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Thursday, January 10, 2013

Big John & Crazy James -- December 9, 2012

Since my cellmate died, I have continued to go through difficult transitions. Immediately after the traumatic day, I was assigned a new cellmate. The man was mildly insane and was greatly disturbing to live with. For better or worse, I had been confined to a cell with Bobby for nearly a year and had become accustomed to living with him. Any new cellmate would have been an abrupt and upsetting change, but the disheveled crazy man was the last thing I needed in my life at the time. By chance, I was sent to the mental health care unit and spoke to staff there about my troubles. They were sympathetic and arranged for me to be moved into a cell with a man I was comfortable with. Although I appreciated the accommodation, it was not easy acclimating to the new cell and cellmate. I am only now beginning to settle in.

While Bobby was at St. Joe's Hospital and I was unaware if he was going to return, I asked the cell house sergeant if he would call the assignment officer and request a prisoner nicknamed "Big John" to be assigned to the cell with me. The assignment officer almost never grants specific requests and it is a reason for the great tension and hostility cellmates experience at Stateville. I almost never ask for anything from staff and mainly just want to be left alone. However, a cellmate has an enormous impact on my life and I thought I had nothing to lose by making the request. If I did not ask, I certainly would be assigned a cellmate by random selection. At Stateville, the odds of being assigned a compatible cellmate was definitely not in my favor.

Big John is a Caucasian inmate who was transferred from Menard C.C. to Stateville not long ago. However, during this time I have gotten to know him fairly well. He has been in prison for about a decade after being convicted for 1st degree murder. More interesting to me is that before his arrest, he lived in the SW suburb of Tinley Park, not far from where I lived in my late teens. He has been through Frankfort, Mokena, and New Lenox on many occasions. I was surprised to learn we both frequented a German restaurant in Frankfort called Chef Klaus' Bier Stube, and a few other places. Big John has spoken about being a part owner in Pole Cats, a strip club in Bridgeport and a bar across from the mall in Midlothian. I have never frequented either place but I have been to the mall. Inmates speculate he is inflating his past which is not uncommon here and most think he was a truck driver and a bouncer. Big John is in his early 40s and has a shaved head, thick goatee, and sideburns. Although he has lost an incredible amount of weight and people comment his nickname should be changed, I can imagine him throwing people out of bars. Loose skin on his body hangs down in folds and he looks like a successful contestant on the TV show "The Biggest Loser," where obese people compete to lose weight.

Big John does not get along with his cellmate and he has been trying to move since he was put in the cell. From what I am told, they rarely speak except to argue or exchange threats. It is possible they are on the verge of serious physical aggression, although I tend to believe his cellmate will not cross that line. His cellmate is a good sized black man, but he has a back injury much more severe than my own. Unlike me, he underwent surgery and is not the better for doing so. He moves around clumsily and I have seen him stumble or fall several times, sometimes in great pain. Furthermore, he has a kitchen job and most prisoners who have assignments in maximum security penitentiaries of Illinois tend to avoid trouble because of fear of losing the job. Big John may now be Small John, or at least Smaller John, but he would make quick work out of his cellmate, particularly if he once threw violent drunks out the doors of bars and clubs.

The night I returned from Seg, John sarcastically asked the sergeant if there was still a medical hold on Bobby's bunk. My cellmate was dead and there was definitely no possibility of him returning. His question may have been insensitive but he was anxious to get out of the cell he was in and knew bunks were quickly filled. The sergeant said in the morning he would call to clear the move with the assignment officer. Apparently though, the assignment officer already had other plans and early in the morning I was greeted by an old disheveled Caucasian man with long grey straggly hair and a beard. The man introduced himself as James, but to others in the cell house he was known as a nutcase and called various derogatory names.

James looked like a homeless man who lived in a cardboard box under some city viaduct. When spoken to it was obvious he was deranged and one can or possibly two cans short of a 6-pack. The person lived on the gallery for about a month and was the subject of much gossip. I also had spoken to him directly on several occasions when he walked by my cell or when I went to see Anthony. The vagrant lived next door and would often try to engage me in conversation. I thought I was a "bug magnet" until I learned he tried talking with everyone. His cellmate worked much of the day and was gone leaving James alone. Furthermore, when he returned, he refused to engage the crazy old man and would put his headphones on to block out his incessant, incoherent chatter. Later, I learned his cellmate repeatedly complained about the man and when his old cellmate returned from Seg, James was being given the boot.

Although I did not know James very long and only spoke to him on a few occasions before he was moved into my cell, he basically told me his entire life story. James was in prison for committing an arson double homicide. The disheveled, gaunt, old man muttered at length about how he liked to light fires and one day he just happened to light a fire to someone's home. He did not mean to kill anyone, he just got a thrill from fire and the bigger it was the more exciting it was to him. James plead guilty and admitted this all to the presiding judge who, of course, sentenced him to natural life without the possibility of parole. In Illinois, sentencing statutes mandate LWOP for double homicides, but I doubt the judge would have given him a more lenient sentence even if the law did not exist. James was clearly deranged and was a danger to society even if he had no intention to harm anyone. Possibly, a mental hospital would have been more appropriate, however the State of Illinois, along with most states of the union, prefer to simply lock up crazy people. The vast prison industrial complex is the cure all for all of society's problems.

I learned not only about James' criminal case but his health problems he was more than happy to share to strangers. When showers were available to inmates on my gallery he would always come out. He did not bathe but went downstairs to socialize or wander the gallery looking for someone to talk to. I rarely went to shower and he would find me alone in the cell reading or writing. Abruptly, he told me on one occasion how he defecates blood and had liver disease. Before his arrest, he was a heavy drinker and the mass quantity of alcohol he drank destroyed his liver. Why does this man tell me these things? Why does he even talk to me at all? As the man continued to ramble on in a low but quick pace, I began to imagine him as a homeless man in some shabby clothes wandering the streets of Chicago with a masked bottle of whiskey or wine, occasionally lighting fires not only for warmth but because it gave him some type of psychotic thrill. The guard finally came by and I told him to chase the homeless man away from my cell bars. The guard just laughed but James got the hint and went to bother someone else.

When James was at my cell with his property the morning after my cellmate died, I was not pleased. For a moment I thought it was a practical joke. However it was not and the insane man was here to torment me. James was very restless when moving into my cell and chattered, almost nonstop. He mumbled and I did not always hear what he said but what I did hear largely did not make any sense or was repetitive. Like his crime, he was not directly violent in my opinion. This man may light the cell on fire but I did not feel any sense of danger from him. He was actually very friendly and offered me various things in his box including a bottle of dandruff shampoo the staff at the H.C.U. had given him for his dirty long gray hair and beard. The man may be harmless, but he was deranged. His psychotic or erratic behavior and incessant rambling was disturbing. I was glad when a guard told me I had to go to the H.C.U. and I left with great speed.

I do not know if it was coincidence or the psychiatrist made me an appointment to assess my mindset after my cellmate had died, but it was good timing. Since the prison became aware I had autism, I am given appointments to see the psychiatrist once every other month. The meetings are usually unproductive and worthless because what I need most are living accommodations, not talk. Sometimes I wonder if the psychiatrists are mainly there just to monitor people with psychotic or other mental issues to make sure they are not about to snap. However, I was pleased this time to see staff were actually concerned and willing to try and help me be moved. They have no authority over the placement officer, though, and I was skeptical if anything could be done.

On my return from the H.C.U., the lieutenant got my attention. No, he did not have a new cellmate for me but some new state clothes. For over a year, I have been requesting new clothes from the clothing room. Stateville is trying to save money by not processing any clothing requests from inmates. Instead, they have put IDOC-made clothes on the commissary and expect prisoners to buy them. This is outrageous in my opinion and I refuse to do so. My socks may have lost elasticity and have holes in them, my boxer shorts and T-shirts may also be falling apart as well as my state blues, but I am not paying for new ones. Prices have skyrocketed at the prison store and the reason was not simply inflation, but their desire to make a large profit at inmates' expense. When the lieutenant gave me the brown bag of clothes, he said something like how he knew I had been through a rough time, but at least I now had some new drawers. Yes, I was glad to finally get some clothes, but I was headed upstairs to be locked in a cage with a dirty, diseased, and insane man with epilepsy who was probably going to make me go bonkers.

My new cellmate did not know how to tie his television to the air vent above his bunk. There is no table or counter in my cell and James did not know what to do. Thus, it fell on me to do the work for him and it was a priority. I thought the quicker I could tie his TV up, the quicker he would stop pacing the cell and bothering me. The TV is the ultimate babysitter for children and adult prisoners alike. Indeed, the mounted television fulfilled its design of mindless entertainment, and my cellmate finally jumped onto his bunk and left me alone. I thought about how distracting James would be if he did not have some way to occupy his time and was glad this homeless man even had a TV. He did not have any money and I noticed the TV was a state loan. Once upon a time, the IDOC gave televisions to indigent convicts which were left behind by freed men or had been confiscated. It was uncommon and I reasoned the guards at Menard made sure he got one for the same reason I was eager to tie the television up for him.

My new cellmate did not have much of anything. Both of his boxes were unusually bare. Typically, prisoners at least have some books, magazines, or writing supplies, but he had none of these. Later, I discovered why. The man could not read or write. He asked me if I would send out a Christmas card to his estranged sister for him. I was not sure what to say and neither did he, ironically. Thus, I had to ask him some questions about their relationship so I could write a brief paragraph to her. I also had to fill out the money voucher to go with his card for postage as well as his commissary order form. The IDOC gives inmates a stipend of $10 a month but deducts from it for any days the prison is on lockdown. James was very upset the prison had not given him the full $10 and continuously told me the reduced amount of state pay. I had a pair of gym shoes I was planning to throw out at the end of the year. However, I gave them to him. He wore the same size shoe and was very happy.

Other prisoners, including Big John, thought it was funny that I was helping out the old crazy man. They have this perception I am a cold and uncaring person. Since Bobby died, some men I occasionally talk with have made crude jokes insinuating I killed my cellmate or was aloof to his dying. Anthony, who is aware of the reason for my conviction, albeit false, said just like I left the victim to go off to his death, I simply went back to sleep and rolled over when my cellmate was dying of a heart attack. Other prisoners chimed in that I was probably knowingly in the cell with a dead man for hours until I went out to yard. I was not in the mood for their jokes but did respond when Anthony made a gesture as if I was smothering my cellmate with a pillow and telling him to shut up. Anthony was convicted of strangling a woman, so I wrapped my right arm around my neck and pushed up with the left hand while making a choking sound to mock him.

A few inmates are serious and think I should have been nicer to my cellmate. The rumor that came back to me was that rigor mortis had already set in when his body was found, inferring he was dead before I left to yard in the morning. I do not know when my cellmate died and I do not care to speculate. A few people have asked me when I think he died and I refuse to guess. If he died when I was still in the cell, I do not want to know. Anthony seems to believe he died in the middle of the night when I heard him having a nightmare. This may be true, however, I do not want to encourage any more gossip or jokes.

On Friday last week, a guard came to my cell and told me to pack up my property. I was being moved to the other side of the gallery with Mertz. I was surprised not only because I did not expect the assignment officer to make any accommodation for me but because I had spoken to the sergeant specifically about Big John. Regardless, I was relieved to get away from the nutcase and quickly packed up my belongings. Oddly, James was upset I was leaving him, despite how I frequently tried to ignore him. Stranger still was how he pleaded with me to ask guards to let me stay. No, I was not staying and as soon as the guard opened my cell door, I quickly moved my property. Although moving to a different cell with yet another different person took a little while to adjust to, I am much more comfortable with Mertz than Crazy James.


  1. I feel so bad for you, Paul, and actually had tears rolling down my face as I read this post. It is a crime for states to put the mentally ill in prisons rather than pay for proper care and treatment at mental hospitals. Yes, James is a "nutcase," but he is a human being with grave psychological problems, probably since childhood.

    Your compassion for James is laudable, and I wish I could give you a big hug. I also understand those who joke about people like James, and only hope it is their way of dealing with a situation they realize is hopeless.

  2. There you saw it paul...anthony mertz showing his true colors. He's a killer don't forget. I believe you are not. His damning evidence was real and physically linking. I don't understand why you talk to him. He's a human being I get that was his innocent victim. Your reaction in that you didn't find it funny when he did his stupid gesture was real. He doesn't give a f-ck about human life. Maybe in that circumstance it wasn't the same emotional reason u felt for my reason(s) but nonetheless is was tasteless and classless. The bottom line is instinctively u reacted negatively. And rightfully so. He's such a nice misunderstood man tho! I'm sorry about your cellmate I really am. Peace

  3. Fascinating blog. Im in the UK and your case outrages me. If the person you leant your car to bé acquitted of murDer how on earth can your supposed 'crime' not bé appealled.

    The us prison industriial complex seems a byword for cruelty and i sSupect many are incarcerated simply to justify costs that burden taxpayers.

    Also outraged that you have to fight for new clothes - even underpants.

    Great youve got this blog. Sue Basko is brilliant isnt she?
    Will check back another time and have retweeted your details so I hope you get some more readers!
    In meantime look on brightside. You are not in hideous solitary confinement.
    God Bless

  4. Thanks for showing compassion to James. Neither of you belong in stateville.

  5. James wanted you to stay because he is probably accustomed to being treated like garbage by people who have zero kindness. You on the other hand, despite your vapid political ideology, clearly have decency and were raised right. Thank you for writing for as long as you have, you are an inspiration and this blog has allowed you to transcend your environment through the impact of your words.


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