You are reading a rare, detailed account of everyday life in Stateville Prison.

Click to read Paul's blog quoted on:
To contact Paul, please email: paulmodrowski@gmail.com
or write him at the address shown in the right column. He will get your message personally.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Story Time on the Small Yard -- August 24, 2011

Prisoners in general population at Stateville are usually sent to one of two small yards for their recreation. The yards are adjacent to each other but separated by about ten feet, and two high cyclone fences. The fences have razor wire wound around the tops and enclose the yards. Each yard consists basically of two concrete basketball courts. However, there is a short walkway leading to the courts, and on each side there is a little grass. Not long ago, a chin-up and dip bar was set into the lawn.

I almost never go to the small yard. It is usually crowded, and I despise the lack of space. The small yards are similar to dog runs except they are meant for humans to run back and forth, or bark at each other. There is nothing for me to do on these yards. I care less to play basketball or socialize with the other animals. Contrarily, small yard is an opportunity for me to be in my cell alone. I am almost always trapped in my cage with my cellmate, but when he goes out to the dog run, I have time to be without his presence. Unfortunately, however, I am almost never blessed with solitude because this cell is directly across from the cell house holding cage, and there is almost continual traffic.

Yesterday morning, small yard was run for my gallery and two others in my cell house. I was glad to be rid of my cellmate for a few hours. It would give me some time to read and write without any distractions from him. Hopefully, the rest of the cell house would be relatively quiet with the majority of people leaving to recreation. Less than an hour passed, however, when my cellmate and others on the yards returned. Thunderstorms were passing, and guards have been instructed not to leave prisoners outside when there is lightning. The chance of being hit by lightning was minute and probably a blessing for society, or the inmate. However, officials do not want the liability. Ironically, convicts at Stateville must languish in prison for most, if not all of their lives, but they must be protected from a one in a million chance of being struck by lightning.

It rained for much of the day, and I thought possibly the evening yard would be cancelled as well. Yesterday, my gallery and the one above it were scheduled to be sent to the large south yard after dinner. The south yard with its weights, quarter mile track, and ample space was a place I could look forward to. Evening yard was only given to inmates once every other week, and it is over at the end of summer. At about 4:30 p.m., an announcement was made over the loudspeaker. Two and four galleries were advised to get ready for chow and that yard would follow. However, we were to be sent to the small yard. "Small yard" was repeated a couple times to the dismay of inmates including myself.

In the chow hall, I sat with a group of older white men. Much of the talk centered on commissary and the auditors from Springfield who were here for the week. I was not aware of any inspection, but that seemed to make sense. Last week, large contingents of inmate workers were given the task of cleaning and painting hallways and parts of the cell house. Commissary was on the minds of many people because the cell house had not been given a full shop in about two months. The computer system used at the prison store suspiciously continued to fail. Finally, however, commissary orders were to be given to inmates in C House that evening and the following one. While those at my table complained about their empty boxes, I thought how convenient the computer failures were for the unionized state commissary employees who have been demanding more overtime, or additional staff.

On the way out of the chow hall, a lieutenant I once debated politics with in a former cell house called me out of line. I knew he wanted to gripe about some Republican position. The lieutenant supports President Barack Obama and is a liberal on most issues. As expected, he asked me, "How come the Republicans refuse to tax the rich?" I told him, "The wealthy already pay the vast majority of taxes, and they are the job creators. It is they who are the engines of economic growth, and not the poor, especially those who leach off the system." These statements riled him up, and he said, "You and your conservative ilk are crazy. You must be drunk," and he asked me if I had alcohol in my bottle. The lieutenant loves to debate politics, but my line was leaving and I could no longer engage him.

Waiting in line outside the cell house, I was planning to go back inside. I had no intention of going on the small yard. However, Steve, who is one of the few men I speak to, asked me if I would go out to the yard with him. The skies had cleared and it was a perfect summer day to spend some time outside, he said. I did not care that the sun was out, but when I learned my gallery would be put on the yard all by ourselves, I changed my mind. There were only about five people who would be out on the yard, and Steve and I would have it almost entirely to ourselves. Unfortunately, a few men began to complain and convinced the guard to put us on the same small yard as the gallery above us. I had already walked well past the cell house door and could not return.

There were close to 20 men on the small yard. Half of them played basketball on one of the courts. The others played cards, dominoes, or talked. I walked around the basketball court that was not being used with Steve, and was glad the homosexual, Frank, did not attempt to join us. There was a younger white man that had Frank's attention. Frank was not thuggish or sexually imposing. In fact, he was polite, friendly, and soft spoken. However, I knew underneath this veneer was a twisted homosexual. He was also a known snitch. I did not trust or like the loathsome queer.

Steve is a short, stocky, 49-year-old man with a bald head. He looks as if he is Italian, but he is a mix of European ethnicities, mostly Hungarian. I suspect one of his ancestors was a non-caucasion gypsy. Despite this, I tend to like Steve because he is educated and more intelligent than most of the people at Stateville. He also shares some of the same values as me, and has strength of character that is lacking among most of those in prison.

For the first twenty or thirty circles around the yard, we spoke about stocks, particularly those companies that deal with natural gas and fertilizer. I told Steve that currently there is a glut of cheap natural gas in the U.S., but after 10 years the price will increase as exporting LNG ports are built and the country begins to use more and more of the fossil fuel. He asked me about environmental concerns of new fracking technology, and I told him a story about a cousin of mine who owns land in West Virginia that has deposits of natural gas underneath it. A company paid them good money to drill, but now a lake on their property is dead of fish and their well water is undrinkable due to leaking methane gas. Despite this, I told Steve that natural gas was America's future energy source. I also told him about an excellent fertilizer stock company called Terra Nitrogen, which has enormous profit margins due to the cheap price of natural gas and the high price of nitrogen fertilizer they make.

After stocks, we spoke about the man who claims to have killed John F. Kennedy. On the gallery above us lives an old man with long gray hair and a mustache. His name is Jimmy Files, and in cooperation with a writer in Hawaii, he wrote a book about the assassination of the former U.S. president. Steve read the book, along with a couple of other ones with a conspiracy theme that named Jimmy Files as the shooter. Steve has spoken to him at length and told me he thinks Files is telling the truth. I have not read any of these books nor spoken to him about the assassination, but I told Steve, after a brief description of the conspiracy story, that I believe Files is a liar attempting to make some notoriety for himself before he dies in prison. Steve commented that an honest man he knows at Catholic Services told him he saw Files with "his tongue down the throat" of another man on a visit. Steve said after hearing that, he has stayed away from Files. I replied, "You never know about these men at Stateville." Then I commented, "I cannot even kiss a woman on a visit without being yelled at."

The next story Steve told me was about his double homicide conviction. As we walked in circles, he would stop in mid sentence when we would come close to Frankie and his new subject of interest. Much of what Steve told me was information I was not aware of, although I have known him for a few years. He does not talk much about his personal life, except for being a former teacher and a piano player. He also says even less about his case. Steve told me that he has his appellate brief in his cell and wants me to read it to give him my critical opinion of it. I told him I also wanted to read the state's reply brief. He said I could as soon as he receives it, however, he told me never to say anything about what he told me or what I read to others in the prison. He said he did not trust anyone in here. I asked him if I could share the information with the paralegal I know. He said that was fine. I then asked if I could print his personal information on the World Wide Web. He said that also was fine, but I think he thought I was joking with him. So, possibly, I will have a post about Steve's case in the future.

I told Steve, "Let's go speak to Flanders and the Californian Meth Head." As we walked over to the gate where they were standing talking to each other, I was asked why I call Scott "Flanders." I told him he has the voice and demeanor of The Simpson's sissy Christian neighbor. He told me he noticed this, and speculated he had a "little sugar in the tank." I do not know if Scott is queer. I tend to believe he is just a very clean cut, overly friendly, soft spoken person from rural Illinois. However, as I said to Steve earlier, you never know about people at Stateville, and I do not know how Flanders could have survived when the prison system was much more violent. Either he only recently came to prison, or he was someone's "bitch," as convicts say.

The two men were speaking about the incident which occurred over the weekend. A man in E House disassembled his fan to take the metal motor out. He then put the motor in a pillow case and bludgeoned another prisoner over the head with it. Scott speculated the man was trying to kill the person. The man from California, who also goes by the name Scott, worried about the administration taking away all of the fans from prisoners. I did not say anything, but knew none of the sort would occur. A sock rock, batteries in a laundry bag, and even motors in pillow cases have been used as weapons since I could remember. I even heard of men slamming TV sets onto the heads of sleeping cellmates. There was nothing that could be done about the violence. I asked him for the time instead. I had to complete my workout out on the yard since I decided to come out and did not exercise earlier.

I picked six callisthenic exercises to do in a cycle for a half hour that included using the chin-up and dip bar. As I worked out, I listened to the three talk about women, and tell story after story. I thought I heard them talking lustfully about Katie Couric. On and on they spoke about Katie until I interrupted and asked why they continued to talk about the news anchor. They laughed at me and said, "Not Katie Couric. Katy Perry." I never heard of the woman, and was told she was a pop music singer. As I continued to work out, Steve said Katie Couric was nice looking too, and he would not mind being with her also. The others agreed. Katie Couric was in her mid to late 40's, however, she probably was very pretty 20 years ago. In fact, from what I was told about Perry's reputation and appearance, I think Couric would have been much more the type of woman I found appealing.

I was not trying to pay attention to their talk but they were close by, and every now and then I would catch part of their conversation. The next subject they spoke about was gorgeous high school teachers recently in the news who had sex with their students. Flanders said, "How come none of that happened when we were in school?" Then they talked about various teachers they remembered from their high schools that they wanted to have sex with. I happened to be walking by them to do my incline push-ups on the concrete when they were talking about the matter, and I was asked about my favorite teacher. I said I did not know what they were talking about. I had dated two of my high school teachers. This made them think I was an ultimate "stud," and they wanted details. I was too busy working out though, and in any event, it was none of their business.

Despite how I was tight-lipped about the two teachers, they were not about the women they dated and had sex with. The man from California captured the others' attention, however, the most. He even captured the interest of a couple of black men who were formerly playing cards. Scott talked about wife swapping, being in drug orgies, and even having sex with a woman with another man. I should not have been surprised. Scott was not only from California, but San Francisco. I think of San Francisco as not only a bastion for homosexuals, but sexual deviants of all kinds. It was Freak Central, U.S.A.

After I had completed a half hour of exercises, I left the area around the story group to go to the basketball court that had been abandoned. Before I left, however, I said to Steve in a low voice that I was ashamed of him. Steve was a Catholic, and I thought a more conservative person. I did not expect him to join in the stories of wild casual sex and drug use, although he mostly listened to the others. Possibly, I shamed him because he later was to leave them and come by the basketball court to walk around.

On the court, I was doing various high intensity cardiovascular exercises. One such exercise was to jog backwards and then sprint forward into the fence. Bouncing off it, I would begin to high kick the basketball hoop pole. Steve was walking by and asked, "What did the pole ever do to you?" I said, "Do you not see the face on the pole?" On the pole was a shape made from chipping paint. Steve looked at the pole for a moment and asked, "Is it Osama Bin Ladin?" "No," I told him. "It is Karl Marx. Can't you see his image?" He stared at it longer, but could not.

After I finished my workout, Steve wanted to hear a story from me. He said everyone had told stories except me, and it was my turn. I told him a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away--actually only about 5 miles, I interrupted myself--I took out a group of girls I knew from Providence High School. I brought them to a forest preserve somewhere in the unincorporated area of the far southwest suburbs. I could tell I had Steve's attention, and he was probably anticipating another sex orgy. I told Steve that we built a fire in the woods, and before I could romance any of the girls, some stoners from Joliet found us. They were young men with floppy long hair like the Californian Meth Head had before cutting it. I think they wanted to share my girls, but they did not understand. There could only be one rooster in a hen house, and I hated stoners. When one of the men who looked like Kurt Cobain gave me his bag of marijuana for inspection and bragged about the quality of his reefer, I was unimpressed and tossed it into the fire. This, of course, set in motion a brawl where I tossed one man into the raging bonfire and pummeled the others with various strikes. The stoners fled or hobbled away with severe injuries. The man who attacked me first suffered burns and most of his long hair had been singed. Steve asked if I then had sex with the girls, and I said no. He asked, "What kind of a story is that?" I said, "It's a war story. You will have to talk to the man from San Francisco for tales of Woodstock."

Steve told me I must have been one of those jocks who were always fighting with the stoners in high school. I told him that although I was athletic, I usually did not belong to any cliques and was mostly a loner. I then asked him what group he belonged to, and he said, "The band clique." I said, "There is no such thing. You must have belonged to the nerd herd. Only nerds played in the band." He tried to deny it, but it was futile. I told him that was OK. He need not fear me locking him in his locker or putting his head in the toilet. Steve replied that if I put him into the porta-pod that was out on the yard, that would clearly be cruel and unusual punishment and a violation of his Constitutional rights. I told him that no one cares about our Constitutional rights, and to come off the yard with shit, piss, and green chemicals on his face would only be expressive of how we are treated all the time.

The guards were heading down the walk to open the gate. Story time on the small yard was over. As we walked to the cell house, I told Steve that if I ever win a new trial and the prosecutor comes to talk to him, he must remember that the stoners started it, and I was only defending myself and the girls. He said, "Right. You threw the peaceful men into the fire before disposing of their bodies, and they were never seen again." I told him he was a smart ass, and he will not get any more stories from me.