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Saturday, December 3, 2011

Shopping at Stateville -- November 22, 2011

The cell house I live in has not been able to make any commissary purchases in almost two months. The delay has mostly been due to state union workers who are trying to make administrators give them more overtime pay. The Illinois Dept. of Corrections, however, is no longer flush with money. Staff are actually expected to work now that state coffers are not overflowing with the cash of taxpayers. Even the Democrats' tax increase before Republicans gained more power is still insufficient to run business as usual.

Prisoners have been greatly bothered by their inability to shop. Even before the November 5th lockdown, many men's boxes were empty, or close to it. Inmates increasingly depend on purchased commissary food to supplement the poor and meager meals served at Stateville. They are also dependent on store bought hygienic items, clothes, and writing supplies. Fortunately, I was adequately stocked during the lockdown. All I had to borrow was five stamped envelopes.

Over the weekend, inmates heard rumors that men were going to be allowed to go to the prison store rather than having their orders brought to them. I was skeptical of a change in policy. For about a decade here, commissary has been brought to the cell houses by inmate workers. Order slips are filled out, and when staff feels like doing some work the orders are processed and brown bagged. Inmates actually do all the work except for using the scanners and computerized registers. Until a few years ago, orders were filled weekly but this changed to three times a month, then two, and now once a month.

The reason commissary orders are brought to inmates at Stateville, unlike all the other penitentiaries in Illinois, is because there was a great amount of trouble and mischief previously. Men were extorted, robbed, and beaten at the commissary building. There was also plenty of gambling and the use of drugs. Prisoners immediately after getting their store would play cards, dominoes, or roll dice. They would also purchase alcohol, marijuana, or other drugs. I was not incarcerated at Stateville in the 1990's, but I am told the commissary building was like the Wild West. Stateville in its entirety was very violent, wild, and unruly, but apparently prisoners with bags of store extenuated the circumstances.

I was in Pontiac most of the 90's after my conviction. I still remember my first time shopping at the maximum-security prison's commissary. I bought about $400 in store including a television, radio, deluxe headphones, blue jeans, a denim jacket, gym shoes, and plenty of food. The woman across the counter tallying my purchases and pushing it through the window was concerned about me. She asked me if I had just come to the penitentiary. When I told her I had, she told me to be very careful and wanted me to promise not to gamble.

Although I was a clean cut young Caucasian, I was not fearful. I had spent two years at Cook County Jail, and before my arrest I knew people who were just as ruthless, if not more. I also knew con men and was fully acquainted with gambling and loan sharks. My co-defendant and a friend at the time ran a small bookmaking operation. I also was very skilled at fighting. Finally, despite my age, I was very responsible, mature, and not foolish. I knew how to carry myself at the "Thunderdome," as Pontiac was nicknamed after the Mel Gibson "Mad Max" movie.

Commissary at Pontiac was often violent. I saw numerous men beaten bloody or even to an unconscious state. When the guard would unlock the door to let everyone out, on occasion there would be a man on the floor with blood pooled around him. Knives were sometimes utilized, but mostly men were intimidated to give up their store. If those men had enough courage to fight, they usually were left alone. Commissary sharks typically preyed on the weak.

Gambling was mostly done on the yard or in the cell house at Pontiac. There were card games at the commissary, but it was sporadic or in small numbers. The prison store was dangerous for people who had racked up debts and were unable or unwilling to pay. This went for gambling and drug debts.

Gangs dominated both maximum-security prisons and the Cook County Jail. I often noticed they would extort their own, or the "neutrons" (people who were not affiliated). Not long after being at Cook County Jail, I was amazed a black man I did not know asked me if I would hold his store after he shopped. He told me I could go ahead and take whatever I needed. I asked him why, and he told me if he did not, his gang would take all of his stuff and he would have nothing. He knew his store was safe with me, and for some reason he trusted me over his own mob or the other black men on the deck.

White men at the county jail did not usually fair too well. In prison, Northsiders often protected Caucasians from being victimized due to their race. However, at the jail, there were no white gangs. A Northsider, Gaylord, Aryan Brother, or biker was usually alone. On my deck, sometimes I was the only Caucasian and the few white men I met were usually like myself--unaffiliated. I did my best to help out those who were robbed of their store, even putting my life on the line between an entire gang and a mark. However, I could not always be present and if I did not hold their store, they would be robbed later. I was angry, and sad, but mostly disappointed that white suburbanites were so cowardly.

On Sunday, a worker who goes by the name "Little Man" passed out commissary order forms. He said they would be picked up later along with the mail. This made me think that the rumors of going to the store were false. What was the point of filling out order forms if inmates were to tell waiters what they wanted later? I could only speculate that possibly the shopping was to be implemented like it was done at Joliet C.C. before it was closed down. At Joliet, prisoners' orders were filled in baskets, and when you arrived the merchandise was scanned and given to you to bag yourself. The only advantage of this was if commissary was out of a particular product, inmates were allowed to substitute. Plus, this method would negate any mistakes. Many times prisoners at Stateville will not get products they are charged for, or will get products they did not want.

This morning, I was still skeptical that inmates were to be sent to the commissary despite continuing rumors. I stayed in from the small yard as well as lunch. My cellmate had two Health Care Unit passes, and to my great happiness was gone throughout this time. I did not plan to go anywhere while I could enjoy the cell to myself. However, having written this, I would not have gone out for hot dogs or an unappealing yard anyway.

When the chow line returned about 11 .m., Steve stopped by my cell. He asked me if I was enjoying my peace and solitude. Indeed, I was, I told him. Well, he told me to get dressed in my blues because the guards plan to run us to the store soon. I told him I will believe it when I see it, and he left to be locked in his cage a couple of cells down.

Close to noon, I began to make myself a meal that would serve as both my lunch and dinner. For breakfast, prisoners were given scrambled eggs, which was unusual. I had saved them and was going to mix them with a package of tuna fish. I had instant brown rice, tortilla shells, relish and ketchup packages. My plan was to make a poor man's tuna-egg burrito. As I boiled water to add to my rice, the sergeant walked by and told me to get ready to leave for commissary. I asked him how much time I had and was told about a half hour. That was long enough to cook my bowl of rice, I thought as I dressed.

This sergeant let me out of my cell with about 20 other inmates who live on the lower floor. Steve was there and he said, "Do you still not believe me?" I told him what I couldn't believe was that Joseph Mengele missed the creature standing in front of us. The man was a very extremely ugly white man some people refer to as Quasi-Modo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Personally, I did not think he even looked human. He was some abominable hybrid of species, possibly a cross between slug, pig, and human. Mark was undeniably ugly and even he will readily admit it is so. He has even told me and others that he was convicted just based on his appearance.

The cell house Lieutenant was very hyper and agitated. I could sense he did not want to be the first person to lead a line into the commissary. The major, warden, and Internal Affairs were all going to be watching and judging him. The Lieutenant yelled for everyone to listen for their name and to line up outside when they were called. One by one, he checked the inmates off the list he held. Outside on the walk, he was very concerned about order. Two lines until we came to the tunnel, and then a single line the rest of the way. Some kitchen workers joined us en route and the Lieutenant did not seem pleased with the additions. However, he made a sarcastic joke when inmates did not line up as he directed.

The commissary building does not look any different than the other stone buildings off the many pathways on the grounds of Stateville. It is a building I have passed by many times, but never entered. The interior is basically two holding rooms, an adjoining long rectangular check-out room and an expansive area behind the windows where prisoners are given their purchases. We were led to one of the holding rooms and ordered to take a seat. About 30 blue plastic chairs were set up neatly in rows. I am certain there were never any chairs 10 years ago.

The Major came to the waiting room and told us how the process was going to work. We were to wait quietly in our seats until our name was called. Then we were to go to a window to collect our purchases and bag them ourselves. When finished, we were to proceed to the other holding room and wait for an escort to bring us back to the cell house. A Mexican prisoner interrupted the Major to say, "No English," and she did not know if he was joking or not but said, "Someone, I am sure, can explain it to you." After the major left, the gate was locked, and we were left alone in the room.

Steve was sitting beside me, and I said to him, "This is when the Zyklon B is dropped from the ceiling and we are gassed to our deaths." The room was a very austere stone building with plumbing and electric lines exposed. I looked at Steve and continued by saying, "They lured us to the commissary building with the promise of merchandise, but it is all a ruse. As soon as the door in the ceiling opens up, scale the walls to the pipes. Possibly if we get high enough, the gas will disperse before we are killed." Looking around, I brought to his attention that the revisionists may be correct and the buildings are not sufficiently sealed to act as a gas chamber. Steve said we are probably better off if we die, and I agreed. I told him the first person to grab the gas canister is the winner.

From this conversation, we spoke about an article in the Wall Street Journal that claimed from the very beginning the Nazi hierarchy sought the death of all Jews. Usually, I think the articles in the paper are very well researched, but as a person who is very knowledgeable about history, I knew this was false. The ideology of the Third Reich was to strengthen the strain of the Aryan race, and not the execution of millions. It was only after certain party members realized the war was lost that "The Final Solution" was implemented. It was not called the final solution without reason.

The Wall Street Journal has a very interesting section in their weekend paper that deals with not only history, but culture, books, music, and art. Oftentimes, there are reviews of modern art which I despise, but I asked Steve if he recalled the full page article about Caspar David Friedrich's painting "The Monk at the Seaside." He is one of my favorite painters, and before and during my incarceration I have even copied his work in colored pencils and paint. He expresses a deep brooding romanticism, love of nature, and great nostalgia for a time past. "The Monk" is one of a number of paintings I consider masterpieces. In it, a solitude figure looks out into the vastness of the sea at what seems to be the edge of the world. As I told Steve about my appreciation of the painting he asked me if that was what I was trying to do earlier in the day. Yes, at times I wish I was "The Monk."

Surprisingly, the noise level in the waiting room did not escalate, and I was able to talk with Steve in a low voice. Possibly, this was because prisoners in C House were desperate to get their store and were on their best behavior. Steve has a Master's Degree in Music, and it is good that I can have someone to talk to about the finer things in life. Other than Anthony, I do not think anyone else in my cell house could understand or appreciate the subject matter.

My name was eventually called, and I was let out of the holding room. I walked up to open window number three and gave the woman my ID card. She began slowly at first scanning and passing me my commissary, but by the end she was going very quickly and I had to hurry to place things in my mesh laundry bag. A couple of times I told her she gave me the wrong product, and she took it back without a fuss. She even asked me if I wanted to add anything to my list which my cellmate and others told me the commissary supervisors were not allowing. I told her thank you, but I was fine. I had already ordered over $100 in store. It bothered me to spend so much money, not only because I am very frugal but because I knew 30% of the cost was going toward my own incarceration. How twisted, I thought, that I must pay for my own captivity and torture.

After I had my receipt, I heaved my bag over my back to walk over to the other holding room. I noticed some prisoners had a few bags, even heavier than my own single bag. I thought how they donated even more money to our collective incarceration. I also wondered about how these men planned to carry all their goods back. The cell house was on the other side of the prison grounds. As I thought this, a man came in almost falling over carrying his commissary. The Lieutenant asked him if he was OK, and when he said he was fine, told him, "Good," and grabbed a bag of cookies out of one of his bags. The inmate seemed not to care because he had so much stuff and was glad just to shop. The Lieutenant said he was just trying to help him lighten his load, but gave them back. He was only playing, as he commonly does.

The trip back to the cell house was a difficult one, as I imagined it would be. Again, I thought about how I preferred room service. The drizzle and wind had picked up and although the walkways are mostly roofed, gusts of cold rain hit us on the way back. Before we left the cell house, the Lieutenant had told us that if we could not carry our commissary back, we could not have it. However, some inmates used a cart to carry their bags. I carried my bag over my back the entire way, and it felt like 100 pounds. It was a good workout.

Once in my cell, I quickly added some refried beans and Velveeta cheese rice to my bowl of plain brown rice. After stirring in a little more hot water, I packed all my commissary meticulously and neatly away into my box. I wanted to be finished before my cellmate returned. I did not want him to see the abundance of the ant because sometimes the grasshopper becomes envious. Although I would not let him, I did not want him to get to thinking like Barack Obama or Occupy Wall Street protesters that wealth should be redistributed. When my cellmate returned, I was eating a good meal of tuna-egg burritos. However, because he also just returned from commissary, I do not think he cared about my food. He had bought donuts and coffee, and this more than placated him.

As I write this journal entry, I am listening to talk radio. Today is the 48th anniversary of the John F. Kennedy assassination by Lee Harvey Oswald. A guest on the Roe and Roeper show is debunking the conspiracy theories that there was another shooter. I am curious how Jimmy Files, a man upstairs from me, claims to have made the kill shot by himself. The thought of going out for chow to question him critically appeals to me, but letting him tell his more than rehearsed story will only make him feel self important. Instead, I will stay in from chow again and watch the DVD movie "The Rite" while I eat the rest of my commissary improved burritos. My box is so heavy now that I can barely move it out from under my bunk. If it could remain that way perpetually, I would consider being "The Monk" every day, and never talking to the likes of Jimmy Files.


  1. The “final solution” was fully implemented by summer of 1942 long before the turning point in the war. There is also proof that Hitler had planned the extermination of the Jewish people from as early as 1918.

  2. Thanks Paul, I really enjoyed this blog post.

  3. Caspar Friedrich is my favorite painter too. I have a print of his Silvery Moon painting on the wall of my living room. Beautiful painting as is all of his work.

    1. I am glad someone appreciates the same art as I do. I am bewildered how modern pop art has become all the rage at the neglect of the classics and romantics. For example, while I have been in prison a huge reflective bean was put in front of the Willis Tower that thousands of people gawk at every year. Its a damn bean! There is much better sculpture and architecture on the lake front of Chicago. Even Soldier's Field was an impressive classic design until they built that saucer around it.

  4. Hitler was out to get the Jews from the start. Don't be fooled. He didn't like Poles either.


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