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Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Law Library Ambush -- August 24, 2010

Details and other movement were delayed in my cell house this morning. There was a fight in another part of the prison where a guard working the catwalk fired a warning shot. From what I was informed later, the cell house lieutenant told the guard to stand down because everything was under control, but the guard was trigger happy and fired a shot into the ceiling anyway. Guards too often fire their rifles, endangering not only prisoners, but staff as well. Although a guard may shoot into the ceiling or into a warning shot box, the pellets they use as ammunition often are scattered and have the habit of bouncing off objects. Last year, when the new director of IDOC walked through, there was talk of taking all the weapons out of the prison, or at least in the cell houses, but this was never implemented. Director Randle is under pressure to step down now, and he may soon resign.

Eventually, inmates were let out in B House to go to their work assignments, the Health Care Unit, and other destinations. The warden had decided not to put the entire prison on lockdown, but only the cell house where the incident occurred. E House had just been taken off lockdown for another fight which occurred Friday evening. Because of this fight, night yard was cancelled for 2 and 4 gallery in my cell house. I was in the chow hall when this fight occurred, and we were just about to be let out onto the South yard. Instead, we were sent back to our cells and locked in our cages for the night.

Around 10 a.m., the afternoon law library list was announced on the loudspeaker. Inmates never know if they will be allowed to go to the library until the list is called out. Many people fill out request slips, but only 30 names make the list. One of the staff members who works at the library decides who is allowed to go based on court orders, deadlines, and most urgent need. She is not always fair in the list she creates, and there are usually several disgruntled inmates. I had some legal work I needed to do in the library, but my name was not called. That was just as well, because after last Thursday's visit to the library, I was not eager to go back there.

On Thursday, the 19th of August, my name was surprisingly called on the loudspeaker for the law library. I never put in for Thursday library because it is run during the morning. Mornings are my time to have some cell space alone when my cellmate leaves to work in the barbershop. I had already put on my shorts and gym shoes to exercise as soon as my cellmate left. I often get visits on Thursdays, and today I was expecting my family to come early. I probably would not be called until after I returned from library, but this meant I would be out of my cell the entire day. I did not like having to deal with Stateville's inmates, guards, and others for long periods of time only to return to my cell occupied with my very talkative and hyper cellmate. Furthermore, legal boxes are not taken out of storage for inmates at the library on Thursdays. One of the reasons I go to the law library is to gain access to my legal materials which I am unable to fit in my two cell boxes. Unhappily, I took off my shoes and shorts, and dressed in state blues. I came very close to waiving my privilege to go the law library, and if I had E.S.P. I would have.

The law library line was very noisy. On the walk over to the building, the sun was already beating down hard. It was only a quarter past 9, but the temperature was already a muggy 85-90 degrees. Inmates in the library and school lines which are run together in the morning, were talking loudly to each other and yelling to those on the South yard. The line was stopped to allow prisoners from other cell houses to join the line, and while standing there I looked over some of my legal papers to remind myself of what I needed to do in the library. I did not have time to make a list before I was let out of my cell, and did not want to waste time. Inmates are given only an hour or two to conduct all their legal work before they are told to leave.

Eventually, the law library and school line made it to the library building. Those going to grade school or high school classes continued on their walk while inmates going to the library waited outside. There is usually a wait before we go inside, but this morning it was a little longer than usual. As I entered the library, I found out why. About 20 guards quickly came out from around the corner and closed in about us. They shouted at us to put our hands in the air and line up along the wall. We were then ordered to place our papers on the floor and face towards the wall. People began to do as they were told, but lowered their hands. We were then shouted at to keep our hands up and put them on the fencing. I felt like I was a victim in a bank robbery and thought about how I knew I should have stayed in my cell today. For the next couple of hours, I was not going to be able to do any legal work, but be continually demeaned and harassed.

One side of the main room of the library is a painted cyclone fence. This fence is here to lock in inmates from Segregation who have court orders to have law library access. There are about 8 small cages that are kept locked. Some of the cages are also used to store some inmates' legal boxes as well. The cage I stared into was empty and was used to hold Segregation inmates. I grabbed onto the fence above my head as I waited to be searched.

This was not a routine shake down. The major was present along with several members of Internal Affairs. Most of the guards, however, were from the movement team, or pulled off of other assignments. The guards went meticulously from inmate to inmate. We were not strip searched, but we were thoroughly patted down and told to take off our shoes. The guards went page by page through a number of prisoners' legal books and papers. Some inmates had a stack of papers and numerous books with them. Several guards looked through their property, but most inmates only had one guard search them and their papers. Some guards stood by just for security and to make sure prisoners did not move out of position. I assume the library itself was searched before we arrived, but some guards may have been searching while we were lined up against the fence.

The major and other guards shouted at prisoners who dared to look behind them, or turn their heads. The major told one man, "Why the fuck you keep looking back here! Face forward. If I see you glancing around again, I am going to take you to Seg." To another inmate, he shouted, "Face the fuck forward! What is your problem?! No one is reading your legal papers." A guard also snapped on some man who pivoted his head to the side. The man said he had a pinched nerve in his neck. The guard told him if he kept on turning his head, he will have more than a sore neck and be taken to Segregation.

Guards can search through inmates' property, but they are prohibited from reading privileged legal documents and correspondence with their attorneys. Many guards do not care about this rule, and do so anyway. An inmate can write and file a grievance on any staff who reads their privileged legal papers, although grievances typically are dismissed and written in vain despite the issue or any corroboration. In guards' defense, though, determining legal product from other papers is not always readily apparent.

The prison population in maximum-security has become increasingly older. There are many men now over 50 years old with various medical conditions. Even I was feeling lower back pain and sciatica pain as I stood there against the fence for over a hour. The man who spoke about a pinched nerve in his neck was an older black man, and I do not believe he was lying. However, our comfort is of no concern to our captors. The major and guards were obviously trying to make a statement of force and control.

After a half hour into the search, some of the guards began to make jokes. I heard one say to another, "Is pornography legal material?" Another voice asked to no one in particular, "Do these inmates know what they are allowed to bring to the library?" He was now looking at the porn magazine and said, "I think this is contraband. I may have to take this." The major shouted that the prisoners know what we can and cannot bring to the law library. A guard then said, "I don't know. This centerfold could be an exhibit to an appeal." Another guard then told the other they will never get done if they continue to search porn magazines.

The library is not just a law library. It is an all purpose library, and men can bring any type of reading materials with them, even porn, I suppose. I have never heard of any prohibition against Playboy or other magazines and books. I am not certain what was taken by the guards during the search, but when it was over, they did have a few bags of property. Later I was told by an inmate that the guards took his pens. There was more than pens in those bags, however.

It was some time before a guard began to search me. I was in the middle of the line, and the guards began searching at the ends. They also focused their attention on the inmates who had brought over a lot of property. All I had brought with me was one 9" x 11" envelope containing about 1" of papers in it. In my pockets, I had 8 pencils bound in a rubber band, tissue paper, and a small instant oatmeal package with a teaspoon of garlic powder in it. After library, I assumed we would be taken directly to the chow hall, and I wanted the garlic to season the soy spaghetti I heard was on the menu. I bring all my pencils to the library because this year a pencil sharpener was put out for inmates to use. I will easily dull 8 pencils in a week, depending on how much writing I do. I am currently writing with one of those pencils.

The guard searching me was a respectful and polite black man I have known for some time. His pat down was light, and he did not pull out my pencils or packet of garlic for inspection. He did tell me to take off my shoes, and he did go through my papers, but rather quickly. I tend to believe the guards know who the troublemakers are, and search them more thoroughly. I also tend to believe the guards do not like certain men and seek to harass them more than others. A few people were taken out of line for special treatment. I could not see who they were with my peripheral vision, and I did not dare to look back. None of these people were taken to Seg, despite the threats I heard.

The last two days, the library was closed, purportedly because library staff were taking depositions in a lawsuit filed by an inmate at Stateville. However, possibly the library was being searched from top to bottom. In the past, I have heard of knives being found in between books, under shelves, or elsewhere. Other potential weapons and drugs have been found in there as well. Later, while I was taking care of some legal work, I happened to pass by a guard talking to the major. The guard was showing him a very old rusted pipe elbow. I overheard him say, "This was found during the search." I can't say if it is something an inmate stashed away, or if it was just a part a union plumber left behind when making a repair. I speculate the latter, however.

Inmates were lined up against the fence for about an hour and a half, before the major told us we could go about our business with the remaining time left. There was only a half hour remaining though, and I heard inmates griping. Some had court deadlines pending, and had to have appeals or other legal filings made. We were not allowed to go to library earlier in the week, and this probably put a few people in a bind. Ultimately, the major gave us more time, but I was notified that I had a visit not long after that.

While I waited for an escort, I sharpened my pencils and then gave them, along with my legal papers, to a person I knew on the gallery. I asked him to put them on my desk for me when he returned so I could go directly to the visiting room. There have been some long delays in visitation lately, and I wanted to get to gate 5 as soon as possible. If I had to return to the cell house, I may be trapped in a holding cage until another escort was going that way.

In the last few weeks, prison officials have greatly increased searches of inmates, cells, and various areas of the prison. My cell and others in my cell house have been shaken down at least twice. Some inmates have told me their cells have been ransacked several times. Having your cell searched is a big inconvenience. Not only is your property scattered about and must be reorganized, but you must stop whatever you are doing and immediately leave your cell. I hate disruptions to my routines. A couple of weeks ago, Internal Affairs and cell house guards searched a number of cells on my gallery and the one above mine. I was in the middle of working out, and was dripping in sweat. My shorts and T-shirt were drenched when I came out of the cell. There was an I.A. guard waiting near the cell house holding cage to frisk me. This is a guard that is known to be extremely thorough, even absurdly so. If he is in the visiting strip search room, he will want to look at your nails, inside your ears, between your toes, and even your butt crack. He even tells men to pull up the foreskin of their penis. While he was working the strip search room, rumors abounded that he was gay. I do not know if he is, but he definitely takes his job too seriously. Anyway, he was not so thorough patting me down. Apparently, my body odor or dripping wet clothing dissuaded him, and I only received a couple of taps to my sides.

For several days last week, the major had come to our cell house to personally supervise cell searches. Usually, cell searches are infrequent and conducted by cell house guards along with a sergeant. The major brought over some new cadets to conduct cell searches during the evening. The new guards are looking to impress their boss and go by the book. They took their time searching cells. Some cells were searched for an hour. During all of these searches, nothing serious was found and no one was sent to Segregation. The only person I have heard to go to Seg in the last couple of weeks from being found with contraband in their cell was a loud mouth black man and his cellmate who lived above me. From what I am told, Internal Affairs found bottles of hooch, or prison wine, in his cell.

I spoke with a worker who lives in another cell house and was informed cell searches were being conducted there as well. He also told me that their morning yard had been cancelled so guards could search the grounds for weapons. Guards use metal detectors and go about the yard searching for knives or shank materials. Years ago, inmates would plant knives in the ground until they were needed. Before then, inmates commonly carried knives on them wherever they went. Stateville was very dangerous in the 1990s and earlier. Even I would have kept a weapon on me at all times back then, if I had been here. However, now stabbings rarely occur, and shanks are not commonly stashed or carried.

I do not know what has caused the major's new vigilance on security. Possibly, a snitch has made accusations to Internal Affairs. Possibly, dangerous contraband of some sort has been found this month that I have not been made aware of. Possibly, the major is acting on orders from the warden, or attempting to make a statement to inmates or to the administration. I tend to believe, however, the ambush of inmates at the law library and repetitive cell searches are unnecessary and will not make Stateville C.C. any safer.


  1. Here's the scoop Paul. It's jail, not summer camp, not a country club. As I was reminded by the Shawshank Redemption the other night; everybody in jail is innocent. Oh and we all know only innocent people go to jail. (tongue in proverbial cheek)

  2. TO ANONYMOUS up there being a wise ass - SO, you are a cocky jerk. Big accomplishment.

  3. Thanks for the tip, but you need not cite prison movies to me. I have lived in prison nearly 20 years.

  4. @ 1st anonymous: is prison not jail. Jail is county afairs, prison is state affairs, so please be sarcastic with the right words. And yes, some innocent do go to prison...why do you think hell has being enlarged to accomodate all the lawyers, ei?
    @ Paul: you're wrong dude...the administration finds its info also in mail and in listening to phone conversations...and you will never know what did they picked up on. I'm sure it was serious...messing with library is the last thing politicians want. But you were right about one thing: guards do respect some inmates who respect themselves and don't cause unnecessary drama. Even I for whom inmates had to stay in line to take a shot at...even I couldn't harrass some inmates...that's how decent they were so yes, guards do know who is reasonable and who needs attitude adjustment. I was a bastard (actually it was always retaliations) but only with bad inmates and that is the case with 99% of the guards as we all want what inmates want: no drama. I am not telling you this as you already know-I'm saying it for the benefit of readers who want to be sarcastic without understanding the rules of the game.

  5. paul, I would like to thank you for writing this blog, i have recently decided to go back to college after 8 years being out of school, your blog has made me better apperciate my life and not to waste it because their are alot of people who may never get that opportunity.

  6. Why is it safer now?

    1. Illinois prisons are safer now because the Richard Speck tapes exposed IDOC for the hell hole that it was and publicly embarrassed the administrators along with the governor and house corrections committee. They had a major crack down on security after this happened and regained control they had lost due to laziness and just not caring as long as the paychecks kept coming. It needed to happen and it did.,


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