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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.