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Thursday, March 8, 2012

4 Gallery -- February 25, 2012

Two days ago, I was moved to a cell on 4 gallery. Four gallery is not on the 4th floor as many may assume, but on the 2nd. Many years ago, the entire block-long building holding most of General Population was one huge unit. However, over the years the building was divided in half, and those two were later divided to make four separate cell houses. General Population is often referred to as the "quarter units" because of this and it is also the reason for the strange gallery numbers. C and B cell houses only have even numbered galleries while on the other side of the building there are only odd numbers. There are 5 floors numbered 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10 in my cell house. The enormous building which cages about 1,200 prisoners was not called "The Big House" for no reason, and it was split into quarters to increase control over what was an extremely violent and unruly prison.

I was given no advance warning or notice that I was being moved to 4 gallery, although I have repeatedly requested to be moved since I was sent to C House in July. For 7 months I have lived in cell #242 which was directly across from the holding cage and not far from the front door and guards desk. Due to these factors among others, I have had to deal with a tremendous amount of traffic, noise, and disruption. The holding cage was a large reason for my discomfort. Inmates were packed into this cage most of the day waiting to go on passes or to be allowed to return to their cells. Often it was filled to capacity and details, religious services, or library lines stood outside my bars talking and yelling. They stared into my cell or engaged one of my 5 cellmates, especially Ely who was always looking for conversation.

I specifically asked the sergeant and others if I could be moved in with Mertz. Mertz is one of the very few prisoners I speak to in the cell house. He has a quiet disposition like me and we share some common interests. I also knew his level E cellmate had to be moved soon because of security procedures. When the sergeant came to my cell and told me to pack up because I was being moved to 4 gallery, I initially assumed I was being moved into Mertz's cell. However, after some reflection, I knew this was too good to be true. When the sergeant returned to inquire how much time I would need, I asked him specifically what cell I was being sent to. The cell number was not Mertz's and my happiness abruptly ended. I had no idea who my new cellmate was going to be, whether we could get along, or if there would be immediate hostilities. A different gallery, cell, and cellmate were causing me a lot of anxiety.

I am not certain why, but the sergeant after initially seeming unpressed for time, was in a hurry to have the move take place. He ordered prison workers to take my property upstairs as soon as I placed it near the bars. This was fine with me because I preferred not to do the work or possibly aggravate my lower back injury by carrying cumbersome heavy objects. As I untied my TV, disengaged extension cords, pealed the mirror off the back wall, and did other tasks, my cellmate spoke to various gallery workers who were moving my property. Thad wanted to know who I was switching places with. The name he was given he did not recognize and he seemed also concerned about who his new cellmate would be. Although I cared little to interact with Thad, I was by and large a good cellmate to live with, especially at Stateville. When the sergeant returned to see how much progress had been made, my cellmate asked him if it was possible we could both be moved into the same cell on 4 gallery. The sergeant said that only one move was approved by the Placement Officer.

The only object I ended up moving to my new cell was my vinyl covered mattress which I tried to roll up as much as possible. The foam mattresses have just begun to be passed out to prisoners. I had just received mine a month ago and was not going to trade it with whomever I was switching places with. Most prisoners still had the old cotton cloth covered mattresses which I thought were unsanitary to be exchanging. Furthermore, my mattress was new and uncompressed or lumpy. As I left the cell with the mattress over my shoulder, I told Thad I will see him around. He replied that we will still have plenty of opportunity to talk because 2 and 4 galleries are typically kept together for yard and chow. I thought, however, that I will probably never say a word to him and since my move, I have not.

When I arrived at my new cell, I noticed two black men scrambling in a confused manner to move out the property of one of them. Apparently, the man who was changing cells with me was not given much time to pack or lived in such a state of disarray that moving was not easily done. From the appearance of the cell, I figured it was the latter. The cell was filthy and had an enormous amount of clutter or garbage strewn about. I did not know which man was my cellmate but both looked disheveled and dirty. Standing outside the cell, I grew more and more disappointed and angry. I was not assigned a cellmate I knew and was comfortable with but yet another stranger who was seemingly dirty and I obviously had nothing in common with. I said to no one in particular that I was taking the lower bunk, and whoever had their belongings there needed to move them. The shorter of the two men answered he will get to it after his cellmate moved out. He seemed flustered and possibly this move was as upsetting to him as it was for myself.

My new cellmate's name is Bobby but some call him Little Bobby or O.G. Bobby for "Old Gangster". Mertz calls him Dirty Bobby because he often looks unkempt and disheveled. Bobby is a very short man at least a foot shorter than me. He is in his late 50's and has been incarcerated 23 years consecutively. This is Bobby's second time convicted of murder however and if his former time in prison was included, he has served over 37 years. Most of his second stint in the penitentiary has been on death row and he would have been executed by now if former Governor George Ryan did not give a blanket commutation to all death row prisoners to natural life sentences. The man has shaggy graying hair that he tries to comb back with grease and is typically seen with a comb caught in the tangles. Bobby has a ragged gray and black beard which adds to his disheveled homeless man appearance. The lack of most of his teeth does not help impressions either. My new cellmate gave me the initial impression of what Buckwheat from the "Little Rascals" might look like today after joining a real criminal gang, selling and using crack, killing one or more people, and spending a third of a century in prison.

The cell house was on standby for yard and both my new cellmate and I were intent on going. Although I felt a strong compulsion to begin tackling the enormous challenge of rehabbing the cell, I also felt I had to get away into some open space. There was plenty of time later to clean and organize. The pigsty would require hours upon hours of work, if not days. At the moment, I just wanted to put my boxes away and throw my mattress on the bunk which was still all piled up in the front of the cell. My cellmate rushed to untie his TV, fan, and Walkman from the lower bunk beams. He then moved all the bits of clutter he kept on his bunk plus his lamp, headphones, and numerous hooks he had taped haphazardly to the wall.

After he moved his compressed debilitated mattress to the top bunk and climbed on top of it, I was finally able to move some of my property in place. I thought about cleaning the cell from top to bottom first, but there was no time for this. Guards were already opening up cell doors on 10 gallery. I simply moved his property box over and scattered what clutter or trash was there to make room for my boxes. Tossing my mattress on the bunk, I placed my TV and radio unplugged. Belongings I had in a laundry bag, I shoved into my large property box. While Bobby was tying his TV to a new location, I asked him if the junk all about the floor was his and told him I liked to keep the cell clean and orderly. He told me the clutter was his prior cellmates, however, when I began to throw out the various things, he turned around to see me giving a gallery worker an empty cereal bag and told me that was his and he needed it.

Outside, it was cold with intermittent drizzle. I began to think I should have stayed inside to begin the transformation of my new cell. Once again my life had been turned upside down and the thought of righting it made me unable to focus much on my exercises or the conversation around me. As usual, I lifted weights with Mertz but another prisoner who went by the name Chase joined us at various times. Mertz told me he also thought initially I was being moved in with him. His cellmate was on a court writ and he was uncertain whether to pack his property until a gallery worker told him I was being sent to a cell seven doors away. Mertz was also disappointed and he will soon have to spin the roulette wheel of cellmates where he will most likely be a loser.

I asked Mertz about my new cellmate. He told me he seemed like a dirty person, but on the positive side, he also seemed very quiet. I looked across the vast South Yard and could not find "Dirty Bobby". Although prisoners were bundled up in similar blue coats, skull caps, and other clothing, not to mention how they were all black except for Mertz, Chase, and myself, I had better than 20/20 vision and thought I could easily spot him. For a moment, I thought he had avoided the yard line, but Mertz found him hiding against the handball court wall. I asked what he was doing there all by himself and Chase suggested he was trying to avoid the rain. However, the rain was falling straight down. "At least he's not in the porti-pod," Chase said, and then reminded me of a time homosexuals piled into the units.

The prisoner I switched cells with was called "Freaky Ty." He was not a homosexual but was known to flash nurses. I heard a story how he sat or stood by the bars naked with only a bath robe on. When a nurse or female guard would walk by he exposed himself. He had returned from Segregation a few months ago from being written a disciplinary ticket for sexual misconduct and apparently it was not his first. I commented that Thad was probably not going to like Ty's freaky side, but if the weirdo was social and engaging maybe he will be happy.

After returning from the yard, I bathed in the sink and then began the laborious process of cleaning, reordering, and accommodating my new cell. The cell had no table or counter, and although this made the cage less claustrophobic, I no longer had a place to write or put my radio or a few of my hygienic supplies. I cleaned out my boxes and made room for my radio that I almost never use. I tied my Walkman to a vertical beam on my bunk. The TV oddly did not fit in the place where I had it downstairs or everywhere I have been. It is then I noticed the bunk was shorter. It also seemed the sink was lower as well, but this must be an illusion I thought. When I noticed my cellmate had a mirror taped on the wall so it was directly across from my stomach and not my face, I asked him if he had the cell retrofitted for a midget.

As anticipated, it was difficult adjusting to my new cell and even today, two days later, I am still making minor adjustments. For example, because there is no shelf, I drilled a screw into the wall to hang a mesh laundry bag to keep my toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, deodorant, and shampoo. I also melted a few hooks on the wall to hang items such as my towel or washcloth. I even jammed a short pencil into a hole in the wall to affix a toilet paper dispenser. A shoelace goes around the pencil and through a hollow plastic pen which holds my roll of toilet paper. Although almost all prison sink/toilets have a hole in the side of them for toilet paper, these cannot be used because of the propensity of water running down onto it. The cell has been gutted of all fixtures except for the toilet/sink and double bunk. I am currently writing on the lid of one of my property boxes. The only reason the cells on 2 gallery have tables and shelves is for appearances. Those who tour the prison rarely go upstairs on the narrow galleries, and the higher the gallery an inmate lives on, the more likely the cell is to be barren.

One benefit of having a vacant cell is more space to move around in. A prisoner and his cellmate are less often playing Twister. There is also a lessened feeling of being cramped, restricted, or claustrophobic. Furthermore, I have more room to exercise in. Without the table and stool by the bars, the cell has a 6 x 3.5 foot of space in the front. My prior cellmate, Thad, told me this area used to be referred to as the foyer, and prisoners curtained off what was behind it. Today, I worked out in my new cell for the first time. Instead of limiting myself to the corner by the door, I used the entire "foyer." I discovered I was able to do a lot more exercises including side and front kicks. I did notice, however, when I did push-ups, I must flank my legs because I am slightly taller than the width of the cell. A couple of times, I hit my head on the wall.

The best part of my new cell and being on 4 gallery is the absence of continual distractions and blaring noise. No longer must I deal with crowds of prisoners just outside my cell, all talking, yelling, and pestering me. There is also little traffic on the gallery and it is infrequent to have prisoners or guards walking by except when chow lines are run. The cell is perfectly situated away from the stairs and the shower area which is very noisy. Looking out my bars, I no longer see a wall, holding cage and numerous prisoners. Instead, I am able to look out the cell house wall windows onto prison grounds, including the two small yards. Four gallery is not high enough to see over Stateville's 30' high walls, but I can see the top of a few trees through the dirty windows. I look forward to watching the moon rise over this oppressive dungeon, although at night I doubt I will be able to see through the dirty windows until they are tilted open in the spring.

Not only is my cell in a quiet area, but my new cellmate is very quiet as well. He'll probably be the best cellmate I have had while in C House. Bobby rarely says anything and when he does he is usually mumbling, which I often cannot discern. He does not want to play games, show me his photo albums, or talk. He mostly reads, writes, watches TV or stares outside the bars while drinking coffee. I tend to believe Bobby is different from most other prisoners here because of the 15 years he spent on death row. On death row, prisoners do not have cellmates and must learn how to do their time alone.

Since reordering and cleaning the cell, my new cellmate has apparently lost his proclivity to live like a homeless person. Bobby still has some clutter behind the bunks but much of this will disappear in the near future hopefully without the old man noticing. Since being in the cell, I notice my cellmate washes his clothes regularly with bar soap and will wipe the sink dry of water. Unfortunately, he, like many of my former cellmates, has no concept of unseen germs. He has no problem dunking the floor rag straight into the toilet to wipe off the floor or his shoes. He also will remove drops of water from inside the sink without soap and leaves the wet cloth to hang festering bacteria. When he washes clothes, he does so in the toilet without cleaning it. I will use the toilet to wash my clothes in, however, I always first scrub it with soap and disinfectant or bleach.

Yesterday, I thought I was going to lose the quiet, germ loving midget when he was taken to the Health Care Unit with chest pains. In the morning, he was sitting on his box near the bars as he seems to commonly do. However, he looked sick and mumbled something about not feeling well. When prisoners were let out of their cells for chow, he sat on a crate by the door and did not go out with us. Returning from chow I asked him why he skipped lunch, and he told me the nurse checked his blood pressure and gave him a nitroglycerin pill when she found it very high. An hour later, he told a guard he was still having problems, and he called a med tech to come to the cell. After checking his blood pressure, she told the guard he had to come to the Health Care Unit to be monitored. Bobby was gone most of the day.

Later at dinner, prisoners asked me what happened to my cellmate. Mertz said, "He was only your cellmate for one day and already almost had a heart attack?" He continued saying possibly it was better I was not put in his cell. He accused me of being like "Death" and asked where my staff and sickle were. After I told him how my cellmate also complained of shocking himself while washing up, he then had even more jokes. Recently the DVD "Final Destination - Part 5" was played for prisoners and those at the table around me had plenty of farfetched scenarios of how I was to kill my cellmate, including a wet floor and frayed extension cord. Mertz asked, "Why not just be more direct and use a dead fall?" whereupon I asked, "Where was I going to find an object so heavy as to crush a man?" He replied, "Little Bobby is pretty small and a heavy property box may do." Another man chimed in that I should not go "Darth Vader" on my new cellmate because there may be few as quiet as him. I did my best Darth Vader impersonation of choking him using "The Force."

After the prisoners got their laughs in, they spoke about the Governor's budget address. Although I watched the entire speech live on Wednesday, I did not join their conversation. The discussion had little value because it was based on speculation. The Governor does not make laws, the legislature does. Governor Quinn had little leadership and clout to push his proposal with a state house controlled by Michael Madigan. Furthermore, it was obvious the Governor was playing politics and was intentionally obscure about his plan. He wanted the legislature to take a leading role so all of the unpopular cuts would not be seen as his doing. Apparently, though, the administration within IDOC was taking his talk of closing Dwight and Tamms Supermax seriously. Not only has space been made in the Roundhouse but also on the 4th floor of the two most violent quarter units. The 4th floor was seemingly chosen because it was directly across from the cat walk where guards walking the perimeter could have a clear shot with their rifles.

Illinois has massive pension liabilities totaling close to $100 billion and a budget debt of $9 billion. The Civic Foundation forecasts the debt to increase to $35 billion within 5 years. There is no way for the state to get out from its pension liabilities nor should it be able to break its promises, despite how foolish they were. As for future bills that are unilaterally amendable, state politicians must make drastic cuts to medicaid, IDOC, and other agencies. Bill Brady, who ran against Pat Quinn in 2008, proposed a 10% across the board cut, and then further specific cuts which were vehemently attacked. However, I see now Quinn is proposing a 9% cut to most state budgets. I suppose 9% sounds much less than 10%, but the reality is that whether liberal or conservative, enormous cuts must be made.

I am glad cuts to the IDOC are coming, but I do not see how closing Tamms and Dwight will fix the massive overcrowding. Allowing more home monitoring will not make a dent in the upward trajectory of costs and prisoners. Furthermore, the largest strain on the IDOC is convicts who are elderly, have class X felonies, and no outdates. As Stateville has moved inmates around to reclassify X House and make room for incoming Tamms prisoners, I have noticed how C House has almost become a geriatric ward filled with men who have done decades of time and will never be released. The legislature and Governor need to enact fundamental sentencing reform across the spectrum.

I believe 4 gallery will be a positive change for me. Already I am feeling relieved to be away from my prior cell. I also was very distressed with the numerous alternating obnoxious, hyper social and unstable cellmates I was assigned. However, everywhere in prison, especially maximum security, is miserable and unjust for me. I was sentenced to life in prison for purportedly lending my car, a lie I can prove is false, but due to an incompetent legal system I probably will never be given the opportunity. Many prisoners can crack jokes and could be happy for a minor improvement in life, even at Stateville, but I tend to believe I will always be grim and unhappy.