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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Snail Mail -- May 19, 2010

Earlier today, I received a letter from my father. The letter was written April 11th, and there is a postmark on the envelope of April 12th. All of my mail, with the exclusion of my subscription to the Wall Street Journal, is received at least one month after its postmark. On the yard today and in the chow hall, I heard inmates complaining about how long their mail is taking to reach them. Rumor has it there is only one person currently working the the mail room. It is ironic how the IDOC has found money to hire 50 new guards, but cannot add a few people to sort inmates' mail. If true, it is absurd that one person is responsible for searching and sorting through the outgoing and incoming mail for the 3,000+ prisoners here.

The delays of mail is not a new problem at Stateville. When I was here in 2000, mail was regularly late. I have heard inmates say that even in the 80's and 90's, Stateville has always been behind in the mail. It may be so that only one person currently is working in the mail room, but the culture of laziness and incompetence at Stateville has been present for decades. Even if Stateville had five people working the the mail room, our mail service would probably only improve minimally. Union and nonunion workers intentionally work at a slow pace. The priority of getting inmates their mail is one of the last things the administration is concerned about, particularly during fiscal budget constraints.

It is no secret that Stateville is IDOC's most inefficient and costly prison. More money is spent to operate Stateville per inmate than any other penal institution in Illinois. This is not because of the extra security needed to run a maximum-security prison. Menard Correctional Center is run with considerably less money, and inmates there get their mail within a few days--even at Christmastime, the busiest time of the year. Every prison in Illinois, except Stateville and Dwight (the state's maximum security penitentiary for women), receive their mail in a timely fashion.

I spoke with an inmate who lives on my gallery earlier in the week. He told me his family had sent him a money order in the month of March, and he still has not received the letter. He was complaining that he was unable to place a commissary order due to not having any funds. This is a complaint I hear quite frequently. At Stateville, letters found to have a money order in them are sent to the business office first. A money order can sit there a month before it is processed. Thus, the mail will sit a month to be searched, and another month in the business office before it is delivered to the inmate.

Last month I received a letter from a penpal who lives in Canada. This person had thought I ceased corresponding because he had not received any letters from me in many months. I had, however, sent him two letters, but they just had not reached him yet. Although incoming mail is incredibly slow, outgoing mail is rather quick. My parents receive my letters within a few days after I mail them. Even my aunt in Arizona will receive my mail in a few days. However, when I write people outside the U.S., my mail will take months to arrive because I must use a money voucher for the extra postage needed.

Inmates are sold envelopes pre-stamped with postage. They are not permitted to buy stamps. Thus, any mail requiring more than 44 cents postage, must be accompanied by a money voucher attached to the letter. This letter will then be routed to the business office where it will sit until processed. The letter will often not go out for over a month, and a two month wait is not unusual. When I transferred from Pontiac to Stateville, I was writing a number of women overseas. They were very concerned when my mail ceased reaching them all of a sudden. I did not know that money vouchers took a month or longer to be processed at Stateville. At all the other prisons, mail goes out immediately, and money vouchers for postage are processed later. If an inmate does not have the funds, it is just deducted when they do. Inmates get a small stipend from the state every month to buy hygienic and other commissary. An inmate who was never sent any money would still be able to cover the costs of postage eventually with the stipend.

To continue writing internationally, I began juggling letters. Letters were taking a month or longer to reach me, and my outgoing letters were the same. Thus, I had about a two to three month gap. Instead of waiting for replies, I just began writing once a week, and soon I always had several letters in route. It was not an ideal system, and I often forgot what I wrote to cause the replies I received. And because I was writing to multiple women, it also became difficult keeping track of what I wrote to each, and not repeating myself. Eventually, I had enough, and spoke to my counselor about the problem. She told me that I could give her envelopes and she would have them pre-stamped with the international rate. This way, at least my outgoing mail would go out without delay, and I would cut the time lag in half. This was a terrific solution, and I quickly handed her 50 envelopes.

My family sometimes finds writing me redundant because they will see me on a visit, or I will call before their letter arrives. They may spend an hour or two writing a letter only to repeat what they had already written during a call or visit. I have noticed during the time I have been in prison, letter writing has become obsolete. I used to be a freelance writer for several magazines and papers. I mainly wrote political editorials, but various other subjects I wrote about were published as well. However, when the Internet became popular, these publications no longer wanted to bother with me. It was much easier and faster for publishers to use material that came to them online. I was surprised that I could even interest a woman to write to me when there were so many forums on the Internet. Who wants "snail mail" anymore? Fortunately, I found there was still some interest. Some women find writing more romantic than email, despite the love story "You Got Mail," with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.

Prisoners' legal mail is supposed to take top priority in the mailroom. Inmates are sent mail from the courts, their lawyers, and prosecutors that often requires an immediate response. At prisons across Illinois and the country, legal mail is separated and brought directly to prisoners. The mail is searched in the inmate's presence and given to him or her. At Stateville, however, I find even legal mail is delivered late. I have received legal mail weeks after its postmark, and several times over a month later. I have filed grievances on the matter, and the problem is never resolved, despite the administration in Springfield reprimanding prison staff at Stateville.

The grievance system, particularly here at Stateville, is largely a facade. Grievances, no matter the issue and how well substantiated, are regularly denied and dismissed. One of the grievances I filed on my legal mail being over a month late was answered by my counselor in the following manner: "According to mailroom staff, all mail is being processed, including legal mail, as efficiently and timely as can be, considering the volume of mail coming in, going out, shortage of staff, and the necessity of mail to be searched." They also stated that no legal mail is being held intentionally. Even if this is true, the administration is responsible for hiring more staff to work the mailroom. Why do I always see numerous guards and lieutenants standing around doing nothing? Should they not be sent to the mailroom? Should the administration hire mailroom workers instead of more redundant guards? This grievance was sent to the Grievance Officer who denied my grievance. He stated that my legal mail was not marked "legal" despite how I had enclosed the envelope that had "Attorney at Law" printed as part of the return address, and in large bold letters on the front highlighted: "ATTENTION: LEGAL MAIL." I sent the grievance to the Administrative Review Board in Springfield, and I received the following response: "This chairperson partially affirms grievant's appeal in this matter. It is recommended Warden Hardy counsel mailroom staff of the importance of processing legal mail in an appropriate manner when it is so labeled." This was signed off by the Director of IDOC, Michael P. Randle. However, nothing has changed at Stateville, and things continue as usual.

What is an inmate to do about such a problem? A number of inmates have complained to the Postmaster General. Listening at them at a chow table today, I heard about the response one inmate received. He said the Postmaster General said he can only enforce and make sure mail gets to its destination. He did not have authority over IDOC. I told this to a neighbor of mine and he did not believe this. He told me that delaying mail is a federal offense, and Stateville can be forced to give inmates their mail on time. Both inmates are probably correct. However, a lawsuit must be filed in federal court. I would do this, but I am preoccupied with many other matters including filing a successive post conviction appeal. My freedom takes priority over timely mail.

As mentioned earlier, my Wall Street Journal is given to me usually within a few days time. Popular publications are sent to inmates without much delay. However, if a book, newspaper or magazine is not well known and accepted, it will be sent to the Publication Review Committee first. This committee, which in fact is usually just one person at Stateville, will take their time reviewing the material. An inmate will be lucky to get this publication three months later. My cellmate has a subscription to a few tattoo magazines that are on the "approved publication list" and these he usually gets in a timely fashion. Many publications are on an IDOC banned list, and when an inmate is sent one of these, the mailroom will send them a notice it was received, but the inmate must have it destroyed or sent home at their own expense. I received Soldier of Fortune, Guns and Ammo, and a few other publications that are now banned. At Pontiac, some of the guards read the same magazines and would retrieve them from the property room for me, or give me their copies to read. At Stateville, however, I have not established relations like the ones I had there, despite being here five years.

Guards are not always so nice about the mail we receive. A few times, I have heard about guards throwing away inmates' mail. Last year, there was an incident where a guard took the entire mail bag for my cell house and threw it in the garbage. He was mad at prisoners for a reason I cannot recall now. A cell house worker taking the trash out spotted the mail and brought it back in. Inmates were furious at this guard and he quickly was assigned to work in another part of the prison.

In the mailroom, staff often get bitter, careless or uncaring about prisoners' letters. On a number of occasions, I have been given letters sliced in half by envelope cutters. I never grieved the matter, and am sure they would claim it was unintentional. My outgoing mail has often been left unsealed. This is most likely due to staff's attempt to go fast, and not intentionally just to be mean. I have had some of my letters returned to sender for violating petty rules here. For example, a woman's letter was sent back to her for being "perfumed." Another letter was sent back for having a heart sticker on the flap. People must place a stamp on letters, and I do not know the purpose of forbidding stickers. Recently, I was given a bound copy of my 5th Clemency Petition. Some moron in the mailroom spent the time to remove the binding, and then wrapped a rubber band around the pages. What was the security threat about a plastic binding? I do not know, but I can use this thick rubber band for more devious use if I wanted. I suppose I should just be glad it was not returned to the sender.

Because the mail is so delayed at Stateville, I do not receive copies of my posts for over a month. Readers may notice that I make corrections, additions, or minor edits to old entries. This is not done in a timely fashion because of my mail service. Furthermore, I am unable to read your comments or emails until long after they have been sent or posted. If you send me an email, consequently, do not expect a reply for a long, long time. Sometimes, I will respond to posted comments, and these also may take a month or two to appear on the blogsite.

My cellmate often bothers me about the mail. Almost on a daily basis he will ask me if the mail was passed out, or if he got any mail. "Did the mail come? Did I get any mail?" He will ask anxiously. Over the years, I have become annoyed with his redundant and repeated questions about the mail. I will tell him, "No, you did not get any mail. No one loves you. Go back to sleep." Or, I will say, "Do you see any mail on your shelf?" Or, "Do you think I have nothing to do but stalk the gallery all day watching for mail?" On occasion, I will tell him he received mail which will get him excited until I change my tone to sarcasm, and say something like, "You get mail everyday; I have just been intercepting it all this time. For months now I have been writing to your mother. Has she not told you?" Today, he again asked me if he got any mail. I told him that indeed, he did get a letter, and it was on his shelf. He jumped off his bunk to search through all the clutter there until I went on and said, "It was a love letter from Johnny the Queer". I could trick my cellmate time and again, just like Charlie Brown repeatedly being duped by Lucy with the football.

Although most of the modern world cares little for letters, inside the prison walls snail mail is greatly appreciated. There are numerous lonely men inside, especially at maximum-security prisons. They have done long stretches of time, and many have enormous amounts of time remaining to serve. These men have often lost contact with friends and family. Prisoners spend great amounts of time in their cells, and a letter can be the highlight of their day. Quite a few inmates here are angry and frustrated with the month long delay of their mail. Snail mail at Stateville almost literally moves at a snail's pace.

September 3, 2010

Today I received a letter from a family member post dated August 30th. In the last couple weeks, mail has caught up dramatically. I do not know the cause of improvement, but I speculate that finally more staff have been placed in the mailroom. A number of inmates have expressed surprise about the speed of incoming mail now. Stateville has, on occasion, caught up with the backlog of mail, but this has never lasted. While it is nice we are currently receiving mail in a timely fashion, I am skeptical that it will continue.