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Monday, November 12, 2012

Mertz Gets a Job -- October 17, 2012

Prisoners are randomly and selectively ordered to give urine samples for drug testing. If an inmate refuses to comply or cannot piss within two hours, they are sent to Segregation typically for half a year. Inmates who are targeted by Internal Affairs are usually suspected of using drugs. Sometimes, they will be surprised in the middle of night by security personnel to give a urine sample and are greatly scrutinized. However, there are some inmates who are "dropped" as a part of the vetting process for a job assignment. Apparently, it is important for guards to know inmate workers are clean of drugs. A few weeks ago, about ten prisoners from my cell house were taken to one of Internal Affairs offices to submit to drug tests. Although they were told it was to qualify them for jobs, a few were skeptical. However, since that time, several of them were given assignments. One of those inmates was Anthony Mertz.

A year ago, Mertz requested a job through his counselor. He asked to be put in for grounds crew, commissary, kitchen and the print shop. The normal process for getting a job begins by the assignment officer placing an inmate on a list. As openings become available, an inmate's name moves up on the list. Prisoners who are sent to Seg or found guilty of major disciplinary tickets are taken off the list and cannot reapply for a year. Depending on the job requested, an inmate can wait from one to five years and sometimes indefinitely in the case of the furniture or soap factories. The vetting process is pretty simple with the assignment officer and a counselor briefly looking over a prisoner's master file and assessing it along with their personality. Once they approve, I.A. has veto power. The list and evaluation, however, can be disregarded if a high ranking supervisor wants a particular man to work for him.

Mertz was initially informed he had a job when a guard commented to him he was on the assignment list. He did not inquire what the assignment was or when he would begin working. Thus, for the next couple of days he could only speculate. He informed me he most wanted to work outside mowing grass, shoveling snow, and other grounds crew labor. A man who was standing with us told him he did too because then he could notify him of all the new products they had for sale and make sure his commissary order was complete. However, the following day a kitchen worker told him he was going to be working there instead. He was telling the truth. Later in the day, guards told him he had to be interviewed by the head kitchen supervisor and was escorted over to the kitchen.

Mertz met with the boss of the kitchen in his office which is just off the center circle of the chow hall. He did not want to really interview him but give him a talk about what was expected of him and the benefits of working there. First, Mertz was told how he had to obey the orders of supervisors but the type of work he did was adjustable and shared by inmates. Kitchen workers work 6 days a week but most want and are allowed to work every day. Most inmates, however, went to work every day. The head supervisor told him how many inmate workers are fired and sent to Seg for stealing. Recently, an inmate was caught taking back to the cell house an entire box of peanut butter. He did not mind if workers brought a little food back with them especially if given permission, but the mass pilfering of food would not be tolerated. Kitchen workers can eat as much food as they want during their shift and this should compensate them for their paltry salary of $28 a month. The best part of the job other than being able to eat anything while there was that he would never be rotated out, unlike all other jobs except industries. He had the work assignment for as long as he wanted. The only question the head supervisor had for Mertz was what shift he preferred. There were openings in all three shifts. Mertz chose the midnight shift which makes breakfast and this is what I would have chosen as well.

The midnight shift is the most pleasant in multiple respects from my perspective. It has the fewest workers and thus there is less need for social engagement. I tend to dislike crowds and the fewer convicts I need to deal with, the better. Because breakfast is brought to inmates in their cells at maximum-security penitentiaries in Illinois, there is also no need to interact with people other than co-workers. One of the worst jobs in the kitchen for me would be on the serving line. Scooping food onto over a thousand trays as well as having to deal with the mobs and noise in the inner feeding circle would be terrible. Not only are there fewer inmates to interact with but also supervisors, and they are less likely to be always looking over your shoulder or giving orders. Preparing breakfast trays is also the simpliest task and the working hours are shorter. Little cooking is done and kitchen workers need not deal with stifling hot boiling pots, ovens, or fryers too often. Even when they are in use, temperatures in the kitchen are lowest at night. Finally, there is something appealing with being a night owl and sleeping during the day when the penitentiary is most active.

On Friday, I asked Mertz if he was looking forward to his first night at the kitchen. He did not seem too enthusiastic or anxious, however, like me, he is not very expressive. Despite this, I sensed he was looking forward to his first shift. Mertz has spent most of his years incarcerated on death row where inmates were not permitted to have any jobs. They have very little movement and spend most of their time alone in their cells. Perfect for me, but the vast majority of inmates do not like the seclusion and do not know how to preoccupy their time. On death row, Mertz absorbed himself into television and at Pontiac there were a greater number of stations to watch. Stateville only has 12 cable stations, unlike other penitentiaries in Illinois which have a full compliment of 50 or more. I believe Mertz had become bored of the monotony in his life and the job offered him a change of pace.

Jobs in maximum-security prisons are highly prized by those inmates confined to their cells. I do not share their sentiment to do menial labor and socialize. However, not long after I was sent to the penitentiary, I almost accepted a job working in Pontiac's officers' kitchen. The job was appealing because the small number of men who worked on the shift I knew well and got along with. Furthermore, I liked the idea of being able to consort with staff rather than the vast number of convicts I generally disdained. Unlike Stateville, Pontiac has two separate kitchens: one where food for inmates was cooked and served and one where food for staff is cooked and served. Staff was particularly concerned about who made their food and supervisors in the kitchen were very picky about who they hired to work in the officers kitchen. At Stateville, I notice most guards bring their own food and it is not simply because of how bad it is. Those inmates they trusted and liked were offered the jobs and were treated well. They were given full access to all the best food and had other special perks. The only problem was I had to move to a certain area of the prison and there currently were only two bunks open. I did not like the inmates in those cells and those I got along with already had cellmates they liked. Thus, I would be stuck living with a person I did not like until a spot opened up. No job is worth giving up a good cellmate.

At Stateville, prisoners who take jobs are not moved, however, I believed I would rarely see Mertz once he began his job. The vast majority of kitchen workers only leave their cells to go to work. They do not go out for chow because they eat during their shift. They also do not shower with other prisoners on their gallery because they shower immediately after returning from work. Furthermore, they rarely ever go to recreation periods because they are at work, sleeping, or preoccupied. I figured Mertz would be sleeping until the afternoon and cease to go to yard and gym. However he told me one of the reasons he chose the midnight shift was so he did not have to miss rec. He is even going out to chow when it is run after noon. I am pleased he continues to come out because he is one of the rare few people I speak with.

Saturday was the first night of work for Mertz, and I was surprised to see him come out for lunch. The cell house was last to be fed, however, and I suppose he was able to get in seven or eight hours of sleep. I asked him what he thought of his new job. He told me it was boring and he spent a lot of time doing nothing or waiting to leave, come back, and in the shower holding area. At the kitchen there was nothing to do but count donuts and fill styrofoam trays with scoops of dry cereal. The donuts come prepackaged from another penitentiary. His co-workers told him Saturdays were the slowest work nights because there is little to do. He noticed one of his supervisors slept much of the time, and he did not notice the other one until she began to yell at an inmate for leaving open cans of peaches without cleaning it up. The worker had made peach cobbler for himself and some others. Mertz did not try any because he said the man was unsanitary and he did not trust to eat his food. Instead he ate cheeseburgers along with some french fries another prisoner worker had made.

The largest perk working in the kitchen is that inmates are allowed to make and eat any food they want while there. They eat much better than everyone else and also have little need to buy commissary food to supplement their diet. On the nights Mertz has worked, he has not only eaten cheeseburgers and fries but strips of breaded fried chicken and a full salad. Prisoners are sometimes served turkey burgers but almost never with cheese, tomato, onion, or green peppers. The salads served are typically just iceberg lettuce. There is no broccoli, cauliflower, shredded cheese, tomato, etc. Fried chicken is served occasionally but never is it stripped and breaded with a side of barbecue sauce. If you like to eat and eat well, a kitchen job is an ideal work assignment. GevAss, the nearly 400 pound elephant I mentioned in "Lieutenant Beaten," loved his job in the kitchen and is greatly upset he lost it.

No one who works in the kitchen or anywhere except industries takes the job for the salary. All jobs at Stateville pay $28 a month. While some men work regular hours Monday through Friday, many work 7 days a week. Because Mertz works nights, his shift is usually only about 5 hours. However, this still means he is being paid an hourly wage of about 20 cents. Furthermore, he actually is only making $18 a month because all prisoners are given a stipend of $10. The stipend is eliminated for workers and nonassigned prisoners alike when they are being collectively punished during a lockdown. The labor and inconvenience of a job definitely is not worth $18 a month. Mertz agrees and has told me prisoners work for the benefits such as food, to make a hustle, or simply to get out of their cells and socialize. Anyone who takes a job for the salary will be greatly disappointed.

Some kitchen workers will make extra money by serving those with special diets better food or bringing food back to the cell house to sell. Regularly, I will hear gallery workers selling off the various foodstuffs those in the kitchen bring back. They will sell virtually anything there is a demand for: green peppers, onions, peanut butter, cheese, flour tortillas, spices, and more.

Inmates are already pestering Mertz to get them special food. One man told him to hook him up with an egg, bacon and cheese biscuit for Sunday's breakfast. The prisoner was rubbing his hands together in anticipation or in thought of the meal, but Mertz had no intention of doing so. The inmate receives a special diet tray with his number on it because he has no teeth. He can only be served soft foods. Mertz told him instead of the designer biscuit or other foods he sought, he will begin to blend up all his food so it is mush.

I have not asked Mertz to bring me back any special food and I have no intention of doing so. I do not want him to risk his job or worse to be sent to Seg. The only favor I asked of him is to find me a real spoon and fork. Prisoners are now only given sporks to eat with and I assume the kitchen has other kitchenware. I also asked Mertz to find out what our food is made of. All too often inmates are served mystery meat or other unrecognizable food. Most of our food is processed soy and it is used in nearly everything from the biscuits and gravy to spaghetti. Mertz has ripped off the label on a few packages or boxes already. I have learned the fish patties served are a mixture of whiting, perch and cod. The burgers are of various conglomerations of soy, turkey and/or beef. The best are the turkey burgers which can be distinguished because they shrink and turn brown when cooked. Soy patties are grey and have no fat to sizzle. I read the label on pre-made pancakes served and was surprised they had eggs and other healthy ingredients.

While going to chow I have noticed how envious other prisoners are of Mertz's job and how many new prisoners wanted to be his friend. Some of these people are just other kitchen workers who will acknowledge him on the serving line and give him extra food. However, most are people looking to befriend him hoping he may do them a favor. GevAss and some other former kitchen workers are almost resentful. One man who was recently fired said Mertz took his job. I could also notice their jealousy when after given extra portions and passing them on to me like he had given me something of value rather than just a piece of chicken. Incredible how petty and low their lives must be. I know how wretched a meaningless life can be in prison but cannot understand how it is significantly improved by a menial $18 a month job or some extra chicken.

Since Mertz began his job I have asked him about his work. He seems to like the assignment but already I perceive it as very tedious and menial. If he is bored now what will he think in a year? Basically, all Mertz does is take huge bags of cereal and scoop it onto small styrofoam trays. The prison once purchased packaged singles but changed thinking they would save money. The savings are largely negated by all the trays which must be used. For about 3 hours straight all Mertz will do is stand at a counter preparing 420 trays with several other men who also must make hundreds of trays. On some nights, nearly 4,000 styrofoam trays are used. Other than make trays, Mertz will help bring out the cartons of milk and juice, clean up and eat. He is back in the cell house around 3 a.m. but is caught in the shower area for some time. Most of his co-workers like to use this time to socialize more, but Mertz just wants to get back in his cell. He has nothing in common with them except their job and he would rather be sleeping than hearing them talk and yell up to galleries above.

Yesterday, Mertz prepared trays with turkey burgers rather than cereal. Once a week, prisoners will usually get a soy patty or turkey burger for breakfast. The meat comes pre-shaped but are heated at Stateville. Mertz's job was merely to put the burger along with two slices of bread and two jellies onto the trays. Mertz bragged to me about his efficient system and how quickly he was able to complete his task. He also told me how he separated the jelly packets so everyone got two jellies of the same flavor. Other kitchen workers never bother to do this and just put whatever two jellies they happen to pull out of the box onto the tray. Mertz seemed rather proud of himself till I told him that he forgot to put a burger on my tray. He initially thought I was joking until I convinced him I was serious. He said that was impossible. He was very diligent and systematic making the trays. I said, "Well, you missed one," and he seemed bothered he could make an error but then began to joke that someone in the cell house had to have lifted my burger. "Nobody wants that cold turkey-soy burger," I told him. "In fact, my cellmate and two other people offered me theirs." I continued saying he should take responsibility for his crime and throw himself at the mercy of the court. Possibly, I will be lenient and only give him probation and restitution. He said he did not make much money but I told him I will accept a spoon and a fork.

Mertz is not going to be able to pay his restitution, at least any time soon. Today, a little after noon the prison went on lockdown. I am told a prisoner and yet another lieutenant fought each other. However, this time they fought on the yard and it was a minor scrap. However, because there have been two incidents within a short period of time between high ranking staff and convicts, the administration will probably keep Stateville on a longer lockdown. Supposedly, IDOC personnel from Springfield, the state capital, were here today and this may affect repercussions. In the meantime, prisoners from the minimum security unit will be brought over to work in the kitchen. They have less experience than Mertz, and as always, food will be worse than normal. I was able to shop at the prison store and stocked up on provisions. However, it will be nice if Stateville kitchen workers are back on the job in the not too distant future.