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Sunday, December 6, 2009

Thanksgiving Day -- November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving Day is much like any other day in prison. The only distinction is that we get a little better food for lunch, and we are on holiday schedule. A holiday schedule does not mean anything special for inmates. Contrarily, it means we remain in our cells all day except to pick up our lunch and dinner trays. Other than kitchen workers, and a few cell house helpers, there are no prison details. Holiday schedule is not for the inmates, but the guards and staff who work here. They are able to take the day off, or be lazier than usual while earning twice the pay they normally would. More than likely, holiday schedule will continue until Monday.

I slept poorly during the night, despite wearing a pair of ear plugs. I awoke at 5 a.m., when my cellmate was using the toilet. He had a sheet up blocking my view, but it is only about five feet from where my head was. Having to live in such close quarters is something most inmates get used to. However, I have been in prison for about 15 years, and I still am not comfortable with the confines of space. After getting a drink of water from a bottle I keep on the floor next to my bunk, I went back to sleep with my head in the farthest corner from my cellmate.

I woke up several more times before I finally got up for the day a few hours later. My cellmate was dolling up for a visit he was expecting. I made myself a cup of tea, and let it sit a minute while I fed the birds. The sparrows were particularly hungry this morning, and squawked at each other until they realized there was more than enough bread to go around. I flicked out more food than I usually do. It is Thanksgiving Day, and the birds deserve their holiday meal too, I think as I feed them.

My breakfast consisted of a square of crumb cake on which I spread commissary peanut butter, and two small self-serve containers of generic corn flakes. I don't drink tea often, but it was a good combination with the cake. I ate my breakfast on my bunk as usual, as I flipped through the channels on my TV, looking for news. I learned that Governor Quinn granted 133 clemency requests. All were filed during the Blagojevich administration. The Governor made a statement to the press that the petitions were long overdue to be answered, but there was little follow up about the type of clemency granted, or the cases involved. I speculate that most of them were for people who already served their sentences, and were not newsworthy.

My cellie's name was called out on the loudspeaker for a visit. His was the first name of almost 50 announced today. More visitors come to Stateville on Thanksgiving Day than on any other day of the year. My cellmate told me the visiting room quickly filled up to capacity, and when he left there was a huge number of prisoners waiting upstairs for tables to open up. All week has been crowded, even on Tuesday when I visited with my father. Despite holiday visitation being limited to one hour, many visits were cut short or cancelled. Sadly for many prisoners who wanted to be with their family on Thanksgiving Day, an identical visiting room across the hallway remains empty. Apparently, the prison administration is indifferent, and does not want to make accommodations, or intentionally wants to dissuade visitors. Possibly they will say that they lack the extra couple of guards to oversee the other visiting room, but of course, that would be a lie.

While my cellmate was on his visit, I exercised. I typically wait for him to leave to work, chow, or whatever, to work out. The cell is small, and I feel uncomfortable exercising when he is here. I also want to be courteous and not annoying, distracting or cramping his space. My work out is an intense cardio-calisthenic routine, but is brief. I am done within an hour's time.

After working out, I washed up in the sink. I have become accustomed to bathing out of my sink for so many years that a shower now seems odd. When I bathe, I put a bed sheet up that is secured at one end by a hook, and at the other end by pushing it under my cellmate's mattress. The sheet follows the mattress back to the back wall, so it is an L-shape, which gives me a square area of privacy up to my chest. I fill my sink up with hot water using a piece of cardboard to block the drain. I attempt to get the water and suds to fall into my toilet, but plenty goes on the floor. I have a floor rag that I lay out to absorb some of the water, but mostly to prevent water from moving underneath my bunk where my cellmate and I have our boxes and other property.

While I was rinsing off the soap suds, the loudspeaker announced stand by for chow. This typically means that we have a half hour, and sometimes up to two hours, so I was in no hurry. However, a few minutes later, I saw people being let out for chow. I was not going to miss my Thanksgiving Day meal, and I scrambled to dry off, dress, and put my cell in apparent compliance. When I left the cell, there was a pile of items thrown haphazardly behind my bunk, a puddle of water under the toilet, my hair was wet, and I had no socks.

Despite the early chow line, we were forced to wait in one of the chow halls for an hour before given our styrofoam trays to take back to the cells. On Thanksgiving Day, and most other holidays, we do not eat in the chow hall. We just pick up our food in styrofoam trays, and leave. This is supposed to be a quick process, like a drive through, but not today. I spent the time talking with a man from another gallery who I do not see very often. I talked to him through a cyclone fence about stocks, real estate, and financial trusts. He will be released soon, and he has been trying to learn about these matters before he leaves. He intends to raise capital for a real estate business by selling cocaine. I tend to believe he will not be the next Donald Trump, but come quickly back to prison.

Finally, the guard unlocked the gate and allowed us into the serving area. While in line, I asked an old man if chicken hawks eat turkey as well. The man goes by the name "Hawk Eye," however, after he was suspected of being a pedophile, I began to call him "Chicken Hawk." The old man was not amused, but those who overheard were. I was more entertained yesterday when the man was jogging around the gym with a known homosexual in the lead. My cellmate brought this to my attention, and I immediately knew why: the chicken hawk appeared to be chasing the chicken.

Because of the holiday, prisoners' laundry was not picked up. When I returned to the cell, I cleaned up my mess, and began the unpleasant task of washing my clothes by hand. For so many clothes, I slowly filled up my correspondence box with hot water from the sink. As I dumped mug after mug of water into the plastic box, I added more and more clothes to the soapy water, and swished them around. Afterward, I put the lid on and let them soak while I ate my Thanksgiving Day meal.

My lunch consisted of two trays: one warm, and one cold. In the warm tray was a scoop of collard greens, stuffing, macaroni and cheese, and a couple of pieces of turkey-soy loaf with gravy. Turkey loaf is processed turkey that is similar to meat loaf with added soybean meal. Inside the cold tray was a salad with not only lettuce, but onion, green pepper, and tomato. Although guards have a full salad bar, prisoners only receive lettuce throughout the year. Also in the cold tray were two biscuits, noodle salad, and a small prepackaged slice of pumpkin pie. We were also given a little cup of sherbet, but I traded mine for another slice of pie.

I saved my cold tray for later, but ate the warm one while I watched the DVD "Angels and Demons." I read the Dan Brown novel years ago, and it was good to see the movie, although it lacked depth. The food was better than we usually receive, but not as good as the homeless receive from charity groups in Chicago. I was disappointed that we continue to be fed processed turkey-soy, and it has been many years since prisoners in Illinois have been given a really good Thanksgiving Day meal. If these meals were served 20 years ago, the guards would have been dealing with a riot.

After the movie, I wrung out all my clothes and used the soapy water to clean out the toilet. I then used the large steel toilet to rinse my laundry. Although this method is exceedingly quicker than using my sink, I did not finish for two hours. As I write this journal entry, it is 9 p.m., and a few of my socks are still drying. It was a cold, wet day, and I was not able to get a cellhouse help worker to turn on the hot air blower until the second shift.

I did not go out for the dinner meal of bologna sandwiches. Instead, I used the hard boiled eggs we were given for breakfast, and my cold lunch tray to make an egg salad. I was only given two eggs, but my neighbors gave me their eggs, and so I had six. It was difficult cutting up the onion, green pepper, and tomato without a knife. I ended up using my toenail clippers to chop up the onion and green pepper slices. The tomato was torn apart with my nails, and the eggs were shredded with a plastic fork. Despite my method, the egg salad turned out to be pretty good.

The rest of the day I spent reading. Months ago, someone gave me three "Soldier of Fortune" magazines. I made time this evening to read them. I used to read this magazine often, but the Illinois Dept. of Corrections placed the publication on their banned list. The inmate who gave me the magazine had come from a southern penitentiary where the guards are more tolerant to this type of publication. In fact, a guard may have given him these.

When I decided to write about my Thanksgiving Day, I planned to conclude with what I was thankful for. However, now that I have reached that point, I find it very difficult. My life is a torturesome existence, and a turkey loaf meal does not relieve much of my anguish. Let me try though to give some thanks....

I am thankful for my deluxe set of Koss stereo head phones that I am wearing now that keep the continuous zoo-like noises at bay, and from driving me insane. I am thankful to the nurse who just brought me my medication so I can gain some sleep and escape from this miserable place. I am thankful for my strength of will and character which has helped me survive these many years spent in the worst maximum-security prisons of Illinois. I am thankful for my memories before my incarceration, and those few that have made me happy after, including the women who have come and gone in my life. I am thankful for my parents who have never given up, and have suffered along with me. Finally, I am thankful for those who support my freedom, and hear my voice beyond these prison walls.