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Sunday, April 22, 2012

An Easter Weekend Without Faith -- April 16, 2012

Easter weekend was only peripherally different than any other at Stateville. This is just as well because although most inmates identify themselves as Christian, the vast majority are in name only. Outside these walls, I realize religion is often a very shallow facade but it is more so with prisoners. Even those convicts who "find God" usually do so out of weakness of character and lack of any inner strength or purpose. Many prisoners used to put up a front when there was a parole board but this has diminished greatly with men who realize they will die in prison regardless. A good number of inmates here are Muslims or other non-Christian denominations. Despite my agnostic beliefs, however, Christianity's cultural and historical significance is notlost upon me. Indeed, from Good Friday to Easter Sunday, the Christian holiday was regularly in my thoughts.

It seems ironic Christians consider the day God died as Good Friday. However, I understand they believe Christ intentionally allowed himself to be crucified as a sacrifice for all mankind. Apparently in this religious sentiment of redemption, the Catholic Governor of Illinois granted 56 clemency petitions. There was no media coverage in the morning news except for a ticker tape at the bottom of the screen stating the fact. I sought out more elaboration but failed to learn any more details. Later though, a prisoner told me they were mostly commutations of sentences. Considering the draconian sentencing statutes in effect, I would not be surprised if the Governor used his executive power to moderate punishments handed out by the courts. There are over a thousand clemency petitions waiting to be ruled upon and the majority are pleas from prisoners to have their sentences reduced. I have asked for a full pardon based on actual innocence but in the alternative I asked for a commutation. I do not expect any decision by Governor Quinn for a long time, however, due to the backlog of petitions which extend into the former Blagojevich administration.

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke to a prisoner named Nick. He has been incarcerated for over two decades for a murder he committed in the late 1980's. Although the statute of murder at that time was only 20 to 40 years, Nick was sentenced to natural life without a chance of parole. The judge extended his sentence based upon his opinion the murder was accompanied with a kidnapping, which is an aggravating circumstance. However, according to Nick he did not force the victim in his car and no evidence was introduced at his trial to prove this.

I tend to believe Nick because he does not deny the murder and he is not the only prisoner whose judge extended their sentence unjustifiably. Indeed, even my own sentence was increased from a range of 20 to 60 years to life without parole based upon the judge's finding the murder was committed in a brutal and heinous fashion indicative of wanton cruelty. It did not matter that the same judge ruled I was not at the crime scene or that the only evidence submitted at my trial which suggested a cause of death was a gun shot. Before the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Apprendi vs. New Jersey (2000), trial judges were permitted to increase sentences beyond the statutory maximums without the aggravating factors placed in the indictment, or proved beyond a reasonable doubt by a jury. Unfortunately, the ruling was not made retroactive and because of this tens of thousands of prisoners across the country continue to languish in penitentiaries unlawfully.

When I met Nick last, he told me the Governor was going to commute his sentence to 40 years before Easter. Many inmates have fantasies of being released and when I was told this I could not help but be skeptical. Initially, I was not going to comment because these delusions are much like people's faith in religion. It is not grounded in reality and despite being confronted with inconsistencies, contrary evidence, and logical arguments, it will not make any difference to most people. Some people must believe in a divinity, supernaturalism, or an afterlife just like many prisoners must believe they will be released. Nick told me I was looking at a free man and he will be home to enjoy Easter with his family. His absolute confidence compelled me to question this assertion whereupon I was told a Bishop, the Hellenic Society, and a powerful union group were lobbying on his behalf. Although the Governor is Catholic, Nick was certain a particular Greek Orthodox Bishop would influence Quinn. He also believed the Greek constituent group and the union could not be ignored because of their political clout. I was amazed by his sense of self importance and belief the Chief Executive would be so easily moved. When I attempted to diminish his absolute faith in being released some more, he told me Quinn had already given his word that he would be home in a couple of weeks. I was greatly skeptical, but if a man wanted to live in delusion, so be it.

When I saw the ticker tape on the news Friday morning, I briefly wondered if Nick was one of the 56 granted clemency. However, after some more thought, I knew he was not because word in the prison travels quickly. By Easter Sunday, I had spoken to a few people who lived in his cell house and any doubt I had was gone. Nick was still at Stateville in the same cage he has been. I wondered how he was dealing with the disappointment and was told he was mentally falling apart and has been for a while. He did seem to have lost a lot of weight and there were dark circles under his eyes, but then people say this about me. After mentioning his physical appearance, the prisoner who lives on his gallery said there was a lot more to Nick's deterioration and people had began to think of him as a "bug." I thought this is what weakness and blind faith will lead to. A man must be strong enough to accept reality, despite how grim it may be.

For a couple of months, kitchen workers have been serving fish on Fridays for one meal. This is an accommodation for Catholics who are not supposed to eat meat on the day. While I was at the chow table, I asked Steve, who is a Catholic, what the reason behind this was. No where in the Bible does it say to follow this rule. Before he answered, another prisoner said it was a sacrifice as well as a reminder of scripture which often speaks of fish literally and allegorically. I did not think eating fish was much of a sacrifice especially in prison where most prisoners prefer fish over the soy imitation meats usually served. Despite this, I gave my piece to Steve who greedily ate it along with his own. I only ate the macaroni and cheese and a small portion of lettuce. I do not like soy hybrids myself but I also do not like greasy foods and the fish pattie was fried.

After chow, prisoners were sent out to the South yard. Every summer at Stateville, inmates are given an extra yard period every other week during the evening. This was the first week the schedule began and I was surprised it began so early. Spring had only began a couple of weeks ago, and most administrators wait until after Labor Day to run the extra recreation lines. The yard period, however, went by quickly and men were back in their cages before sunset. This was unfortunate because I was looking forward to seeing the full moon rise above the prison walls. A full moon rises with the setting of the sun. Later, I looked out the penitentiary windows but they were too filthy to see through at night. I will have to wait until they are tilted open.

Upon returning to the cell, I had anticipated washing up in the sink. However, the guards ran showers immediately after the yard line returned, which was unusual. I typically do not go to the cell house showers as I mentioned in an earlier post, but it was convenient timing. Unfortunately though, I ended up waiting in the shower holding area for a half hour before a shower stall was available. I spoke with Mertz mostly to pass my time but also to my new neighbor who goes by the name "J-Bone." J-Bone is an older white biker with wavy balding gray hair kept in a pony tail. He has been incarcerated since the 80's and is now dying of liver cancer. Apparently, the Illinois Department of Corrections will not pay for organ transplants or their health care provider, Waxford, does not cover them. Many men at Stateville are in need of a kidney, liver, heart or other organ transplants. Many men are in need of just basic health care and are being denied treatment or delayed indefinitely.

When I returned from the shower, I made myself some chicken fajitas with food I had purchased from commissary. I was very hungry after exercising for two hours and not having anything to eat since an early lunch. I ate while watching the movie "The Ten Commandments" with Charlton Heston. I already had missed the first hour of the film but was still able to catch the part where Moses demands the Pharaoh of Egypt let his people go. The scene reminded me of the 50,000 prisoners in Illinois and 3 million across the U.S. Unfortunate there was not a man with the power of God to order Quinn and the other Pharaoh-like Chief Executives to dismantle the vast prison networks under their control which often punish the innocent as well as the guilty.

Saturday morning, my cellmate went to Christian services. There was no special mass or celebration for the Easter weekend. The service my cellmate attended was the same one which is offered every Saturday unless it is cancelled for one reason or another. The last couple of weekends, for example, the guard claimed he could not unlock the gym door. After one such incident, Steve told me he asked the guard if they could simply enter through the back door. The automaton gave him a look as if he was crazy. Religious services are almost always held in the gym. There is a chapel building on the grounds of Stateville but I do not think it is used any more. It is yet another empty debilitated and possibly condemned building like others inside the 30' high walls of the expansive penitentiary. Hopefully some day all of these buildings will be empty.

I have never attended a religious service while at Stateville and cannot describe what it is like. I do know they are held on the upper floor of the gym where there are a few rooms and a balcony overlooking the basketball courts. For larger gatherings possibly the bleachers are pulled out and services are held downstairs. Most prisoners go to the religious services mainly not to find any spirituality but to get out of their cells and socialize. The services allow men to meet and talk with people who are housed in different cell houses. Many gangs will use this opportunity to discuss gang matters rather than scripture or other religious creeds. There are a wide diversity of religions which are permitted to meet, but most are either Christian or Muslim. Catholic services are predominately attended by Mexicans while Islamic services are attended by nearly all black men. The services are presided over by the prison chaplain or a volunteer and last typically 2 hours. In order to attend a religious service a prisoner must first declare himself a specific denomination and have it approved through the chaplain's office. The religious affiliation will then be printed on the back of an inmate's ID card. Only inmates whose card identifies them as a specific religion can attend the corresponding service. Sometimes, an inmate still needs to be placed on an approved list for certain services. I have thought about declaring myself a Catholic to possibly increase my likelihood of gaining the sympathy of the Governor, however, I have too much integrity for this. If my petition is granted, it will be based on its merits and not any influence peddling or pretending to be someone I am not.

I used my time in the cell without my cellmate to exercise and then wash up in the sink without his presence. Lunch lines were run while he was gone but I did not go. I was not going to decrease any of my time alone nor did I care for what was on the menu. There are only a few meals I would consider interrupting my rare solitude, and sausage was not one of them. Last week there were people demonstrating in Chicago for the closure of the state's supermax penitentiary, Tamms. They say solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment. Personally I think they have it backwards and they should be protesting Stateville and advocating for the prison with single man cells and isolation. However, I do understand the majority of prisoners do not feel as I do.

Saturday afternoon I spoke to a family member for an hour on the telephone. We did not speak about Easter nor any subject but the economy and investments. With the Dow Jones Industrial Index well over 13,000, I thought the market was excessively overpriced. I understood keeping money in a bank earning virtually no interest was not appealing especially with the Federal Reserve and Obama administration policy devaluing currency and creating inflation. However, it was better than buying into a superficially uplifted market backed by trillions of dollars of debt. Barack Obama is desperate to keep the appearance of the economy looking better than it is until he is reelected. Then, as he told the president of Russia, he will be able to show his true colors. I assume this means not only his socialist ideology and military capitulation but exposing the true shape of the economy.

On Easter Sunday, I spent the day reading a large corporate report by British Petroleum. It has almost been two years since the Deepwater Horizon explosion and subsequent oil spill and I was interested in how the company was rebuilding. However, during my study of all the minute financial data, my mind drifted to thoughts of Easter as a child. Just as I do not have faith as an adult, I never believed in the Easter Bunny. I recalled how one morning I woke up early to savage my basket of treats on the holiday, but it was not there. I awakened my mother to get my candy, and she apologized for the bunny not putting it out where I could find it. My basket was brimming with chocolates and other candy, and I did not care about the Easter Bunny tale. Thirty years later there were no special treats or meal, although many prisoners probably thought the fried chicken served for dinner was special.

Supper was the only time I came out of my cell on Easter. It was very crowded and I was glad guards separated 2 and 4 gallery in the chow hall. I was able to sit at a table with only two other people. I asked Mertz if when he was younger he believed in the Easter Bunny. He said not only did he, but he raised rabbits. I thought he was joking but he continued to say his father kept them outside and they fed, bred, and killed them for food once they got big. "Are you saying you killed the Easter Bunny?" I asked. He said he did on occasion kill and gut them. I told him that was a classic sign of a future serial killer, but he replied he did not inflict any pain on them and ended their lives quickly by snapping their necks between his fingers, and he illustrated. Mertz said with any force their heads would come clean off. "A rabbit snuffer... The Machine did not wear his leather mask with twisted zipper mouth while he snuffed out the rabbits did he?" I asked. "No wonder they gave you the death penalty. No one gets away with killing the Easter Bunny" I said.

When I returned to my cell, I looked to see if there were any films on with a holiday theme but there were not and I watched the movie "300," although I had seen it a number of times previously and did not appreciate the distorted history. During the movie, the Spartans are portrayed as fighting for democracy and universal rights against the tyranny of Persia. Although Athens was a democratic city state, Sparta was anything but. It was an authoritarian hierarchy based entirely around war and enslaving the other Greeks around them. The Spartans did not believe in the equality of men, women, or mankind, they believed in Sparta. Sparta was the heroic bulwark which prevented the vile cosmopolitan Persian empire from the East from conquering the wellspring of W. Civilization, but leave it to Hollywood to portray them as defenders of social democracy.

The distortion of Spartan history reminded me of the distortion of Easter. Originally, Easter was not a Christian holiday but a pagan one. Easter derives its name from the pagan deity Esther who was a fertility god. The holiday was a celebration of the return of good weather for the planting of crops. The rabbit symbolized fertility because of the numerous offspring it had at the beginning of spring. The egg also was another symbol used by Europeans to represent rebirth. The Christian Church realized it could never destroy the customs and traditions of the people and thus simply replaced their God with the god of the pagans. Interesting how many traditional celebrations and festivals were twisted to suit the foreign religion.

Some people tell me I must have faith to be exonerated and freed. Others tell me I must have faith in God for my soul to be saved. And yet others tell me my lack of faith in God is the reason I remain in prison and justice continues to elude me. My mittimus papers say "life without parole" and this is what I will believe until I walk out these prison doors. Moses purportedly saw God on a mountain and was given the power to divide the sea. The apostles claimed to have seen Christ crucified and raised from the dead as well as his miracles when alive. When I see such things I will believe as well. As for a correlation between lacking faith in God and my incarceration, this is nonsense. Christians around the world suffer unjustly. I will never be a man of faith despite how grim my reality may be. It is better to be hopeless than to have false hope.