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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Longest Day -- June 21, 2012

Yesterday, I awoke to glaring hot sunlight streaming into my cell. Although I prop a pillow up on a property box to prevent early morning light from hitting me in the face, it only gives me limited shade. It was already 80F at 7 a.m. and for the first time this year I kept my fan on all night. For the last several days, day time highs have been in the upper 90's and television news networks were forecasting 98F for the SW suburbs of Chicago. Across most of the U.S., temperatures were expected to exceed 90F even in the typically cool upper New England states. It was the first day of summer and while the temperatures were uncommon, I expected a lot of sunlight. On the summer solstice, the angle of the planet gave the northern hemisphere the longest and most direct amount of sun. There was in fact exactly 14 hours, 14 minutes, and 28 seconds from sunrise to sunset at this latitude. It was going to be a long day both literally and figuratively for me at the maximum-security prison of Stateville.

I began making myself an alternative breakfast rather than eat the corn flakes, soy-turkey patty and bread which was served prisoners in the middle of night. The hot water I boiled was used for not only instant oatmeal but a mug of tea. While I ate, I watched the CBS morning news which had an interview of Marco Rubio, a Republican senator, from Florida. Recently, I have been infuriated by President Obama's announcement that he will usurp Congress by executive decree and cease to deport young illegal aliens. It is outrageous how the president refuses to enforce immigration laws and in fact brings lawsuits against county sheriffs and states who are trying to prevent the nation from being overrun by Mexicans, along with the social costs, crime, and drugs that come with the open borders policy. Obama has made a number of announcements recently to pander to special interest groups and raise campaign cash. Mark Rubio is the Republicans' counter political chess move and the Cuban is a feigned vice presidential running mate. It is not only foolish but embarrassing for Republicans to mimic the lowly racial pandering of the left. They should unwaveringly maintain their social and economic conservative ideology which can cross racial lines and appeal to everyone.

My cellmate rises before the crack of dawn even on the longest day of the year. I do not know how he can function with only a few hours of sleep. I always find him near the cell bars reading, listening to his Walkman, or just staring outward when I awake. I noticed yesterday he taped a page of newspaper to the bars to prevent the sunlight from hitting him in the face. My cellmate will usually spend the morning sitting on his property box with a folded state-issued blanket underneath him. Although we have been cellmates for 5 months, it is still odd and uncomfortable sharing a small space with him. We have nothing in common and I rarely speak to him. However, the latter is greatly appreciated. I am glad not to have a cellmate I need to continually engage or socialize with. Hopefully, I thought he would spend most of the day on his bunk and out of my sight and thoughts. With the extreme heat forecast, I suspected he would be laying down lazily watching TV with his fan directly upon him.

I spent my morning writing a letter to my longtime Canadian penpal. His last correspondence dwelled mostly on religion which was not unusual. He is a fervent Christian and over the years has spent much time attempting to make me a believer. I do not mind a theological debate every now and then, but I have become bored with the subject. In my response, I largely wrote about other topics including last week's Orange Crush search, politics, economics, and investing going into a double-dip recession. Because he lives in Canada, I must fill out a money voucher form for the additional postage. Prisoners in Illinois are not permitted to have stamps, and envelopes are purchased from commissary with domestic postage already embossed on them. If I were at any other penitentiary the mail would go out immediately, but at Stateville, my Canadian penpal will be fortunate to receive my letter before August.

While writing my letter, I listened to the Don Wade and Roma WLS radio talk show. Don Wade was making fun of Illinois democratic federal senator Dick Durbin. Durbin had recently spoke sympathetically about prisoners at the state's supermax facility in Tamms and planned to visit the penitentiary on Wednesday. Inmates at Tamms, he said, lived a terrible, monotonous, and solitary life. They never leave their four walled cell except for one hour a day where they were allowed into another four walled concrete cell which was even smaller but 30 feet above was a square of sky. Durbin supported closing the prison as the governor has proposed along with Dwight Correctional, but the guards' union and small towns they are built around fervently oppose. The union always opposes the loss of jobs, but they also cite security concerns for the IDOC.

Don Wade snidely spoke about how the prisoners at Tamms deserve to be there and must have done something wrong. He then went on to misspeak that those being disciplined are only there for a few weeks. The men sent to Tamms are sent there not for weeks, but years. The purpose also is commonly not for their committing a serious disciplinary infraction. Those prisoners who stab, rape, kill or seriously assault other prisoners or staff are typically sent to Pontiac Segregation. Tamms' purpose is to isolate men Internal Affairs or the administration fear may be an organizing force within the prison system. They are commonly gang leaders or prisoners who are given disciplinary tickets for dubious conspiracy or suspected security threat group activity.

Another news story covered by the radio show was an escaped prisoner. An inmate taken to Stroger (formerly Cermak) Hospital at Cook County Jail apparently took off when the guard watching him went to use the bathroom. Don Wade attempted to be witty by commenting how the news anchor identified the inmate as 23-year-old Alex Bell, which sounded like his age was a part of his name. I thought the real humor to the story was why a man would flee when he only had to do a maximum of 3 years on a 6-year sentence for burglary, and was not confined at a conventional prison but a half-way house which I suspect was a work release program. The escaped prisoner probably would have been completely free after a year or two, but now faced several more years at a real prison. Escape carries a sentence of seven years, and he is deceiving himself if he believes he will not be apprehended.

My cellmate went on his bunk early as I expected, and after completing my letter I began my work-out early before 80 degree temperatures became heat indexes over 100F. I began with a cycle of callisthenic exercises, but then turned to a very high paced cardio workout. Styrofoam lunch trays were passed out during my routine and I stopped only briefly to put them down and give my cellmate his snack. Little Bobby is close to 60 years old and only has a few teeth left but he still loves his sweets. An obnoxious neighbor of ours yelled over to me asking to trade an apple for the package of two cookies. I told him simply "no" to be rid of him while exercising, but then he wanted to know if Bobby wanted to trade. I ignored him until he continued to pester me whereupon I told him he must be crazy. My cellmate was never going to trade off some cookies for an apple.

I was surprised to hear my name and cell number announced for a visit. Since Friday, the prison has been permitting visitation but they were restricted to only one hour. Even though my family lives nearby, they usually do not bother to come for such a brief time period. I had just completed my workout and I quickly wiped off the front of the cell of my sweat using not only soap and water but disinfectant as well to please my cellmate. It is ironic to me that my cellmate seems concerned I have some serious communicable disease when if anyone does, it is himself. After cleaning the floor, my cellmate climbed down to sit by the bars again while I bathed out of the sink. I could tell he was happy to be rid of me and I do not blame him. We have been trapped in the cell together 24/7 since the Orange Crush searched the cell house.

A guard escorted me and another inmate to the visiting room in handcuffs. All prisoners must be handcuffed outside the cell during a lockdown except those who are workers. On the way toward the front of the penitentiary, we passed B House. An inmate, who was just recently released from Tamms, was screaming like a mad man. The guard commented how some men cannot handle the isolation and lose their marbles. The inmate walking with me coincidentally also had just been transferred from the supermax. He did not seem to have been psychologically affected and asked the guard if he remembered him before he was sent to Tamms 10 years ago. Surprisingly, the guard did and I wondered if there was a reason. The escorting correctional officer mentioned how he had worked at Stateville 17 years and was looking forward to retiring soon. The guard had become employed by the IDOC about the same time I was made a captive in it. I also hoped to retire soon.

The visiting room was surprisingly not crowded or excessively noisy. This was due to the shortened visitation but also because RNC inmates now have their own visiting room. There was a much greater number of prisoners who had received visits Wednesday from the Northern Receiving Center and it was not simply because it held more people. I reasoned many of their friends and family sought to visit them before they were sent to a penitentiary downstate. I also assumed these men who had just recently been convicted still had ties to family, friends, wives or children. Most of the men at Stateville had lost these after being in prison many years.

While on the way to my visit and afterwards, I learned new details about the Orange Crush search and what led up to it. From what I was informed, one of the prisoners who overdosed died, and his cellmate was in a vegetative state. The guards who noticed them also quickly noticed the heroin which was lying on the table in plain sight. Later when a search of the cell was conducted, the cell phone was found in a package of Ramen Noodles--of all places. Although drugs could have passed through the visiting room, a cell phone could not and prison security immediately suspected staff for bringing in the contraband. I speculate this was why a state-wide tactical team from outside Stateville was formed and brought in to search the entire prison.

Although only one syringe was found in C House, a number were found in other cell houses. Also discovered by the Orange Crush team were shanks, mostly in the prison's most aggressive and violent unit. One man also told me a couple more cell phones were uncovered, but I am uncertain of the validity of the information. While initially I thought no drug testing was done, I learned I was mistaken. Urine tests were conducted of anyone found in possession of a hypodermic needle or where dogs scented drugs. There was also some sporadic testing done as well, except not on my gallery and possibly this is why I was unaware of it. No one surprisingly tested positive for drugs, from what I was told, nor were any drugs found. The presence of syringes hidden in inmates' cells, however, seems to indicate they were discarded. It would be remarkable if a maximum-security prison was absent of not only knives, but drugs.

After the Orange Crush left Stateville, guards went cell to cell in every unit conducting compliance checks. A compliance check is to ascertain if an inmate can fit all his property in his two boxes with the exception of their television, radio, fan and a few other items. Apparently, administrators from Springfield while at the penitentiary during the search were bothered that some inmates had massive amounts of property. Although this can be expected from men who have been in prison 10, 20, or even 30 years, unlike medium or minimum security prisons some inmates collect unnecessary clutter. From Friday through Sunday, units of Stateville guards did compliance checks and threw out a lot of property which was unable to fit in prisoners two boxes. I was easily able to fit everything and even held onto some books for my neighbor, Matt. My other neighbor thought he could get away with hiding a bag of food behind his box and underneath the bunk, but it was found and now he is complaining. Many prisoners are complaining but there is the benefit of forcing a cellmate not to infringe upon your space with his property and being more organized. I have thrown out various cellmates' junk they kept outside their box. I have even rearranged their entire property boxes to make space for things they keep out.

On the walk back to the cell house, the sun was at its zenith in the sky. Unlike on the equator or between the Tropic of Cancer and Capricorn, the sun is never directly overhead. In the Chicago area, the highest the sun reaches is about 70 degrees, but this angle was quite easily able to make for some torrid heat. Typically, it takes the atmosphere a month to reach its warmest temperatures after the summer solstice and I expected much hotter weather to come. Already I suspected the heat index to be well over 100, but fortunately there was a good breeze which made it feel less uncomfortable. It was nice to be outside nearly alone, and I did not look forward to being trapped in my cell with my cellmate.

I stopped by Mertz's cell after our handcuffs were taken off and I was told to wait on my gallery until I was let in. Not surprisingly, I found Mertz in front of his TV completely absorbed. Television is his alternate universe and he spends vast amounts of his day watching various movies, programs, and shows. He even watches shows about shows. I cannot understand how he can spend so much time preoccupied by TV, but nevertheless, I share more in common with him than probably anyone in the cell house. My visitor asked me how I could get along with a man who apparently committed an indiscriminate murder. I am surrounded by murderers with much worse backgrounds. His personality, intelligence, and values were better than most in the penitentiary. Many people tend to think one act defines a man, but this is not true.

The guard came on the gallery and I began to head toward my cell. I was stopped by "Chubby Checker." He just wanted to say hello and ask how my visit was. It was obviously a superfluous greeting and an attempt at small talk. I said a few words before I continued down the gallery to be met by the new law library paralegal. Unlike the others before him, he is the most intelligent, knowledgeable and motivated person to work in the library I have met in my near 20 years of incarceration. Most of the staff hired to work at the law library could care less about prisoners' legal issues or work. He had an exceptionally different attitude and broke off his conversation with another inmate to discuss with me what I talked to him about earlier. I sought his help on a simple issue I had already researched to test his competency and confirm my conclusions. The issue was whether or not my life sentence was void because the aggravating factor which permitted it did not exist and therefore the judge lacked the statutory authority to render it. If a sentence is legally void, it may be appealed at any time and cannot be blocked by the prosecutor on procedural grounds. The paralegal seems to have taken an interest in my case and told me he had researched the issue and will speak to me during the next law library session. Mostly I need investigative work, but I appreciate his research and legal conclusions.

When mail was passed out, I received a Chicago Tribune and four financial magazines that were left for me by visitors two weeks prior. In the June 6th edition of the Tribune I noticed a tiny article and photo of James Kluppelberg. I thought about James and what he was doing with his life after close to 25 years in prison. While I was pondering about what life would be like outside these walls decades later, Spooncake came to my cell with a wash cloth on his bald head to prevent sweat from dripping down his face. Spooncake is Adolfo Davis, the man I wrote about who was sentenced to life for being a lookout for a triple homicide when he was 14 years old. He was interested if the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled on whether it was constitutional to sentence juveniles to indefinite prison. I told him the only cases the media was talking about were the President's attempt to stop local authorities from enforcing immigration laws and the constitutionality of Obamacare.

During the evening, the nurse who has captured my interest came by to give me my medications. I was glad she was not accompanied by the lieutenant and I was able to talk to her at length. She told me the prison was out of the antihistamine I am given to help me sleep. There are much better medications to aid sleep including Melatonin, Lunesta, or Ambien, but the healthcare company will not allow the psychiatrist to order them. As I spoke to the cute and petite nurse, I noticed a fat nurse standing besides her vigorously waving a paper to cool herself. I asked "Tinkerbell" why she was wearing the thick dull gray uniform and was told the administration has been trying to impose new rules on staff to encourage them to quit. I wondered if it was better for her to appear so drab with all the miscreants at Stateville. If we were dating, I would forbid her to work here, even if she had to be covered like a Muslim. My thoughts seemed redundant considering my life sentence and I ended our conversation so she could continue her rounds.

At a little past 8 p.m., my cellmate told me he was going to use the toilet and then wash up. To make some space between us, I sat on my property box by the bars. I was watching the 80's movie "Crocodile Dundee" which was amusing because of how out of place the rural Australian was in New York City. It made me think about how much an outcast I would be also in 21st century America after so many years in prison. Even before my arrest, I was considered eccentric and unusual. When I took off my headphones, I noticed the cell house was relatively quiet. There was no blasting of radios or yelling and all I heard was the shuffling of domino bones and the slapping of the ceramic squares onto a property box. I looked out the cell house windows and watched the reflection of the sun on the penitentiary wall. Slowly, the orange light faded until it was gone. For a man who has spent most of his life incarcerated, the longest day took on much greater significance.