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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Autism -- October 15, 2009

Earlier today, I went to the prison Health Care Unit. The HCU is a building about a block away from the cell house, and is connected to the hallway that leads to the front gates of the prison and visiting room. The building is one story, but has a number of sections. There is an emergency room, a dental office, a few doctor offices, and a lounge area for HCU staff. In the back is the infirmary where inmates are celled who are recovering from surgery, sickness, or just cannot be placed in general population due to severe physical disabilities or health problems. The HCU also has a few offices for the prison psychiatrist and two psychologists. After waiting in a crowded caged area, my name was called, and I walked to my psychologist's office.

Once a month, I am given a pass to see the psychologist. I have been seeing a psychologist ever since I was transferred here. In 2004, when I was in Pontiac, I intentionally walked myself to segregation, and I refused to come out despite being repeatedly told to leave. Pontiac's Segregation Unit is considered the most punitive, isolating, and harsh prison in Illinois, other than Tamms Supermax. My mother became concerned about my mental wellness because it is apparently abnormal to want to live under such conditions, and she had called the prison administration. I was tricked into being transferred to Stateville by being told I was going to a medium-security prison. Much to my dismay, I was brought here. Stateville was the last prison I wanted to go to. Once here, I was given a pass to see the psychologist, which I crumpled up and threw into my toilet. I was issued another pass, but this time a guard came to my cell to escort me.

Pontiac Segregation, along with Tamms Supermax, house the most violent, dangerous, or unruly prisoners. You are not sent to Pontiac or Tamms unless you have committed, or are accused of, a major rule infraction, or gang organization. I was already at Pontiac, however, and thus I was not transferred there. At Pontiac, you are kept in your cell 24 hours a day except on occasion, thanks to a mandatory federal law that allows you to go outside to be placed in an empty 10 by 5 foot cage. They remind me of dog runs, and I never bothered to accept this "privilege." For fun, dislike, or their antisocial personalities, inmates would bring squirt bottles out to shoot urine and feces at each other from these cages. They also did this from the bars of their cells until the bars were covered over with steel or Plexiglas. Thanks, but no thanks--I stayed in my cell.

Most inmates fear being sent to Pontiac or Tamms. The isolation, confinement, and loss of television and radio for long periods of time is a strong deterrent. At Pontiac, your commissary privileges are taken, and you are limited in property. Inmates also must live on a 1,500 calorie diet, unless they are able to make trades with other inmates. While there, I dropped over 30 pounds, and when I got out, some people who knew the muscle-bound man from before, wondered if I had cancer.

Visitation is restricted to two one-hour visits a month behind glass. On your visit, you are handcuffed, shackled, and chained to the floor. Many a man has been broken by the harsh and isolating conditions at Pontiac. However, to me, Pontiac was not a punishment. I had a single man cell to myself, and did not have to interact with all the undesirable people in prison. In fact, I was quite content to be by myself with my books, mail, and peaceful existence away from the "zoo." Possibly, there is a reason for my different perspective.

I have autism, but I am not like the "Rain Man" or like what most people imagine. I am a person on the high functioning end of the spectrum of this neurological disability. If you met me, you would probably not even know that I was any different from anyone else. Even though I was diagnosed with autism as a toddler, I have always questioned it, as has my father, until not long ago. I have thought my personality, behavior and child development were just my own individual style, filled with idiosyncrasies. Yes, I have always been a bit different, or eccentric, compared to others, but then, who is not? However, in the last five years, autism awareness in this country has greatly increased, and after reading about this disability, I cannot deny that I am somewhere on the autism spectrum.

Although I learned to walk and do many things quicker than other children, I did not learn to speak until much later. Even when I learned to verbally communicate, I was quiet, nonsocial, and introverted, as I am still to this day. Lacking good interpersonal skills, I have been a loner most of my life, with few friendships. As a child, I was very sensitive to loud noises and bright lights, but at the same time, I had an insensitivity to pain. My mother tells me a story that when I was about 3 years old, she smelled something awful burning and discovered that I was leaning up against an electric popcorn maker, oblivious to the burning of my flesh. I do not have a scar on my back, but my sister corroborates the incident. I also had obsessive behaviors and interests. While some kids may play a couple hours on a particular theme, I would play a scenario out for days, if not weeks, and my play was less fanciful than others; I would read many books just to make sure I had certain facts correct. I did not enjoy coloring books, but would create and draw complex mazes and charts for hours.

In junior and senior high school, I was, at times, overwhelmed by all the people I had to interact with. It was incredibly draining, particularly when I attended Lincoln Way High, which has a few thousand students. My parents wondered why I slept so much, and it was not because I stayed up late. I missed a lot of days of school, not to play hooky, but just to give myself a break. On those days that I didn't go to school, I often just hid in my bedroom. School is much about social interplay, and not just studying. Lacking certain social skills, I often did not get along well with classmates. In my high school years, I often was indifferent to students at my school. Other than pretty girls who got my attention, I kept myself limited to a few friends who did not go to my school, and were much older. Although I was not socially adept, I was more mature, both physically and mentally, than most of my peers.

In prison, I have a number of problems that are unique to me, and make my life all the more miserable, if not torturous. Unlike when I attended high school, I cannot escape my environment. I am forced to deal with hundreds of prisoners. Even when I stay in my cell, I cannot hide because my cell has bars, and we are no longer allowed curtains. The constant interaction with a cellmate and numerous strangers, along with blaring noises, can cause great mental anguish and even disrupt my ability to function. Not being able to retreat to a safe place of my own, or have freedom to organize my life as I would like, causes much anxiety and frustration. Connecting with and relating to the various prisoners and guards at the maximum security prisons I have been to is difficult. Since childhood, I have learned to deal with many problems; I have learned to control mental anguish, frustration, and anxiety by keeping my emotions, passions, and thoughts within myself.

Initially, I did not want to see a psychologist, but now I do so willingly. After much resistance, I have even begun to take medication to help me sleep better and to control my anxiety. At the psychologist's office, I discuss certain problems I may have, and she will give me her advice; on occasion she can have some insights or helpful ideas. The psychologist seems to spend more time with me than with the other patients, even though most of them are insane, sexual predators, schizophrenics, or have serious mental conditions. I tend to believe this is because my condition is unique, and that I am not your typical convict.

Today, I spoke to the doctor about my cellie becoming angry at me for putting some of his excessive rolls of toilet paper in his box. After noticing how messy his box was, I was not able to stop myself from reorganizing all his property into neat sections. She wanted to know how many rolls of toilet paper he had (20), and if I knew why he was mad, and how much he was mad. I am regularly moving my cellie's property to put it away or put it in its proper place. However, I have never organized his entire box before. Typically, I care less how sloppy he is, as long as I don't have to see it or deal with it.

The psychologist told me she noticed I was standing in the corner facing away from the people in the waiting cage. She knows how much it bothers me to be put in a sardine can with numerous obnoxious and loud people yelling and talking, but I told her again. I also mentioned how it would be nice if I was at Tamms Supermax where I would not have a cellie, and would have quiet isolation. This concerned her, and she wanted to make sure I was not planning to do something to get myself sent there. I have thought about this often, however, I did not inform the doctor of this. I do not have any plans in the near future to be sent to Tamms anyway, despite how much happier I think I would be. I need to work on my post-conviction appeal, and I realize how my family likes to visit me regularly. Despite how my mother conspired to get me to Stateville to be close to home, and how unenjoyable most visits are due to the noise, I will stay here for now. Possibly, in the future, however, I may be mailing my posts from southern Illinois at the state's supermax.