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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Level E Ely -- October 21, 2011

When I returned from a visit on Wednesday earlier this week, I discovered I had a new cellmate. I did not notice the change of person immediately, but that the cell was rearranged. I always keep everything in the same spot, and when something is moved or out of order, it is immediately recognizable. After seeing the property moved, I scrutinized the person on the top bunk. The black man sitting there was not Cork. Cork had switched cells with a level E named Ely.

Ely is a 55-year-old man with a bald head. He is of average height and has a muscular physique for an old person. When I walked into the cell he introduced himself as "Ely," but I did not understand if that was a prison name or his real name. It happens to be his real last name which I thought was unusual until I heard his first name: Clifton. A black man would not want to be known as Clifton or Clifford in the penitentiary. I was surprised he had not been given a prison name, considering how long he has been incarcerated. Ely has been in prison for over 30 years. He was sent to the penitentiary in 1980. I told him I thought I had done a lot of time.

The reason why Ely was moved from a cell on the top floor and my cellmate was exchanged in his place was ostensibly because Ely is a level E. A level E is a person designated to be an extreme escape risk and they must be moved every 90 days. The administration believes by moving level Es, it prevents them from ever becoming situated long enough to plan and execute any escape. Numerous years of tunneling with a tiny rock hammer like in the movie "Shawshank Redemption" will not occur in Illinois. Level Es are not only moved within a cell house every 3 months, but every year they are transferred. Because there are currently only two general population maximum-security prisons, the high escape risk inmates are moved only between Menard and Stateville.

The day before I received a new cellmate, the sergeant asked me if I had a medical reason for being on the lower gallery. A long time ago when my lower back injury was bothering me considerably, the medical director ordered that I live on a lower gallery so I did not have to travel up and down multiple flights of stairs. I told the sergeant about the permit I have, but then regretted it. I wanted to leave this cell. This cell is situated at a place with a heavy amount of traffic moving outside of it. It is also very loud here and people almost continually are looking into it. I, furthermore, wanted to get away from Cork who was a loud and extremely social person. My new cellmate, I soon discovered, is even more social and has been almost continuously chattering. I just have the worst of fortune.

I greatly dislike having the cell not ordered properly and my routines disrupted. Every cellmate I am assigned is a major adjustment, even if I get along with that person. Ely had two huge laundry bags filled with clothes, books, and magazines. One of them had a rolled up magazine tied to the top as a handle. He uses this bag as a weight to do exercises. The other bag was his clothing bag. The administration has a rule that prisoners must keep the majority of their property in their two boxes when they leave the cell, but an exception to this is a dirty laundry bag. However, many prisoners have taken advantage of this to put their clean laundry in a bag to provide them more room in their boxes and for convenience. These two bags had to be moved and I was glad he did not mind putting them under the bunk.

Ely had a number of things in places I did not like. I noticed also my former cellmate had destroyed wall constructs I had made for wiring. I had to remake these things to accommodate the cable and electric cords my new cellmate and I had. Ely told me while I was doing this that he did not mind if I moved things so they were more convenient or out of my way. Possibly, he could sense how displeased I was with the change. I was glad he was willing to accommodate the way I liked the cell arranged. He may be more amicable due to how much time he has done, his age, and the numerous cellmates he must have had to deal with. I know that if I had to be moved regularly and was forced to continually readjust to new people and circumstances, however, I would be quite miserable.

While I was interested in reordering the cell, Ely was concerned with getting his digital TV and Walkman working. Fortunately, he did not have a radio or television with speakers. I had several confrontations with my former cellmate, Cork, playing his radio or TV without headphones. Because of this and other disagreements we had, he may have contacted the placement officer to be moved. I know I requested to be moved a few times, but was not accommodated. Possibly, placement was finally trying to move me earlier this week, but I foolishly told the sergeant about my medical permit.

Almost the entire second shift of cell house inmate workers were at my cell bars the first evening Ely was here. Like my former cellmate, he seemed to know everyone. The cell house help were trying to assist him with gaining digital TV reception. The prison commissary does not sell antennas and the cable system does not gain prisoners digital TV. Inmates, thus, design their own antennas, usually out of wires. However, on the first floor it is difficult getting any reception, whether that be radio or digital TV. My cellmate spent hours and possibly more hours after I fell asleep trying to get reception. The cell house help were not very helpful, and I was not going to assist. Already my cellmate's move and his ceaseless talking had annoyed and overwhelmed me. He was on his own, and I went to bed before 9 p.m.

I thought possibly I could not get a more talkative cellmate than Cork. However, I was wrong. Ely yelled and talked to numerous passersby. He seemed intent on declaring his presence to everyone and socially engaging them. When there was no one outside our bars, he began talking to me. It was an unrelenting talk and made me think he was nervous and his socialization was meant to somehow make him feel more secure. However, from my many years in prison, I knew that many incarcerated people had an insatiable need or desire to talk. It made me wish I had the deaf mute man on the gallery above me for a cellmate. I do not care to engage in chatter, nor did I want to listen to it.

While Ely talked endlessly, I thought I was fortunate he would only be my cellmate for 3 months, and possibly less. It was highly unusual for a level E to be placed in a cell on the ground floor, especially right next to the cell house door. The upper floors were generally where high escape risks were kept because it was believed it was more secure. Inmates on upper floors would have to go through two locked gates to make it downstairs. The lower floor is also where guards are more relaxed about movement, and a person intent on escaping could take advantage of this. My cellmate commented that as soon as someone of authority saw he was downstairs and by the door that he would be moved. However, he also speculated guards had become so lazy they did not want to go up 5 flights of stairs to check on him. Level E's are counted extra times throughout the day and night.

Ely told me the reason he was made a level E, however, I had my headphones on and was trying to ignore him. I believe he told me he had three prior escapes or attempted escapes. These occurred many years ago and eventually, he was allowed to go to a high medium-max penitentiary. It was at this institution that he was again designated an extreme escape risk and immediately transferred out. Ely complained that he did not try to escape there, but for reasons I did not hear, he was targeted by Internal Affairs.

Ely not only has tried to escape on a few occasions, but has a very bad disciplinary record. He told me about how he had been in numerous violent conflicts over the years. Inmates may make up such things to inflate their reputations, however, most anyone who was in maximum-security prisons during the 1980s and 90s has certainly been through brutal times. It was unavoidable back then when fights, rapes, and stabbings occurred regularly. Possibly, Ely's bad record including staff assaults helped cause him to be put back on a level E status.

A level E has a green colored identification card and they must keep it posted on the bars for guards to see. As I write this journal entry, it is clipped to a string tied to two bars at the front of the cell. My cellmate also has special clothing he must wear. On his blue pants are two green stripes, and on his shirts are a patch of green over the shoulders and across the upper back. He also has a green jacket while everyone else is given blue jackets. Whenever he leaves the cell house, guards notify staff in gun towers and on the movement team of his triple number by radio. A triple number is a unique set of three numbers, a designated high escape risk is given to identify him and is printed on the backside of their ID cards. My cellmate's triple number is 31-31-31, for example. Unfortunately for me, high escape risks have their cell searched every week, and guards do not make a distinction between his property and mine. I greatly dislike having my property ransacked and having to put it all back in order. Hopefully, the searching guards will not be as discourteous as the Orange Crush tactical squad.

Ely tells me he was sentenced to 60 years for a violent armed robbery. I am skeptical he is telling me the truth. In the 1980s, criminal statutes were not nearly as extremely draconian as they are now. Murder only carried a maximum sentence of 40 years and with good time, only 50% of the sentence had to be served. There was natural life without parole, but it was rarely used. Before 1979, there were no natural life sentences, and life was parolable after 12 years, although most men served 20 before being released. For Ely to get 60 years in 1980 for a robbery seemed highly unlikely. When I questioned this, he told me the court gave him such a severe sentence because the people he robbed were very affluent, and he came from the ghetto of St. Louis.

Ely would have been released next year if he had not lost so much good time over the years and also gained an extra 17 years for two escapes. Although under the old law, convicts only had to do 50% of their time, the prison administration could deduct good time credits for bad behavior. Over a decade ago, this was only done for very serious infractions such as stabbing another inmate. However, now good time is taken from prisoners who are eligible for almost any rule violation. Prisoners can try winning this good time back by applying for it after a period of time without a disciplinary ticket, and my new cellmate continues to do this when he is able. My cellmate tells me that his case is being heard in the Illinois Supreme Court which is highly unusual. The state Supreme Court does not hear many appeals. If I heard him correctly, the court is reviewing his appeal because the judge did not honor a plea agreement with the state's attorney. The prosecutor and Ely agreed that in exchange for him pleading guilty, he would be sentenced to 20 years. However, the judge refused and did not allow him to take back the guilty plea. If the ruling is favorable, Ely could be released. If he is unsuccessful, he will have to do 7 more years unless he gets back some more good time.

Ely tells me that during his 30 years of incarceration and before his arrest, he has never been a gang member. I do not know if he is being honest and almost all black and Mexican prisoners are, or were at one time or another, gang members. Gangs were not as prevalent in the 1970's, but Ely is a member of the Moorish Science Temple, which although an Islamic religion, is associated with Black Stones and certain other black gangs. In the 1970's, the Black Panthers were adherents of Islam. Later, followers of Louis Farrakhan were Islamic as well. If Ely is not a gang member, I assume he is from the same culture considering his conversion happened before his incarceration. Yesterday, he spoke at great length about the killing of Moammar Kadafi.

My gallery and the one above mine went to the large South yard in the afternoon yesterday. Ely lifted weights with a group of black men including Little Tim, who is a born again Christian. I exercised with two white inmates and did not pay much attention to the other group. However, every now and then I could catch words of Tim, Ely, and Jughead. It was apparent that Ely was not happy to hear Tim's Christian proselytizing. When we returned from the yard, I got an earful of complaints from my new cellmate. I am nonreligious and do not have a side, but I did think about how the areas in North Africa and the Middle East will ultimately be settled. With the numerous revolutions and Barack Obama's announcement to leave Iraq this year, there is a great probability of popular Islamic resurgence.

While I was trying to watch Piers Morgan's interview of Herman Cain, a Republican presidential candidate, my cellmate continued to interrupt me. He wanted to talk to me about stocks. My cellmate is in an investment class I tried to get in, but was unsuccessful. Stateville does not have any accredited schooling except a GED program. However, there is a man who volunteered to talk to inmates about investments. He was formerly an investment consultant, but now owns his own company called UBS. UBS is basically a small mutual fund that invests money for people. He intends to come to the prison 12 times over a period of three months. I am surprised administrators have permitted this and it is unusual, although he has helped out in a Christian service before.

The main assignment of the teacher is for students to pick one or two investments and track it until the end of the class. Students are given a hypothetical $10,000 and the person who is able to make the most money is to get a prize. I assume the prize will be something like a pen or pack of cookies. However the men in the class seem to be very competitive and my cellmate wants to win. He has been persistently asking me to pick an investment for him. I do not invest, however, for the short term. I usually am thinking at least several years out. Finally, after he would not let the issue go, I told him to invest in Greek bonds. Two year Greek bonds are paying an incredible 84% yield. Not including the 6.4 coupon, a $10,000 purchase of Greek bonds would accrue $16,800, or over the period of his class, $2,100. Greece will most likely default on their debt, but so long as they do not before his last class, he will probably win.

Ely has bombarded me with various conversations. Usually I just listen or I put my headphones on. He said to me once if he is talking too much to just tell him, so I immediately said he was talking too much. He was quiet for a while, but soon he was talking again. At least he does not want to blast hip hop music like Cork, although he is unable to do so. He also is very good about giving me my space. I do not like being in close proximity to someone in a closed area for a long time. Ely will jump on his bunk or stay on the other side of the cell, and if need be, switch places with me. He is also respectful, other than annoying me with his incessant chatter and yelling. A man told me Ely was "old school," and this means in prison lingo that he has the values of convicts decades ago. The values in prison, as have the values in society in general, have declined. I am glad he is not like the young prisoners I often see coming in on the new.

I was surprised to learn Ely was once a college athlete and played football for the University of Missouri. Although we do not have much in common, we do share an interest in sports. Both of us played football for a number of years before our arrest. He was a linebacker while I usually played defensive end. I learned that he also played on wrestling and baseball teams as I have. I did not even know there were private league baseball teams in the inner city. He played in what he called "Pony league" while I played on Little and Babe Ruth leagues. I am told he likes to gamble also, and possibly I will not only help him pick a winner in his class, but on NFL games.

As I write this journal entry, Ely is quiet for a change. I do not know if I could have written these pages had he been his usual extremely gregarious self. I believe he is sick with a cold, or possibly the flu. Many people in the prison are ill and viruses spread quickly. It is nice that he has been less talkative today. I want to believe this is due to him settling down and not just a temporary respite. When you spend the vast majority of your time in a cage and have no relief from a very miserable environment, it is important to have a good cellmate. Hopefully, a level E like Ely can understand my need for escape.