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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Commissary -- December 9, 2009

My cell house was finally able to receive commissary goods from the prison store. It has been over a month since B House has been permitted to shop. Inmates have been very disgruntled the last few weeks after our shop date was cancelled twice, and then pushed back several times. However, on Monday, we were happy and excited when cell house workers were sent to the commissary building to pick up our store purchases.

Many prisoners were out of food and other supplies. The few who had merchandise were hoarding it, or taking advantage of those who were without by selling things at a ratio of one for two. Thus, the buyer had to pay that person back double of what he borrowed. A couple of prisoners in every cell house make a living by running a one-for-two store. Many who cannot wait till the next shop date, or who are waiting for money, will borrow from these stores. Sweets, coffee, and particularly tobacco (when it was still being sold in prisons), were the biggest sellers at these stores. Coffee is now the #1 sought after item, and inmates will often buy what is called "coffee balls" for a dollar. A coffee ball is instant coffee poured into a small bag and tied. It looks like a golf ball sized bit of coffee. I have never purchased anything from these stores, and never had a need to. I am the ant in the ant and the grasshopper fable, and never go hungry.

It is a lot of work for cell house workers to pick up and pass out commissary goods to approximately 300 prisoners, particularly this Monday. Although commissary workers fill the bags and mark them with a name and cell number, it is the cell house workers that stuff the stapled brown bags into large heavy duty plastic garbage bags, and stack them on carts to bring to the cell house. There were considerably more store purchases than customary, and seven carts were loaded high with bags. If I had been able to see the procession of carts moving to our cell house, it would probably resemble a slow-moving freight train.

At the cell house, the plastic garbage bags are brought to their respective galleries. The plastic bags are torn open then, and the brown paper bags are placed in front of the cells by matching the numbers on the bags with the cell numbers. Cell house workers only come out on their assigned shift. However, on commissary days, all cell house workers are let out.

While inmates do all the strenuous labor, guards will go cell to cell giving inmates their receipts along with an ink pad. Prisoners are required to sign their receipts, and give their right hand fingerprints. This procedure is done to prove inmates received their store purchases. If there are any complaints made later, guards can check the signature and prints to see if they match. Signing your name is also attesting that you received everything you were billed for. However, guards are too busy to stand by your bars, wait, and watch to see if you received all your merchandise. At times, prisoners will lie and say they did not get something they did, or contrarily, a guard will not accept the word of an inmate telling the truth, and he will be ripped off. I will ask a guard to stop for a moment before going to the next cell when I have made an expensive purchase. This is probably unnecessary because I have been at Stateville so long, and most of these guards have known me for years. They know I would not lie to try and get something for free.

My hyper cellmate was eagerly awaiting his commissary bags when workers began to pass them out. When his bags were placed in front of our cell several feet away from the bars, he asked me if I could read his receipt which was stapled onto a bag. I read off the list, and my cellmate was upset that the gym shoes he ordered did not come. For a couple of months, both my cellmate and I have been trying to buy a certain running shoe, although they are of poor quality. My cellmate who jogs in circles in the small yard, and the 1/4 mile track on the large south yard, and in the cell for hours, has nearly worn the soles off his shoes. My cellmate was also upset that his fruit pies were substituted with Bear Claws, though he must not have been too unhappy because he ate all ten of them in a day and a half.

All I ordered was a pair of gym shoes and two pens. I write so much that I am continuously going through pens. Because there is a limit of two on pens, I am often using pencil. This journal entry, like most of my others, is written in pencil. And I see that I am going to have to find some more pencils because I only have one now that is longer than two inches. Apparently, the size of shoe my cellmate and I wear is out of stock, and commissary workers were too lazy to fill an order for just two pens -- because I did not get a bag.

I am angered by the Illinois Dept. of Corrections making a profit from my incarceration. Illinois prisons are allowed to overcharge prisoners 25% on all commissary purchases. On top of this, Stateville has been breaking the law to make even more money by adding 3% to the prices before adding the 25% allowed by legislation. An audit was recently done showing Stateville's commissary earning $2.3 million in 2008, $500,000 dollars more than permitted. Stateville has responded by saying they believed they could add costs for commissary staff, utilities, and warehouse space before adding the 25%. However, the 25% is supposed to include these expenses. Stateville has also been caught not using competitive bidding, and giving contracts to friends and family of prison administrators.

The reason B House has not shopped in over a month is due to a lockdown, and the laziness of the commissary supervisor. Recently, overtime, which has been abused by Stateville staff, has been cut to save money. Staff's reaction to this has been to work even slower than they were previously. They want to force the administration's hand to hire more unnecessary staff, or let them continue to make double time and six figure salaries along with their plush benefits. The supervisor of the prison's commissary says that if he and his civilian workers are not allowed to make overtime, they will only be able to let prisoners shop twice a month. Earlier this year, inmates' four shops a month were cut to three, and now the supervisor wants to see if he can push it to two. Rumor has it that our new warden is not going to let him get away with this, and has threatened to fire him if work does not get done.

Stateville offers a variety of merchandise for prisoners to buy. I have been told it has more selection than many other prisons in the state, albeit Stateville does not sell a number of products that are sold in minimum or medium security prisons due to security reasons. For example, I cannot buy a pencil sharpener, and am currently writing with a dull pencil. Occasionally I scrape it down with my toe nail clippers. Another example is toothbrushes, which are only 3" long and made of flexible rubber. State toothbrushes given out to the indigent are hard plastic, but only 2" in length. I must almost stick my hand in my mouth to brush my back teeth, and I often drool on myself when brushing.

Stateville is the only prison in Illinois, except Tamms Supermax, that does not allow inmates to go to the commissary to make purchases. At other penitentiaries, prisoners tell a commissary worker what they want though a plexiglass or wire mesh window, and the workers fill their bags. The bags are then rung up at a register by civilian staff. There are a number of disadvantages to not being allowed to shop like everyone else. When you fill out a list, often you do not know what you are getting, or if the item is in stock. If present at the order counter, you could look at the product to see if you wanted it. At the register, you could also try on a pair of shoes to see if they fit. Stateville prisoners must guess how much money they will have on their account when the orders are filled. They cannot make last minute additions or substitutions. Furthermore, those at other prisons do not have any problems with being charged for items they did not receive or shoes that do not fit.

Although most prisoners would like to shop at commissary, there are some who do not, and there is probably a good reason for Stateville's shop in abstentia policy. Regularly, people at other prisons, particularly maximum security or high-medium security institutions, are coerced or beaten at commissary for their purchases. At Pontiac Correctional Center, I often saw people have their bags taken by force. Typically, a victim will give up their store when threatened, but there are times that people have been severely beaten or even stabbed. The weak and non-gang-affiliated are often targeted. However, being in a gang is not always protection, because gang members must pay dues, and are at the mercy of their mob leaders. White men, especially younger men from the suburbs who are often thought of as soft, and typically are, are also preyed upon more. Suburban white prisoners often have more money and do not know how to react to intimidation and violence. At Cook County Jail, I was regularly protecting white people from the gang bangers, and other thugs. Although I was only 18, white, and from an affluent suburb, I was not your typical suburban teen. Despite having autism, I was not a coward, and often went without fear. I did not fear the hoodlums in the county jail. I feared a natural life sentence where I would be put in continual anguish, torment, and misery until the end of time.