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Saturday, May 19, 2012

Penny Wise and Dollar Foolish -- April 24, 2012

Earlier today, my cellmate gave me a newspaper article reporting the Director of the Illinois Department of Corrections proposed to the state legislature that inmates only be served two meals on weekends and holidays to save money. This was not the first time I was informed about the cost cutting idea. Last week, I overheard prisoners talking about how local television news briefly mentioned the plan to cut breakfast and most thought this would be expanded to 7 days a week. They were rather angry not only about the possible elimination of the meal but various other ways the IDOC is eliminating basic necessities and in some instances charging for them. There is probably little sympathy for prisoners living under the most austere and oppressive conditions and many may believe if cuts are to be made they should be done at criminals' expense. However, even convicts must be minimally provided for. Furthermore, many of the people incarcerated should not be, and the cost cutting measures are minute and incredibly foolish when compared to the immense budgetary problems which go unresolved in the State of Illinois.

IDOC Director Godinez spoke before the state congress last week as plans for an annual budget are being discussed. He told legislatures by not feeding prisoners breakfast, $2.5 million can be saved. He added that most inmates do not even eat breakfast anyway and the food goes to waste. The director, however, failed to mention the reason why so few inmates attend the meal. Breakfast in penitentiaries across Illinois is served at 3 a.m. Prisoners must wake up in the middle of night, have their cell in compliance, be dressed in state blues, and walk sometimes a quarter mile to the chow hall in frigid or other undesirable weather. At the chow hall, they are given a tiny meal only to have to walk back to their cells, undress and go back to sleep before job details are run at daybreak. Fortunately, I and other inmates in maximum security have breakfast brought to their cells because of the perceived security risk associated with mass movement lines in the dark of night. Although breakfast may not be eaten by those in minimum and medium security prisoners, it is at facilities like Stateville or Menard.

$2.5 million dollars may seem like a lot of money but it really is an insignificant figure in the budget for the IDOC. Illinois spends about $1.5 billion a year incarcerating close to 50,000 prisoners at about 40 locations across the state. Because much of the food served inmates is made within the IDOC, ordered at discounted bulk rates, and is of the lowest quality, inmates are able to be fed for less than $1 a day. I assume the measly breakfast served costs less than a quarter. One of my favorite breakfast meals at Stateville is waffles and bran flakes. Typically, on Friday, inmates are given two cold waffles and two 1 ounce packages of generic cereal. Last week, for the first time in years, the waffles were served with a packet of syrup. Other than a carton of milk and sometimes a half carton of juice this makes up the entire meal. I tend to believe Director Godinez overstates the amount of money that can be saved, however, even taking his figure, this is less than 1/5th of a percent of the total expenditures of the IDOC. The cost of feeding inmates with basically cereal, bread, processed soy, beans, potatoes and lettuce is minuscule.

The director attempts to make his idea look more appealing by saying that instead of breakfast inmates will be served brunch. This implies a breakfast-lunch combination, however, having been incarcerated nearly two decades I am very skeptical there will be anything different. Plus, even if administrators begin to serve inmates a larger, more diversified meal, this will quickly disappear. I tend to believe nothing will change, including the timing of the meal because already prisoners are fed lunch between 9 and 11 a.m. at the latest. Breakfast will be eliminated and there will be a major gap between the two paltry meals of sometimes 10 hours. Like other inmates, I also tend to believe all breakfast meals will be eliminated.

In Cook County, Illinois Sheriff Tom Dart came up with a proposal to save costs at the jail. He did not suggest eliminating breakfast but incredibly charging detainees for their meals. I do not know what the cost savings would be, but I do know Cook County Jail holds about 15,000 people and is probably the largest jail in the U.S. It probably also detains some of the poorest people from the area, and I remember during the winter months homeless people would commit crimes just to have a place to stay out of the cold. Regardless of the number of people, the cost savings, or wealth of those at the jail, it was preposterous to hold people against their will and then demand they pay for the most terrible food which is served them. The proposal by Tom Dart was rejected by county officials, however, the State of Illinois has for a number of years been charging or seizing the savings of prisoners with over $10,000 for "room and board". Even a Stateville inmate who saved his money from working at the soap factory for 30 years was sued by the state. Fortunately, the State of Illinois lost and most prisoners are smart enough not to keep any significant amount of money in their names, although the vast majority have little to nothing anyways.

My cellmate only sleeps a few hours a night and is awake when I go to sleep and when I awake. At night, he will be on his bunk watching TV usually till midnight or later. In the morning, I will find him sitting at the bars starring out or reading. Typically, he is quiet and does not wake me up but last night he had me up for hours flushing the toilet. In prison, it is considered respectful to use "courtesy" flushes while defecating. However, while I am sleeping, I do not care if he is hovering over an elephant pile of noxious shit. The steel industrial toilets in the penitentiary roar when flushed and will always wake me up, but the stench of a full commode will not. In the morning, I ridiculed my cellmate rather than scolding him because I knew embarrassment would affect him more and I have a talent for making people feel their worst. My cellmate was indeed ashamed and told me he had accidentally eaten some food with soy in it. Bobby is allergic to soy and almost always is stricken with diarrhea when he eats it. Although about 5% of people have adverse reactions to soy products, the IDOC does not care and mixes it into almost all of the prison meals.

Unlike tofu or other types of soy, the soy used as filler is the least nutritional and digestible. Just as there are good cuts of meat and there are the scraps used in such products as sausage, the soybeans can be processed in a like manner. In prison, only the worst meat and soy products are used. They are usually combined in every meal because of their low cost. It is not a surprise inmates suffer from not only digestive disorders at a higher rate than the population at large, but have other dietary-health ailments also. My cellmate typically does not go out for chow because of his intolerance for soy. He supplements his diet with a lot of commissary junk foods including potato chips, cookies, cakes, and like many inmates, Ramon Noodles.

On Monday morning, I heard Don Wade on WLS talk radio weigh in about the prison director's proposal. He said it sounded like a great idea and he would go further by giving inmates only one bowl of slop and returning them to their cells to rot. This seems to be the attitude of most conservatives and I would agree with them but America has radically changed from a country which highly valued the concepts of liberty, justice, and Constitutional protections. Counting jail detainees, over 2% of all citizens are incarcerated. The pervasive laws, government intrusion, and prison industrial complex are not a part of the true conservatives ideal. Nor is a broken justice system that punishes both innocent and guilty to extreme amounts of time in the penitentiary. Alternatives to prison exist and even the worst convicts are still citizens deserving of protection under the Constitution. All prisoners are entitled to adequate food, clothing, medical care and warehousing.

Last time I was at the prison store, the person who scanned my purchases was formerly a medical technician who worked at Stateville. I asked him why the radical change in employment? He told me he was tired of dealing with the incompetent and negligent health care staff. He did not go into the medical profession to be a part of such an inept system. The medical care at Stateville and probably throughout much of the IDOC is very deficient. Doctors are regularly guilty of malpractice and treatment is regularly denied or delayed. For example, there is a prisoner on my gallery who was denied shoulder surgery until torn tendons, ligaments and muscle tissue fused together. When he filed a lawsuit and was finally operated on, the surgeon was unable to correct the injury and he will forever have limited arm motion. Another man was not being treated for glaucoma and is now almost blind. A few prisoners in my cell house have lost kidney function and now must have their blood filtered through a machine every couple of days due to negligence. I recall when my back injury was not seriously treated until I was unable to walk, and to this day I have problems getting medications refilled timely.

The prison population is rapidly aging due to the draconian sentencing statutes which send people to prison for life for such things as purportedly lending their car. Older prisoners require much more medical care but staff, in coordination with prison administrations and the health care provider Waxford, are intentionally trying to curb costs without concern of proper standards of medical care. Not only is treatment regularly denied or delayed, but beginning this year, inmates are surcharged $5 for any type of non emergency medical treatment. "Non-emergency" in prison speak means an inmate must be bleeding profusely with a shank in the eye or obviously dying by some other means. Just to talk to a med tech about a problem requires an inmate to fill out a $5 money voucher. Possibly, the state is able to get away with this because even an indigent inmate cannot be refused treatment and the voucher he or she fills out will just be deducted whenever that person receives their monthly prison stipend or money is sent to him by family.

A decade ago, prisoners were provided with clothing several times a year. However, now it is extremely difficult to just get a pair of boxers or socks from the clothing room. Last year when I did not have a winter jacket for months, I had to file a grievance over the matter. The counselor realizing grievances were often ignored took it upon herself to go over to the storage building and get me a jacket as well as some other clothes. Recently, I was amazed to see some bags of clothes come from the clothing room to inmates in my cell house. I asked a man on my gallery what he received. He astonishingly told me he was given brand name, 100% cotton, T-shirts along with some other underclothes. However, then he said the clothes were irregulars and he seemed to think they were donated to the prison as a tax write-off. I wondered what was better: cotton Nike T-shirts with three arm holes or the thin polyester shirts made by women at Dwight Correctional Center. Regardless, clothes of any sort were better than none.

The prison is currently on lockdown. Yesterday, prisoners in E House refused to lock in their cells in protest to a man whose Walkman was taken from him. From what I am told, the radio was taken because he had the speakers in his ears which apparently is not allowed except in the cell or on the yard. Inmates were given a warning shot for their defiance and when they still were not intimidated, they were maced. I am surprised there is not more rebellion about more significant issues but the prison security unit does a zealous job combating gang or any type of unity or solidarity against the administration. This may change, though, if Tamms and Pontiac Segregation are closed down. Those places are where the IDOC keeps many group or suspected group organizers isolated.

There has been chatter about protesting the infrequency of being able to shop and the expensive prices. The state legislature allows prisons to overcharge inmates 25% over their costs but it seems apparent they are making a much larger profit. Ten small packets of peanut butter which weigh under 10 ounces total cost $2.50. A 4 ounce bag of instant coffee is $5, and a 4 ounce package of chicken breast meat is $4. The prices of food are high but electronics are even higher. For example, a 15" flat screen television is being sold for $250, although I have seen advertisements in the Chicago Tribune for 30" televisions of better quality that are being sold for $200. I do not know if typewriters are sold anymore outside of prisons but a standard, no frills typewriter is priced at $250 also. (My sister says they are available for $99 at Staples, an office supply store.) Prisoners have been appeased recently, however, with the warden allowing inmates to shop in person rather than having their orders bagged and brought to them. This allows them to make substitutions and make sure they are not cheated out of goods.

Before the lockdown I was told Stateville must pay other prisons for their industry products and are behind in paying their bills to various vendors outside and inside the IDOC. This may explain why the clothing normally from Dwight was substituted with a charity donation. It may also explain why there has not been any donuts served for breakfast in two weeks. Every Saturday, inmates are given 2 small donuts with little to no frosting on them along with two packages of cereal. Despite the donuts being only a few bites and lacking frosting, this seems to be the favorite breakfast of Stateville inmates. I do not eat donuts and give them to my cellmate who in turn gives me his milk and branflakes. My cellmate not only cannot eat soy but is lactose intolerant and clearly by last night he does not need any more fiber in his diet. My cellmate has a sweet tooth and is disappointed not to have any donuts recently. Earlier today I heard him mumble in complaint about Stateville not paying the prison in Illinois River, however, I wonder if donuts are just too expensive to serve prisoners, especially with talk about eliminating breakfast altogether.

The prison has yet to stop passing out weekly supplies and today anyone in C House was given two small bars of soap, a roll of toilet paper, a 3" toothbrush, and a small tube of toothpaste, which most prisoners pass on. The toothpaste is of a very poor quality and most men refuse to brush their teeth with it but now that a tube of Colgate from the prison store costs $5 most men I believe are making due with the distasteful state-issued toothpaste. Soap is made at Stateville and has rarely been a problem receiving, but at one time guards tried to force prisoners to share a roll of toilet paper. This did not go over well, and there was mayhem in the cell house until 2 rolls were passed out per cell. The toilet paper supplied prisoners is of the thinnest I have ever seen, but despite this, there was a time period when the rolls were cut in width by a few inches to save money.

It is incredibly ironic how minute expenses of prisoners are painstakingly sought out while there is massive waste, inefficiency, corruption, and lavish spending elsewhere. I notice how the guards' union protects their jobs, salaries, pensions, and other exuberant benefits very well, although I am informed reductions have been made recently especially to new hires. I am surprised the IDOC even has the money to pay new guards when they purportedly do not have the money to feed prisoners a 500 calorie breakfast. Governor Quinn has proposed closing the supermax Tamms and Dwight, a female maximum-security unit, but I believe those guards who work there will remain on the payroll and be able to transfer to other penitentiaries. Quinn has also impressively breached the subject of pension and Medicaid reform this year. However, because he has not offered any specific plans and is depending on the legislature controlled by the Democratic party to take responsibility, I doubt anything will be done.

Medicaid and pensions are enormous, unsustainable, burdens in Illinois as is the health care and Social Security bills on the federal level. Federal Congressman Paul Ryan has come out with very good proposals to cut spending, however, those plans have been vehemently ridiculed by the President and liberals. Increasing the age of retirement and other reforms to Social Security are a necessity as people are living much longer. The program will be insolvent without drastic reductions. The health care voucher system is also far superior to Obamacare. By giving choice and money to individuals to make their own health care decisions, it will increase free market competition and quality while reducing prices as well as unnecessary and wasteful spending. Under the bill passed by President Obama, just the opposite will occur. Costs for government and individuals will rise while quality of care will decrease. If the U.S. Supreme Court rules the individual mandate unconstitutional, the program probably becomes untenable because health care insurers cannot just cover the sick. The President attacks Republican plans as social Darwinism but Romney and Ryan have the courage to take on the popular nanny-state which is financially crippling the Republic. Today, Mitt Romney won 5 more states and has secured the Republican Presidential nominee. I hope he chooses a fiscal hawk like Ryan to be his Vice President.

There are major costs bringing the State of Illinois towards bankruptcy. However, just like on the federal level, few politicians especially in the Democratic Party are willing to address the politically sensitive issues. They would rather pass the bill onto future generations, add more debt, and insolvency to the state, or make tiny cuts along the edges which will not ruffle the feathers of any major constituency. Thus, why administrators have sought to control spending by cutting the basic needs of prisoners including medical, clothing, shelter, and diet. They would even cut breakfast out and rolls of toilet paper than deal with the major problems.

Director Godinez has his proposal to squeeze blood out of a turnip, however, I have a much better idea. Instead of tinkering around the edges of a growing and unsustainable prison system, cut the Illinois Department of Corrections in half. Reduce the population of those incarcerated from 50,000 to 25,000, the staff by half or more, and instead of closing a mere two prisons, close twenty. There is no need to have all these men and women in penitentiaries. There are alternatives to incarceration that are more effective and it is obvious there is a problem when natural life sentences are given out like candy to 14-year-olds who are mere lookouts, or an 18-year-old who allegedly lent his car to his roommate. Cutting the prison population in half will save not $2.5 million, but close to $1 billion. Radical sentencing reform, however, is yet another politically controversial and unpopular subject. It is much better for government to be penny wise and dollar foolish.