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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Rain, Sleet and Snow -- January 17, 2012

For the last couple of days, I have been looking forward to going to the South yard. It is the only yard that has weights on it and plenty of space. Due to the week of lockdown, prisoners in my cell house have not had the opportunity to use the iron on the yard in nearly a month. Twice a week, prisoners here are given a "recreation" period which extends about two hours, unless there is no movement. These recreation periods are alternated between two small yards, a gym, and the large South yard. I typically only attend the latter two because the small yards are basically nothing but a couple of concrete basketball courts surrounded by fencing and razor wire.

I have been paying attention to the weather forecasts since the weekend. Years ago, I would attend any yard that had weights regardless of the weather, but now that I am older, I will not go out in freezing rain or subzero temperatures. Early this morning, I woke up to eat breakfast and prepare myself to make the morning recreation lines. As I did so, I paid close attention to weather forecasts while watching the news. At the moment, it was raining and I watched cars slowly moving on the main highways leading into Chicago during the traffic report. The weather was expected to become worse for drivers as the wind swept cold rain turned into sleet and then snow. Temperatures were predicted to drop quickly from the low 30's to 20 by the afternoon. I did not mind snow, and hoped that by the time yard lines were run the transition of precipitation had occurred.

While I was getting ready to go outside and bare the elements, my cellmate woke up. My new cellmate is unpredictable and does not have a set routine. Sometimes he will be awake before I am, other times he will sleep till noon, especially if he has taken all of his medications. I do not mind if he awakes before me, nor do I care if he sleeps much of the day. However, I do mind if he wants to share the floor with me at the same time. There is only one sink and toilet. Furthermore, there is only so much space to move around on. Annoyingly, my cellmate and I swapped places several times this morning, from the front of the cell to the back. As I expected, he was not going to yard and was unnecessarily in my way.

Stateville often does not have count cleared until 8:30 or 9 a.m. At the beginning of every shift every man at the maximum-security institution, the minimum-security unit, and the Northern Receiving Center is counted. The guards are not always very competent at counting and occasionally counts must be redone. When I see guards going cell to cell for a second or third time, I think "Vone bat, two bats, three bats", and so forth in my best Sesame Street Count Dracula imitation. However, today guards had completed count in a timely fashion and movement lines soon thereafter began. Unfortunately, the South yard line was the first to go out moving up the recreation period rather than back.

As expected, I was pelted with cold rain as I exited the cell house. It was not heavy, but the wind slapped it across my face. Once I was in the movement line, I turned away from the wind. I noticed only about 10 inmates came out for the yard. One of the men was Mertz, who is one of the few people I speak to in the cell house. He said to me that I did not happy. I said, "How often do you see me glowing with joy?" I went on to say I was hoping it would be snowing by the time we were let outside. If the precipitation does not change quickly, I said, we will both be very unhappy Popsicles upon our return to the cell house.

A well bundled guard let the prisoner line move out onto the South yard through a gate in the cyclone fencing topped with razor wire which encompasses the area. Mertz wondered if I was going to walk across the grass to the weight pile. I told him this would be unwise especially for him. The lawn was wet and we were in gym shoes. He was wearing a shoe that had a partially separated sole. I asked him why he had not purchased another pair, and was told that he did, but did not wear them because he did not want to get them dirty. I told him at the least he should get himself some epoxy from a prisoner who works in the furniture factory if he insisted on keeping those beat up shoes that looked like he stole them from a homeless man.

Instead of walking across the lawn, we traveled the asphalt track around to the other side of the yard. The rain and wind came directly at us, and I put my head down. I was dressed in thermals, sweat pants and a shirt, gloves, skull cap and my flimsy jacket the Illinois Dept. of Corrections was so kind to provide me. Despite this, the wind was able to transgress my clothes and I assumed it would only be a matter of time before the rain did as well. At least Mertz and I would have the yard almost entirely to ourselves. Only a few people went to the weight pile, and the rest walked around the track. I noticed one man was smart enough to make himself a jacket out of a clear garbage bag to keep out the rain and gusts of wind. I should have been resourceful enough to do this myself.

I did bring out a second pair of gloves and an extra skull cap to change into if necessary. As I began to place the extra clothing underneath a table, Mertz asked me to place his Walkman in my hat, and I did. There are about 10 steel tables bolted into concrete on the yard. On nice summer days these will all be filled with men playing cards, dominoes, or chess. However, on a frigid winter morning like today, they were all empty.

I have been lifting weights and exercising since grade school. Throughout my years of incarceration, men will often follow my lead or copy my exercise regimens, and Mertz was no exception. I did not bother to ask him what he wanted to do first, or even if he wanted to work out, but upon reaching the weight pile I rolled a bar with 150 lbs. to the incline bench and asked him to give me assistance cleaning it off the ground as I sat down. The bench has a broken arm, and prisoners are unable to rack any weight onto it. There are four benches on the yard in various states of disrepair. The iron bars which have welded plates to them are mostly rusted and bent. After I finished my set, I brought the weight down from my chest onto the concrete in a swift motion. I then quickly got up and picked up the weight to put in Mertz's hands.

During the two hours out on the yard, Mertz and I worked out the entire time, although my wing-man at times had to take breaks or could not do certain exercises. Occasionally, I would have to act as his drill sergeant and often I told him he was no marine. Mertz's only excuse was that it was years ago, but I would counter that once a man was a marine, he was always a marine. How did he even make it past basic training, I asked him. Between our sets, however, we spoke about a variety of subjects. There are only a few men in the entire cell house that I can have an intelligent conversation with. The yard can be the best place to talk because of the lack of crowds, noise, and distractions.

I asked Mertz what he thought about the John Howard Association's report on Stateville I had recently sent him. The JHA is a prison reform group in Chicago, and on July 13, 2011 they toured the prison. Late last year, they released a report about their visit which can be found on their website. I mostly agreed with the report especially the rapidly increasing prison population that needed to be curtailed, but there were some errors. One I thought was significantly misleading was the perception there was not enough security personnel. Never before in my near two decades of incarceration have I seen so many guards, sergeants, lieutenants and so forth do so little or engage in such redundant tasks.

From the South yard, the vacated H House building could be seen. Mertz mentioned how, contrary to the report by the JHA, it could easily be staffed with security personnel. However, the problem was that it could not be staffed with as many additional guards as the union demanded because of cost. Mertz was not aware, furthermore, that the building and others at Stateville were not used because they were condemned by the federal courts. The cell houses have now laid vacant and without any maintenance for years. In fact, the buildings have been gutted for spare parts. If the electric, plumbing, and heat did not work then, they certainly did not work now. Illinois recently had its credit rating dropped to the lowest in the nation. It faces well over $100 billion in pension obligations, and is in debt over $8 billion despite a tax increase.

Another error in the report was the number men at Stateville who were reported to have HIV, hepatitis C, cancer, and TB. The report stated only 5 people had cancer, and this number had to be a falsehood because I know 5 people offhand who have cancer, and this many men died of it just last year. The number of prisoners with HIV was reported to be only 16, and hepatitis 82. Both Mertz and I thought the number was at least twice that. I told Mertz how at the Cook County Jail a nurse told me that 8 men just on my deck had HIV. I wondered if it was just like the misinformation about toilets only being able to be flushed once every 10 minutes in the Roundhouse because of a deficient plumbing system, rather than the fact there are electric timers. I wondered if this was due to administrators lying to the prison reform group.

Working out on the other side of the weight pile was Tim, a stocky short black man. Tim was flat benching about 300 pounds, making Mertz and I look weak. However, I do a complete body workout, including cardio, whereas Tim and a number of other prisoners just do bench presses and arm curls. After an hour had passed, I told Mertz I was going to run, and asked if he could keep up. He told me he could for one lap, but not four. The rain had turned to sleet, and I mentioned to Mertz that I would probably not run as fast as I normally do because I was concerned about slipping. Already black ice may be forming.

The quarter mile track is not perfectly oval, and it also has an uneven surface. There are parts where you are running on an incline, and then other areas where it is declining. Sometimes, I will blame this for why I have yet to break a 5-minute mile. However just like in NASCAR, I like the road courses rather than "cookie cutter" tracks, even if speed is diminished. Despite the course and weather, I found myself losing my wing-man quickly. When I lapped Mertz I made fun of him, and later I continued to do so.

Before we had started the run, Mertz retrieved his Walkman. I told him that Bon Jovi was not going to give him inspiration and he needed to find it from within. Afterwards, I told him he was soft and instead of whatever light music he was listening to, he should have tried some "Godsmack." Afterall, it was their song "Awake" that was used as a recruiting tool during their commercials "An Army of One" when he enlisted. I told him I was incredibly disappointed by his performance. I expected him to be undaunted by the sleet. No weather or obstacles should stop a manna. Like in the move "Saving Private Ryan," I expected him to keep rushing the beaches of Normandy. If his arm was blown off, I expected him to pick it up and keep going undaunted, just like in the movie. Mertz said if he was in that point in history, he would have been one of the Wehrmacht machine gunners picking off U.S. soldiers. I told him from what I had seen today I doubt he had the fortitude to be on either side of WWII. With men like him, the Third Reich would have collapsed without the years of life and death struggle to protect the fatherland. Mertz did not seem to be a man of "blood and iron."

Back among the weights, I began to finish my workout. The bars were now icing and it was difficult to keep a grip. My gloves were soaked through and my hands were freezing. I exchanged them for my other pair and I also took my wet skull cap off for the dry one. The dry gloves allowed me to do shrugs, curls, and other exercises, but not without some slipping. I wish I had another jacket to put on as well, though, I was not going to be a "softy" like Mertz and I continued with ever more resolve. I have suffered through misery for most of my life and knew how to persevere.

As sheets of icy rain hit my body and I exercised using the most crude and debilitated equipment, I thought about a time before my arrest. I did not always have to work out under such poor conditions. At home, I had a set of chrome bars and enamel coated plates of iron a person could see their reflection in. All of my equipment was in perfect repair and condition. On occasion, I would travel to my friend's uncle's friend to use the impressive gym he had made of his garage. The man was a former professional wrestler and had at times been on television with the likes of Hulk Hogan. I cared nothing about his wresting career or semi fame, but I liked competing with the man who was over twice my age and made a living impressing people with his show antics and buffed physique. When I moved to Clearwater, Florida, my co-defendant and I lived at an exclusive apartment complex that had its own clubhouse, hot tub, heated swimming pool, and one of the finest gyms I have exercised in. My prosecutor would say to my jury that while the victim was lying dead in the snow, I and my co-defendant were living the good life and sipping Martinis pool side. Possibly, McKay is now pleased that I am now the one dead and freezing in the cold.

Between sets, I asked Mertz why he had joined the Marines. He told me it was mostly to acquire an education and skills. He came from an impoverished town, and before he completed his sentence, I completed it saying, "You wanted to be all you could be?" He said, "Something like that." Mertz also told me had he to do it over again, he would have joined the Army because it gave a person an opportunity to specialize in various fields. A person in the army could also join the rangers, Delta Force, the Green Berets, or other elite divisions unlike the Marines which was one unit. To mimic Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie "Commando," I told Mertz I eat Green Berets for breakfast and added let alone creme puffs like you.

The sleet felt like sheets of hail when the wind blew. I knew that if I was not working out, my body temperature would have dropped. The earlier rain had mostly soaked my clothes and now it was freezing. I know when Bear Grills or other survivalists face similar situations if they cannot make a fire, they will do intense cardio exercises before putting on dry clothes. Dry clothing was not an option, but I could run some more. I ditched Mertz and began sprinting around the track. On my second lap, I hit a patch of ice and almost wiped out. I came back to the weight pile realizing running was no longer possible. Mertz said, "Only two laps?" questioning my ability.

I noticed that my workout partner bent his wrist while benching and thought it was a good idea if we did supersets of reverse and wrist curls to strengthen our forearm muscles. With the bars frozen with ice, however, these were very difficult to do. In fact, during one set, Mertz dropped the weight on the ground. I grabbed some stones nearby and clawed them into the ice. Then I grabbed some sand into my gloves to do my sets. Working out at Stateville often requires improvisation. Just living here requires alot of creative thinking.

The guard in the gun tower eventually opened one of his windows and yelled out yard was over. I noticed he quickly shut it though, and did not press the issue. Although I felt like getting inside as quickly as possible, I knew I did not often have the opportunity to use weights and did a couple more sets before heading towards the gate. The asphalt track was very slick and I had to be careful with my footing. As Mertz and I left the yard, the precipitation had finally turned to snow. I said, "Great timing."

From the yard, the men outside went into the chow hall. I preferred to go straight into the cell house, but we had no choice. In the chow hall, chili was being served and some people may think this was a good meal to have on a cold day, however, they have never eaten Stateville's chili. The chili here, and possibly at all prisons in IDOC, is made with processed turkey-soy. To give it flavor, beef salt is added and plenty of other seasonings, but none of it makes it taste any better. I ate my vegetables and pocketed my bread in a small plastic bag to bring back.

In my cell, my workout was not over. I still had to wash many of my clothes. I also had to scrub my gym shoes. Washing clothes in the toilet bowl by hand was not an easy task, but there was little alternative. I could not wait to turn in my clothes with the cell house laundry the following week because I only had one pair of sweatpants, two pairs of gloves, and two scull caps. My jacket was also dirty, but this would have to wait until Thursday when blue clothing was washed. I was hungry, cold, and dirty, and I attempted to remedy all of this at once. I boiled water for a meal as I washed clothes and then bathed from the sink. Despite my best efforts, I was not done for two hours, and even numerous hours later as I write this journal entry I am still cold. I am exhausted and I plan to go to bed early tonight. I will cover myself underneath two wool blankets, and hopefully, the chill I feel from a morning of rain, sleet and snow will finally dissipate.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Another Terrible Cellmate -- January 13, 2012

Monday morning, the Sergeant told my cellmate it was time for him to move again. Ely told him, "Hell no! I won't go!" The Sergeant, accustomed to his antics, responded that he knew he could not refuse a level E move. It was security protocol that all designated extreme escape risk inmates be moved every 90 days. Ely asked where he was being moved and was informed 10 gallery, which is the fifth and top floor of the building. This was where he had been before he was moved into my cell, and he was glad to be returning to where his Islamic "brothers" were. I was also glad for him to be gone. For the last three months, he had been the source of much annoyance. Despite this, I was apprehensive of who my next cellmate would be.

Ely yelled upstairs from the bars in an attempt to learn who he was moving in with. The Sergeant had provided him with the cell number, but he did not know who lived there. When no one answered his shouts, he asked a cell house worker to find out, and he began to put his property together. Within a short time, the worker returned and told him the name of a man I never heard of but Ely did. Ely knows almost everyone and I was not surprised. I was also not surprised he had been celled with the man many years ago, considering how often Level E prisoners are moved. My cellmate has been incarcerated over 30 years and has had well over 100 different cellmates during this time. Such great regular transitions would be highly disturbing to me, but Ely is a very social and extroverted person who did not seem to mind.

The worker told him there was only one man in the cell he was moving into and there was no one trading places with him. This news was unwelcome to me because I knew my cell would be filled soon and probably from a man being released from F House kickout. There were many unruly, insane, or unstable men in the Roundhouse. Most of them were former segregation inmates, and if you ever were in the Roundhouse you knew how loud and crazy it was. I preferred to get a known person from within C House.

I was initially not going to chow because the kitchen workers were serving the Stateville special: "Sloppy Soy." Sloppy soy was the name I had given the imitation Sloppy Joes made with processed turkey-soy. However, I decided to leave my cell to see if there was any opportunity to request a specific inmate. On the gallery, I spoke to a Caucasian man a couple of cells down. He told me his cellmate was planning to transfer soon and it would be better if I moved in with him to be away from the holding cage. Later, on the walk to the chow hall, I spoke with Anthony. He also did not want to move into my cell but told me because his cellmate was also a Level E, he would be moving soon and I could request to replace him. The issue was most probably mute anyway. The Lieutenant rarely does someone the favor of calling the Placement Officer, and she was a difficult person to deal with, not only with inmates, but also staff. She does not care if inmates get along in the cell together and is unwilling to make accommodations.

On the return to the cell, Ely asked if I would assist him moving his property. I had been wanting him to be moved since he was assigned as my cellmate, and thus thought it appropriate that I help him leave. I also wanted to be walking the cell house for the chance I would be able to talk to the Lieutenant. My cellmate and I carried his large property box up the five flights of steel stairs. His box was not very heavy but it was awkward to carry. Arriving at his new cell, I saw who Ely's new cellmate would be. He was a fat black man about 40 years old. By the condition of his cell, I could tell he was a dirty and disorganized person, and this was after he yelled down to Ely that he was cleaning the cell before chow.

After helping Ely with his box, I went down the stairs to grab more of his property. I put his heavy workout bag filled with water bottles, books, and magazines over my back. The bag was three feet high and weighed well over a hundred pounds. As I went up the stairs, I felt the strain in my legs. I also felt the stares of numerous men from their cells. This may make those who have not been in prison before uncomfortable, but I knew it was common for convicts to size me up and be curious who I was. Many also are just bored and stare out their bars because they do not know how to occupy their time. Once again, I arrived at the dirty fat man's cell and he asked me what I carried. I told him it was Ely's workout bag and that exercising will now be mandatory as well as nonstop chatter. He said he didn't mind talking, but the only workout he did was feeding his face.

Ely gave me a fist bump as a goodbye when he took the last of his possessions upstairs. I closed the cell door behind him and wished I could prevent it from being unlocked. I did not want a cellmate. In maximum-security prisons where the vast majority of your time is spent trapped in a small space with another person, a cellmate can radically alter your life, and most often it is for the worse. I still had my gym shoes on and I tightened the laces. I also thought of strategies to combat a new cellmate if he was immediately hostile once the door was locked behind him and the guard was gone. I was not armed with a weapon, but the cell was a weapon in itself. The floor and walls were concrete, and the bunk bars, table and counter were steel. A prison cell is not like MMA Ultimate Fighting where men fought on a soft mat inside a fenced ring with cushioned top perimeters.

I thought about making use of my time alone to do some thoughtful writing or reading before my peace was disturbed. However, I was too concerned about what creature would be thrown into the cage with me. I was informed someone was already en route, and I just sat at my table waiting. It was not long before my cell door was opened and a stranger rushed in with his property, invading my space. The stranger was a black man about my age and height, but with a heavier less muscular physique. I quickly noticed that he had green stripes on his clothing, and could not believe I was being assigned another Level E inmate. As he arranged his property, I did not say a word. I was not happy and was not going to pretend to be. Finally, he asked me for my name, and told me he went by "DD." Later, I learned the letters DD were his initials.

Like my former cellmate, I had nothing in common with DD. Before his arrest, my new cellmate lived in the ghettos of Chicago. He is a gang member, although most men here are. He is currently serving time for attempted murder and a litany of other crimes he did not describe. He has been in and out of prison since about 1992. DD has very little education and I could quickly surmise his intelligence was below average. His speech is very rudimentary, crude, and vulgar. He also has a thuggish way of expressing himself which I suppose gains respect in his neighborhood or within gangs, but it means little to me. It may even be a sign of insecurity. Fortunately, my new cellmate does not have a radio, which would cause me to tell him how I refuse to listen to hip hop and gangster rap. He does, however, have a television with a speaker to annoy me with. The current assignment officer at Stateville does not consider cellmates' compatibility at all, whether this be social, cultural, racial, or otherwise.

The largest difference between the two cellmates is that DD is not as friendly as Ely, but this is made up by the fact that he is not as social, loud and annoying. In fact, initially I thought I may have a decent cellmate because he sleeps or lays in bed most of the day. For the first time in months, I had some quiet and peace. My former cellmate was continually talking or yelling to various people on the gallery. However, as my new cellmate becomes more comfortable, he is exhibiting more inconsiderate and obnoxious behavior. The only reason I think we have been able to get along so far is due to the heavy psychotropic medications he takes which sedate him and I believe, moderates his mood.

My cellmate receives a handful of pills, not only during the evening but in the morning as well. He takes Trazadone, Remeron, Prozac, and a couple of other medications. These drugs I have no doubt are meant to treat strong psychological problems, including violent mood swings. I do not think he is technically crazy but he certainly has psychopathic behaviors that are much more apparent when he does not take his pills. Another thing I noticed about him is how quickly he can become frustrated, or become angry even if at nothing in particular, or for any reason. DD has a broken fan that is now behind the bunk. He told me it was this way because he punched it. He also told me how he fractured his elbow hitting it against a cell wall. DD is a very hostile and volatile person when not medicated. This makes living with him uncomfortable because it is difficult to relax, even if I believe I can defend myself successfully. I wish he was not able to refuse his medications.

It was extremely unusual that I was assigned another Level E. In my entire incarceration, I have only had one cellmate classified an extreme escape risk, and this was by choice while in Pontiac in the 1990's. Now I have been assigned two Level E inmates consecutively, and this is actually a breach of security. There is a rule that prisoners who are escape risks are never to be moved into the same cell without an intermitting period of time. This is done under the belief that a cell can be compromised. Possibly, Internal Affairs wants an excuse to keep extra scrutiny on me due to my blog writings. However, my editors tell me that my outgoing mail is no longer being intercepted or delayed.

Another unusual aspect about my new cellmate being assigned a cell with me is that he was moved directly from X House to general population. DD was attempting to be approved for protective custody, and normal policy if a prisoner is rejected, is for them to be moved to the Roundhouse. Everyone released from segregation, transferred from another penitentiary, or denied protective custody is sent to F House kickout temporarily until placement is found in G.P. Prisoners can sometimes wait up to a year on the upper floors of the Roundhouse.

This week a few men asked me if my new cellmate was any improvement over the last one. I told them only insofar as he does not have as much clutter and does not continually talk. Anthony wanted me to score DD from zero to 10, with a zero being someone I would immediately be fighting with and a 10 being the best cellmate I could imagine. I told him this was not a good scale because I can imagine a gorgeous dream girl as my cellmate. "No," he said, "the cellmate cannot be female and must be in the realm of possibilities." I asked if that parameter meant Stateville inmates or any inmates throughout the IDOC. He said, "Only Stateville," which greatly reduced my standards and expectations. I said, "On this scale, he will be a 3 unless he takes all his medications so that he is sedated and lying on his bunk 20 hours a day. Then he may be a 5."

The evening I received the new cellmate, I was watching the ABC reality TV show "The Bachelor" when I heard someone yelling my name. I turned around and saw my former cellmate in the holding cage. His cell, along with several others on 10 gallery, was being searched. The man is not even my cellmate anymore, but he can still disrupt me. I went to the bars to see what he wanted. He just wanted to see how I was doing and talk, as always. I told him I was OK, but I was not happy to get another Level E. My former cellmate was incredulous that they had placed another escape risk in the same cell. He said if the Security Chief was aware of this, he would be moved unless they are intentionally keeping their eyes on me. With this comment, my new cellmate broke out in anger, shouting that he was not here to watch anyone. I then explained to DD that he did not mean him, but that staff may want a pretense to monitor me. The Bachelor came back on after a commercial break, and I told Ely that I would talk to him some other time. He immediately began talking to my neighbor.

Over the several days that DD has been in the cell, I have spoken rarely to him. We have nothing in common to discuss. A couple of days ago he noticed that I was reading a corporate report, and he asked me if I buy and sell stocks. I told him, "No, but I advise family and friends who have investments." He told me he knew a great opportunity to make some money, and said I should buy stock in Ramon Noodles because all prisoners buy them. At first I thought he was trying to be funny, but he was serious.

While in the chow line, I spoke to Anthony about the incredible stupidity of my new cellmate. We were earlier talking about Mitt Romney, a Republican Presidential candidate who has oddly come under attack by conservative competitors for being "out of touch with average Americans" and being an alleged "corporate raider." I told him that I only expected such attacks from the likes of Barack Obama and his Marxist ilk, and this line of criticism only made me like Romney more. To make a spoof on our former conversation, I told Anthony I will best him $10,000 that my new cellmate had an IQ under 80. Anthony said he did not know if he could accept and will have to count how many Ramen Noodles he has in his box.

A large topic of discussion amongst prisoners this week was the retiring governor of Mississippi who pardoned over 200 people. The news media quickly condemned the use of executive power and focused on a few murder convicts, despite how the vast number of pardons went to people of less serious crimes and who had already completed their prison sentences. Haley Barbour was coming under enormous attack for this decision, despite how he has not been soft on crime and gave only a select few men a second chance that had life sentences. If anything, I thought the governor should be criticized for not granting more commutations or pardons to the prison population across the entire State of Mississippi. The criticism by the media will now make other governors think twice about using their authority to fix injustices or lessen the sentences of people given draconian punishments. I thought about discussing the issue with my new cellmate, but after a moment realized it would not be worth my time or breath. I could get better conversation talking to a sock puppet.

Later at the chow table, I spoke about the pardons with Anthony, Steve, his cellmate, and a kitchen worker I know. They agreed that there was no controversy, and if anything, the governor's powers should be used more often to commute the sentences made incredibly harsh by legislators and past governors, as well as to pardon the innocent wrongfully convicted who the justice system has failed. The controversy concerned the reasons why only convicted murderers who held assignments in the governor's mansion were pardoned at the exclusion of others. Also raised was the state requirement to have the request for clemency published in a newspaper, however, this was a ridiculous technicality being used by Mississippi's Attorney General to obstruct the wishes of the governor. Men thought it was funny that the man was calling for those already released to voluntarily turn themselves in, although the law prevented the state from arresting them. Only a complete moron would do such. I thought not even my cellmate would be so foolish.

On Wednesday, the Major made a tour of C House along with the Lieutenant. They stopped at my cell to praise how orderly and clean it was. Since Ely left, I have been able to keep the cell almost in impeccable order. Possibly, I have OCD as well as Aspergers, but I like everything put away and in a specific order. My volatile cellmate has yet to go ballistic on me for moving his things, and hopefully he will continue to let me keep the cell neat. The Lieutenant and Major after excessively complimenting my cell then joking said, "The floor needs to be waxed and buffed, and the walls painted." I told the Major that if I were given the supplies I would do so. The cells in C House have not been painted in years, and the dingy gray paint is cracked, peeling, or discolored. Before they left, I asked the Lieutenant if I got a gold star for the day, and he said, "Absolutely." After they left I thought I would like to trade that gold star in for a new cellmate.

My cellmate refused his medications today, and has been acting very unsettled. He is clearly disturbed mentally and is being loud, as well as obnoxious, although not as excessively as my former cellmate. I assume this is close to DD's natural self when he is not sedated or has his volatile mood moderated. To make matters worse, he drank some coffee. All I need is an unmedicated psychopath geeked on caffeine trapped in the cell with me. As I write this, I have my gym shoes on, just as a precaution. I wonder if DD stays off his meds if he will turn into a Dr. Jeckle type of personality or worse. Fortunately, he tells me his stay is not permanent.

DD plans to go on a hunger strike after he is able to receive his commissary order. Prisoners who declare hunger strikes are typically sent to F House and placed in a single man cell without any of their foodstuffs. After a few days, he will be interviewed by the psychiatrist and an administrator. They will determine if he is sane, and if his grievance can be resolved. If it cannot, the protesting inmate will be kept in the Roundhouse until he becomes ill or too weak, whereupon he will be put in the infirmary. Prisoners will eventually be given an IV, or even force fed. For some reason, the courts have ruled that wards of the state cannot be allowed to kill themselves. Oddly, this applies to men on death row, or who have life without parole sentences.

My cellmate has mentioned to me how he does not want to go back to Menard C.C., and thinks his Level E status should be changed. The last time DD was in Menard, he claims he was severely beaten by guards while in handcuffs. He believes he will be assaulted again if he returns, regardless if he provokes it or not. From how he has been acting without his medication, I can see how he could get easily into trouble, especially in Menard which is stricter. Despite this, DD has no choice but to be transferred back after his one year is up at Stateville due to his escape risk classification. This is probably why he was trying to be approved for protective custody because those inmates go to Pontiac C.C.

Whether or not DD succeeds, I believe he would rather be in F House. From what he tells me, some of his "homies" are there. Also awaiting him in the Roundhouse are commissary goods, including a new fan he is unable to transit to C House. I hope my cellmate does go on a hunger strike so I can be rid of him and take my chances with someone new. How many times can the Placement Officer roll me snake eyes? The odds are clearly stacked against me at Stateville. It is probably best that I try to transfer, even if it is a long way from home. I noticed today is Friday the 13th, a day considered unlucky by some superstitious people. However, almost every day at Stateville is an unlucky one for me.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Backlash to Tyranny -- January 6, 2012

In the maximum-security prisons of Illinois, the number of staff assaults has been increasing. At the same time, although crime rates are down to 1950's levels, shootings of police officers are up. Ironically, the response to both of these developments has been the same oppression, laws, and brute force that caused the violent increases. For decades, the U.S. has moved towards a big brother government and police state. More prisons have been built, and more guards and police officers hired than throughout the history of the Republic. Laws and prison sentences have been exponentially expanded where several million Americans are in prisons and jails, either on probation, parole, court supervision or work release. I would like to think the Hobbesonian Leviathan which pervasively grips society can be slain heroically and in a decisive blow, but history teaches liberty and freedom are hard fought battles.

Since my last journal entry, I have learned more about the incident in E House that almost caused the prison to be placed on lockdown through Christmas. From what I have heard, a guard was beaten unconscious after a confrontation. The inmate was thereafter overwhelmingly subdued and pounced upon further in retaliation. Onlooking prisoners locked in their cages were not happy by the excessive use of force. In prison, a guard who fights successfully man-on-man is respected, however, a mob that stomps on an inmate after he is already handcuffed is looked upon with great disdain.

Not long after Christmas, there was a one-on-one fight in the shower of the cell house I reside in between two Mexican prisoners. The shower is a place many prisoners go to settle their differences without police intervention. There is no overlooking gun tower nor do guards go in the locked area. The fight probably would have gone unnoticed by staff had the two not sustained visible injuries. One of the men was stabbed and the other had his head split.

Internal Affairs, the investigative unit of Stateville, does not usually become involved in isolated fights. Fights between inmates occur regularly in maximum-security prisons and are not taken seriously. However, because one of the combatants used a shank, I.A. conducted an investigation. Last Wednesday, late in the evening, a group of Hispanic prisoners were questioned. I saw them in the holding cage across from my cell, and they complained of racial profiling. Their complaints were half-hearted, and partly made in jest. Internal Affairs regularly uses specific group questioning and this policy is far wiser than a broad round up of prisoners.

The following morning, the prison was on a level 1 lockdown, and it has been so until yesterday. Various rumors have circulated about the reason for the lockdown. Some say it was due to the holidays. Many guards have taken days off work for Christmas and the New Year. On one of the days the prison was on lockdown, a guard informed me that 84 people did not show up for work. Numerous guards were working double shifts to make up for the lack of staff. Along with the decrease in manpower, the administration realizes many inmates and guards alike get drunk on New Years Eve. Considering the lack of staff and possibility of drunkenness, it was probably considered prudent to lockdown the prison, although I tend to believe the questioning of Hispanics the night before was at least part of the reason.

According to kitchen workers, who were unusually allowed to continue to work through the lockdown, guards reported knives were found in the cell house where the Christmas Eve incident occurred. It is no secret there is great animosity, especially amongst prisoners of E House, because a gang member was beaten in retaliation when he was defenseless. Prison shanks plus a threat of retaliation against staff, even if ambiguous or incredible, would be enough to make the administration cautious. I would not be surprised if one of the men questioned by I.A. did not have something to say.

After the lockdown, prisoners were surprised to be let out for showers and learn they could no longer take their laundry bags with them. Inmates do not have any benches or hooks to place their clothes, soap, towel, etc. in the shower area. Thus, everyone uses their mesh laundry bag to place those items in, and will tie them to the pipes or bars before showering. The reason for the new rule was apparent to everyone, and one prisoner yelled out of his cell, "You scary motherfuckers!" Administrators thought by not allowing inmates to bring their laundry bags this would prevent staff assaults. However, this rule would not have had any effect on the Christmas Eve incident where the prisoner used only his fists. The rule also will not prevent inmates from improvising or using other weapons. A sock, towel, pillowcase, or even the leg of a pair of pants knotted and filled with a bludgeoning object still can be used, not to mention knives. The security precaution will not lessen violence against staff or inmates for that matter. It is only another inconvenience and foolish rule, similar to those Americans experience when traveling by plane.

The initial rumor I heard about the Christmas Eve assault was that a prisoner who was fed up with living at Stateville and without any family to visit him, decided that he would rather be in Pontiac segregation or Tamms Supermax. The administration fails to realize that in maximum-security penitentiaries in Illinois there is little motivation to behave. No matter how many rules, new procedures, safeguards and staff, the tight fisted control imposed will not prevent violence. The poor quality of life and excessive repression only stirs greater resentment amongst inmates who have nothing to lose. The vast majority of men at Stateville or Menard are incarcerated for life. The threat of Segregation means little because there is little difference between being locked in your cage in general population or somewhere else. As it is, Menard spends half the year or longer on lockdown anyway. At Stateville, the situation was similar until a new warden changed policies of the previous administrations. However, despite this, Stateville remains a miserable and oppressive place to live. I often wonder why I continue to behave when a single man cell awaits me in Pontiac or Tamms.

Frequently, while reading or writing, I listen to WLS talk radio. Earlier today, I was surprised when Sarah McKinley called in to be interviewed by the Roe and Roeper Show. For those who are unaware, Sarah McKinley is the woman from Blanchard, Oklahoma who shot a man dead in her home under suspicious circumstances. Her 911 call to police has repeatedly been played on national television news networks this week. Photographs of her posing while holding the shotgun she used in the killing also have been shown. While some people, especially gun rights advocates, tout her as admirable for defending herself, others question her use of deadly force. The prosecutor's office has no intention of arresting her, and has publicly stated she was fully within her rights.

Sarah McKinley answered all of the questions posed by the radio talk show hosts, although her answers were not all entirely credible, in my opinion. She states on the afternoon of December 31st she heard a knock on her door and peered outside to see two men, one of whom she knew. Instead of answering the door, she retreated inside of her trailer with her baby and 21-month-old German Shepherd. She says she knew the men had bad intentions when she armed herself with a pistol and a 12 gauge hunting rifle. As she waited, McKinley called the police and asked for permission to shoot the men. The dispatcher would not authorize such action specifically, but said she should do what is necessary to protect herself. Soon thereafter, one of the men broke into the place and without saying a word, the woman blasted him. She was asked why she did not first give a warning or make a verbal threat. She simply stated that she did not want to give her position away. McKinley had intentionally been very quiet, even giving her baby a bottle so the man would not know where she was. Police came less than a minute later and found the dead man on the floor with a knife in his hand. The other man had already run off, but later turned himself in.

The man who fled said that they were there to procure pain medications. McKinley's husband had been prescribed these to help ease his pain before he died from lung cancer on Christmas Day. McKinley initially told people that she thought they were there for the drugs, however, on the Roe & Roeper Show, she changed her story and said she believed they wanted to rape her. I tend to doubt if this was the true reason. Pain medications are in high demand on the black market, and if she was known to possess them it would make her a target for a burglary. It is even possible that Sarah McKinley may have even sold the medications to them on another occasion. Despite not knowing exactly what occurred, I fully support gun rights. However, I believe the media has totally missed the real controversy of this incident.

The man who fled the trailer after his friend was shot was, incredibly, charged with his murder, and may even face the death penalty. It does not matter that he had nothing to do with the death, or that he did not even enter the home. Whether he was there to assist in a burglary, robbery, or rape also does not matter. Regardless of the felony his friend had intentions of committing, he was automatically guilty of it, and any death which occurred during the commission of the crime. This is the insanity of the felony-murder law which exists through much of the U.S.

Thousands of people across the nation serve lengthy prison sentences or life without parole because of the felony-murder law. There are also close to 100 men on death row who although they never committed a homicide or intended for one to occur, were made liable under the broad based statute. Just at Stateville alone there are over a hundred men convicted of felony-murder who will never see freedom again. They are all guilty of robberies, kidnappings, burglaries or other felonies, but none of them actually killed anyone. They are all held accountable for another person.

Many people have brought to my attention the conviction of Ryan Holle in Florida that is similar to my own case. On March 10, 2003, then 20-year-old Ryan Holle lent his car to his roommate to commit a burglary with some other men. During this burglary, one of the intruders killed a woman by beating her head with a shotgun found in the home. Despite not being present, and having borrowed his car to his roommate numerous times previously, Holle was convicted of felony-murder and sentenced to natural life without parole. The prosecutor justifies this conviction and sentence by saying the crime "would have never happened unless Holle lent his car," a proposition I highly question. He furthermore says, "He must be treated just as if he had done all the things the other four people did." The prosecutor sounds alot like mine who theatrically would shout "All for one and one for all. The actions of one are the actions of all," while moving across the courtroom during closing arguments pretending he was one of the Three Musketeers. The only distinctions between my case and that of Ryan Holle is that he readily admitted to lending his car, while I can prove mine was not used. Furthermore, Holle was convicted of felony-murder while I was convicted of murder via a theory of accountability. Interestingly, my case may also be similar to the one in Oklahoma because my co-defendant was acquitted of murder. No one is held responsible for the actual killing.

The felony-murder and accountability laws are just two examples of how absurd and draconian the criminal statutes in the U.S. have become. There has been a vast expansion of laws that are unprecedented in the history of the country. Furthermore, the punishments for these almost infinite laws are incredibly harsh. For example, in Illinois class X felonies carry 6 to 30 years imprisonment, however, there is little to prevent prosecutors from seeking aggravating circumstances that increase the range to 30 to 60 years. In addition to aggravating prison sentences is the cumulative sentences for other crimes committed in the same act. For example, a robbery sentence can be compounded due to the use of a gun. Armed robbery convicts can be eligible for over 100 years in prison and they must serve at least 85% of this time. By the way, people convicted of murder in Illinois must serve 100% of their sentences.

Also in the news this week, in addition to the Oklahoma case, were a number of cop killings. One Chicago police officer and several in Utah were gunned down. I do not watch much local news but I did learn about the out of state shootings. Apparently, a couple of men were surrounded when robbing a store. Instead of surrendering to the police, they tried to shoot their way out with fully automatic weapons. Police representatives later commented that their police force was outgunned and they needed to be armed just as the criminals are, or better. Unfortunately, this is the usual response by law enforcement. They need more money, men, or better weapons. I regularly hear calls to create soldier-like battalions in towns and cities of America. Already many cities do have heavy armaments like the military. These people, however, fail to understand that the police are there to serve and protect. They are not supposed to be a domestic military force. Americans do not need returning soldiers from Iraq patrolling their streets.

The police state and prison industrial complex is not only an assault of the U.S. Constitution and dearly held values of freedom, but counterproductive efforts to fight crime. As the story about the officers shot in Utah aired on television, my cellmate said contemptuously, "Fuck ya, dey tried to shoot dey way out. Dey had no choice." My cellmate was given 60 years for a home invasion and has now served half of his sentence. This was a harsh sentence back in 1980, but it is common now. Men are regularly given 60 or more years for class X felonies. Criminals who are aware of the penalties of their crimes are willing to do anything to escape. They also have no reason to show restraint. Killing a cop or several makes no difference because the punishment will be a protracted death sentence regardless.

Prosecutors and some legislatures often say the felony-murder law and other harsh criminal statutes prevent crime. The reduction of violent crime would seem to give credence to this deduction, however, I believe that other factors are at work and deterrence loses its effect after a certain point. Many people do not even know the law, or how greatly it has changed over the years. Does anyone think the man who fled from the trailer in Oklahoma could have been deterred or knew about the felony-murder law? Furthermore, those who know the laws when they break them will act with much more brutality and violence because degrees of guilt have diminished.

Prosecutors justify the felony-murder law saying it makes criminals plan their crimes with more care, makes them take more precautions to ensure that no one is killed, or even decide not to do the underlying felony. This is ridiculous on its face, but even statistical data collected by the federal government demonstrate the number of deaths which occurred during burglaries, car thefts, and rapes was the same. The incident of deaths after the new statute for robberies actually greatly increased, and this is to be expected.

The felony-murder law has been abolished, or never instituted, in all of Europe and the vast majority of other countries around the world. Canada, which derives its common law from Britain like the U.S., saw the error of the statute long ago. In 1990, their supreme court ruled the culpability of co-defendants under the statute violated the principle that the punishment must be proportionate to the moral blameworthiness of the offender. England no longer has the law, and European courts continue to hold the perspective that people should be responsible for their own acts and not those of others. I find this ironic considering how America touts individualism and condemns the collectivistic policies of Europe except for the extreme left of the political spectrum. America was founded on the principles of individual rights, freedom, self-determinaion, and responsibility. However, with respect to the justice system, prosecutors are socialists and quote the Three Musketeers with approval of the courts.

As in all repressive regimes around the world, oppression is met with resistance. Governments that seek to quell unrest, sedition, and violence against authority with ever more force often discover it leads to even more hatred and rebellion. It is particularly so in places where people live in squalor or have grim, miserable and bleak existences. There is only so much an oppressive agency can do to a people who already find their lives so worthless and terrible. Even a beaten, cornered dog will lash out despite impossible odds, and in American maximum-security prisons there are many cowering but growling canines. I would like to hope the prison and judicial system would be reformed, but I doubt there is political courage and leadership to undertake this massive overhaul.

I have been paying close attention to the Republican primary. Many of the candidates for President speak of reducing government, however, none so much as Ron Paul. He is especially committed to freedom and dramatic reactionary change. Disappointingly, Ron Paul is not a charismatic or effective communicator. He is unlikely to inspire the ideas and values long forgotten in the U.S. Next week on Tuesday, the Republican primary will come to New Hampshire, a state whose motto is "live free or die." Unfortunately, I have learned much of the sayings, symbols, and rhetoric in America are facades. The flames of liberty have long been blown out.

Thomas Jefferson wrote, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." In the maximum-security prisons of Illinois, I have seen blood spilled and it seems this blood is flowing outside of these walls. It is no surprise there is a backlash to tyranny, especially when the police state continues to grow while the citizens of America are increasingly oppressed, disenfranchised, and impoverished. Barack Obama has attempted to quell this discontent and even harness it with superficial economic stimulus and quasi-Marxist rhetoric. However, this did not fare so well in the former Soviet Union. Hopefully, America's descent into a repressive Communist state can be turned back, although I wonder if the spirit of liberty still lives on in the hearts of men or if they will only fight once their back is up against the wall.

February 3, 2012

Update: Apparently, the administration has reconsidered making X House Tamms Stepdown. Instead it is being made to house low aggressive inmates who have less than 15 years to do. The administration has also changed their policy of prohibiting men from using laundry bags to carry their shower supplies, and the privacy curtain rule has been rescinded or is not being enforced. I am impressed with the wisdom of policy makers and it is a contrast to the hard-headed wardens of the past.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Ghosts of Christmas -- December 28, 2011

Christmas was almost cancelled at Stateville this year. However, because the holiday is for the most part like any other day in prison, I cared little. The only distinction is a special meal, and for some inmates, visits from family or religious services. I was not expecting anyone to come to see me, and I have not been to church in over 20 years. Furthermore, a decent meal was not going to improve the years of oppressive captivity I have languished under and will continue to do so. It was like burning in Dante's lake of fire for all eternity, and being thrown an ice cube. Apparently, I was not the only one who thought little of the holiday, and a prisoner beat unconscious a guard on Christmas Eve. From what I have heard, he was never going to be released from prison and preferred to do his time in Pontiac segregation or Tamms Supermax. The only benefit of being at Stateville was being close to home for many prisoners. However, when his family abandoned him, there was no reason to be at this penitentiary, which is arguably the worst one in Illinois.

The prison was placed on a level 1 lockdown immediately after the event. However, late that night, kitchen workers were let out of their cells to cook and prepare the Christmas meal. In the morning, I was surprised Stateville had been taken completely off lockdown and there were normal operations. Visits and church services were called out from the cell house loudspeaker bright and early, and I mean this literally. It was 7 a.m. when a guard broke the morning quiet with the announcement which echoed off the stone walls. A most irritating beam of sunlight reflected off the edge of my cell wall. I missed the clouds and darkness of the last five days. It was unfortunate the days will only be getting longer from the winter solstice. I do not like Mick Jagger, but the Rolling Stones' song "Fade to Black" crossed my mind as I began Christmas Day. I suppose I was the epitome of Ebenezer Scrooge.

Prisoner lines for the Christmas meal began before 9 a.m. While most days only half of the gallery came out for chow, almost everyone left their cells for this meal. I stood next to Steve, and my only greeting was "baa humbug." It was crowded, and like a herd of animals we filed out of the cell house. As usual, once outside I weaved my way through people, occasionally bumping into the cattle to find my way to Anthony who was already in line. Steve followed in my wake. If I was forced to feed like livestock, I reasoned that I may as well be around those I liked or found least objectionable.

Thankfully, neither Anthony nor Steve were in a cheerful mood. I needed something to temper the bright winter sunshine and irrational merriment of other prisoners. While most everyone talked loudly on the way to the chow hall, we walked mostly in silence. Unlike other meals, the Christmas meal was served to us in two Styrofoam trays to take back to the cell. We were given turkey or pork, collard greens, instant mashed potatoes with gravy, and macaroni and cheese. The other prepared tray came with a couple of rolls, a small salad, peas, a small slice of cherry pie, and a half cup of sherbet. The inmate worker serving the meat on line was my neighbor, and he gave me such large portions that I could barely close the lid on my hot tray. I thought this will not only be my lunch, but dinner and late snack. Outside the serving circle, a guard looked down at us with a rifle. I set my trays down on a table next to Anthony and gave him my sherbet.

This was Anthony's first Christmas off death row, and I asked him on the way back to the cell house if it was as he expected. He said they fed better at Pontiac and he would prefer to be given his holiday meal in his single man cell. I told him at least he did not have such a disagreeable cellmate as I did. Steve asked me what I thought of a cassette tape he sent me which was a compilation of classical music. I told him it was rather light. Did he not have any Beethoven, Wagner, or possibly Mozart's "The Requiem"? He said it was supposed to help me relax, and upon hearing this, I responded that I did like the composition "Bach Air." It reminded me of the film "Silence of the Lambs." The character Hannibal Lector was listening to that piece of classical music as he killed two of his captors and escaped from his cage. Steve said maybe he should get his tape back, but I said, "No, it may go with my Christmas meal."

The ovens at Stateville have been broken for a few weeks. Kitchen supervisors originally were going to substitute the turkey and pork with fried chicken, but changed their minds or were persuaded otherwise by administrators. Instead of baking the meat, it was boiled in large pots. My cellmate and some others complained that it was dry, but I thought it turned out well. I mostly appreciated that it was real meat rather than turkey-soy loaf. For the last five years, Stateville has served the processed soy hybrid for both Christmas and Thanksgiving. As I told Steve, I did listen to his tape while eating part of my meal. Possibly, I thought Bach Air would have gone better with roasted lamb.

After eating lunch, I decided to take a nap. I have been sleeping poorly at night and therefore become tired, often by mid afternoon. The cell house was rather noisy, but I put my head between two pillows, and this, along with my ear plugs, kept most of the sound at bay. Thankfully, my cellmate was quiet for a change. Oddly, the hyperactive 55-year-old who is usually geeked throughout the day on caffeine and sugar also was lying down. I reasoned that he ate his entire meal in one serving and was now feeling not only stuffed, but sleepy.

Before I drifted off, I thought about Christmas as a child. I have many fond memories of the holiday before my mother went to college and studied many religions. When she began studying with some Jehovah's Witnesses, I became an atheist. My parents, throughout my grade school years, often went out of their way to make Christmas a special event. I will always recall the holiday decor, family, traditions, and gifts I was showered with. My father even dressed up as Santa Claus a few times, which was so out of character for him, I assumed it was an uncle masquerading as the jolly bearded man in a red suit. No, I never believed in Santa Claus despite how my parents tried to deceive me. At the time, we were living in a home without a fireplace, and I knew there was something greatly amiss when Santa appeared from a natural gas furnace room. The next year, St. Nick just came to our front door, but this did not fool me either, and thereafter presents were just placed under the tree. Although I never believed in the magic of Santa, Christmas as a child always had a magical quality I will always remember.

Not only did my family celebrate the holiday at home, but we also went to my grandparents' house on Christmas Eve. Their home is where many of my aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends of the family came together. My maternal grandmother was not only the nucleus of the family, but a professional chef. She, along with my grandfather who was a baker, made some of the best Christmas meals. However, what I miss and remember the most was not the food or presents, but the family and ambiance of the holiday. All my grandparents are now gone, and my mother recently reminded me that December 8th would have been my maternal grandmother's 84th birthday. I sometimes wonder if she would not have died so early, if not for my tragic arrest for a mass murder while she was recovering from heart surgery at my parents' home.

During my sleep, I dreamed my entire family passed away. Parents, aunts, uncles, sister, and all my cousins had died and I was left alone. I recall dreaming that I was in my family home and had a Christmas tree and other decorations displayed. The fireplace was casting a warm glow across the living room, but there was nothing warm or festive about the holiday. I was an old man all alone in a large house waiting to share Christmas with someone, but no one came. The grandfather clock could be heard ticking in the background along with a howling wind outside. From my arm chair, I got up slowly like an old man does, and went to the front door to peer out the window. It was pitch black outside and when I turned on the coach lights, they did not work. Reaching for the door handle, I discovered it refused to open. I walked across the house to another door and found it also would not budge. I tried time and time again to get out, but it was futile. Eventually, it dawned on me that I was dreaming and in prison. I woke up realizing I was in a cell at Stateville with a sentence of natural life without the possibility of parole.

On my table, I noticed an envelope that appeared to be a Christmas card. Sometimes guards passing out mail will just leave letters there if I am lying down or preoccupied. However, it was Christmas and there was no mail delivery. Taking the envelope, I saw written in calligraphy: "To: Paul Modrowski, From: Steve Zirko." Opening it, I found a Christmas card that had two snowmen on the front. One was tall and thin, and the other was short and squat. In pen, Steve had written "Paul" and "Steve" under the snowmen. On the inside the card said, "Christmas is a time to remember those we're fondest of. May your Christmas be special in every way." Steve then signed it "Your Friend, Z." Although I believe the card was sent partly in jest, it was an unexpected and sentimental gesture. I suppose even if all my family dies, I will still have convicts to keep me company. For many prisoners, this is all they will ever have.

Christmas evening, I called my aunt who was having the family over for the holiday. She placed me on speaker phone so I could talk with the many people there. Unfortunately, it seemed like I called at a bad time because everyone was busy filling their plates with food or were preoccupied otherwise. Apparently, my aunt had made an elaborate feast of ham and numerous side dishes that was just being served. In addition to all the people clustered in the kitchen and dining room, I also had difficulty hearing my relatives due to the cell house noise. The Chicago Bulls basketball team was playing and numerous prisoners were cheering and yelling. Plus, the prison phone had a short in it and occasionally I would lose sound. Despite all this, I was able to have a somewhat decent conversation with my cousin, Michael.

Mike was with me when I was arrested about 19 years ago. I asked him if he still remembered the incident. He asked how could he ever forget, and added it still seemed like yesterday. I told him that oddly, despite all the years that have passed, he still sounded exactly the same. When my cousin and I were surrounded by numerous gun wielding police, he was only 25. Now he was 44 and had a 14-year-old daughter I have never met. I heard her ask someone in the background if I had a life sentence. She must think it strange that I have been in prison her entire life.

I told Mike he sounded just like the actor Kiefer Sutherland. Indeed, two decades ago, Michael could have been his stand-in. They were almost doppelgangers when we were young. My cousin sounded, looked, and even had the demeanor of the actor in such movies as "Stand by Me," and "Lost Boys." A long time, however, has passed and from recent photos he looks nothing like he once did. He is now fat, and from what I am told, has a lazy eye from a bad eye surgery. Mike moved to Indiana, and I have not talked to or seen him in years. He told me he was going to get my address and write. I told him not to lie, and as soon as I hang up the phone I will be "out of sight and out of mind." He denied this, but I know it is true.

Much has changed over the near two decades I have been in prison. Almost all my cousins have children and are married. They have moved away and have their own homes. My aunts and uncles, like my parents, have aged greatly and have many health problems. When I spoke to my Aunt Mary, she said she looks forward to making me a Christmas meal. I did not say this, but I doubt if she will be alive in a few more years, let alone when I am freed, if ever. I was surprised she was even hosting Christmas this year.

I then spoke to my mother on the phone and after a few minutes asked her why we were talking. I called to talk to my various relatives who I do not see regularly. I wondered if my years in prison had made us distant or if people did not know what to say to me. Someone asked me if I was doing alright, and I said, "If you mean have I been stabbed, beaten, raped, or robbed recently, I suppose I am doing fairly well." Possibly those around the table or in the kitchen were expecting a "just fine" response, and there was a brief silence. Needless to say, no one wished me a Merry Christmas.

After hanging up the phone, I brooded about what Christmas was supposed to be like. I also thought regrettably about the years before my arrest when I did not participate in the holiday. Ironically, the last Christmas I had was with my co-defendant and his wife, Rose, at their Schiller Park apartment. Bob and I went out to buy a Christmas tree which we strapped cumbersomely to the top of of his Camero. Rose decorated the place with my help. I remember how she could not get the lights on the tree to cease blinking, and I remedied this. The apartment was small, but it was quaint and cozy around Christmastime. The Faraci's were friendly, hospitable, and tried to make me feel like I was at home.

In my prison cell, I did nothing special for Christmas. I watched the Green Bay Packers defeat the Chicago Bears, and thereafter went to sleep. I considered watching some type of festive television programming, but my loud and annoying cellmate, in addition to the rest of the convicts in the cell house, ruined any such inclinations. Two weeks ago, however, I watched a live broadcast of The Nutcracker from the Lincoln Center in New York City. The ballet is rather goofy now as an adult viewer, but I watched it anyway because it reminded me of being a child at Christmastime. On the last day of school before the holiday break, the grade school I attended had a semiprofessional ballet outfit perform The Nutcracker. It was an impressive event held in our gymnasium, and I still remember it to this day.

The following two days after Christmas, I was especially sullen and nonsocial. I was once again Caspar Friedrich's "The Monk at the Sea" and did not leave my cell except to go to the south yard where I lifted weights and ran the track with Anthony. Today, my parents visited and we were fortunate to get a 2-hour visit. The visiting room has been packed full the last couple of weeks. Many family members have been coming to the prison due to the holiday. For some prisoners, this is the only time of the year they will receive a visitor. The warden of Stateville was cognizant of this, and I suspect this is why he did not lockdown the prison.

On my visit, my mother informed me how she may be flying to Arizona to see my aunt and uncle. Apparently, my uncle is not well and is expected to die within weeks. Uncle Tadeusz is very old and turned 91 earlier this year. He is one of the few still living WWII veterans, and although he can tell you detailed stories of the war like it was yesterday, he will often forget where he is. Despite his loss of mental acuity, I very much like him and was unhappy to hear the bad news. It reminded me of the bad dream I had on Christmas Day.

I learned my mother also spoke to a woman who was best friends with the daughter of my original trial attorney, an attorney I wish I had not allowed my parents to switch. Jen claims to have met me before my arrest and not just at preliminary hearings, but I do not remember her. She wanted to visit me this week while she was in town staying with family. During my years in prison, she moved to Missouri and I have only exchanged a few letters and emails with her. My mother, not knowing a one time exception to the rules will be made for out of town visitors, told her she could not come until I submitted her name for approval, and the request was processed.

I was disappointed not to see the girl from my past, but mostly what weighed on my thoughts was the many missed opportunities I had as a teen. I met and dated numerous girls, yet nothing significant ever came of them. I regularly regret not developing or pursuing relationships. Now I am in prison and my life is over. All the girls I once knew have moved on in their lives and I often learn they, like my cousins, are married with children. My father says they are probably fat and ugly now anyhow, but this still does not make me feel any less of a loss.

Today is the 28th of December, the day the prosecution theorizes the victim in my case was killed. It is seldom this date goes by without my notice. One of my interrogating officers testified at my trial that I admitted to being told by my co-defendant that he was going to kill Fawcett, and I thereafter lent him my car. The trial attorney I had did not contest what he said, and even told my jury it was true. However, there was nothing true about it. Nineteen years can pass, or 39, and I will vividly remember my car was 50 miles away from the crime scene. Faraci never said anything to me about killing Fawcett. I know unmistakably where I was because while I was at my sister's home, she kept pestering me to talk to my father because it was his birthday. The cop is a liar and while I dwell on the past, I also dwell on the fact his testimony took away everything from me: Christmas, family, wife, children, and more.

In the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, he is visited by three ghosts: the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future. I believe I have seen all of them this year. However, despite this, there is nothing to be learned. My fate is set. I can dwell about the past ad infinitum but it will not change. There is no time machine where I can alter past events, no matter how I may like to. There is also nothing I can do about my present circumstances and my future is as bleak as it was before. Possibly a ghost can spook the living to alter their life perspective, but not the live undead. They are tormented, regardless, and merriment at Christmas will always allude them.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Level E Cell Searches -- December 20, 2011

Once a week, all inmates that are designated extreme escape risks have their cells searched. If you are in the cell with one of these inmates, your property is also looked through. Thus, not only am I blessed to live with this socially obnoxious man, but I regularly have my day or evening interrupted and my belongings tossed about. The cell searches can be done at any time from early morning to late at night, and prisoners are never given any advance notice. For a person who likes to plan their day and keep their property neat and organized, having your cell regularly ransacked is most bothersome and inconvenient. I will be glad to be assigned a new cellmate next month.

There are four security classifications for inmates in the Illinois Dept. of Corrections. They are abbreviated by staff as L, M, H, or E: low, medium, high, or escape. My cellmate, Ely, has a green colored ID card and is a Level E. He has been a Level E for most of his 31 years in prison for trying, or succeeding temporarily, to escape three times. Most inmates at Stateville have a high or medium security rating. I am classified as a moderate or medium escape risk, and have a blue ID card. There are approximately 50 Level E's here, but only three are in C House. C House has the oldest population of inmates, and it is considered the least violent and unruly of the general population units.

Cells are searched randomly at Stateville, regardless if an inmate is a Level E or has a cellmate who is. A prisoner can expect his cell to be searched on average once a month. Typically, these are brief cursory searches lasting no more than ten minutes. Because I have a Level E as a cellmate, I am subject to both random and targeted searches. The two months that Ely has been my cellmate, our cell has been searched ten to twelve times.

The targeted Level E cell searches were for a period time conducted by the Orange Crush Tactical Unit. These guards thoroughly ransack cells for a half hour, and leave it in great disarray. They also are more likely to confiscate property or write disciplinary tickets for trivial rule infractions. I am glad not to have my cell turned inside out by the Orange Crush every week. I dislike the disruptions in my routine and having to reorder all of my belongings. Unlike most inmates, I have my possessions meticulously ordered in my two boxes and throughout the cell. It will take me hours to reorder my property from a state of chaos. Fortunately, the special tactical unit no longer conducts the searches of inmates' cells who are designated extreme escape risks.

Internal Affairs also does searches of cells, but only for specific reasons. Their searches can be even more thorough than the Orange Crush, although typically they are looking for something specific. When I was sent to Segregation last year, I.A. searched my cell for an hour, and then took both of my property boxes with some of my cellmate's property to search further. Later I learned they had inventoried all of the commissary to determine what I had purchased in the prior 3 months. Everything I did not buy in this time period was claimed to be contraband, and procured through trading and trafficking, or gambling. I have not had my cell searched by I.A. since then, but I believe my outgoing mail has been targeted.

Outgoing mail typically reaches my family within a few days. However, in the month of November, my mail began to be delayed a month. I asked other inmates if their outgoing mail was being sent out as slowly to determine if it was a systematic problem. Often, incoming mail at Stateville will be behind a month, and this is not unusual. However, after speaking with these men and the cell house counselor, I discovered that only my outgoing mail was untimely. Initially, I thought it was due to my sharing a cell with a Level E, but this was also not the case. Other inmates who were celled with green ID inmates were not having this problem and had not in the past. Internal Affairs does not like that I have a blog, and on occasion they harass me with disciplinary tickets, Segregation, confiscation of property, or disruption of my mail. I assume they are responsible for not only the long delays in my outgoing mail but also destroying my posts "Sergeant Bludgeoned" and "The Lab," both of which I had to rewrite from memory. I also toned down the subject matter and rearranged it so these versions would also not disappear.

The Level E cell searches are done by regular staff working in the cell house. This is better than having guards who do not know you and are unaccountable for their conduct. Guards and prisoners assigned to the same cell house spend at least 40 hours a week together. Although there are about 500 inmates living in 250 cages on 5 floors, over a period of time a familiarity and rapport usually develops. Considering my cell is close to the guards' front desk and my cellmate is hyperly social, this significantly adds to our interaction. Cell house guards often have much more other work to occupy their time and do not care to be bothered by unnecessary cell searches which seldom uncover any serious contraband. If you or your cellmate get along with staff, they are less likely to be inconsiderate when searching your cell.

This week, my cell was searched without displacing much of my property, and while my cellmate and I were out to chow. Upon returning, I noticed the overhead fluorescent light was on, and my property boxes were left partially opened or moved. My cellmate's mattress was rolled up, but overall it was not so bad. I keep all my books, magazines, corporate reports, and a number of labeled 9 x 11 envelopes with various papers in my small box. I noticed that some of them had been taken out and put back in the wrong order. I also noticed my clothes had been sifted through in my large box. This did not take long to reorder, and I appreciated the courtesy of staff.

Before lunch, the other two Level E inmates and their cellmates had their possessions searched. I was bathing in the sink at the back of the cell when my cellmate told me they were in the holding cage across from our cell. Typically, all the Level E searches in C House are conducted simultaneously, and I was annoyed to be in the middle of washing up. I had a privacy sheet up across from the wall to the upper bunk. Water was all over the floor and I had soap all over my body. I said to my cellmate, "The guards have great timing." However, they never came into our cell.

While at chow, I mentioned to Anthony how I was fortunate not be inconvenienced earlier. Anthony's cellmate is a Level E as well, and noticed that I was bathing in the back of the cell when he was in the holding cage. He told me guards caught his cellmate though, in the same predicament. They did not want to wait for him to rinse and dry off. Despite this, Matt refused to immediately leave the cell without doing so. I was told the guards became angry by this, and demanded he hurry. They also threatened to ransack the cell, but did not carry through with their threat, and only left their belongings in a mild state of disarray.

Cell searches can come at many inconvenient times. Once I had already fallen asleep for the night when I was awakened by guards. Half awake, I put on my shower shoes and walked over to the holding cage across from my cell. One of the guards asked me how I was doing, and I responded, "Sleepy." He said I looked as if I was in bed, and I told him that I had been. The guard, who I have known since being here in C House, was a considerate man that I get along with well. He apologized for the late search. Although they had been given orders to conduct the Level E cell searches earlier, they had not gotten around to them until just then. Another guard was only in our cell for ten minutes or less. I walked back into my cage and crawled onto my bunk without bothering to reorder anything.

Earlier this month, I was eating a meal and watching the movie "The Fugitive," with Harrison Ford. I thought it was an appropriate film to watch after an inmate from Stateville had recently escaped. The man had jumped out of a moving transport van on the way back from a court writ. Unlike Harrison Ford, he was only on the loose for several hours before he was apprehended. I told my cellmate the Stateville escapee had a lot of spirit, but was not nearly as intelligent as Harrison Ford's character. My cellmate agreed that his flight was foolhardy, and went on and on about what he should have done differently. However, when the commercial break was over, I put my headphones back on and did not pay attention to him any more. My movie was interrupted not long after when guards came to the cell telling us they were going to conduct a search.

In the holding cage, I heard Matt gripe about when he was sent out on a court writ recently he was placed in the same van as the escapee had been. The van had not been cleaned and he was forced to sit on a bench that still had residual fecal matter and chemicals on it. The stench was overwhelming and he wanted to sue the transport guards. I had heard on television news that the escapee had been found hiding in a portable toilet, but I was not aware he hid down inside the noxious liquid until guards were laughing about it the day after. I assumed the van would have been cleaned or the entire seat removed, but it was not.

The holding cage across from my cell is about 10' x 10'. There is one door that can be locked, and one rectangular hole in the front to pass inmates food trays or to handcuff or unhandcuff them. The cage is made of interwoven horizontal and vertical steel bars separated by 3" squares and like most things at the prison, it is all painted gray. Buckets, or sometimes trash cans, sit on top of it and the adjoining cage to catch water when it rains. I can clearly see into my cell while a guard or guards are searching it, but seldom do. I care little about the search, just about how much guards will leave my cell in disorder. Although I will not say anything to them, my cellmate has no reservations about complaining.

A few weeks ago, a guard continued to search our cell well after the other guards returned from searching the other two Level E cells. Initially, my cellmate had wandered from the holding cage to talk to a man on the lower gallery. When Ely became restless, he returned to look and see what the guard was doing to take so long. The guard had inspected a set of my pens wrapped in a rubber band, a collection of items on my cellmate's bunk, the prescribed medication for my lower back pain, the underside of a mirror taped to the wall, and various other things and places.

When my cellmate returned, he was looking at the pictures in my John Wayne Gacy book. My cellmate yelled at him to quit meandering and hurry his ass up. There was nothing in the cell and he was just wasting time. When a different guard commented that this was the 2nd shift he was working, my cellmate really began to razz the guard in our cell. The guard responded he was just doing his job, but it was apparent he was tired and just filling time before his shift ended and he could go home. My cellmate is extremely hyper and obnoxious, and as we were walking back into the cell, the guard said he felt sorry that I had to live with him. I wish the placement officer was as sympathetic.

On a few occasions, guards will search the cell when showers for the gallery are run. By the evening, I have already bathed, usually because I exercise early in the norming and do not bother going to the showers. In maximum-security prisons in Illinois, many men think a shower is a treat, but it is not something I look forward to. The shower room is dirty and unsanitary. I also do not like bathing amongst a crowd of men, especially some of whom are homosexuals, mentally unstable, violent, or as socially obnoxious as my cellmate. Staying in the cell for me is a small period of time of peace away from Ely. When guards tell me they are going to search the cell, however, I will go to the enclosed shower waiting area to talk to Steve rather than stand in the holding cage. Sometimes, I will wait until most people have showered and then take my own, although this squanders a lot of time.

Now that Anthony has a Level E for a cellmate, I will usually talk to him in the holding cage when waiting for our cells to be searched. Last week, Anthony looked as if he had just rolled out of bed from a late afternoon nap. He seemed not to be in any mood for conversation, thus I did not bother him with any. Afterwards, my cellmate said that he thought Anthony and I could be brothers. This is not the first time he has said this, although there is little resemblance except that we are both white and are of the same approximate height and age. In the cell, I asked my cellmate why he thought we looked alike, and he said it was not so much our appearance, but demeanor. He explained that we were both quiet, sullen, and psychotic. Ironic how those who were clearly disturbed mentally would think that of Anthony and me because we are introverts, or normal. However, later that day, Anthony told me he had just learned that one of his sisters had died, and that was why he looked depressed in the holding cage. I suppose I look depressed often because I feel I have died.

My cellmate often harps on the lieutenant who oversees the inmates who are Level E's. Ely wants his security level brought down to "high". He continually tells staff, but especially the lieutenant, that he only has seven more years to do and he is the longest serving Level E that he is aware of. Time and time again, he will remind people of how short he is, and even if the doors were flung open he would not flee. His argument was made less convincing, however, when a man from Stateville with minor convictions and only a 7-year sentence jumped out of a moving van. I told my cellmate after this episode that the administration was not only unlikely to lower his security rating, but increase it. Instead of having just a green stripe down his pants and jacket, he would be given entirely fluorescent green clothes, including his underwear. My cellmate was watching "The Green Lantern" at the time, and I said the police are going to give him Green Lantern briefs, if not put a GPS tracking chip in his skull. Ely did not like any of these ideas.

Because my cellmate is so persistent and annoying, the lieutenant finally told him he would talk to the warden about his security level. This, I knew, was just a ruse to attempt to get Ely from pestering him continually. I am not present for their conversations, but my cellmate unfortunately tells me all about them. One time, he was very aggressive and was in the lieutenant's face arguing with him. From what I am told, another lieutenant stepped in between them to deescalate the altercation. The lieutenant's response was to order our cell to be searched as a form of retaliation. For about 15 minutes I waited in the holding cage with Ely, as a guard went meticulously through our cell and our belongings. He had a mirror with him, and used this to look underneath the bunk, sink, and stool. He carefully put his hand underneath the bars and the place where the door slides through. The guard even flipped through the pages of books to see if anything would fall out. It was obvious that he was looking for a knife. The lieutenant may have wanted to make sure my cellmate was not armed.

In the last couple of weeks, my cellmate has been given two sets of bad news. First, he was told that his Level E status would not be changed. Second, he was informed by the Illinois Supreme Court that his appeal was denied. I am suspicious if the high court even took his case, and this may have been a ruse to make others believe he had a chance of going home soon. With the lieutenant, warden, and even the director of IDOC flatly telling him he was going to stay a Level E probably for the rest of his sentence, there was no need to lie any further. I cannot fathom my extroverted cellmate not showing me his legal work. I am further convinced that he had no appeal pending. However, the bad news was offset by Ely receiving 90 days of good time back, and for me, the knowledge that I will only have to live with this man another month before he is moved.