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Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Search of Stateville - Part II -- July 20, 2012

On Wednesday of last week, my visit was abruptly ended at a quarter past one. A number of guards entered the visiting room and shouted for everyone to leave. Visitors were told the prison was on a level one lock down and they were rushed out as if there was some pending danger. However, prisoners knew this was a ruse and after their family and friends were gone, sat at their little tables for over a half hour. There was no emergency. Some men finished eating the vending machine food that their visitors had purchased, and spoke amongst themselves. A few, like myself, sat quietly waiting until they were strip searched and sent back to their cages. Guards gave no explanation for the lockdown, and I did not learn details until this week. I also did not know that another statewide tactical unit was being assembled to ransack and plunder inmates' property until the Orange Crush arrived on Saturday. I have been in the Illinois Dept. of Corrections for over 17 years but I do not ever recall such a thorough search and looting of inmates' property.

When I returned to my cell from my visit, I asked a few people if they knew the cause of the lockdown. No one knew, but a neighbor of mine speculated it had to do with the cyclone fencing which was spray painted orange in places where repairs were needed. On the prison grounds there is cyclone fencing everywhere with razor wire on top. The sharply wound metal is largely redundant because of the numerous gaps underneath and breaks in the fences. My neighbor speculated the prison was on lockdown until they could be repaired and security personnel may believe parts of them were made into shanks. The fences have been in a state of disrepair for decades and I did not see the reason administrators would abruptly put the prison on lockdown in the middle of the day, however. There could be a myriad of reasons and I did not give it any further thought until the weekend.

Saturday morning, my cellmate told me he heard the reverberations of an Orange Crush raid in one of the other quarter units in the building. Guards on the tactical team often strike their batons against cell bars as they storm a cell house. I assume this is done not only to gain inmates attention, but to intimidate them. Stateville had just been searched by a tactical team of well over 300 guards and I could not imagine why they would be back so soon. I spoke to a different neighbor of mine later in the day to ascertain what he knew. He told me there was talk of more contraband being found, including shanks and another cell phone.

On Monday, the Orange Crush searched B House which is adjacent to the cell house I am confined in. Prisoners shouted out of their cells the ongoings next door, and there was an expectation they would be in our unit next. I read a couple of magazines while I waited for the invasion to occur, however when noon passed by, I thought they would not be coming. Typically, the tactical team only works during the day shift and there was not enough time to search a cell house in less than 3 hours, even if they numbered 500. I considered working out but it was a very humid and hot 98 degrees by the afternoon. I knew my cellmate would not appreciate me making the cell even hotter by exercising. I also did not know if I could push myself to do my typical intense routine because several days prior my pain medication had ceased to be delivered to the cell. I had a few extras, but knew I had to throw them out.

Throwing out any extra medications was not the only precaution I took. For example, I knew the tactical team always took containers, especially those which were not being used for their original purpose. I had two peanut butter jars I did not want to lose, so I filled them up with packets of peanut butter. The Orange Crush also has the habit of taking extra sheets and blankets. Prisoners are only permitted to have two sheets, but this meant I had to sleep on a bare vinyl mattress when I turned them in to be washed. Therefore I had four, and began to stuff the extras in my dirty laundry bag but decided to just leave them folded in my box. My laundry bag was already suspiciously large because it had a full week of worn clothes in them. On Monday's midnight shift, guards had failed to pick up laundry. My cellmate claimed to overhear them say it was too hot to do all that work. However, later I considered the administration specifically told them not to in order to prohibit inmates from hiding contraband in their bags while they were in the laundry room. I may only want to hide a couple of sheets, but others may want to hide weapons or drugs.

Tuesday morning, the Orange Crush finally came storming into the cell house yelling and clanging their batons against the cell bars. Although I was waiting for them to come running down the gallery, they skipped 4 and 6 galleries. The tactical team was not as large as the one that searched Stateville last month and they did not have the manpower to do the entire cell house at once. I also reasoned they wanted to search half the cell house at a time so inmates did not have to spend the entire day in handcuffs while waiting in the chow hall. I appreciated the consideration of supervisors but would have preferred to be one of the first galleries to be searched. By the time guards came for us, it was the hottest hours of the day and I had to stay up late reordering my cell that was left in great disarray.

The 4th and 5th floors along with the one below my cell were searched first. On the lower floor my cellmate watched the ongoings of the guards and other staff from our cell bars. I was not as interested in the search and instead put on my headphones and read a Fidelity mutual fund report. Once in a while, however, Bobby would call my attention to something and I would go to the bars to look out. One of the first things to draw my interest was all the administrators who were downstairs. The warden along with his two assistants was there as well as the director of the entire Illinois Dept. of Corrections. It was unusual for Director Godinez to be present for a search, even a mass scale one like this. He did not simply stand around either, but made rounds even passing by my cell and speaking with a few prisoners. For the appointee of the governor to be here told me this was not your typical tactical search.

The guards were in cells on the three galleries for hours while thoroughly searching through property and confiscating vast quantities of it. Downstairs I could see bags and bags of property being taken out of cells. Furthermore, all typewriters and extra fans had been taken away along with all black radios and TVs. The radios and TVs were seized because I assume they were not made of clear plastic and administrators thought they were a security risk. Inmates prized these items because they could not be purchased anymore and were of a superior quality to the clear models being sold after their discontinuance. A black Panasonic radio/cassette player could be sold for $150. I was offered $80 for my cheap clear plastic radio with poor sound. Radios with speakers are no longer sold and have not been for years. The only thing the commissary now sells are Walkmans which you must use headphones to hear. I think many prisoners will be angry to lose their old model Zenith televisions and radios, but on the upside their confiscation will probably reduce the noise levels in the cell houses.

After the hunger strike, the warden told inmates they would be able to keep their typewriters, but apparently he reneged or was overruled by a superior. The typewriters cost prisoners between $250 to $300 and allowed them to file their own legal work. I assume they will be given the choice of having them destroyed or sent home. However, who outside prison walls still uses typewriters? Plus, the cost of mailing them will cost nearly as much as the price a person would pay for a new one on the outside. The new typewriters are made out of clear plastic and can be visually inspected to see they do not contain contraband or have been tampered with. I am told pieces can be taken out without detection to make a shank, but I am uncertain how this is possible. I also realize shank materials are available nearly everywhere and it is impossible to stop the making of weapons.

For years inmates have been allowed to have 2 fans. This was a compromise reached when the large fans sold to prisoners were confiscated. It was ironic that during the hottest summer in decades, the administration was deciding inmates could only have the one small fan. In fact on the day the Orange Crush raided C House, temperatures exceeded 100 degrees. As guards removed fan after fan from the cells downstairs, I could see them dripping in sweat. All of them had removed their black body armor and helmets. Some even rolled down their thick orange jumpsuits and tied them around their waists.

At about noon, guards began to bring back lines of inmates who were taken out of their cells. Prisoners were furious to see the carnage left behind by the Orange Crush. Many expressed their anger, but there were no retaliatory acts against the tactical unit. The Orange Crush guards had put back on their body armor and helmets. They also were armed with mace and batons while inmates were handcuffed behind their backs. It was futile to retaliate at the moment and this may be in part why guards from other prisons were mostly used to conduct the search and looting of property.

I thought the tactical team would take a break for lunch and inmates would be fed as well before operations continued, but I was mistaken. After the three galleries of men were secured in their cells, guards began to walk down the two remaining galleries. They were in no hurry and the moment of surprise was gone. I also tend to believe they were tired and burdened by the excessive heat. Guards walking by told us to turn on the light and take down our televisions. Most cells did not have any counters and inmates tied their TVs to the wall vent or to their bunks, as I did. I did not see a reason to untie my TV and left it where it was. Plus, I was hungry and took out a package of cornflakes and a bag of peanuts. I had not eaten since 7 a.m. and I assumed I would not have an opportunity to do so again until late afternoon. While my cellmate mumbled to the guard in front of our cell about a litany of things including how he had to go in to his box to retrieve some aspirin because he was ostensibly having chest pains, I munched on my snack.

The guard assigned to our cell was a clean cut Caucasian male in his mid-20s. I assumed he was from some small rural town in downstate Illinois where jobs were hard to come by. He told us after we undressed, that we were only to put on state blues. Prisoners were forbidden to wear any T-shirts, socks, or boxers. Furthermore, we had to walk out in our shower shoes. I thought these rules were absurd and the quest to find any little bit of contraband overzealous. However, even though it was odd dressing without any underwear, I figured it was better to be under dressed on a day with heat indexes over 115 degrees.

My cellmate was acting nervous and disorientated. Possibly, the stress and heat were putting him on the verge of a stroke or heart attack. He mumbled incoherently to the guard while we were waiting to be let out of the cell. Eventually, I discerned he was worried about the sink overflowing. For over a month, the cold water button has been sticking and it was currently running. The way O.G. Bobby spoke and acted, along with his disheveled appearance, probably made the guard think he was a crazy old black man. The guard refused to take his hand cuffs off but assured him that he would not allow the cell to flood.

Stepping outside of the cell house, I immediately felt the heat of the sun. The overhead sunlight beat down oppressively on prisoners complimenting the oppressive and harsh treatment by guards. While standing in line, a guard continued to shout at us not to speak and to keep our heads down. He went on to say there's nothing to look at and we need not look around. However, there was something to see and I noticed the manpower of guards besides us was small. Despite his body armor, boots, helmet and weapons, I tend to believe the pig barking orders at us was insecure. I noticed sweat dripping down the plump guard and on occasion he would wipe it off only for it to reappear moments later. I estimated there were about 150 tactical guards, but most remained in the cell house as we were escorted to the chow hall still cuffed behind our backs.

Once led into one of the dining areas, prisoners were told to fill up the tables from back to front. Most men grouped by race or gang. There were a couple of tables of Caucasians and Mexicans, but the rest of the inmates were black. A guard ordered us to stay seated and sit with our backs to the tables. However, inmates were eager to socialize and largely ignored his demands. The guards did not stand on the issue and abruptly left, locking the gate behind them. A few remained in the inner circular chamber sitting by a huge industrial fan. Even the guard in the gun tower had a large box fan, and although he watched prisoners, he never left his chair. With the kitchen nearby, all the body heat and lack of air flow, the chow hall was sweltering.

To my surprise, after a half hour the guards brought in a stack of food trays and began to recuff prisoners in the front. The guards were very cautious about the matter and pointed to one inmate to stand up and come away from the tables to be recuffed. When I was told to come forward, a man fell out from the heat. This caused guards to come to his aid and left me standing alone. One of the guards noticed, and putting his hand on his baton, he shouted at me to sit down. Possibly, he thought the incident was a diversion and I was up to something, or perhaps he was just being unreasonably hostile. I sat back down and later the guard who told me to come toward him was apologetic. He undid my cuffs and redid them in front so they were not digging into my wrists.

I sat at a table with prisoners I normally acquaint with on 4 gallery. While with them I learned more about the cause of the lockdown and subsequent search. Apparently there was a knife fight between two Hispanics in the Roundhouse. Most Mexicans share solidarity amongst themselves but sometimes conflict occurs between the Latin Disciples and Kings. After the fight, more shanks were found as well as a cell phone. There was also a rumor that a hit list was found by Internal Affairs, but I am skeptical despite how a guard who worked at Menard C.C. died a few weeks ago due to injuries sustained when he was stabbed in June. One of the men at the table told me he could peer down to the lower floor where security personnel were unscrewing all the black radios looking for contraband. Other than recording mechanisms, they found nothing.

For a little over three hours prisoners on 4 and 6 galleries were kept in the chow hall. We were allowed to eat, socialize and use the toilet. A few men suffering from heat exhaustion were attended by a nurse and permitted to sit up front by the guards fan. Prisoners yelled for the fan to be turned toward the chow hall but there was no way guards were going to share. In lieu of a fan, many prisoners took the lids off their Styrofoam trays and waived air over their faces. I noticed quite a number of inmates' blue shirts darkened with sweat. Some even appeared as if they were going to faint. Although inmates initially were eager to talk after being locked in their cells a week without the use of a telephone, they slowly became quieter and eager to leave.

Prisoners were recuffed behind the back and brought back to the cell house around 4. Upon entering the building, I saw huge bags piled up along the wall of sheets, blankets, and state blues. Also stacked were numerous mattresses and pillows. This, however, was only small fraction of the items taken from inmates. The non-state issued property belonging to prisoners had already been hauled away in truck loads. It included not only 50 typewriters and radios, but nearly 100 fans and garbage bags filled with miscellaneous property.

The property in my cell was piled haphazardly on top of the two bunks and within or on top of the property boxes. It was greatly disturbing to see the complete disarray but the first thing I did was take off my polyester state blues and put on some underwear and shorts. I then angled my fan toward me while I began the process of cleaning and reordering my property boxes. As I did this, I could hear the griping and cussing of inmates in the cell house. My neighbor began to throw out of his cell damaged property and opened bags of Ramen Noodles. I told him to send those noodles my way because I did not care if guards opened them. He only replied with more complaints. The guards who searched my cell did not open up any sealed food items but they did open up boxes of soap, toothpaste, and other things. My watch which was wrapped around a bunk beam was ripped off and left lying on the floor. I looked to see if it was still ticking. It was, but the band was broken. Prisoners complained of losing vast amounts of property, however, all that was taken from me was a felt tip pen, a pillow case, some glue, my remote control stick, and when I went to eat dinner, I noticed my plastic spork was gone.

My cellmate's first order of business was to retie his TV to the wall vent. Because he was hot, flustered and not very intelligent, this feat took him a couple of hours. I considered tying it for him but I had my own work to do. I did, though, sit his property box on the sink and angle his fan towards him. My cellmate's broken fan was gone and I was glad to be rid of the clutter. Had the Orange Crush not come through, he may have kept the piece of garbage indefinitely. I was also pleased guards tore off the cardboard my cellmate had glued to the lower wall vent. This vent blew cool air into the cell. What I was not happy about was how all my hooks and pegs were taken off the walls. I did not have any glue to reattach new hooks and was about to melt plastic until my cellmate offered me a roll of very sticky medical tape he was given to tape hemorrhoid pads to his ass. The pencils I had hammered into the holes in the walls were broken off and I was not able to get them out. Thus, after fishing some screws left on the gallery with a magnet, I put these right into the wood. I was exhausted by the time I finished reordering the cell. I did not wash up and go to bed until near midnight.

Since Tuesday, the Orange Crush has continued to search the prison. F House was ransacked on Wednesday and the following day X House. On Thursday, the tactical team also came back to C House to round up a handful of people off of every gallery to be questioned by Internal Affairs. There are a few snitches within the men they spoke to and I assume they were on a fishing expedition otherwise. Oftentimes, the security unit will disguise the identities of a few people who give them information in exchange for some preferred treatment by gathering a random group of people to their offices. I am uncertain what type of information they sought after the shakedown and maybe they just sought general Intel. I noticed my envelopes of blog material were thoroughly scrutinized and they probably were in my cell with the Orange Crush on Tuesday. Internal Affairs tends to not like publication of prison news and this letter may have a difficult time getting out. I rewrote this post a few times, however, and if it "disappears" I will still have copies.

There is speculation the recent searches of Stateville and Menard are correlated with the governor closing the Supermax Tamms. Ever since Governor Quinn began discussing the closure of the facility, the guards union and other IDOC personnel have heavily lobbied to keep it open. Part of this lobbying effort may be to demonstrate to the governor how dangerous the state's maximum security penitentiaries are. The searches may also be an overreaction to the perceived threat of Tamms being shut down. Slowly, prisoners who are deemed organizational threats are being released into the general populations of the state's maximum-security institutions. Administrators have enjoyed a tight grip of control since the turn of the century and they want to maintain this. However, the largest danger to their power and increased violence is not the closing of Tamms which only held about 400 men at its peak. The real danger comes from the increasing amount of incarcerated men who have no outdate and nothing to lose.

At about the same time the governor vetoed the funding for Tamms, he also signed law SB 2621. This law allows nonviolent offenders to earn more good time and be released sooner. I realize Quinn's strategy is to make more space in the IDOC for those who have committed serious felonies but the fundamental flaw in the logic is it does nothing to encourage good behavior of those who have violent tendencies. Convicted murderers must still do 100% of their time and nearly all of them will die in prison. Politically, this is probably a wise tactic because the public at large does not want to hear about violent offenders being released early. However, the public does not realize violent offenders who have done over a decade in prison are less likely to recidivate than nonviolent offenders who often reenter the prison system time and time again.

Packing more and more dangerous criminals with no hope of redemption into a smaller space is a nightmare scenario for correctional officers. A much more equitable and wiser decision would have been to apply the same sentencing policy for nonviolent offenders universally. If convicts in Tamms, Pontiac, Menard, Stateville and elsewhere were given incentives to behave, the danger to security within those institutions would dramatically decrease. With fewer prisons, staff, and spending cuts, the administration of the IDOC could continue to maintain control. Releasing men who have done two decades in prison also would not endanger the public, especially if rehabilitation programs were made available to them again. Last night a madman gunned down over 70 people, killing 12, at a premier showing of the movie "The Dark Knight Rises" in Aurora, Colorado. Prison administrators and guards worry about the release of a few Jokers from Tamms but ironically they will have a much greater problem if there is not comprehensive reform of sentencing statutes, a problem even Batman cannot solve.