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Saturday, August 6, 2011

Computers Down -- July 29, 2011

On Monday, cell house workers passed out a short commissary order form and list that inmates could use to place an order. The order form had only 10 lines to it, unlike our standard form, which has 20. The list of commissary consisted of select hygiene products, a fan, and soda pop. I asked the inmate worker what was the meaning behind this. Prisoners not in Segregation or on commissary restrictions can order from a 10-page list of various goods. He told me this week we can only order from the one page.

There was nothing on the list that I wanted. I needed another electrical cord, a headphone extension, stamped envelopes, writing paper, and food. I already had several deodorants, bars of soap, and tubes of toothpaste. I also had two bottles of shampoo, laundry detergent, and even lotion. There was no reason for me to buy more or any of the African hair care or skin products. What need did I have for Magic Shave Cream or an Afro hair pick? I was not the only person to be upset by the limitations, and I heard many inmates yelling from their cells.

Prisoners were once able to purchase a much wider range of goods, and order every week. At one time, we could buy blue jeans, stereo systems, guitars, and immersion heaters to boil water. We could also buy little things people outside of prison never paid much attention to, such as a pencil sharpener, a good writing pen, a full sized tooth brush or even dental floss. Furthermore, when we shopped, there was no limit on how much we could purchase. Prisoners went to the commissary building and bought any quantity of goods as long as we had the money in our trust fund account. I recall people leaving the store with many bags of store worth well over $500.

There has been friction between the union and administration over a number of work related issues. One of them is the number of hours the commissary supervisors will get in overtime pay, or how many cell houses they will have to shop in a month. The administration wants them to shop the entire prison twice a month at minimum, and sees no need for extra hours. When my cellmate was complaining to me about the shopping restrictions, I said to him, "Possibly this is a compromise made between labor and the wardens." However, it was certainly a bad deal for inmates.

My cellmate, Cork, told me he was going to fill out the list to stock up on hygiene items. He said that he will be able to use the commissary to wager with, if nothing else. I have been very preoccupied lately and have not watched any sporting events since the NBA Championship game. So far this week, I have not even watched any television except for the morning news while I eat my breakfast. I even missed the semifinale to The Bachelorette show on Monday because ABC went out after a storm.

The commissary restriction was not a major problem for me because I had bought about $70 of food a few weeks ago and still had supplies. I think I will be able to stretch my food reserves for a month. The only foods I am running short on are peanut butter and nuts. I eat them almost every day with my breakfast. Without them, breakfast will not be breakfast anymore. I go through a jar of peanut butter a week. There are cigarette, dope, and coffee addicts. I may be one of the few peanut butter addicts at Stateville.

I do an enormous amount of writing. My stash of envelopes is running low, as are my paper and writing supplies. I am currently writing with a very short, dull pencil on typing paper that I received from a prison worker. I have some pens left, but I can go through the ink quickly. I never write journal entries with pen anyways because I cannot make corrections easily. If prison officials continue using this shortened list, I will run out of envelopes and ink within a few weeks.

The prison almost went on lockdown Tuesday, making the short commissary list irrelevant. When on lockdown, inmates are not allowed to receive their store orders. It is a form of collective punishment, although the administration will insist it is a security issue because two men in the Roundhouse were badly assaulted. From the rumors, they were both taken to the prison Health Care Unit with contusions and possibly broken bones. Purportedly, they were covered in a lot of blood. One of the men was a cell house worker who can have a disrespectful tone. He was the man who did not want to help me bring my property to general population. The other man to be beaten was a queer that normally never left his cell. The two incidents occurred at different times and were unrelated. Instead of placing the entire prison on lockdown, only F House was.

Tuesday was scheduled for evening yard for those living on the lower two galleries in C House. I did not expect the cell house's orders to be filled so quickly, nor to be brought on the same day we had recreation, but at about 4 p.m. cell house help began bringing in the bags of merchandise. It seemed like much of the cell house, despite their complaining, submitted an order. There were hundreds of brown paper bags and workers went quickly to organize it before chow was run. Chow lines are always run first for the cell house that has evening yard, and the men go straight from the chow hall to yard. A number of bags were ripped due to workers tossing them like sandbags between each other and to the back wall. I knew a few people were going to be unhappy with their orders. One bag thrown in front of my cell was dropped, and bottles of soda pop went fizzing everywhere.

Chow was ran late because of the delay in bringing in the bags of commissary. A number of prisoners yelled to run chow because they knew it was eating into their yard time. The yard line is brought in at about 7 p.m. regardless of when we get out there. I was anxious to leave as well because it would be the only yard I would be attending this week. The other two days, yards were on the basketball courts which were surrounded by razor wire. There was not much to do there, other than play basketball, socialize, or get scorched by the sun.

Finally, at 5:15, the gallery I am celled on was run to chow. We did not make it to the yard until 5:30. Although I wanted to make the most of my time outside on the large south yard, I walked to the weights with a commissary worker. He informed me the short order forms were not due to any compromise between labor and the administration, nor to the warden trying to keep his word to shop the prison twice a month. He told me it was because the computers in Springfield were down.

Apparently, the computers which hold the information of approximately 50,000 inmates' trust funds across the state are not working. The Illinois Department of Corrections does not know how much money prisoners have on their accounts. I was skeptical of what he said because I always thought each prison had its own banking system. When convicts transfer to different penitentiaries, it often takes several weeks for him or her to have money on their account. When I transferred to Stateville in 2006, I was not able to shop for a month. The excuse always given to me was that the money had not been received and processed yet. I asked the worker, "If they have a centralized computer system that stores all of our fund balances, why does it take weeks to get access to your money when you transfer?" He could not say, but insisted that the state capital's computer system failed and could not be brought back online.

The commissary worker went on to say that for prisoners to shop, they were being extended a line of credit. Because the IDOC did not know how much money prisoners had, even those with no money were allowed to shop. When the computer system got back up, the spending would be deducted. If an inmate had no money, it would be deducted as soon as he or she received some, or was given their monthly stipend. The inmate worker made it seem as though we had been done a favor and should be grateful. I am skeptical of altruistic designs, especially that of the IDOC toward convicts, but I was not going to go into various ulterior motives the prison system may have. I did not want to waste my yard time.

When I returned to the cell house, commissary began to be passed out. Usually, it is brought to an inmate's cell, however, to save time, inmates were let out of their cells and had to come downstairs to get it themselves. A guard set up a desk next door to my cell to have inmates sign their receipts and give their fingerprints. The fingerprinting is supposed to prevent fraud, however, the prints are done so fast and imperfectly by convicts that I doubt it has any value.

While there was a crowd outside my cell, I bathed in the back of the cell behind a sheet. This cell has the least amount of privacy than any other I have been in. Despite this, I was not going to wait until all the commissary was passed out. This could take hours, and I was a busy man. Plus, my cellmate played basketball on the yard and he also wanted to wash up. Because I did not fill out an order and he did, I went in the back first. When you live in a small cage with someone else, you must always be coordinating activities, even if you do not like that person.

Late yesterday evening after all the store had been passed out, a cell house worker came to my cell with a bag of soda pop. The pop came from the homosexual who has been trying to befriend me since I arrived in C House. I have been taking his commissary and ignoring him. He must be foolish to think he can gain my friendship, or more, with sweets. Just like the State of Illinois extending us credit to shop, even if it was a meager credit line, I do not trust his motives. There is something more to the computer failure and small shop, just like there is something more to Frankie's generosity.