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Monday, March 21, 2011

Fights, Floods, and Fires -- March 12, 2011

This week has been a tumultuous week in the world, and behind the walls in the Roundhouse. There have been uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, most notably in Libya, where Moammar Gadhafi refuses to relinquish power and plunges the country further into civil war. Heavy rain and snow has led to flooding in parts of Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana and Illinois, as well as certain New England states. Liberals and union activists who think money grows on trees and they deserve special treatment, continue to protest in the state capital of Madison, Wisconsin, despite Governor Scott Walker's victory for the people of his state. And finally to cap the week, there were the catastrophic earthquakes in Japan yesterday, which leveled buildings, set fires, and swept villages away in a tsunami that went across the Pacific. Even today, the Japanese are in a state of emergency searching for survivors and attempting to prevent meltdowns at two nuclear power plants. The events that have occurred in the Roundhouse have not been nearly as traumatic, but seemed similar in some minute dimension.

Last week, as I reported, there was a hunger and recreation strike at Stateville. Prisoners were fed up with the poor treatment, lack of medical care, poor quality and quantity of food provided, and various other issues. The main gripe I heard about was the severe wage discrepancy between the unionized public workers at Stateville and the inmate workers, who on average make 5 cents an hour and have no benefits except side hustles and being let out of their cages. I am not sure this was the focus of the protest, because F House was largely left out of the loop. Even the papers distributed in general population were ambiguous about the purpose of the strike. When a guard came by in the middle of the night asking if we were eating breakfast, my cellmate, me, and most of the cell house had no idea what he was talking about. Of course, I want my breakfast, even if it is a tiny portion of cereal and a soy patty with bread. Unlike the protesters in the Middle East and Wisconsin, prisoners do not have access to social networks. It is difficult to organize any type of protest with a lack of communication devices. The protest, of course, withered and died within a few days.

On Sunday this week, there was a large fight on the way back from a Christian services program. From the people who attended the religious service, between six and ten men erupted in a melee of fist fighting upon entering the tunnel which goes around the chow hall. The guards leading the line were caught off guard initially, but they quickly yelled into their radios for reinforcements. During chow lines, there are numerous lieutenants and guards standing around, but apparently this abundance of manpower was not present when the chapel line came through. The tunnels at Stateville are not overseen by a gun tower, and there is no threat of being shot. Despite this, the fight was broken up without anyone being seriously injured.

The guards immediately placed some men into handcuffs, but were unsure of who was involved. Not long after, the line returned and the prison was placed on lockdown. Guards returned to let out everyone who was on the Christian services movement list. They were taken to the chow hall and physically examined for scrapes, bruises, and cuts, but especially for marks to their fists. After this, a few more men were sent downstairs to live in Segregation. Fighting only carries one month in disciplinary confinement. However, if disciplinary tickets charge the inmates with dangerous disturbance or gang activity, they will be shipped out to Pontiac Seg or Tamms for up to one year.

Internal Affairs views gang activity as a very serious threat to the security and control of the institution. On Thursday, the investigative unit ordered all the inmates who attended Christian services to be questioned. I.A. then conducted individual interviews, or possibly more appropriately, interrogations at their offices in an attempt to figure out what happened, who was involved, and why. Many years ago, inmates never would go to Internal Affairs. They would not even speak to a member of I.A. However, times have changed, and I.A. will charge any inmate who refuses to answer their questions with impeding or interfering with an investigation, which is a major disciplinary ticket that carries up to one year in Segregation. In prison, at least in the IDOC, there is no right to remain silent.

The guards in the Roundhouse responded to the order by I.A., and began to let out prisoners. Many men attended the religious service, and due to a lack of handcuffs, seeing no need for them or an attempt to speed the huge fishing expedition by I.A., a number of inmates were let out without restraints. The procession of inmates downstairs was initially proceeding without incident, but then a black and a Mexican prisoner began to fight on three gallery. The fists flew fast, but the fight was quickly broken up by fast responding guards. The men were quickly cuffed and led to shower cells before being placed in Seg. I do not think these men ever were interviewed by I.A., and I suppose this was a way to avoid the KGB-like wannabe cops.

More than likely, the one-on-one fight in the Roundhouse was connected to continued hostilities from the Christian services brawl. My cellmate told me it was almost certainly a gang dispute due to the racial differences of the opponents. Although gangs are for the most part racially homogeneous, black and Mexican gangs will sometimes have alliances. Furthermore, in a prison or cell house where fights are commonplace, it is difficult for me to say with certainty the fight was connected to the previous brawl. I could probably ask around, but then I would be doing I.A.'s job, and they have enough stool pigeons.

All this week, prisoners have been flooding their cells. They must have a lot of patience because the toilets are on 10-minute timers. Possibly some of these cells have timers that have broken or have been disconnected. Early Monday morning on Casmir Pulaski Day, I was eating my breakfast as I watched guards attempt to stop a waterfall from coming down in front of their offices. The offices are near the entrance to the Roundhouse and on the first floor. Someone in a cell directly above had clogged up their toilet and was continually pressing the button. The water went from underneath his door out onto two gallery. Eventually it began to fall over the side. Guards, just coming into the first shift, grabbed a bunch of state blankets and sheets and tossed them in front of his cell and along the gallery.

Three times this week, a man on one gallery flooded his cell. This time, inmates from the minimum-security unit were there to clean up the spill. The man, after flooding his cell, refused to come out, and a group of special tactical unit guards dressed in the infamous orange crush gear came to extract him. Once the six to eight man team assembled in front of his cell, the inmate was handcuffed behind the back and was manhandled to the shower cell. The Orange Crush Unit entered the shower, and I could not see what was occurring, however, I believe he was strip searched before being locked in there while his cell was cleaned. His cell was filthy, and the guards took out a lot of garbage, disgusting laundry, and other disheveled property, much of which was soaked in water. After the mess was cleaned up, the inmate was brought back to his cell. This was done repeatedly during the week, and my cellmate asked me why a man would continue to do this. I said, "Maybe he was just obstinately rebellious. Maybe he was like the man in Cool Man Luke and 'there was a failure to communicate.'" However, this man was not just rebellious, he was a "bug."

My cellmate continued to press the issue for a reason why a man would do this. I said to him, "Why does an inmate shove a jumpsuit up his butt or pens into his pecker? Why do men smear shit on their walls? Why do men eat shit, like shit-eating Benny who was black but would only eat white people's shit? Why won't Naked Jackie put his clothes on in the cell? Why does some other man shave his balls in the front of his cell?" My cellmate got tired of all the weirdos I continued to rattle off, and said, "Enough!" I said, "Why do you ask me 'why'? I can't explain these peoples' madness."

Wednesday evening, I was watching a PBS program when my neighbor began yelling something to my cellmate and me. I could hear him yelling, but could not make out his words with my headphones on. In fact, I did not care to hear what he wanted or had to say. Oftentimes, I ignore my neighbors because I do not wish to talk to them, pass something for them, or am absorbed in some book, letter, newspaper, or television show. The Roundhouse is annoying and distracting enough, and at times I refuse to cease what I am doing to attend to requests. My cellmate, however, seems compelled to always answer them and will jump down off his bunk or come from the back of the cell to see to their needs. This evening, my cellmate had already gone to bed, but he jumped down to find out what our neighbor wanted, and for once, it was good that he did. The man was yelling, "The gallery is flooding! The gallery is flooding! Take your property off the floor!"

My cellmate and I looked out onto the gallery and water was flowing past our cell. It almost looked like a river. I was surprised our cell had not flooded already, but there is a 1" lip at the door to our cell which was presently keeping the water at bay. Iowa quickly grabbed his two boxes and stacked them on the stool and counter in the back. He then went to bed to let me deal with the problem. Initially, I was going to stack my boxes on top of his, but I noticed how quickly the water was moving and if it had not breached the cell already, it might not. Just in case, however, I moved my box down to where his was and picked up my shoes and an extra roll of toilet paper I keep in the front of the cell under my bunk. I also put my laundry bag on top of his broken TV in the back.

I was amazed by how much water continued to pass our cell. The man who was flooding the gallery could not have a timer on his toilet, or possibly he had blocked the water from coming out of his cell and then allowed it all to flood out. I folded a towel in front of the cell door and then put my fan on top of it to blow the water away. I have a small 9" fan that has a lot of power, especially if you take off the front grill. The wind created did not move all of the water away from the cell, but pushed it enough to keep its momentum flowing past our cell. I could not see, but I reasoned the water had already reached the stairs and was careening down them. The fourth floor gallery has a 4" barrier which acted like a levee, preventing water from falling over.

The man who had clogged his toilet had succeeding in flooding half of 4 gallery. The only thing that stopped him from flooding it in its entirety was the stairs. Dividing the galleries of F House are two staircases. Eventually, inmate workers from the minimum-security unit were brought over to clean up the mess. They did not have a shop vac or even a mop. All they did was push the water down the gallery with squeegees. They then mopped the stairs and the lower floor. The flood left a trail of scum in its wake. Much of it, I noticed, was blanket fuzz off the cheap, but warm, wool blend blankets that are passed out in the winter. After the PBS program I was watching ended, I took soap and disinfectant and scrubbed the section near and under the door. I had at least two full handfuls of scum and fuzz to dispose of when finished.

Why did the inmate flood the gallery? I am told he had a grievance of some sort and apparently he thought this was the best way to resolve it. I do not know if his issue was ever addressed, but his actions rewarded him a cell in Segregation. Hopefully, the Seg cell he was placed in has a timer on his toilet.

The timer on the toilet is a great inconvenience, and I wish they did not exist, except for people who flood their cells. It would be best if everyone was not inconvenienced for a few "bugs" or obnoxious men. New prisons have the ability to shut off a cell's water electronically from a control center. They may use timers as well, however. Many years ago, inmates did not flood their cells because of punishment from staff, but from other prisoners. Prisoners were largely left in control to resolve problems and troublemakers. I would not mind going back to those times.

For the first time this week, inmate cell house workers were let out. Normally, I could care less if the prison stays on lockdown. I spend almost all my time in my cell, and lockdowns have only a small effect on me. I did miss our weekly yard on Thursday, and when my mother came to see me, we were limited to a one hour visit. An hour visit goes by rather quickly and is hardly worth the inconvenience for both of us. I did make sure to have my mother find me something to eat during that short time period. Inmates in F House have not been allowed to shop in a long time. Typically, I have plenty of food reserves to last me, but this lockdown has caught me short of some food staples. I have been eating tuna fish almost every day of the week rather than the terrible state-issued meals we have been served, and to supplement what little food we are served while on lockdown. Thus, it would be nice to get off lockdown just so I could buy some supplies, however, if there was a plan to let F House off lockdown shortly, it may be delayed by today's events.

I was listening to news radio and writing a few letters, not paying attention to the ongoings of the cell house when I heard a loud raucous of noise. I turned and looked out my cell to notice a large cloud of smoke. I followed it to a cell where a number of guards were trying to take down a black man of some size wearing a green jumpsuit. Smoke was billowing out of an open cell in Seg where the struggle was. The lieutenant had a fire extinguisher in his hands and he was trying to put out a fire, all the while other guards forced the high escape risk inmate to the ground. The event could barely be seen because so much smoke was in the building.

It took a long time, but eventually the inmate was handcuffed behind his back and taken out by the feet and shoulders. The fire had been put out, but thick, dark gray smoke filled F House. My cellmate went to open the window, but I told him not to because the draft would draw the smoke even more so into our cell. The cell house was very loud, and some people threw objects down onto the lower floor. I did not know what happened, so over the noise I yelled to my neighbor. My neighbor related a strange, but I cannot say unusual, event for F House.

From what I was told, the prisoner in Seg had set his cell on fire. The fire was so high he claimed he could clearly see flames rising to lick the ceiling. A few guards tried putting out the fire from the crack on the side of the door. This clearly was not going to work, despite how much fire retardant they sprayed. The lieutenant ordered the gun tower to open the door. As soon as the door was opened, the prisoner jumped through the flames to punch the first guard in the face. The guards were caught off guard, and the man began to beat them with his fists. The smoke was too great for the gun tower guard to take a shot, and other guards in the building were slow responding because they could not see anything. Eventually though, they saw what was happening and came running up the stairs and around 2 gallery.

From my cell door, I watched the dark smoke slowly rise toward the large domed ceiling. I thought the guard in the gun tower would open the steel door at the apex of the building, but he did not, and the smoke lingered in the Roundhouse. It reminded me of the nuclear reactor in Japan that filled up with radiation. I wondered if F House was about to explode in prisoner unrest. However, the smoke and agitation of the cell house dissipated.

My cellmate said this was quite a week in the Roundhouse. I told him that it was quite a week in the world.