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Saturday, March 10, 2012

Leap Day -- February 29, 2012

The earth's orbit around the sun does not take a perfect 365 days. Therefore, every four years an extra day is added to the shortest month of the year. February 29th is considered "Leap Day" and to some people it may have special significance. However, for a prisoner with natural life it is just yet another day I could have gone without.

Every Wednesday morning in C House, two lines of prisoners are permitted to go to the barbershop. Each line consists of between 10 and 15 inmates and the first line leaves the cell house soon after count clears. This morning a guard walked by the cell with a clipboard asking if my cellmate and I wanted to go. We both said yes, and he wrote down our names. About a month ago, I trimmed my own hair in the cell using beard trimmers, a comb, and a couple of small plastic mirrors. I did the best job I could, however, I wanted someone to go over it.

Not long after the guard wrote our names down, the names of prisoners on the law library list were announced on the cell house loudspeakers. After my cellmate heard his name called out, he began to search through his boxes for legal papers. Although I am highly skeptical, Bobby claims to still be on his first post-conviction appeal. Most prisoners have exhausted all regular state and federal appeals within 10 years, let alone the 23 years my cellmate has been in the IDOC. I speculate because he was formerly on death row, a legal organization or lawyer who represented him earlier has continued to help him but on an irregular appeal.

My cellmate and I were let out of our cell to join the crowd on the lower floor. The holding cage was packed with prisoners going to the Health Care Unit and the visitation room. Inmates attending pre-GED classes or going to job assignments, and the law library waited outside. They were mainly cluttered around my former cell and I was glad to have finally gotten away from it. It is much better living on 4 gallery despite having to readjust myself to a new cell and cellmate.

On the fringe of the crowd I saw Albert. Albert is a clean cut Polish immigrant who is a striking contrast to most of the prisoners at Stateville. He lives on the gallery above mine and I do not have much opportunity to speak with him. The lower two galleries are intermingled for yard and chow lines, but all other galleries are segregated. After talking to him about his appeal to assure myself the U.S. justice system was not failing him any more than is customary, I asked him if he would cut my hair. Albert has been enrolled at the barbershop school for almost a year and is the only person who has some proficiency at cutting Caucasian hair. I assumed he would say yes, but was surprised when he told me he could not. A Mexican had asked him a week ago if he would be his barber today. I said to him, "But we are Polish and must look out for each other in the concrete jungle. Whatever happened to Solidarity?" referring to the political movement in Poland to overthrow the U.S.S.R. Albert told me if he had not given his promise he would. I cared less about his promise and told him he was a traitor.

The barbershop line was brought into the chow hall to eat first. It was not even 9 a.m. and I was being served lunch. Fortunately, I brought a Ziploc bag I usually use for bringing bread back to the cell house. The meal was shredded chicken and noodles, and because it was not soy I did not want to pass it by. It is rare that prisoners are fed real meat. A prisoner at my table seeing me scoop the food into my bag asked if I wanted his, and I took him up on his offer, although in retrospect, possibly I should not have. I filled my bag up so full that later the seal broke and chicken broth leaked into my coat pocket. Fortunately, tomorrow, blue clothing is being washed and I can put my jacket in a laundry bag to be cleaned.

While at the chow table, I listened to an inmate give advice to another about his case. The prisoner he was speaking to is a very stupid and disheveled white man prisoners have begun to call "Hillbilly," although calling him a hillbilly is an insult to hillbillies. The man has little education and an IQ certainly under 80. He is also rumored to be a snitch who was recently sent to C House after X House was cleared of protective custody inmates.

The former P.C. inmate was convicted of murder and will never be released from prison. At the table, he admitted his guilt although I do not think it was ever in dispute. Prosecutors had overwhelming evidence against him including a confession and his DNA from under the fingernails of the victim. Even if the man was to win a new trial based on error, he will be re-convicted. Thus, the convict talking to him told him to play crazy. In Illinois, there is no "guilty but insane" verdict but if a person was incompetent to stand trial, he is remanded to a mental ward until he meets certain criteria to be prosecuted. The retarded man was being advised how to fake insanity, although I do not think he needed much help. I was quick to ascertain he was a "bug".

The prisoner giving him advice I do not especially like either, despite how he tries to impress me with his background in the Armed Forces and a few words he can say in German from being stationed there. His name is Brown, and he is particularly obnoxious and hyper. He also tells me how he killed a drug dealer and his co-defendant was convicted of the murder with him. He laughs and brags how his co-defendant became ensnarled in the case through his own stupidity. Mertz and I have condemned Brown for not telling prosecutors the truth and helping his co-defendant but from what Brown tells us, it would not matter because of his involvement in an underlying felony. Under the felony-murder law, anyone guilty of a felony is automatically guilty of any murder which happens in the course of it. This is true, but because I am doing time for another person's crime, I did not like his attitude. Brown, by the way, is attempting to also get himself sent to a mental hospital and sometimes acts psychotic or schizophrenic. The bullet which went through his brain during an attempt by him to rob another drug dealer, may substantiate his claims on appeal someday if a court hears his case.

At the barbershop, I sat in the waiting area while other prisoners had their hair cut. All of the inmates who had graduated or who helped teach the class have been removed. This left few who knew how to cut hair, especially straight hair. The students could shape Afros, line hair, and beards. They also could do one length hair or bald heads with great efficiency. However, no one was able to layer, feather, taper, or style any type of straight hair with the exception of Albert, and even he was not very good. I wasted my entire morning at the chow hall and then at the barbershop. I saw the man being called "Hillbilly" sporting a bald head afterwards. He still looked unkempt and possibly crazier which may have been a tip of advice I missed.

Upon returning to the cell, I poured out my chicken noodles into a bowl and only took a few bites before I heard my name called for a visit on the loudspeaker. A guard was quick to unlock my door and I also did not have to wait long for an escort to the visiting room. The strip search room, however, was a different matter. There was a former Internal Affairs guard in the room and he was meticulously thorough in the search. He went through every article of clothing and even pulled out some insoles of a pair of shoes thinking he found a hidden stash. The "robocop" then wanted to look under our tongues and upper and lower lips. Our ears, fingernails, toes, genitals, and even ass cracks were checked by the weird guard before we were allowed to go on our visits.

In the visiting room, I noticed half of the prisoners were from the NRC (Northern
Receiving Center). NRC has its own visiting room, but it is left empty and these men are bused over to Stateville. Because of this foolish policy, families of prisoners are made to wait an extraordinary amount of time. Visits for men at Stateville are also greatly delayed. The visiting room is continually jammed full and the noise level so high that people are nearly shouting to be heard. Oftentimes, I will lean in as far as possible to hear my visitor speak.

My mother had come to see me alone. She looks frail but good for her age. Unfortunately, she is becoming senile and I often repeat conversations I already had with her time and again. It is sad to see my mother losing her mental faculties. The week prior, I saw my father and while his memory is fine, he is deteriorating physically. Before they are 70, I expect them both to be dead, and if they are still alive they will be too feeble to be without a full time caretaker. With my life without parole sentence, I doubt I will ever be of assistance.

One of the major subjects I talked about with my mother was her finances. The Dow Jones Industrial average crossed the 13,000 mark yesterday, and I pleaded with her to sell off 10% of her investments. President Obama and the Federal Reserve are doing everything in their power to artificially stimulate the market until the election. However, by propping up the economy, they are only doing more harm. I am steadfast in my position: Europe and the U.S. will sink into a double dip recession and the signs will be prevalent later this year. The recession will not be as sharp as before but will linger like the stagflation of the 1970s. Often I wish I could take over my parents' finances despite my mother being an accountant. This will be her last year working and this is probably best.

My mother will read my blog posts and she regularly wants to give her opinion. This week, I was once again told my writing was too candid and mean spirited. She believes one of the purposes of my blog is to inform people about prison ongoings, and another is to get people to like me. I do not write, however, to gain readers' approval or sympathy. The blog is my personal journal, although at times I will discuss broader ranging subjects. A subject my mother thought would be newsworthy is the charity donated to Stateville prisoners that they regularly never see.

Many charities and businesses will donate food to the prison. For example, Stateville has received truckloads of Gatorade, potato chips, yogurt, soda pop, and various other goods over the past couple years. Many times this food will be left in storage for only the guards or other staff's consumption. When the food is spoiled or past its expiration dates, it is then given to prisoners. For example, two years ago the warden discovered hundreds of boxes of corn and potato chips and demanded the kitchen supervisor to begin passing them out. For months, prisoners ate the expired vending machine sized bags of chips. More recently, truckloads of yogurt were donated and only the guards had access to it until it began to spoil. Then they were served to prisoners. I had a bad case of food poisoning from eating one, and later I looked at the date and found it had expired over a month ago.

To make sure my information was accurate, I stopped by a kitchen worker's cell to discuss the matter today. He told me it was true that sometimes donated food will never be served to inmates. However, he said there were usually reasons. For example, if there is not enough of the product to go to the entire prison population, it will simply only be offered to staff so there are no complaints of disparity. The kitchen worker also added that once a donation is made to Stateville it is theirs and they sometimes barter the goods with other penitentiaries. As for guards getting first dibs on the best and freshest donated food, this was indisputable and staff is always fed better than the inmates. I asked him if he knew who the charities were because I think they should be informed, but he did not know.

After visiting hours were over, the 30 or more inmates left the visiting room and were sent across the hallway to another visiting room to be strip searched enmasse. This room is not used and remains vacant despite how crowded visitation may get at Stateville. Once again, the "robocop" thoroughly searched the group of inmates who stood naked and lined against a wall. Searching convicts on the way out of visitation makes more sense than when they are going in. However, the guard had a zeal for strip searching inmates which was not only absurdly excessive but abnormal or weird. Prisoners called him a homo and a control freak. He responded, "Yes, I am, and now let me do what I do." The other guards just sat there and occasionally chuckled at their queer co-worker. Despite the guard's extensive search, I thought of numerous ways contraband could have still been brought into the prison.

When I got back to my cell, I knew showers were going to be run for 4 gallery soon. Thus, I thought it would be a good time to trim my hair. Using beard trimmers, a comb and a couple of small plastic mirrors, I went to work. However, it is exceedingly difficult tapering hair where one cannot see. Despite my best attempts, my hair was irregularly cut when the doors were unlocked for us to take showers. In the shower waiting area, I had another man go over what I did. When he was about finished, Albert was let into the gated area to take his detail shower. In his Polish accented English he said he did not know I wanted a "fade," and he may have been able to give me this hair cut after cutting the other man's hair. I told Albert I did not want it this short, but it was the only haircut Chase was proficient at. He said he thought I actually looked better with high cropped shorter hair.

While waiting to take a shower, I noticed Hillbilly and another prisoner having a heated exchange of words. There was a tenseness in the holding area I thought was going to lead to violence. A few people were eager to pounce on the retarded snitch until he backed down. Incredibly, he apologized to several men for accusing him of talking to the police. He did not gain any respect for this and someone spit in his face. Even in C House, a snitch is likely to have trouble.

After returning to my cell, I heard someone announce we were on lockdown. This would have been disappointing to many prisoners in C House. The building had not been allowed to receive commissary in over a month, but was scheduled to go tomorrow. Eventually, I was to learn cellmates were fighting in E House and a rifle blast was reported. The isolated incident only delayed feed lines temporarily.

Prisoners were excited to hear they were going to be served a special meal for dinner. Kitchen workers were calling it "Shepherd's Pie." Most of the inmate population, including myself, never heard of it, but nonetheless, we were eager to go the chow hall just for the reason it was something different. Some people speculated it was a pot pie of some sort. Brown told me it was a poor Irishman's pie of leftovers. He was close to the truth, although while in line I thought it looked like a delicious pie pizza. I asked the prison worker serving the food if this was Stateville's version of a deep dish Chicago pizza. He told me it was not as good as it looked. Very cheesy scalloped potatoes were piled on green beans and ground turkey-soy kibble and then put on a pizza crust. As I ate it, I thought it would have been better just to have a cheese pizza. I could have then brought it back to the cell and added some ketchup and real meat to eat while I was watching the movie "Seven". "Seven" is a 1990's film I have seen before but planned to watch yet again later tonight after completing this post.

At the end of this Leap Day, I wished it was another I could have leaped over. In fact, the last 19 years I could have done without. There is news on television currently predicting strong storms to pass through southern Illinois and Indiana. Although it is not yet spring, there are tornado warnings. It would be nice if a category 5 tornado would directly hit Stateville in the night and reduce to rubble this entire miserable penitentiary. Although I will most certainly die crushed by concrete and steel, I dream of the minute chance I will survive unscathed and tossed miles away. In fact, I daydream of being swept up in the tornado like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, but unlike her, I will never seek to return. If I ask anything from the Wizard, it will be to leap back into the past two decades.