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Sunday, December 16, 2012

Thanksgiving 2012

Thanksgiving Day is not a holiday I can appreciate in prison. What do I have to be thankful for? Nearly 20 years of my life has been taken from me for a crime I had nothing to do with or even knowledge of. The outlook for me ever being freed is looking not only less likely but less appealing. I have grown old in my years in the dungeons of the Illinois Department of Corrections. The family in my life is dwindling and I long ago ceased looking for my dream girl. I am a solitude person and being alone is not nearly as terrible as the loss of all my hopes and aspirations. Nor is it as bad as the misery I suffer being a captive in what my opinion is the worst maximum security prison in the state. It is rather ironic to me administrators despite what deplorable or oppressive living conditions inmates live in always try to make sure they are fed well on one day of the year. I am not sure how other prisoners feel who have a protracted death sentence as I do, but I think it is a rather paltry gesture.

On Thanksgiving Day, I awoke to find inmates were given crumb cake and rice cereal. Mertz calls the cereal generic Rice Crispies, however, to me they are more like puffed rice. There is no "snap, crackle, and pop" to the cereal prisoners are given here. Contrarily, the rice absorbs milk quickly making it soggy and clump together. The square crumb cake was a special treat for inmates, however, and we are rarely ever served it. The cake was good to eat especially with some peanut butter and a cup of coffee. My portion was rather meager, though, and I wondered if this was just by chance or a precursor to the main meal. I know the IDOC is trying to save money any where it can with an $8 billion debt and well over $100 billion in pension liabilities.

I ate my breakfast as I routinely do while watching the 7 a.m. news. I was disappointed the news reporting was very shallow and superficial this morning. I assumed the networks believed viewers did not care to hear about any serious issues on the holiday. The predominate story was retail sales and shopping. Apparently, this year stores were trying to lure people in a day early. I have always thought Christmas was over commercialized and yet now businesses were so greedy they have even spoiled Thanksgiving Day with their pursuit of a larger cut of consumer sales. I cannot blame capitalism, however, and truly the people at fault are those who partake in the buying sprees. The masses have debased the traditional holiday with their crude, fevered, and self-gratifying purchases.

At least some people still had an appreciation for family and early in the morning visits began being announced. Several names and cell numbers were called out about 8 a.m. These were proceeded by yet more and more inmates. The entire year, I do not recall a day where so many visits were announced. Because Stateville is closest to Chicago, it has many more visitors than any other penitentiary in Illinois. Despite how many people come to visit, the prison is the least hospitable. The visiting room is the most austere and uncomfortable. The rules are very strict and visits are limited to two hours except on holidays, weekends, and certain lockdowns when family and friends can only stay an hour. I am glad the warden this year finally opened up a second visiting room for inmates at the NRC and this has cut down the crowds and noise levels somewhat. However, many visitors still wait for hours.

My parents came to see me the day before, and never come on holidays or weekends. It is not worth the aggravation of processing or the long wait to see me for only an hour's time. On Wednesday, they expected to get a two hour visit but they were forced to wait two hours, limiting our visit to an hour anyway. Visitation ends at 2:30 p.m. regardless of when you arrive or actually get to see the person you've been waiting for. Fortunately, they do not have to drive too far to this prison.

Since October, my cellmate has been sick. Initially, he had a severe cold which almost seemed to have the markings of the flu. He had body aches, a cough, sneezes, and a running nose. The old man at times laid in bed with toilet paper stuffed in his nose much of the day. He looked miserable, and with the tissue jammed in his nose making it almost as wide as his face, looked ridiculous. One evening, a nurse laughed at him and a guard was to joke that he had a nosebleed from me hitting him. I mainly thought how I hoped I did not catch whatever he has. In confined quarters, it is almost impossible not to catch a virus from your cellmate. Mid this month, my cellmate's cold symptoms seemed to fade but he was still sick. This week, he went to the prison's Health Care Unit twice with chest pains and a general feeling of malaise. A doctor gave him an EKG and an injection of some kind of medication to his chest even he does not know what it was. Despite his ailments, however, at the announcement of chow, he sprightly came off his bunk and got ready to get his Thanksgiving meal.

Thanksgiving has virtually no meaning for prisoners. It has no religious, historical, cultural, or other significance. It is just "Turkey Day" or a day when they can stuff their faces with good food. All year round inmates are typically fed distasteful or meager servings of food. The menu usually consists of processed turkey-soy which is boiled and made into most meals. For example, spaghetti, sloppy joes, chili, stew, or cheeseburger macaroni is made with the product. On occasion when prisoners do not get soy-turkey, they often are served mystery meat cold cuts, sausage, turkey or chicken soy patties. Side dishes which go with the main meal are typically not very appetizing either. Some prisoners will go to chow simply to socialize, get out of their cells, or to eat the dessert, if it is cookies. On occasion, I will simply go to bring back some bread to make a couple of peanut butter sandwiches in my cell.

My cell house was the first to be fed in the penitentiary and chow lines began to go out before 9 a.m. Nearly everyone comes out of their cell for the Thanksgiving meal and it takes a long time for the entire prison to be fed. When I was let out of my cell, I quickly passed the guard keying open cell doors to avoid the congestion on the gallery. At the far end where there were a few people, I went to Mertz's cell and found him awake and dressed. I was not certain he would be going because I knew he worked the midnight shift in the kitchen and had to be tired. I complained to Mertz about my small square of crumb cake and told him I held him personally responsible. He told me he now only does diet trays and this was why he was one of the few people called to work. All the regular trays of cereal and cake were made the night before, leaving just the irregulars to do.

Mertz has a Mexican cell mate I like to razz on occasion. He seemed in a rather good mood standing by the bars waiting to be let out, and I asked him what he was so happy about. Thanksgiving was a holiday for Caucasians. What did the Indians give the Pilgrims but grief? "You think we could not have grown corn, potatoes, or other crops without your help?" I asked him. "Thanksgiving was a brief respite in the bloody hostilities between the colonists and Indians and this was why they cleared the land of all your kind, leaving you on reservations or south of the border. Yet you have the gall to cross the Rio Grande and give the white man more troubles?" He smiled during my caffeine-induced diatribe but finally interjected to tell me he was not an illegal alien and was given a green card. I said, "Show me your papers." He looked at me oddly and then laughed. Despite making fun of Mertz's cellmate, I get along with him well and he was once my neighbor before he had to swap cells with a high escape risk inmate.

I was glad to get out of the cell house not just to get away from the crowd but the heat. The Chicago metro area has been experiencing coincidentally an Indian Summer with temperatures greatly above normal for this time of year. Thanksgiving Day produced a 70 degree high in the south suburbs. While this was pleasant autumn weather, it made the building excessively hot. The penitentiary's heating system had been turned on and it was about 90 inside or more, depending on what floor a prisoner was celled on. Because heat rises, those on the 5th floor were most uncomfortable. The men on the upper galleries have fans on and spend most of their day in boxers or shorts. Even I did not put a shirt on until guards began to key open doors on the gallery. The coffee I drank with breakfast also did not help.

The chow hall was loud and crowded as I had anticipated. In the inner serving area, food was piled on styrofoam trays until they could almost not close. Prisoners were given sweet potatoes, collard greens, stuffing, gravy, and a choice of pork or turkey. When I passed my tray to the inmate serving meat I told him I wanted both. He gave me a look of disagreement and then put a tiny portion of turkey on my tray. I said, "That's it? Get into the spirit of the holiday." I think he was just toying with me but in any event he gave me a good portion of both turkey and pork. At the end of the line I was given another tray of salad, a couple of bread rolls, and a small prepackaged slice of pumpkin pie. Typically, at lunch prisoners are offered nothing but water, however, yesterday we were handed two small cartons of juice.

In a chow hall, I sat at a table to place my two trays into a clear plastic bag to carry back to the cell house. On Thanksgiving and Christmas inmates are given take out meals. While I was tying my bag up, an obese inmate told me to give him my pumpkin pie and said a fitness junkie did not need any dessert. I replied that a fat man especially does not, let alone two portions. Then I began to tell Mertz how in the National Geographic magazine I had just read a large segment about elephants. Most of it pertained to the ivory trade and slaughter of the animals simply just for their tusks. I asked the fat man where his tusks were, and before I could finish my line Mertz said, "Female elephants do not have any." The fat man was not happy but I told him I would make up for it at Christmas. In the magazine it said elephants like toys with food hidden inside them.

Prisoners were in the chow hall a long time waiting to go back. During the time, I brought up how yesterday on the news I heard the governor terminated the contract with the guards union. The contract had expired months ago and the union had been in extensive negotiations to have it renewed. The union believes they have so much clout they were unwilling to make any concessions and apparently overplayed their hand. I was surprised and impressed Governor Pat Quinn could display such leadership and independence. Typically, Democrats in Illinois live in fear of the powerful union organizations. I told Mertz I hope the IDOC will follow the same path as Hostess which is now liquidating its company because the bakers and Teamsters unions were unwilling to make sacrifices so the business could be profitable. However, I know the prison industrial complex cannot be disassembled so easily, if at all. With the contract being terminated, I did not know what this specifically meant for guards, prisons, and inmates alike. Mertz opined it will just mean guards will not have such lavish wages, benefits and job security. I agreed and thought also the governor's planned closures will now proceed without impediment. It was not going to be a happy Thanksgiving for guards, and I am sure they would strike if they were allowed to do so.

After dropping off my trays in my cell, I immediately went back out to go on my health care pass. Along with me came "the elephant" and we were both going to see the same doctor. The doctor was a very little Eastern Indian woman who was the prison's psychiatrist. The big man went into her office first and he was gone for a long time while I waited in the holding cage. Fortunately, it was not crowded or noisy there on the holiday. I was actually surprised anyone was at the Health Care Unit except for a small skeleton crew. As time ticked by I began to worry that I may miss the gym line and wondered what the fat man had to say to the psychiatrist. I knew he was on some "happy pills" for bipolar disorder and thought this could be why he seemed so sensitive to people's fat jokes or other put downs. When he came out, I asked him if he told the woman his entire life story.

The Eastern Indian woman is ugly but what she lacks in appearance she easily makes up for in personality. She is a very friendly and nice person which was probably refreshing to the prisoner who just left her office. I personally tend to think people who are excessively nice are superficial or misleading people. Possibly this is a reflection of my own negative and skeptical personality in part. The doctor began by wishing me a happy Thanksgiving, and immediately I questioned her whether Eastern Indians commemorated the America holiday. She assured me they did, but I do not know what she says is truth or fiction. We talked for about ten minutes mainly about my medications. As always, I told her I wanted Melatonin rather than an antihistamine to help me sleep. This always begets the same reply: Waxford, the prison's insurance company will not pay for it. I told her how hot and dry it was in the cell house giving me severe dry mouth and sinuses. She told me I should place a wet cloth over my face while sleeping and that would act like a humidifier. There is no way I could sleep with that on my face, and even if I could devise a way to prevent it from falling off I would feel like I was being water boarded. Then the doctor gave me some Eastern Indian meditation tips which I also thought were absurd. Bored, I asked if I could see one of her unique little shoes which seemed like they were crafted in India by some Keebler Elves. She seemed to be flattered by my comments and gave me her shoe to examine. I always think of Eastern Indian products as being cheap, but I was impressed by the craftsmanship. Before I went too autistic on her, I gave her back her shoe and left her office.

On the way back into the cell house, the sergeant told me to hurry up because the gym line was just about to be sent out. A guard quickly let me into my cell and I changed clothes and brought a bottle of water with me. I was glad Mertz came to the gym but he spent most of his time on the telephone and then talking on the bleachers rather than working out. Many prisoners waited to use the two of four phones which were working. Like Mertz, a lot of men wanted to call their families on Thanksgiving Day. I did not care to do so and was still in "Batman mode" preparing for battle against the Joker and other thugs of Gotham City. Unfortunately, nearly all the machine weights in the gym were broken and I had to use a lot of improvisation. I also spent time running in circles for my cardio exercise. The man who last week had told me my blog was "nefarious" largely avoided me until he wanted my attention to his "sprints." I would not want the inmate to think I was even more wicked and mean-spirited, but his sprints were as fast as my moderate jogging: he should be ashamed of himself.

The "Dark Knight" was exhausted, hungry, and his lower back felt like giving out after exercising 2-1/2 hours nonstop, but he still had to bathe and wash his clothes out of his toilet upon returning from the gym. My cellmate wanted to watch the Houston Texans - Detroit Lions football game while I did so, and I put the game on my television. Bobby has a larger flat screen digital television, but there are no speakers. All speakers are removed from TVs sold here since about 2003. Also by putting the game on my TV he could watch it more easily from sitting on his box by the bars. Bathing out of a sink and hand washing clothes out of a toilet are not the easiest or quickest tasks. I was not able to sit down and eat for a couple of hours.

I only ate half of my Thanksgiving Day meal and saved the rest for dinner. In the meantime, I wrote a letter to a pen pal and made out 3 Christmas cards. All of my mail had to be sent out with a money voucher which would delay it even further than normal. My mail typically takes a few weeks to reach its destination because it sits in the prison mail room or in one of the offices of Internal Affairs. Even with my sending out the cards and letter on Thanksgiving Day, there was a good chance they would arrive after Christmas. Readers may wonder why the posts, and replies to comments or emails are so late. It is because both my incoming and outgoing mail is tremendously delayed. I wish I had direct access to the Internet, but I must rely on snail mail, which almost literally moves at the pace of a snail.

I completed my writing around 7 p.m. and thought I would relax for the rest of the evening by eating and watching television. There was no point going out for supper on Thanksgiving. Not only did I have ample food leftover from lunch but kitchen workers were serving mystery meat cold cuts and a distasteful soup. I perused the television stations for a long time and could find nothing to interest me. Eventually like most men on the holiday, I watched football. Personally if I could, I would spend the time with family, a wife, or children, but I did not have any. Instead, it was Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Rob Grankowski, Bill Bellichick and the rest of the New England Patriots I had to keep me company. They did not disappoint me either, crushing the New York Jets overwhelmingly. The Patriots are one of my favorite pro-football teams, and I thought about the coincidence that they were just outside of Boston, Massachusetts and not far from where the Pilgrims landed in the Mayflower in 1620 at Plymouth Rock.

On Thanksgiving, I had little to nothing to be thankful for. However, the holiday was not without meaning, and before I went to sleep I thought about the extreme hardship the pilgrims and other European settlers had. The early colonists did not find a welcoming new land in America. It was a very difficult life where food was scarce and hostilities with the natives were common. Austerity, strife, disease, pain, and death met the first English colonists. In fact, in the first year, half of the pilgrims died. Those who crossed the Atlantic and persevered were a rugged and determined people. Freedom in the new world meant everything to them and it is those values I can greatly admire. I have endured, struggled, and suffered as a prisoner for more than half my life. In fact, since I was 18, I have persevered and I continue onward because justice and freedom mean so much to me. I may have no thanks for my wretched existence, but I can in part appreciate the holiday of Thanksgiving.