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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Stateville Spiders -- October 13, 2011

As I begin this journal entry, rain water is falling from the ceiling not far from my cell. The front door and holding pens are flooded with water. Inmate workers have put buckets on top of the cages as well as on the floor in a futile attempt to catch the water. I am pleased when it rains because then I do not have all those people outside my bars. Currently, my cellmate is taking a mid afternoon nap and it is relatively quiet. At times like this, Stateville can remind me of an enormous crypt. It is cold, dank, and dark on rainy autumn days. The concrete building houses numerous inmates with protracted death sentences and spiders spin webs over their tombs.

For some reason there is a tremendous amount of spiders on the grounds of Stateville. I see webs out on the yard, in the gymnasium, along the walks, throughout the cell houses, and in my cell. Lately, it is as though someone took a can of fake spider web spray and canvassed the prison for Halloween decor. There has always been a large presence of spiders here, however, and I have noticed them since arriving here six years ago. There are many common house spiders, but it is the more unusual or poisonous spiders that get my attention and that of other prisoners as well. Stateville has a broad range of spiders including boxer spiders, black widows, and the most startling spider, the brown recluse.

The brown recluse looks like a mini-tarantula. It is about two inches in diameter and has a thick harry dark brown body. Unlike most other spiders, it is fast and aggressive. It does not move slowly and with stealth. I do not think it relies on webs to catch prey but on its own quickness and relative strength. It also has pincers and a venom that can be deadly.

Throughout the years here, I have heard stories about men who have been bitten by the brown recluse. I have also seen the scars of prisoner's bites. One man, who goes by the name Slim, showed me his calf where there was an ugly crater that disfigured the tattoo he had to the point it was unrecognizable. The venom of a brown recluse immediately begins to eat away the surrounding tissue. By the time Slim was able to get to the Health Care Unit, doctors had to cut out almost a hockey puck's worth of flesh, and said he was fortunate not to lose his calf or be dead.

This week, I also heard from two other men who have been bitten by spiders in the last year. A 70-year-old white man who people call Doc was bitten in the butt. I asked him if the doctors had to cut out the surrounding tissue. He said that because he goes to the Health Care Unit regularly for dialysis, he was able to be administered an anti-venom within a few hours. The spider bit him in his sleep, and the bite quickly caused spreading inflammation. He said he still has a scar, but I did not care to look at his ass. I asked him how he knew it was a brown recluse, and was told that doctors were able to recognize the bite by its bullseye mark and quickly spreading venom. I was surprised doctors at Stateville were so competent.

My cellmate was bitten by a spider in the first few months of being here. Unlike Doc and Slim, he did not know what type of spider bit him. He told me the bite mark swelled up with puss. Doctors gave him regular antibiotics and those worked. Because he did not have a scar, I doubted it was a brown recluse.

A prior cellmate of mine, Cracker, once told me he saw a brown recluse in the cell while I was sleeping. Instead of killing it, however, he swept it out of the cell. I asked him why the hell he would do that. That deadly spider could have just come right back in. Cracker replied that to kill it would have been bad karma. He had this ridiculous religious and pacifist conversion where he would not even eat any meat. It was odd the former gang member who once had a total disregard for limb, life, and most laws, now cared about a dangerous insect. I wondered if Cracker was released back into the gang elements of Elgin, Illinois where he was from, if he would continue to live like a monk. Cracker, however, will not get out of prison until his mid-60s, and by then I doubt he will return to being a member of the Latin Disciples.

On Tuesday afternoon, I saw the mini-tarantula dart on the floor along the wall. Its size and rapid movement quickly caught my attention. When I turned toward it, the recluse stopped, possibly thinking it was camouflaged. The cell floor is a mottled brown concrete with specks of black and beige. However, the walls are painted grey, and because painters here do not care about precision, there is a strip of paint along the floor. The large brown spider was easily seen. In my hand I had a copy of my trial judge's new book "John Wayne Gacy: Defending a Monster" that a reader of my blog was nice enough to send to me. My initial thought was to splat the spider with the hard bound book. However, after I saw it stop, I slowly reached for my shower sandal and smacked it with tremendous force. I could not risk this little monster getting away.

Samual Amirante should be pleased his new book "Defending a Monster" may get more attention than it deserves due to renewed interest in the serial murders of John Wayne Gacy. Television news this week has been reporting that Gacy may have killed more people than initially thought. Police are reviewing old files to determine if other murders during that time period are attributable to him. They are also using DNA evidence not available in the 1970's to identify some of the remains found in his crawl space. John Wayne Gacy confessed to raping and torturing to death over 30 boys and young men. He spoke openly to police and others enjoying the attention given to him before and after his conviction. He also was on Stateville's death row for almost two decades before being executed in 1994. Although people now question if his confessions were complete or entirely accurate, I doubt there is anything new to be learned of the old case. I will be reading "Defending a Monster" in the coming weeks, but I do so more to learn about my former trial judge than the serial killer.

Last week, I went to the large south yard. For the first time in a month I lifted weights. My lower back, as I suspected, was the same, although my shoulder and knee injuries seemed to be better. While working out, I noticed streams of cobwebs glistening in the sunshine. There were webs between posts on the monkey bars, the benches, steel tables, and even one long strand coming off a basketball hoop beam. On top of the monkey bars, I noticed a stocky little black spider. He moved down a pipe to the end and hovered there. I imagined the spider was waiting for a bug, possibly, even a wasp, to fly in whereupon he would grab it. A man I do not know grabbed the bar where the spider was sitting to do some chin ups. I wondered if the spider would think of a finger as prey, but he did not move. I was amused, however, when another man asked me to spot him while he did bench presses, and cobwebs flew into his face.

Nearly every day, I clean the floor of my cell. Earlier this week, when I was cleaning underneath the bunk, I noticed a cobweb in the corner with a spider on it. Before I grabbed it, I took a good look. I did not want to be grabbing any venomous spider. I have seen black widows with their distinct bulbous black bodies and red hourglass shape. I have also seen similar looking spiders with red or orange dots on them. I do not know if those are dangerous as well, but from watching survivalist reality TV I have learned many creatures with bold coloration have poison. Most species have pigment to camouflage themselves from predators. The exceptions are those that want to attract a mate or detract a predator with a warning. This spider was harmless, though, and I grabbed it along with its web to toss into the toilet bowl. I thought about saying to my cellmate, "Look what I found," and then opening up my fist so the spider jumped out on him, but I had squished it.

There is a man I know who goes by the name Spider. Since I was in the county jail with him, I have always known him as Steve. While at Stateville many years later, I noticed people were calling him Spider. I asked him how he became known as Spider. He told me he used to collect various spiders and have them fight, or feed them flies or other insects. That reminded me of the character in the movie "Bram Stoker's Dracula" who was in the insane asylum. The man collected and fed spiders before eventually eating the spiders himself. The crazy man thought he was gaining power by consuming life that had consumed so many other lives. I asked Steve if he also ate his spiders, but he said no. Knowing his Michael Myers-like case, however, I would not have been surprised if he said yes.

On Tuesday, I went to the prison gymnasium and was not surprised to find numerous spider webs there. I do not know why, but gym workers never clean the networks of webs along the walls. Throughout the year there are vast clusters of cobwebs with numerous insects caught in them or wrapped up like cocoon presents for later appetites. I mentioned it to Doc, and he said they were good for eliminating all the mosquitoes or other bugs. Not long after he said this, I found a fly that was trapped and trying to get away. The fly buzzed and buzzed while a spider nearby seemed not in any hurry. The spider had plenty of wrapped up food already, but I sensed that if annoyed enough he would come and kill the pesky fly. I was reminded of the original black and white movie "The Fly," with Vincent Price. At the end of the film, the man who had turned into a fly was pleading, "Help me. Help me," but no one could hear him. A spider was approaching as the movie ended. Like Doc, however, flies were annoying bugs that I despised, and I only wished the spider would not be so lazy.

For dinner the day I went to the gym, prisoners were being served baked chicken. It was one of the better meals considering how often processed soy turkey or other distasteful hybrids were made into meals for us. Because of the number of prisoners that came out to eat, chow lines in my cell house were not run until late. F House Kickout is also now being fed in the chow hall, and the prisoners there would also come out in mass after just being taken off lockdown. On Saturday, guards found a few shanks on their yard and apparently they needed time to search to see if they could find any more. By the time I was returning to the cell house, night had descended upon the prison. I noticed just over the cell house wall in the distance a full Hunter's Moon. This picturesque Halloween scene was complete with spider webs hanging from the cyclone fence that followed the walk.

Yesterday, I was notified that I had a visitor and my barred door was opened. I thought I would quickly have an escort to gate 5, however, I was put in the cage directly across from my cell. While waiting in the holding cage, I was surrounded by a group of sparrows. Some sat on top of the cage and looked down at me. Others flew to the side and perched there to chirp. They flew about the cage, hopped around, and chirped some more. I felt odd to have all these little birds flocking around me and hoped no other prisoners noticed. I might be nicknamed The Bird Man of Stateville or Ace Ventura Pet Detective.

The sparrows have keen eyesight and are able to recognize me as the person who feeds them bread in the morning on occasion. They must be incredibly hungry to get so close. I could have even hand fed them. Although I was impressed by their ability to distinguish me outside my cell and amongst the hundreds of other prisoners, I thought they were not so smart to think I was a Pez dispenser of bread and kept food on me at all times to feed them. I also thought when almost backing up into a cobweb, why these birds did not eat all the insects that seem to be about. I suppose bread is better than spiders or flies though.

After my visitation, I came across a man I know who has tattoos of spider webs on his elbows. Spider web tattoos are common among white prisoners, particularly those who are or were in the Aryan Brotherhood or Northsiders. Some may think they represent stabbings or even killings, but they just usually represent time spent in prison. For every so many years another web is added. As my 19th year in prison nears, I thought about how many webs I would have. By the time I die, much of my body would be tattooed with cob webs.

Recently I read a newspaper article by Clarence Page addressing the need for alternative forms of punishment other than imprisonment. I almost always dislike what he has to say whether he is writing for the Chicago Tribune, the freelancing for the Wall Street Journal, or is a guest on the McLaughlin Report. However, on this occasion, I had to agree with him. The soaring rates of incarceration is as foolhardy as it is unjust, cruel, and unAmerican. Over 3 million people are caught in spider webs of U.S. prisons and jails. It is here that many of them die a slow death. Many people may think it is great to eradicate society of these loathsome criminals just like the spiders capture and kill many pesky bugs. At Stateville, I am certain many prisoners deserve incarceration and even death, especially the likes of John Wayne Gacy. However, many people are caught in the net who are innocent, or do not need to be incarcerated for decades. There are also many alternatives to incarceration that are overlooked and far more constructive, less costly, and appropriate. Clarence Page seems to joke about caning as a substitute at the end of his editorial, but even corporal punishment is oftentimes better than the human fly.


  1. Paul I'm a confirmed arachnophobe so this piece was positively spine-tingling for me to read ! Hope the book will come in handy for smashing those little SOB's when necessary!! Don't let them scuttle on out of the cell ! I am planning to be in further correspondence, but currently am quite busy at work and also still have to get to the store for envelopes. If you like cars at all, or perhaps Level E Ely or some friend does, I can send my Motor Trend magazines when I'm done reading them (if they are allowed) because I've noticed that otherwise frankly they just sit and collect dust once read. I've got a new subscription, but really only read through them once usually.

  2. Not sure where you get your information Paul, but the Brown Recluse looks nothing like a tarantula, it has no hair and is not thick bodied but actually rather thin. I will send you several printouts from Arachnology websites that will include photos to demonstrate this.

    1. Since writing this post, someone showed me a different spider which he identified as the Brown Recluse. It is much smaller and looks nothing like the one I killed in the cell.

  3. It could be a wolf spider too which are nasty.


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