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Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Dentist -- November 4, 2011

This morning I read until the chow line was run for lunch. Lately I have been skipping many meals to have some peace away from my cellmate's almost ceaseless chatter and yelling. I was determined today he was not going to bother me, and I wrapped my headphone wire outside my bars so I could get better radio reception. I was successful in getting a few classic rock stations including Chicago's "The Loop." As my cellmate rambled, I listened to Led Zeppelin, Heart, AC/DC's "Hells Bells," and others. I even caught a vintage Metallica cut from the 1980's. I could hear my cellmate on occasion talking louder to get my attention, but I only turned up the volume on my Walkman. He began talking instead to a gallery worker.

When I saw the upper galleries going out for chow, I finally took my headphones off. Immediately, my cellmate began to address me. He asked me if I was going out for that fillet-o-fish. He repeated this as though he was a McDonald's commercial and until I told him I was going. Ely has done heroin and other drugs before. He may even be partially insane. He has told me a brother of his is crazy, and another is retarded. It probably does not help that he drinks coffee throughout the day. Many black people in prison are former drug addicts, mildly insane, greatly obnoxious morons with prison or ghetto etiquette. I wish I did not have to live among them.

Chow lines are particularly annoying. Numerous men are talking loudly to one another from the cell house to the dining room and back. It is enough that I wish I was deaf. I do not care to hear their screaming or most base and unintelligent conversation. Other than Zirko and Mertz, I did not speak to anyone at lunch. If I could wear earplugs all day, I would. Not only must I deal with all the noise but with the incredible aggravating behavior of convicts. A lieutenant this morning was threatening to take people to Seg. He may have not been serious, but I was thinking of volunteering so I could have room service again and get another cellmate, or better yet, be alone.

When I returned from chow, I had to take a nap. Despite tuning out my cellmate for most of the morning, I was very tired. I knew if I was to make my pass to see the dentist, I was going to need some rest. My appointment was for 2 p.m., and that left me a couple of hours for a nap. I told my cellmate I was laying down and to wake me up at 1:30, if I fell out. It seemed like I was only asleep for a few minutes when I heard Ely banging on the bunk. I thought about skipping my pass, however, dental appointments were few and far between.

At Stateville it is very difficult seeing a dentist. Men will have chipped teeth, fillings falling out, and be in enormous pain from cavities or infections, and will not be seen for months. The only reason I was being seen was because it was my bi-annual check up. Every two years, the Health Care Unit gives inmates a blood test and checks their vitals to see if they are not dying. Also included with this limited physical is a dental exam. I missed my pass to the lab last week. I doubt there is anything horribly wrong with my blood, and even if there was, it is questionable if it would be noticed.

After checking in at the front door, I went into the holding cage across from my cell. The guards were letting out all of the remaining Health Care Unit passes in the cell house to escort us all out together. Guards were also letting out evening kitchen workers to attend their detail. Those men are given a white uniform to wear, and I watched as they and the men going to the prison hospital slowly made their way down the flights of stairs. The cell house has five floors that extend upward about 70 feet. From the cell house wall in the holding cage, I could see all of the galleries except the one at the very top. I do not know why I was eager to leave because at the HCU I would only be put in another cage.

The prison hospital's holding cage was so full that when I and the other inmates from C House arrived, we were put in a cage outside. In the hallway that leads to the exit of the prison are two black cages. I usually see men who are being released or are from the Northern Receiving Unit in them. However, occasionally they are used to hold an excess of prisoners waiting to go on a visit or waiting to see a doctor in the hospital. After we were placed in one of the cages, men from other cell houses were also put in there with us and the cage adjacent. I was glad on the wall were two notices in bright red paint stating "Maximum Capacity of 10," although guards often dismissed the rule.

The prisoners seemed glad to be in the cages in the hallway despite how small and uncomfortable they were. Inmates watched all the female staff walk by and said greetings to them or tried to strike up conversations. Mostly they just stared and talked about them. Black men tend to like women that they describe as "thick," which I believe means overweight. A few spoke about how various women who passed by had a "big bootie," which apparently is appealing to them. A Mexican who stood beside me stared almost with his tongue out. It was all very odd to me how they spoke openly about their sexual desires and tastes. I also found their opinion of the women peculiar. These were very ugly women, and yet it seemed like they were surrounded by supermodels.

Also of discussion in the two cages was a couple of former Stateville inmates who had been in the news lately. A black man who lived in C House and went by the name "Baby Stone," was released from prison yesterday. Baby Stone was so named because he was in the Black Stones gang and also because when he was arrested he was only 14 years old. Baby Stone and his co-defendants were convicted over 20 years ago for a gang rape and murder in Chicago. Years ago, DNA excluded all of them and identified yet another man who was in prison. Despite this, the prosecutor did not want to release them and admit fault. However, a major reason for this was that they gave confessions. Their lawyers fought for years and just this week, Baby Stone, now in his mid-30's, was let go. Baby Stone's real name is Robert Taylor, and my attorney Jennifer Blagg helped the Innocence Project at Northwestern University work on the case. I do not feel any sense of optimism because of this, however. DNA cases are the easiest to overturn, and my case is not similar.

The other former Stateville prisoner of discussion was John Wilson, Jr. Wilson was the man who was recently arrested for stabbing to death a 14-year-old girl in the town of Indian Head Park. According to police, Wilson stabbed Kelli O'Laughlin when she returned home from school and interrupted him burglarizing her house. After the murder, the man used the girl's smart phone to text her mother a number of taunting messages. Wilson, Jr. had spent the last 17 of 20 years in prison and was paroled about this time last year. Many of the inmates in the two holding cages remembered him. They spoke about the case that has been in the Chicago area news alot this week.

One man in the cage defended Wilson Jr. and said he could be innocent. The others, however, quickly ridiculed this contention. Wilson Jr. used the gold coins he had just stolen to pay a taxi cab driver. His blood was also reported to be on the victim's clothing. Police also had traced the phone he had taken from the girl, and it was recovered when he was arrested. Finally, Wilson had put a rock in a skull cap to throw through a window to gain entry to the house. DNA from hair or skin takes time to match, but the police seemed confident they would soon have this evidence as well. I tend to be skeptical of media reports of suspects in high profile crimes, but in this case it seemed there was no doubt he was the killer and police had arrested the correct man.

Some of the men I was caged with expressed how Wilson Jr. should not have killed the girl. Rather, they said she should have been knocked out with a blow to the head or just tied up. I suppose this is the typical convict's perspective. No one said how he should have not been burglarizing the home in the first place, and there was little sympathy for the 14-year-old girl who was stabbed to death. Most of the talk focused on how the burglary should have been done better and how Wilson Jr., if he was not so dumb or high on drugs, could have gotten away with the crime. One man said he was just crazy.

Eventually the men in the hallway cages, including me, were let out to sit in the Health Care Unit's holding cage. I was not there long until my name was called for the dentist. The dentist area was part office and part working area. Like the rest of the hospital, it had painted white cinder block walls and gray tiled floors. There were four dentist reclining chairs, and after I gave my name, I was told to sit at one of them.

I did not like seeing the prison dentist. I assumed the people who worked at Stateville were not good enough to work in private practice. I also figured they cared little about their patients. Furthermore, I have read articles and seen televised programs about how unclean the utensils and hoses were in dentist offices. If private dentist equipment was so unsanitary, I reasoned the equipment here had to be much worse. Looking at the old equipment and chairs that were in poor repair, my perception was even more negative. I noticed there were even wires exposed underneath the chairs and much of what I saw looked dingy and unclean underneath the bright fluorescent lights.

I was sitting in a chair for about 10 minutes before I was attended to. During this time, I not only observed my environment but listened to the dentists working on other men. One man had seven cavities requiring the pulling of a few teeth and fillings in the others. From my vantage point, I could see how the man's teeth had already been drilled and been given numerous fillings. Many of his teeth were black, and I was disgusted by this. Another man had several cavities from various sides of his teeth including one that grew underneath a previous filling somehow. The dentist pointed these out to the inmate in a hand held mirror, along with the severe gum disease he had. The man's only comment was that she had a real mirror. Prisoners only have access to little rectangular pieces of clear plastic which have a reflective coating on the backside.

I brush my teeth after every meal and floss once a day. I am very meticulous about keeping my teeth healthy in part because I know how seldom prisoners have access to dental care. I also find cavities, missing teeth, and gum disease disgusting. Many people these days I notice have very white front teeth, but their molars will be filled with many dark or black fillings. I also have heard about people using not only whitening strips but having veneers put on their teeth. These practices make me think how superficial society has become. Their molars can be all black, but so long as their front teeth are shiny white, that is fine. It is not fine, in my opinion, and black molars are just as ugly as black incisors.

It is very difficult keeping my teeth healthy while at Stateville. Prisoners are only supplied with 3" toothbrushes. To reach the back molars, I must put my fingers in my mouth. If I am not careful, I will have toothpaste and drool over myself by the time I finish. Prisoners here are not allowed dental floss because the administration believes it could be a security issue. Purportedly, an inmate, after a few months or years, may be able to saw through a couple of bars in their cell. Instead, prisoners are sold "dental loops," which are small plastic bands that easily break. For $2, we can buy a package of 10 bands that are good for about 10 flossings unless you knot the bands back together after breaking.

Finally, a white woman came to my chair to take x-rays. When she asked me to put on a lead protector, I asked her if she was preparing to zap me with radiation. She dismissed my concerns and said there was more radiation emitted from a microwave and enormously more if I were to fly. If this was so, I asked her, then why is there a need for this vest? She did not have an answer and hid behind a wall to take the x-ray. After having this done four times, I was told to go to another seat.

While sitting at this chair, I listened to the Mexican who was in the cage with me earlier. He was trying to chat and flirt with all the female dentists in the room. These women, I noticed, all had a specific job, and the men were rotated between the four chairs. The older white woman seemed to do nothing but x-rays. A young black woman was mostly a receptionist and an older one with dyed frizzy hair looked at the prisoners' teeth. The women who worked in the dental office were friendly, and this seemed to make the Mexican inmate's day.

All dentist offices have background music. In the prison room was a small radio playing the pop music station "The Star," 96.7 FM. It was a station that I could get in clearly from my cell because it is broadcast from New Lenox, a suburb close to the prison. I hate pop music, and as I thought about this, Lady Gaga was introduced. I did not want to be at the dentist -- and now I had to listen to Lady Gaga. I do not know what is worse: the cacophonous yelling of numerous prisoners in the cell house, in movement lines, and holding cages, or her vile songs. At least the radio was on low, and her song was definitely the lesser of evils.

Moving to another chair, my teeth were examined. The woman picked around with a bright light and mirror. She eventually asked me if I grind my teeth, and I said no, but I tend to clench them when I work out. She told me a couple of my molars were worn down and eventually they may become sensitive. This was something I have been told many years ago, and I was unconcerned. What did concern me is when she gave me the hand held mirror and pointed out a molar that had a white discoloration on the top of it. She told me this meant there was a cavity underneath that could not be seen. I asked her if it could be seen on the x-rays, and she told me no, but she has been a dentist for 30 years and knew this was the case. I did not feel any pain, and I have noticed that blemish for years. When she asked me if I wanted an appointment to have it drilled and a filling put in, I hesitated but eventually said yes because I could always change my mind. It would not be for at least half a year before the procedure would be done. She asked me when I last had my teeth cleaned, and I told her not in numerous years. She said she would also make me an appointment for this as well. In prison, dentists do not polish teeth but simply pick tartar off.

While putting my jacket on by the door of the office, an inmate made the sound of Daffy Duck before entering. The young woman working the counter asked me if I heard that, and then she asked the man who entered. It was silly how the men in prison would do almost anything to get the attention of female staff. After the prisoner sat down in a reclining chair, he made the noise again to get all of the women's attention. The other inmate also vying for their attention was not happy, and as I left, I could hear them both talking.

I did not have to wait long before I was returned to my cell house. Close to 3 p.m. a long line is run back to the quarter units. These men all came from the visiting room. Visitation ends at 2:30 and the prisoners are sent to another large room in the basement to be strip searched in mass. There will sometimes be 30 or more men lined up naked having their clothes and bodies searched. From the strip search room, they will be taken down the hallway that the prisons' Health Care Unit is connected to.

My cellmate had just completed his workout when I returned and was going to wash up in the sink. I stayed at the table reading a paper until the local news came on. I was interested to see if I could hear more about the murder of Kelli O'Laughlin. The first story was about her murder and funeral. Many people came out to give their condolences in the small suburban town that has never had a homicide. On TV, a number of photos of the girl were shown including a high school freshman picture where she is wearing braces. The States Attorney of Cook County said that she would have sought the death penalty if Illinois still had capital punishment. In my opinion, lethal injection was too lenient. I also thought of the irony that this man will receive the same sentence as I, if not less.

February 18, 2012

I was finally given a pass to see the dentist about the cavity I purportedly have on one of my molars. I did not go because I have learned there is nothing wrong with the tooth, as I suspected. It is great to know there is such competent medical staff at Stateville.