You are reading a rare, detailed account of everyday life in Stateville Prison.

Click to read Paul's blog quoted on:
To contact Paul, please email:
or write him at the address shown in the right column. He will get your message personally.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Fights and Drugs -- June 16, 2010

Wednesday recreation for B House is in the afternoon. However, today yard and gym lines were run from the chow hall in the morning. The change of schedule was due to E House prisoners being on lockdown. E and B houses customarily split the day's recreation hours. If we go out in the morning, they have yard and gym in the afternoon, or vice versa. Since there was no one using the recreation areas this morning, the administration was giving B House extra time. I doubt the warden, or whoever made the call, was attempting to reward B House inmates for being good, but it was a considerate gesture. The guards did not have to give us any extra time.

Federal rulings mandate prisoners be afforded five hours of recreation a week. However, the courts do not say what that recreation has to be. At Pontiac segregation, inmates are put in a cage that is as large as their cells. There is nothing in this 5 by 10 foot cage for one to do, but he is outside for 5 hours and this has been held as sufficient, under the law.

Stateville segregation inmates are placed on a concrete slab about half the size of a basketball court. The area is surrounded by fencing and razor wire. A gun tower overlooks the courts. Inmates get 5 hours in this area to talk, play chess, cards or basketball. General population inmates also only get 5 hours; sometimes it is only 4 hours. This recreation time is divided on two separate days, however. Also, our small yards have two full-sized concrete basketball courts. Recently, two steel tables with attached stools have been added, as well as a chin-up bar.

Inmates on lockdown are not afforded any recreation. E House was placed on lockdown on Friday. From what I have been told, there was a fight outside their cell house. A couple of guards attempted to break it up, and one was punched in the head. Incidents such as this are common, and I do not expect E House to remain on lockdown for long. If a guard had not been struck, the cell house would have probably been off lockdown this week. However, then my cell house would not be able to take advantage of the extra recreation time.

B House was left in the gym earlier today from about 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. It has been many years since I have had so much time in the gym. Most people played game after game of basketball. The gym is large enough to permit three full court games to be played simultaneously. For most of the time period, only two courts were used; a few people played one on one games or just made shots into the other two baskets.

There is a line of tables on the left side of the gym underneath a balcony. These tables are prized by men who like to play chess or card games. When I looked over there today, the seats were all filled with mostly older men. A few of them had crutches leaning against the wall. I noticed a 70-year-old Polish man was playing chess at one of these tables. I have attempted to speak to him on occasion, but he only knows a handful of English words. Considering I only know about 10 Polish words, there is little ability to communicate. At least he is able to interact with people on the chess board.

There are five telephones in the gym that are used periodically. Inmates are able to use the phones on the gallery when we are not on lockdown. I have never bothered to use a gym or yard phone. It is more convenient to talk in your cell, and I would rather not squander my recreation time which is limited at a prison that regularly goes on lockdown.

I spent my time at the gym using the universal machines. The machines are in bad shape, and a number do not even work. This can cause long lines at the ones that do. I avoided the most popular working exercise equipment until people had moved on. I was the only person to work out for four hours, and after the third hour, I had all of the equipment to myself except for one person who was having his hair braided on a bench.

The day before E House went on lockdown, there was another fight on the walk to the chow hall. I was waiting to go to the evening meal because B House had been placed on standby, but we were not let out for almost two hours later. I heard that two men from E House had begun fighting when lined up to walk to the chow hall. These two men were taken to Seg without incident, and normal operations continued.

It is odd that many fights occur during chow lines where inmates realize these will be broken up by the movement guards. It is also strange that inmates would risk fighting underneath the gun towers. There are four gun towers where the four cell houses line up to go to chow. Inmates that eat together also can go to library, chapel services, school, or the showers. At all these places there is no threat to a gun shot or for a fight to be broken up any time quickly, especially in the shower. Two men who really want to fight will go to the shower where they can fight without any interruption. However, possibly many of these people are cowards and want their fight broken up. I was speaking to a guard not long ago and this was his impression as well. He said many inmates have begun fights in his presence or near other guards knowing they are obligated to break it up. He said that oftentimes he feels like not doing anything.

A week ago, I was at the prison's health care unit where I met a man who was formerly on my gallery. He was in a fight and sent to Seg. The man went by the name "Beast" but now only a few continue to address him that way. Beast was not getting along with his cellmate. They just had irreconcilable differences. They both had spoken to authorities about being moved. They also wrote letters to the assignment officer. Their complaints and requests, as often happens, were ignored. One day, I came back from the evening meal to see Beast staring in anger out his cell bars. From another inmate, I had been told that he was angry about his cellmate talking disrespectfully behind his back. I asked Beast what his intentions were. He did not respond at first, and just continued to stare in anger. Eventually he said he was going to to beat the living daylight out of his cellmate when he returned. I tried to get him to talk some more to figure out if there was an amenable solution to their problem that would prevent exchanging blows, and thereafter going to Seg. Despite how I tried to speak to him, his mind was made up. As I left his cell, I said, "Then make sure to take care of your business."

The inmates from chow were lining up in front of their cells for lock-up, including Beast's cellmate. As I went into my cell I could hear Beast and his cellmate arguing. The guards opened up their door whereupon Beast made a big scene. Possibly, there was a shove or two and the guards told Beast's cellmate to go wait in the holding cage at the front of the cell house. When Beast learned the guards were intending to just give them a time-out before returning him to the cell, Beast began destroying all his cellmate's property. I heard him smash a TV on the concrete floor, and begin to throw the pieces out of the cell. The guards then took Beast and his cellmate to Segregation.

Everyone in the cell house, including myself, thought Beast was a coward. If Beast wanted to fight, he would not have made a scene in front of the guards. Contrarily, he would have waited until his cellmate was locked in the cell with him. They could have then fought for as long as they wanted without disruption. The guards would have left the gallery to the office or elsewhere. The guard with the rifle on the catwalk could not have seen them or fired a shot from his position. However, Beast is a cowardly lion and at the health care unit, I told him so. He did not like it, but he could at least appreciate my candor. Since his release from Seg, others who have been talking behind his back have been all smiles.

On Mondays, B House has yard in the morning. The lines are run not long after count clears. However, guards did not announce recreation lines. Inmates in the cell house began banging their bars and screaming for their yard. I heard a couple of people shout that the guards were trying to take away our rec time. The banging and shouts continued for almost an hour. I did not want to listen to it and put on my headphones. About 9:30 a.m. a guard announced on the loudspeaker that yard would be run from chow and for inmates to get ready to leave. A few more prisoners shouted insults at the guard until the cellhouse quieted down a little. I knew there was a chance that yard would be run at a different time because of E House being on lockdown.

On Tuesday, two cell houses were on lockdown, leaving only half of general population not on restriction. It was odd that my cell house had movement while most others did not. Most incidents occur in unit Bravo and we are usually the ones locked down. When I went to law library, I noticed there were only a few workers working behind the counter. None of E or C house inmates were allowed out to work. When I went to chow, I noticed that my cell house kitchen workers were working double shifts. I saw them for lunch and for dinner. The workers from D and B house were doing all the work in the institution.

C House rarely goes on lockdown. Most of the older men live there. C House is also designated for less aggressive inmates. I was curious what could have caused them to be placed on lockdown. I did not learn why until later on Tuesday, and since that time the details have changed.

The initial story I was told was that a series of inmates in C House had been given drug tests and failed. Originally, I heard 20 prisoners tested dirty for heroin and other drugs. By Wednesday, rumor had it that over 30 people had been sent to Seg. The truth is most likely between 10 and 15. The last source I spoke with is most credible. He told me that Internal Affairs originally only had five prisoners give urine samples for drug tests. An inmate tested positive for heroin and he was questioned. According to my source, this man snitched on a number of other inmates. Those inmates and others were then tested for drugs. Some refused, or said they were unable to piss. These were sent to Seg and will face the same disciplinary punishments as the others who tested dirty. There were about eight people who were found to have heroin in their system, and several others who refused.

Heroin is not nearly as common at maximum-security prisons as marijuana. Many people smoke cannabis in the penitentiary. I have had several cell mates who regularly smoked weed, including one who sold it to support his own heavy use. I do not know how marijuana is sold now, but over a decade ago it was sold mostly in caps. My cellmate would take some weed and smash it into a pen cap. The quantity that could fit in a pen cap was then sold for an amount I can no longer recall.

Over a decade ago, marijuana was very prevalent in maximum-security prisons. I was always observing inmates and even some guards, smoking joints. It was smoked in the cells, on the galleries, out on the yard, in the gym, and even at chapel services. My marijuana selling cellmate used to have parties in the cell that would probably impress even the likes of Sean Penn's character in the movie, "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." Drug use has been severely curtailed in recent years, and those who use it are now very discreet.

Heroin use has been around for a long time in prison. I was a little surprised though that many people would be tested for it on one day, and in one cell house. Internal Affairs is probably going to test others in C House, and I assume they will carry out a full investigation. The story of the snitch is probably accurate. It is peculiar to have so many test positive for a drug like heroin in a limited time frame with a select drop list.

Years ago I was assigned a cell with an obese black man. I recall how much he loved to eat and would often catch him making noises as he stuffed his face with various goodies. Despite his weird and excessive eating, I did not mind being his cell mate. He was a friendly and easy going person. Plus, he was always sleeping. It was almost like having a cell to myself because he was in bed so much. He must have slept 15 hours a day. I just thought he was trying to sleep away his prison time, something I sometimes wish I could do. However, one day we were dropped and he tested positive for heroin. I did not ever see him shoot up in the cell, and knew nothing about his drug addiction.

I do not use drugs, and I tend to believe because I do not, I am not privy to a lot of the drug use that goes on in prison. Many years ago, convicts were more open about it, but this is not the case any longer. If you are not inside the loop, you are outside. The ten or 15 people who went to Seg for refusing to test, or testing dirty, may be just the tip of the iceberg at Stateville.