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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.