n-n-g-g?" My cellie will sometimes invade my space to do something because of his impatience. On occasion, I will punish him by punching him in the ribs, or poking him with my "Spear of Destiny", which is just a hard stick I made with tightly wound magazine pages, and a pen. It is really my remote control that I use to change stations on my TV from a distance. The "Spear of Destiny" is a name given the spear that a Roman soldier allegedly used to stab Christ while on the cross. By legend, it has special powers. Another quite annoying habit my cellie has is blowing his nose so loud that people can hear it on the other side of the cell house. It sounds like a fog horn, although he says it is the bag pipes of Ireland playing. Jon is also a packrat, and I must continually rebuke him about his excess property and clutter in the cell. For example, he currently has 20 rolls of toilet paper, which I told him he must keep in his box, or I will throw some away.

My cellie can be particularily hyper if he drinks coffee. Because he can be this way, I have made a rule that he can only drink coffee before he goes to the barbership or before noon. One night, he began to make himself a large mug of coffee. It was thicker than crude oil. I refused to let him get any water, and he ended up asking a neighbor to fill it up with hot water. While doing that, I dumped the rest of his instant coffee in the toilet. He was very upset, but I feel quite justified. He is bouncing off the walls after drinking lots of coffee, and I did not want his mania disturbing me.

Jon is well read on a number of subjects, and it is good to be able to talk to him about such matters that most prisoners at Stateville would be clueless about. However, he would often brag that he was a genius, and deride me for only being "gifted." Like many in prison who believe their lives are meaningless, it is good to feel superior about something, whether that be basketball, chess, or having a high IQ. However, just because you read a lot, and have cluttered your mind with lots of trivia, it does not make you intelligent. Living with Jon, I knew he did not have a genius IQ, and finally I convinced him to take an IQ test that I had procured from a course in psychology that I had taken years ago. Jon had a subaverage score, and he no longer brags of being a genius. Perhaps I should not have given him the test, and deflated his ego. There is so little to be proud of in here.

Today I watched the Notre Dame Fighting Irish play the Michigan State Spartans. Although I like the Spartans more, to make my cellie happy, I rooted for Notre Dame. I made us some chicken fajitas with commissary bought flour tortillas, Velveeta cheesy rice, refried beans, and a noodle salad with some onions, peppers, and egg mixed in. I also shredded salad off our lunch trays. My cellie does not eat meat, so when I cooked these things, I did not put any chicken in his fajitas. I offered him a soda, but he declined. He didn't want the excess sugar, and it was probably just as well not to give him any sugar. Notre Dame won in a close game by three points, and my Fighting Irish mascot was a happy camper.

I have made a long entry writing about Jon. This is more than appropriate due to how significantly a cellmate effects your time in prison. A bad cellie can make your life miserable, and a good one can make your time much more pleasant. Jon is not a person I would associate with outside of prison, however, he is a good cellmate, and I hope neither of us are moved.