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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Blackout -- January 12, 2011

Yesterday, about 3:30 in the afternoon, I had just turned on my TV to see how the stock market had closed for the day. U.S. markets have been climbing steadily since the Federal Reserve announced plans to print an extra trillion dollars, and the government had passed legislation extending unemployment payments along with former President Bush's tax cuts. Initially, I had thought the Dow Jones would fall not long after reaching 11,000. However, the new legislation and quantitative easing by the fed has altered my opinion. Now I believe the Dow will easily surpass 12,000 before sliding.

CNN news has continual tracking of the Dow Jones and Nasdaq. When the markets close, the news program often gives a brief synopsis of the day's events on the NYSE, and sometimes the global markets as well. Occasionally, I will tune in for this news rather than catching it on talk radio. Yesterday happened to be one of those days, but before I could get any economic news or even see the Dow's numbers in the corner of my screen, my television went out. Taking off my headphones, I heard booing by the inmates in the Roundhouse. The power went out in the entire building.

The power occasionally goes out at Stateville, and I was initially not bothered by the matter. Usually, if it is not caused by a storm, the power is back on within minutes or an hour. However, this loss of power would be an unprecedented event that has never occurred at Stateville during my incarceration here.

Typically, when the power goes out at prisons, there is a back-up system that is activated, and certain power is maintained. The power to prisoners' cells will be gone, but the lights in the cell house as well as to the cameras, will work. The outside lights along the cell house and on tall towers are also plugged in to the alternative power source. Yesterday, however, I noticed even the cell house lights were out. In the Roundhouse are large lights which hang from the rafters supporting the large domed ceiling. The only light coming into the cell house was that from prisoners' windows and a tiny bit at the top of the dome where sunlight was able to reflect inward. As the sun set, however, the cell house grew darker and darker until it was pitch black.

Had the power gone out at night, there would have been a big uproar from prisoners being put in complete darkness abruptly. That the light slowly diminished probably gave inmates some complacency. Even my cellmate would say to me, "They will have the power back on soon." And then, "The back-up power will be on any minute." And "Before it is dark, they will have fixed the problem." Even after it became dark, my cellmate continued to make such statements. Finally I said to him, "I don't think you understand. You are not in Kansas anymore, or in your case, Iowa. This is Stateville Correctional, not some competently run prison. We could be without power for days and it will not surprise me if we spend the night in darkness."

The guards count heads at 3:30 p.m., and therefore, all the workers were already locked in their cells. Count is conducted at the beginning of each shift, and during this time, most if not all, prisoners are locked in the cell houses. At medium-security prisons this may not be the case, and there is plenty of movement during the 2nd shift. But maximum-security prisons in Illinois are largely shut down in the evening, except for chow lines and some details. My cellmate and I noticed the cell house workers were not let out later, and I was not surprised. Until the power was restored, the prison would be on lockdown.

My cellmate quickly discovered that our toilet did not work when he took a piss and tried to flush it. I asked him to check the hot and cold water buttons on the sink. Only the cold water button worked, and this was because it was oddly not hooked up to an electric system. Some time ago, the administration thought it was a good idea to put electric timers on our plumbing. Toilets only flush every 10 minutes, and with the flip of a switch inside the plumbing unit, the cold and hot water can be turned off. At newly built prisons, plumbing can be controlled by a guard in command centers. Any time they want, they can shut off an inmate's toilet or sink electronically.

For some time, I have known the hot water was on an electronic system. I can hear a faint click from behind the locked plumbing door. It can also be heard when the toilet is flushed. My cellmate does not believe me and continues to say he cannot hear anything. I tell him that he has worked too many years in a corn mill or with heavy machinery and has gone deaf. In any event, we were fortunate our cold water was not connected to that circuit or we would have no water at all. Almost the entire cell house was without water.

Later, when dinner was passed out, prisoners yelled from their cells complaining of having nothing to drink. Some, in jest, shouted to them, "Drink the water out of the toilet bowls!" When I heard my neighbor complain, I told him I was selling bottles of water for a dollar, but if he purchased a six-pack, I had a special $5 rate. After I had my fun, I sent him a bottle for free. However, I ignored the others.

The electric timers have been installed on the toilets in the Roundhouse to prevent, or at least discourage, prisoners from flooding their cells and the gallery. Before the timers, inmates often shoved a rag or some other object into their toilet and continually pressed their toilet button until water went out of their cell. Sometimes, water will leak or fall to lower floors and all of the neighboring cells will be flooded. Years ago when I was in a different seg unit at Stateville, flooding was a regular occurrence. Once I was watching TV in the dark with my headphones on, and when I got off my bunk I stepped into half a foot of water. Inmates flood their cells because they feel they have been wronged in some way, and to get the attention of a person with authority. Some inmates, however, just flooded their cells because they were bored in Seg, or were semi-crazy.

I do not know the purpose of the electric switches on the sink buttons. They only dribble out water slowly and it would take a very patient prisoner to flood his cell with sink water. However, there are a few who will go to such lengths, and I suppose it is easier for staff to go into a cell, unlock the plumbing door, and flip a switch rather than take a wrench to some valve. Regardless, now a unionized plumber will need to be called. It may surprise readers to know that neither guards nor prisoners are allowed to touch even a plunger. A plumber making over $40 an hour must do all plumbing work, despite how trivial or easily fixable a problem may be.

I am sure many prisoners were bored and did not know what to do with themselves without a television to watch. Watching TV is the major preoccupation of most prisoners, although half of the Roundhouse is Segregation and those in Seg do not have their TV or radios. Having no power did not significantly alter my life because I watch very little TV. However, eventually, after I began to be annoyed by the increasing cell house noise, I sought out some music to block this out. I discovered that my Walkman no longer worked on battery power. For over a year I have not bothered with batteries because I have an adapter. Some people use batteries because they bring their Walkman out to yard or move about their cell with them. Cell house and yard workers often work with their Walkmans clipped to their clothing or in their pockets. Without any music or news to listen to, I used my earplugs to muffle the noise while I read my newspapers, and then wrote a letter.

I had begun to write my letter with only twilight left in the sky. By the time I was finished, the cell was almost pitch black. In order to address the envelope, I had to go to the wall where some faint light was coming in from the back window. For a long time, I had been meaning to write this person and I was not going to let the distractions of the cell house or lack of light prevent me. However, when I was finished, I knew it was impossible to read or write any further. I could only vaguely see the outlines of the interior of my cell.

My cellmate had a Walkman, and I was a little envious he had some preoccupation in the dark. I was interested in what came of two state legislative bills that Democrats were trying to pass in the last hours of a lame duck session. At midnight, the Democrats lost the power to push through legislation without some Republican support. Unlike the U.S. Congress, the Republicans had failed to take over the House in Illinois. However, they did gain enough seats so Democrats could not outright dismiss them. All week, Democrats had been trying to lure a few Republicans to vote for a huge corporate and individual tax hike so they could claim the bill was bipartisan, and not bear fully responsibility to the voters. Fortunately, Republicans held their ground. Unfortunately, the Democrats went ahead and passed the tax increases themselves without a single Republican vote.

I asked my cellmate during the night to periodically check out news radio to see if he could learn the outcome. I was hoping Republicans made a stand, and Democrats were too cowardly to pass the bill on their own and face the wrath of voters in 2012. Possibly, there were enough fiscally responsible or frightened Democrats to stop the reckless state financing. Earlier, I had heard Christine Rodagno, the Republican Senate Minority leader, strongly state her party would not endorse the tax hike. I was glad to hear her say it was foolish to allow government more funding before it solved its enormous fiscal problems with spending cuts. I was in complete agreement. The Democrats, just like on the federal level, were greatly harming society with crushing debt and government expansion.

My cellmate was not able to learn about the passage of the tax or death penalty bills. Democrats not only wanted to almost double the taxes of people and business in Illinois, but take away the special rights and protections for defendants facing capital punishment. As I wrote in my journal entry "Repealing the Death Penalty," Democratic legislators sought the end of executions, not on ideological grounds, but mostly to save the state some petty change. The money saved on removing the death penalty will only be temporary because the costs of imprisoning convicts for the rest of their lives will far outweigh the short term savings. The repeal will also cause many more innocent people to be convicted and languish in prison for the rest of their lives. I knew Governor Quinn would sign the tax increase, but was not certain about the ban on the death penalty.

I told my cellmate when he climbed off the top bunk that if he continues to piss in the toilet, our cell will begin to stink. Iowa backed away from the toilet and told me he will just hold it until the power comes back on. Again, I told him his faith in Stateville staff was remarkable, and reminded him he is in the most incompetent, inefficient, and negligent penitentiary in Illinois. I told him to piss in the sink. There was no telling when the power will comeback on. He refused, and climbed back up onto his bunk. However, after another hour or two passed, he came to his senses and pissed in the sink. A number of inmates probably shared my cellmate's thinking that this was gross or unsanitary, but as Bear Grills has said (and done) on "Man Versus Wild," man must do a lot of things he may not normally do in order to survive.

I told my cellmate I was not holding my urine, nor was I going to wait to defecate if I needed to. Many times throughout my incarceration, I've been in cells without working plumbing. I simply used Styrofoam trays for that purpose and then wrapped a plastic bag around it. Initially, Iowa said he was not going to eat until the power came on, and when dinner was passed out he did not eat. However, later he asked me to save him a plastic bag.

Chow was not passed out until late. As I suspected, it was an easy to prepare and distasteful meal. Two slices of mystery meat imitation bologna, two slices of bread, and a small portion of lettuce. For a snack, we were given a packaged rectangular cake, the same snack we have been served for months. I peeled the meat off my tray and threw it out of my cell into the darkness. I hoped to hit the gun tower but it was so dark there was no way to know where it went. I was not the only one to throw their food, trays, or other garbage out of their cells. As guards moved about in the darkness with flashlights, I could see all the trash on the ground floor. I could also see, on occasion, or hear objects being thrown from the upper floors. The inmates of F house were not happy, and their discontent grew.

As the sun fell below the horizon, and twilight faded, I was reminded of the ominous portent shown in various vampire movies. A maximum security prison with many killers, rapists, and violent criminals was in total darkness. I wondered what would happen if by chance the cell doors were to be opened. I had no doubt mayhem would break out, and the guards would flee for their lives. I mentioned the scenario to my cellmate, and he said he would hide underneath the bunk. Although the cellhouse most certainly would be dangerous, the darkness, freedom, and chaos I imagined would be exhilarating. I have lived under extreme oppression for many years, and the loss of light or security did not scare me. Contrarily, the blackout brought me a sense of calm, even with the prisoners growing more loud and obnoxious.

I went to the cell's window to see if the blackout went beyond Stateville's walls. I can see X House from my window and noticed their lights were on. Possibly, however, they had a generator. The guards who conducted count at 8 p.m. said the entire prison was without electric power, and the reason was still unknown. There is a power plant about 5 miles away from here which always had red blinking lights on its smoke stacks at night. Yesterday, however, they could not be seen. Other lights I typically noticed at night were also conspicuously absent.

I mentioned to my cellmate a book I had read written by Stephen King called The Stand. In the novel, a plague wipes out almost the entire world's population, and those few remaining had to battle between good and evil. I went on to tell Iowa how all but one inmate at a prison had succumbed to the disease and died. The guards had fled or died as well, and he was trapped in his cell. Despite how he tried, he could not get out. He suffered from terrible thirst, and had drank every drop out of his toilet bowl, licking it clean. He made a sling to pull a neighbor to his bars and ate his leg, and gnawed on the bones. I told my cellmate he was a true survivor. Jokingly, I went on to say to Iowa that he should not skip his meals so he was not emaciated if such circumstances came to us. I then asked him how much he weighs, and he told me there was no way I was going to eat him.

Looking out the window again, I said to my cellmate, "What if there was a nuclear war?" There are new bombs that can take out all electric power. The Chinese probably even have ways to shut down all our electric grids, even without a bomb, and simply by hacking into sensitive Internet websites. My cellmate then brought up a rumor I had heard numerous times in prison. Supposedly, if America was invaded or faced the possibility of total political and social upheaval in war, all inmates in maximum-security prisons were to be shot. I do not know how or where this rumor got started. I have never read or heard any official policy or law of the U.S. government confirming it. I am skeptical such plans exist, and asked my cellmate how he knew this was true. He did not know.

While listening to my cellmate, I noticed nurses entered the building. There were four of them, and they separated in pairs. One held a flashlight while the other gave out medications or insulin. The two pairs of nurses were closely followed by a guard. Although they seemed hesitant and fearful at first, by the time they reached the 4th floor unmolested, they seemed to be enjoying themselves. The blackout apparently added some excitement or fun to their jobs. When I was given my sleeping meds, the nurses were joking friendly with inmates. With inmates locked in their cells and most of them behind Plexiglass and perforated metal, they had little to fear. The most dangerous spot was in the middle of the Roundhouse where garbage and other objects continued to rain down. The guards avoided this area until an administrator or high ranking guard got an idea.

My cellmate was puzzled as to why a prison would not have a gas powered generator just in case the primary and back-up power failed. While he expressed this once again, we noticed a lot of flashlights coming from the entrance of F House. Eventually we were to see a number of guards, several lieutenants, and the major. The guards pulled a cart with what looked like a large object on top of it. I said to my cellmate, "Maybe there is your mobile power generator." However, we soon realized it was a bundle of lights with stands. My cellmate and I thought they must be also bringing a generator to go with them, but none came. Despite this, a couple of lights came to life, and were aimed up at the rows of cells on both sides of the Roundhouse.

While looking out the window, I noticed a guard outside adjusting a very long extension cord in the snow. The cord led to X House and it seemed they were attempting to light this cell house with the power from another building. I was skeptical this plan would work for long, and I was correct. Soon the lights flickered and went out. I do not know if it was because prisoners bombarded the lights with objects, or if the electric cords connecting the two buildings failed. After the lights went out for good, I put my earplugs back in and went to sleep. It was about 9 p.m., and there was nothing for me to do. My intrigue with the blackout was over, and it was just another day in prison-- just one without electricity or working plumbing.

At 3 a.m., breakfast was passed out by a guard. We were given a couple single serving boxes of cornflakes and a styrofoam tray with two slices of bread and a packet of peanut butter and jelly. Prisoners had not been given syrup or jelly in half a year, and it went through my mind that supervisors were trying to placate angry prisoners with a little packet of jelly. I was not the only one to think this, and I heard a prisoner yell this from his cell. It was followed by an object hitting the gun tower or floor. After pissing in the sink, I wrapped up my bread and went back to sleep.

Despite my cellmate's insistence that the power would be back on by morning, it was not, and the prison was still on a full lockdown. I began my day as I would any other, except instead of watching the news as I ate breakfast, I read a newspaper. I also took a styrofoam tray and plastic garbage bag with me when I put the privacy curtain up. Later, as I showed my cellmate a wrapped tray in my hand, I asked him if he was still hungry because I had an extra tray. He asked me what I was going to do with it, and I told him I was going to put it outside our cell with all the other garbage that was there and had not been picked up, unless he had a better idea. He did not, but other inmates in the cellhouse did.

The prisoners in F House were more upset in the morning than they were the night before. They had now been without any electricity, water, or plumbing for almost 20 hours. They demanded to be let out to use the bathroom and to be served water. Inmates threatened to throw shit at the guards, and in both serious and joking tones I heard shouts of "Watch out sergeant (or some officer's name). Here comes some doo doo!" The guards, or at least the smart ones, stayed in the office, or by the stairs where they could not get hit. However, when the banging and shouting of the cellhouse began to reverberate through the building, the lieutenant charged out into the middle to address the cellhouse with a loud voice. This was a mistake, and what I think was a water bottle whizzed by his head. The lieutenant quickly retreated to his office and was not seen again.

Cold cuts were again served for chow. Like before, I tossed them out of my cell. I looked in my box for something to eat and found some beef stew I had purchased from commissary. I put this package on the radiator. One benefit of the power being out was that the thermostat and electrical system controlling the heat was out. Now the upper floors' radiators were super hot, and not luke warm as they normally are. The heating system is made to create more heat at the lower levels and less on the top. Sometimes, the fourth floor radiators are cold even in sub- freezing temperatures. I placed the beef stew on the radiator along with a bottle of water. A half hour later the water was hot, and I poured it over some Ramen noodles.

Before I added the beef stew, my cellmate's fan turned on and I heard cheering from the inmates. The electricians of Stateville finally solved the power failure. Inmate workers were not long afterwards allowed out to pick up all the garbage and mop the floors. Life returned to its normal mundane and drudging ways. My cellmate hopped onto the toilet and everyone seemed to be content and happy, at least for the moment.

1 comment:

  1. This one is so freaking funny. A darkly hilarious gem. Thanks, Paul!

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