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Friday, December 7, 2012

My Trip to the UIC with Jerry -- October 23, 2012

In the middle of the night I was awakened by a guard who informed me I was going on a hospital writ. He told me to be ready to leave at 5 a.m. I attempted to fall back asleep but soon thereafter the breakfast trays were passed out. It was only 3:30 a.m. but I ate, dressed, and shaved with my electric razor in the dim fluorescent lighting from the cell house wall lights. I was done with a half hour of time to spare. I knew it was going to be a very long day and tried to catch some more sleep.

The prison has been on a level 1 lockdown since Wednesday when a lieutenant and inmate fought on the yard. Prisoners have not been allowed to use telephones, go on visits, or have any movement except for medical reasons. I imagine most inmates would be pleased to get out of their cells, let alone the prison, but I preferred to stay in my cell. I hate writs because it derails my routine and I am in heavy restraints all day while hungry and exhausted. I do not care to be outside the walls, see new things, or meet new people, especially when it is all irrelevant. I have natural life without a chance for parole and do not like to expand my horizons. Drifting off into sleep, I considered refusing the medical appointment. However, speaking with the doctors at the hospital I may be able to alter my pain medication and receive a cortisone injection.

At 5 a.m. a guard let me out of my cell and I walked downstairs to the cell house door to wait for an escort. The cell house was eerily quiet and it was uncommon for 300 convicts to be silent. In handcuffs, I was led out in the night, through a tunnel, and to the holding cage typically used for visitation. There were a few inmates going on court writs and one with a crutch going to the hospital with me. I did not say anything and laid down on the hard wood bench. About an hour later, a guard sought my attention to sign a redundant furlough form. Illinois has not had furloughs since the 1970s, to my knowledge. The form listed a number of rules I must obey such as refraining from alcohol while I was away from the prison. I signed the stupid paper and my unhappiness must have been apparent because the guard asked me if I was all right. I told him I was lacking about 5 hours of sleep and he should ask me again later in the day. To my surprise he did, and I think he did so to be funny and brighten my spirits.

In the strip search room, me and the man I was going to the hospital with were given yellow jumpsuits and some thin shoes to wear. I put on my pair but the other inmate said there was no way he could fit into a size 11 because he needed a 14. The guard told him sorry, but they do not have any clown shoes, which I thought was funny. The inmate pushed down the backs of the shoes and wore them like slippers with part of his heels exposed. Both of us were given bright yellow jumpsuits which I normally refer to as banana suits. However, with the President making a trivial issue of his opponent's mention of Big Bird in the last debate, I mulled over the idea of looking like the Sesame Street character.

From the strip search room we were brought to one of the legal visiting rooms to wait until all the writ officers were ready to go. Inside the room was an old Caucasian inmate in a wheelchair who I recognized despite how greatly his appearance had changed. The man who I knew when he was in his 50's was now in his 70's. He was very gaunt and had thin white hair combed back. He looked sickly and before he mentioned it, I knew he was being treated for cancer with chemotherapy. Despite how much older and different he looked, he had the same penchant for complaining. He complained about how terrible Stateville and the medical care at its Health Care Unit was. He said he was locked in a room with no property and doctors were not giving him any pain medication. He could not even get any cartons of Ensure which is a thick shake given to patients with cancer or AIDS to gain weight and help meet their nutritional needs. When I asked him if he was able to eat any of the food served, he began to rant about how disgusting Stateville food was.

While he was talking, I was thinking about the man I knew in the early years of my incarceration and eventually remembered his name: Jerry McCallen. The Jerry I knew had thick gray hair and was at least 50 pounds heavier. He worked at Pontiac's commissary and liked to play cards with other "old timers" on the yard. Jerry was for the most part a friendly person but was cranky, satirical, and regularly complaining. He did have some reason to be bitter considering his sentence and the time he has done in prison. Jerry has been in prison since the 70's and has the same protracted death sentence as me. He did not kill anyone nor was he convicted under a theory of accountability. He was one of the first men to be given life without parole under the "habitual criminal act". Anyone who commits three felonies can be sent to prison indefinitely. Jerry was an armed robber and when caught for the third time, the court threw away the key.

I asked Jerry if he remembered who I was, and squinting across the room he was unable to. Thus, I played the name game with him for a little while. The name game is where I mention all the names of prisoners I knew and thought he may remember to draw a connection to me. He knew everyone I named in detail, however, he still could not figure out who I was. I suppose that is because I was quiet and kept a low profile. I have always been nonsocial but still it was odd he remembered my cellmate very well along with other men I was acquainted with, but not me. Possibly, it was our difference in age or that he was simply going senile.

Eventually, the guards were ready to leave and we were taken to Gate 2. Gate 2 is where all inmates are scrutinized before leaving the institution. Despite all the numerous safeguards, writ guards were told we could not leave. The lieutenant wanted to see the medical permit for Jerry's wheelchair which must be obtained from the Health Care Unit. The man looked half dead and was shackled and handcuffed, but the white shirt was concerned if he was authorized to be in a wheelchair. I noticed even his wheelchair had a lead chain locked to it as if the 72-year-old man may try to wheel himself away. His wheelchair did not even have large wheels for him to use and he had to be pushed. Everyone thought it was ridiculous but the writ guards must follow their orders.

It was about 8 a.m. before we were allowed to pass through the double gates and down the marble staircase to the front door where a van waited for us outside. Jerry had to take an alternative route down an elevator because of his wheelchair. At the van, guards basically had to lift him up onto the bench seat. The van was over a foot off the ground and it was precarious for even me with my shackles on to get in the seat behind Jerry. Stateville has a van where inmates wheelchair-bound can be lifted on a platform and wheeled in without leaving their seat. However, these vans do not have the capacity to fit other people and so two vans instead of one would have been required. We also would have missed Jerry's satirical humor and complaints.

In the van, despite how he looked like he was dying, Jerry had many quips to the amusement of everyone on board. He made fun of how backwards Stateville was, the ludicrous rules guards as well as inmates were told to follow, and various staff. One of the funnier moments came when a lieutenant at the front gate asked the guard driving if he had his driver's license. This opened him up to a litany of jokes. Occasionally, Jerry seemed delirious and even this was humorous. He accused a guard of trying to suffocate him by pulling a seat belt over him. The strap went across his neck and in his feebleness he was not able to move it or unfasten himself. Neither I nor the prisoner next to me could help him out because of our restraints. However, eventually, I was able to direct him to push the red button on the buckle to release the strap. I told him he needed to worry more about Alzheimer's than lung cancer.

Jerry finally put on his glasses to look at me. He now recalled who I was. He was surprised how differently I looked having less hair but especially a lot less muscle. I replied that I was still strong enough to pick him up in his wheelchair over my head and my hair was bountiful compared to "Gollum" and I mimicked the character from the film Lord of the Rings by saying "My precious." However, I thereafter had to admit I was only half the man I once was. I told Jerry how others upon seeing me for the first time after 20 or even 10 years will ask if I contracted cancer or AIDS. He said he remembered how I was one of the strongest men in the penitentiary and was regularly lifting weights. He also remembered how I was one of the few prisoners who did not smoke and how I used to sell him cartons of cigarettes. Cigarettes were once used in the IDOC as currency and I was regularly collecting a lot of them. I did not smoke so I often sold them to Jerry in exchange for commissary goods. Ironically, I may have contributed to his lung cancer.

Jerry complained of feeling very sick from the chemotherapy and how at Stateville's infirmary he was not cared for at all. Neither doctors nor nurses came to see him and he felt like he was left to die in the empty cell. A female guard said there was nothing they could do whereupon Jerry replied they could at least give him something for the pain. Jerry contemplated refusing treatment so he could return to Pontiac, and I told him to man-up. He was already half way through the chemotherapy and he did not need any pampering or morphine.

On the trip to and from the UIC, I mostly looked out the window of the van. I was not as curious as during prior trips and was bored of all the plastic bubble cars, cell phones, and other pervasive modern developments which took place during the last 20 years. I was more interested in the scenes of nature like the autumn foliage. The sky was dark gray with rain threatening and it contrasted with the trees which were red, orange, and gold. I also liked to look at the remaining undeveloped wooded areas and harvested farmland in the far southwestern suburbs. I was also intrigued by the fervent support displayed for presidential running mates Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. Romney had no chance of winning Illinois because of Chicago but the rest of the state was Republican. The signs, stickers, and postings I saw reminded me I somehow had to stay awake to watch the final debate which was to be televised at 8 p.m.

At one of the hospital buildings, we went to the basement where there is a holding room for the UIC's incarcerated clientele and their escorting guards. The hospital has contracts with several IDOC institutions but there was only one inmate there from somewhere other than Stateville. The prisoner was from Pontiac and was very talkative. One of the many things he spoke about was how guards there wrote up prisoners for talking and I was not surprised that he received one of those tickets. I doubt guards wrote up men for conversing at normal tones and imagined he and others were screaming to men many cells or galleries away. I was considering telling him to shut up but then he said something which interested me.

The penitentiary of Pontiac was now not mainly holding prisoners in segregation. There was an entire cell house of protective custody inmates and another of NRC inmates. I began speaking with a guard from the prison and he said there was no room to keep everyone coming into the system at the Northern Receiving Center next to Stateville and these inmates were being bused to Pontiac. He claimed there were 5,000 more prisoners at Cook County Jail who have been sentenced but were being kept there until space opened up. I was very skeptical of this last piece of information because 5,000 was nearly half of the jail's population. Regardless, though, there seemed to be a huge logjam in the system. Personally, I wish the legislature would change criminal and sentencing statutes but I tend to think they would prefer to jam more prisoners in or put the state further in debt defying the governor's plan to close Tamms and Dwight.

I was the first inmate to leave for my doctor appointment at the pain clinic. Two guards escorted me to the building next door and on the way we crossed paths with a number of civilians. One woman shared an elevator with us and I told her she did not have anything to fear. I was not dangerous. She smiled and did not seem uncomfortable or scared, but I sometimes wonder what people think of me being led around wearing shackles, handcuffs and chains. Possibly, my Big Bird suit makes people less apprehensive. Again, I thought of Obama's silly campaign rhetoric and mused those at the hospital believed Romney finally got their feathered friend.

In one of the offices, a nurse took my vitals and asked me to rate my pain level today. They always ask me this using an ambiguous pain scale between 1 and 10. I said I didn't know and the faces on the chart do not help me decide. I said, "Explain to me what a 10 is," and she said, "The most incredible pain you can imagine." I told her I could imagine a lot and this was not useful. Was it like being burned in a lake of fire and stabbed with pitch forks? Was it being tormented at Stateville for the rest of my existence? She was not attractive enough to play with so I just said, "Seven".

I then met two interns who were more specific in their questions of what type of pain I experienced and how the medications worked. One of them was an Asian man studying to be a pharmacist and I asked him about the differences in NSAID medications. He said they were all the same but had different results in different people, which defied logic in my opinion. Possibly, he did not want to go into the molecular distinctions. The female Caucasian woman was more helpful but she began to say she will order that I come back for a cortisone shot and I finished her sentence "in 2014". The prison health care was terrible and very slow. I asked her if it could be done today. She said, "Yes, but we would have to wait an hour."

The two guards I was with were friendly and I ended up talking to them for most of the time. I was not surprised they were interested in my case and I told them about some of the peculiarities of my trial and conviction. When I mentioned how I had just recently turned 18 when my roommate killed the victim, we began to talk about a mentorship program one of the guards worked with. I sensed the guard was not happy just being at the butt end of the criminal justice system and wanted to help prevent adolescents from coming to prison in the first place. It was an honorable goal, but I did not know how effective a mentor could be in the gang ridden ghetto areas of Chicago.

One of the first things I asked the female intern when the subject of a cortisone injection came up is if their supply came from the same pharmacy in Massachusetts causing the meningitis outbreak. She assured me the UIC had a different supplier. I then asked her why she was giving me this waiver to sign. She told me, "There can be other complications such as infection, hitting a nerve, or ..." and I finished for her by saying "or paralysis." "No," she said, and began to explain further but I did not need her to continue because I had read the waiver a number of times before. The procedure went very well and there will be no need for me to sue. In fact, I would like to thank them for being so nice and professional. Nearly all the doctors and interns I have met there except for one queer doctor have been competent and treat me like I was just another patient, and not one from Stateville C.C.

I was hungry when I returned to the holding room after receiving the cortisone injection and began to cautiously open up one of the brown bags holding mystery meat sandwiches. The guard said she was told they taste much better when hot and offered to microwave it for me. I looked at her quizzically and peeled off the green meat to eat only the bread. I noticed the prisoner from Pontiac had some carrot sticks and I asked him for them. Stateville never gives writs anything other than imitation bologna sandwiches. Even the cookies they used to have or juice cartons were gone. It was bread and water just like in the old days. Perhaps they will go back to the black and white prison attire so I will not have to look like Big Bird or a banana anymore.

Jerry returned from his chemo treatment and I told him to wheel himself to the corner of the room. I did not want to be exposed to his radiation. In fact, on the way back I told one of the guards they needed to chain him to the back bumper. The guard said exposure to him cannot be any worse than the water we drink every day, and he may have a point. The water was often orange with what I believed to be rust in the old pipes. There are also rumors of radon at very high levels and all guards I noticed drank bottled water. Despite this I said, "Do you not see that luminescent glow coming off of him? We may as well be sitting next to enriched uranium." Jerry did not have much to say. He was happy to have his Ensure at least until he began to get cramps. I told him to have the guards take off his restraints and put him on the toilet before we left, but he refused. He was going to hold it until he got back to his cell.

In the van leaving back to Stateville, Jerry asked the guard if he had his driver's license which got a number of laughs. However, the last laughs were going to be on him as he complained of needing to shit and for the guard to drive faster. I asked him if the doctors did not give him some adult diapers, but he did not think it was very funny. At the front gate, they would not let us back into the penitentiary because it was shift change time. I do not know why that would matter, but Jerry was furious and cussing out various guards at the gate house. Eventually, the gate was opened and the writ guards quickly tried to get us to the Health Care Unit. The HCU was packed with inmates waiting to see the doctor or to be sent back to their cell houses. In the crowd, I lost sight of Jerry. He apparently had someone wheel him through the chaos to his cell without saying goodbye.

While at the UIC, the talkative prisoner from Pontiac had told Jerry he may have some case law which would release him immediately. According to what he said, if one of the robberies was committed before a certain date, the courts could not find he was a habitual criminal. Jerry was not at all interested and I knew why. He was already 72 years old and was dying of cancer. Even if he lives he had nothing outside of prison of value: no money, no family, no home. He did not even have his health and would need to live in some government funded nursing home which smelled like urine. It is incredible the State of Illinois is even paying for his cancer treatments. It would be more humane if they euthanized him. I was glad to see Jerry again, but I hope soon he is done with this miserable existence.