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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Hunger Strike -- March 3, 2011

The prison is off lockdown, and this morning I went to yard. The yard that F House goes to is larger than a football field in both length and width. It is mostly grass, but has a handball and basketball court. There are a few small concrete tables, and telephones for men who are in grade to make collect calls. Several welded barbells and two benches were at the end of the basketball court, and that is where I spent the vast majority of my time. Prisoners in F House kickout are given 5 hours once a week on this yard as long as we are not on lockdown, and I used virtually all my time to exercise.

While at the small weight pile, I listened to other inmates talk. Many talk more than they lift weights, and it is annoying that they delay my workout by socializing. Usually their talk is of the most crude, base, and vile sort. They talk of drugs, selling drugs, gangs, the "hood," and sexual perversions. They also talk of other topics I am not interested in, such as basketball. However, I was surprised to hear one of my neighbors talk about the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. This I listened to, as well as the following conversation about a hunger and recreation strike at Stateville.

Apparently, in the general population cell houses, papers were passed out telling inmates to stand united beginning Monday, and not to go out for chow or recreation. The paper also said for men to refuse their breakfast trays. The purpose of the strike was to protest the tiny wages prison workers are paid, and a number of other issues including poor medical care. The inmates in F House had not been informed of the protest, and many like myself, were not even aware of it. Inmates blamed the cell house workers in our unit for not spreading the word. My cellmate and I thought it was highly unusual earlier this week that we were being fed so well.

On Tuesday, prisoners were fed grilled sausages with a large portion of French fries for lunch, and dinner was fried chicken. On Wednesday, several thick slices of pizza bread were served and later we were given grilled cheese sandwiches, which does not sound so impressive, but in the chow hall prisoners' trays were filled with scoops of chocolate chip and peanut butter ice cream. Stateville has not served real ice cream in years, let alone with chunks of chocolate and peanut butter.

The administration always seeks to break unity among the prison population. They try to break hunger strikes by having kitchen supervisors serve good food. I am not sure how effective the response is. Many years ago, when I threatened a hunger strike, guards tried to entice me with a box of chocolate donuts. I do not even like donuts, but I was insulted that they tried this tactic. No type of food would alter my resolve, or make me complacent. Certain grievances are too serious to be placated.

All inmate jobs at Stateville pay $30 a month, except for the few kitchen cooks who make about $80, and those with industry jobs. Many of the jobs inmates do are 7 days a week, and some men work more than one shift. On average, most prisoner workers make about a nickel an hour. The wages are even less when the $5 a month living expenses are subtracted, and commissary prices are increased from 20 to 30% over the retail prices.

Many men in prison do not get any money sent to them from friends and family. With that $25, they must buy various hygiene items, writing supplies, clothes, and food to supplement the meals served. A small television costs $250 or more. Those inmates who do not have anyone looking out for them often will be saving up for years to buy a TV. Sometimes they will buy a used television from someone going home. However, their TV is always at risk of being confiscated because inmates are forbidden from buying others' electronics, and all electronics are engraved with the original purchaser's name and prison ID number.

The meals at Stateville and across the state have become smaller and less expensive to prepare over the years. We regularly eat processed turkey-soy, imitation bologna, and soy patties. Portions, especially on lockdowns, can add up to only 1,500 to 2,000 calories a day. While new clothing used to be regularly provided by the prison, this is no longer the case. At Stateville, shoes, thermals or gloves are only given to those who work on the yard crew. If you want those things, sweat clothes, or a skull cap, you must buy it off the commissary.

The IDOC provides a monthly stipend of $10 to those who do not have jobs, as long as there are no lockdowns. Every day on lockdown is deducted from the $10, and so at Stateville there are times the inmates do not receive any money at all. The $10 stipend has stayed the same for the 18 years that I have been incarcerated, despite how dramatically prices have increased. It is no wonder many prisoners turn to a "hustle" to get by.

As I write this, some man is yelling out, "Coffee balls for sale." A coffee ball is a little bag of instant coffee sold for one dollar. Someone who hustles coffee balls will take a bag of commissary bought coffee and divide it up into a number of small bags. When coffee is short in the cell house, he will sell the coffee and make a $10 to $15 profit. Last night, a cell house worker tried to sell me bed sheets which are supposed to be given to inmates for free. But because Stateville no longer provides them, they are stolen and then sold for $2 or $3 each.

While prisoners make less than literally a bag of peanuts a week, the unionized guards and other staff at the prison have incredible salaries, not to mention benefits. Out on the yard, I heard inmates gripe about how they do more work than the guards, and yet make a minute pittance of what they do. This seems to be a part of the reason for the call to strike, and I can very much see their point in certain respects. The unionized public workers have used their power to take advantage of the State and Illinois taxpayers.

People may be amazed to learn that a number of guards at Stateville make over $100,000 a year. Their base salary is not this high, but from working countless hours of overtime, they can breach six figures. Correctional officers also have excellent health care coverage, job protection, and pensions. Recently, the State of Illinois hired 500 new guards, and representatives of the Governor claim this will actually save the state money. The new hires do not have the same lavish pensions nor are paid as much as those who were allowed to retire early. However, the pension obligations of the state are already enormous. There is about $200 billion in pension obligations currently. If the government was truly interested in curtailing spending, it would have cut back the number of employees and inmates that are given protracted death sentences.

The staff at Stateville often make overtime necessary by causing delays, problems, and working at a snail's pace. Commissary staff is one example. A few years ago, prisoners used to shop weekly. Now, we only shop twice a month, if that often, due to lockdowns. Unionized workers at the commissary claimed they could not shop everyone weekly without overtime. These workers intentionally worked slowly and inefficiently to cause the problem. Because they are in the union, they cannot be fired, so the administration cut back prisoners' access to store to three, and then two times a month. Although they now have half the work to do, they are still saying the job cannot be done without overtime, or more staff. Last time F House commissary orders were filled, it took an entire week. Cell house orders used to be done in a day. Sometimes, two entire cell houses' orders were filled in a day. The same work ethic is rampant at Stateville.

In Wisconsin, unionized public workers are demonstrating at the state capital. Senate Democrats have even fled Wisconsin to avoid a legislative vote. At issue: collective bargaining rights of public workers, health care benefits, and pensions. The newly elected Republican governor and legislature want to end union dues from automatically being siphoned from workers' paychecks, to making it voluntary. The Republicans also want public workers to pay more for their health care and pension benefits.

The State of Wisconsin is in debt over $3.5 billion, and the newly elected government wants to be fiscally responsible. They are quite aware what a massive expense it is to pay public workers such luxurious benefits. They are also quite aware how the union takes advantage of the system, to the detriment of the state. It is no secret how the union lobbies the Democratic Party to increase their power and keep wages, benefits, job security, and jobs at exorbitant levels. The state needs to have the ability to fire lazy, incompetent, or superfluous workers. It also needs to be able to trim the fat in lean times such as these. If anyone should be upset and protesting in Madison, Wisconsin, it should be the masses of Wisconsinites who foot the bill of wasteful spending. Outrageously, Senate Democrats refuse to approve the bill, and have fled to Illinois to prevent its passage, but I suppose they are in friendly company now. Illinois is definitely a safe haven for union beholden, spend, tax, and borrow politicians. Illinois' problems are multiple times greater, and with the Democrats holding the Senate, House, and Governor's office, it will only get worse.

Another great disparity among Stateville staff and prisoners is health care. While public workers have lavish health care benefits, inmates in the prison die every year due to medical malpractice, negligence, and deliberate indifference. Men incarcerated have a difficult time even just seeing a doctor or a dentist. On the yard, I heard about someone who has been waiting over a year just to have his teeth cleaned. I did not mention that I have yet to have a cleaning in the six years I have been here. My neighbor has been in severe pain for weeks with a cracked tooth that has not been treated. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was unable to exercise due to my prescription not being refilled for over a month. I suffered in much pain, and moved about like a cripple at times.

I notice that Republicans and Democrats in Washington are fighting over a sliver of the federal budget. Neither side apparently wants to tackle the issue of entitlements. Not only must the President's health care bill be rescinded, but Medicare and Medicaid costs must be reined in. Social Security, unemployment, and disability costs are spiraling out of control. The state problems are a microcosm of the looming federal disaster.

While public workers unions and others, who suckle at the governmental nanny state, cry and whine when their bottle is taken away, no one is there to listen to the plight of prisoners. Prisoners do not have a vote, nor do they have a powerful lobby to influence legislators. Thus, why cuts come to them easily, but to no one else. Many may argue that prisoners should work for nothing, have no health care, and, in general, be treated like dirt. And, as I listened to gripes on the yard and from others in the past, I often have the same indifference, although I am a prisoner myself. However, I do think society needs to think twice before it writes off a large and ever-growing segment of the population. You do not just have the most incorrigible people in prison anymore. You do not even have everyone who is guilty of a crime. Some 50,000 people are in prisons in Illinois, and a few million across the country. The U.S. has more people incarcerated than any other nation on the planet.

Jobs for prisoners are good in multiple respects. First, by working, prisoners can pay back society in a constructive way rather than rotting away in a cage. Second, if prisoners are given jobs that require learning some type of skill or craft, they will have this experience to take with them when they are freed and enter the work force. Third, prison jobs keep inmates busy, and many of them happy. However, there must be some incentive for prisoners to work, and I doubt that 5 cents an hour is adequate.

Giving prisoners a skill or providing health care is predicated largely on actually releasing them some day. However, current sentencing laws are draconian, and many inmates will never be paroled. The amount of convicts who will grow old and die in prison has grown exponentially. I can see it with my own eyes throughout my many years of incarceration, and I do not just see it in the mirror, but all around me. The State of Illinois' expanded mandatory sentencing laws, and recently a bill to abolish the death penalty in favor of natural life without parole, will only reinforce the irrelevance of job training, health care, and other prison issues. However, what is the point of building living tombs? That is how I often feel of Stateville. It is not a correctional center or a penal institution. It is one enormous tomb.

From what I heard on the yard, the inmate strike petered out even before it began. Only one cell house was to stay in from yard and chow in large numbers, and already that solidarity has almost disappeared. It was enough, however, to get the attention of the warden and Internal Affairs. The warden was seen out on the grounds talking to people, and although I was not informed, I reason that I.A. will be looking to find some leader or organizer of the event to send to Pontiac Seg or Tamms Supermax.

The administration is certainly set upon crushing any organized rebellion, even if it is passive-aggressive. Who, but the inmates themselves, will suffer by not eating or going to recreation? However, this does not matter. Any form of group protest is thought of as a threat to the security and control of the prison. Even the Soviet Union was to ultimately crumble by peaceful protest. Though I note the communist state largely imploded, rather than was defeated.

Hopefully, the State of Illinois and other states will rethink the prison industrial complexes they have built, as the leaders of the Soviet Union rethought their oppressive communist regime. The Soviet Union used massive resources to keep its immoral and ideologically backwards government in tight control of Poland and numerous other countries. Eventually, it went bankrupt fiscally, militarily, and spiritually. Illinois stands at this precipice with $15 billion in debt, $200 billion in pension liabilities, and a broken and oppressive justice system. Illinois can double its taxes, borrow billions, sell its assets, and build casinos in every town, and yet this will only keep a sinking ship afloat for so long.

Last month, former President Ronald Reagan was often mentioned in the newsmedia in commemoration of what would have been his 100th birthday. As a child, I remember when in West Berlin, President Reagan gave a speech that will always be remembered. I was reminded of that when I was on the yard which is half enclosed by two enormous concrete walls. He said, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" And the people of Illinois should say the same to our Governor: "Mr. Quinn, tear down this wall!"