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Friday, January 4, 2013

The Death of My Cellmate -- December 7, 2012

Tuesday morning I went to the small yard to exercise. The yard is basically a dog run for prisoners to run back and forth on. It consists of two concrete basketball courts surrounded by cyclone fencing topped with wound razor wire. If men are not playing basketball, there is little else to do. A couple of steel tables were added to the yard and some men will play dominos, cards, or chess on them. Others simply go to get out of their cells, stand around or walk in circles. They socialize amongst themselves or yell to the men on the other small yard which is nearby. Typically, I avoid the small yard because there is nothing for me to do and I dislike being confined in  small spaces with people. However, I made an exception because I thought few people would go outside on the chilly December morning and I sought to change up my workout program.

No more than 20 prisoners went out to the small yard, but it was more than I expected. Despite this, I was not going to alter my plans. For the first half hour, I was going to do a high intensity cardiovascular workout which included court sprints as well as various other exercises. The next half hour I planned to do strength exercises using my own body weight. When I finished, I would walk in circles by myself or with Steve who had come out with the line. While I was doing chin ups, I heard two thunderous rifle shots. Jug Head and a few other inmates near me speculated where the shots came from. In my opinion, they did not originate from the cell house or from a gun range which is a few blocks away from Stateville. I guessed the shots were from the F House yard.

Not long thereafter, I saw the sergeant charging down the walk towards the yard gate. Prisoners were assuming the penitentiary was being placed on lockdown for whatever occurred to cause the rifle to be shot. However, the sergeant yelled, "Modrowski! Modrowski! Come to the gate." A black inmate commented, "Something must have happened to Bobby," referring to my cellmate who had just returned from the hospital. I met with the sergeant at the gate and he told me to come with him. He then asked for my ID card and asked about my cellmate. I told him that he was sleeping when I left, and then I asked if he had died. The sergeant did not reply.

In the cell house, I was locked in the holding cage with several other inmates. They were all cell house workers except for my neighbor who was leaving on a health care pass. From the cage, I could see a lot of medical and security staff around my cell on the 2nd floor. Guards, white shirts, nurses, the medical director, a major and others were present. My neighbor told me that Bobby was found unresponsive and may be dead. He said that earlier they were trying to revive him, but they were just going through redundant protocol.

While in the cage observing all the commotion, I thought about how my cellmate seemed fine when I went to sleep the night before. Bobby was not awake when I left for yard, but I just assumed he was sleeping late. On Sunday, he had returned from the hospital after having a stent implanted in a blocked artery. He seemed to have gone through a great deal and moved about slowly, obviously weak and exhausted. However, after having a heart attack and going through the medical procedure, I thought this was normal. Thus, I was stunned when I saw Bobby pulled out on a gurney and covered with a cloth.

Bobby's body was slowly carted down the gallery and stairs. All the inmates on 4 gallery watched with many using their plastic mirrors to follow him. The men in the cage with me also watched and the typically noisy building was quiet. It was like a funeral procession and even people who did not know him paid their respects to the fellow prisoner. Inmates at Stateville may come from various walks in life but they are all united in captivity. Considering nearly every prisoner has natural life or its equivalent, I tend to believe they are even more united in death. All of us were going to die in prison and be wheeled off some day.

After his body was gone, the lieutenant escorted me to Internal Affair's main offices. Any time a prisoner's cellmate dies, they are questioned by the penitentiary's investigative unit. I did not have to ask the lieutenant where we were headed. I have been incarcerated nearly 2 decades and knew standard procedures. I was not at any fault, but in my mind I was thinking I should have checked on my cellmate before leaving the cell. I always try to be considerate and quiet, however, when my cellmate is sleeping. Furthermore, I thought he needed the extra rest while recovering. The best thing I could do was to be especially courteous.

On the way to the security offices, I talked with the lieutenant. I expressed some of my thoughts while walking. He told me I should not have any regrets. Sometimes, he said, it is just time for someone to go. He commented that he thought my cellmate should have stayed in the prison infirmary for a little while after returning from the hospital. Possibly, he  would have been more closely monitored. I questioned whether that would have happened at the H.C.U. The infirmary is notorious amongst prisoners for its neglect and inhospitable environment. Many inmates think it is very unpleasant and a place of disease, decay, and death.

I was surprised the lieutenant mentioned concern he or some of his staff would be held accountable. I told him if anyone was to blame it was medical staff who did not treat his ailments seriously. None of the guards did anything wrong in my opinion. In fact, one guard was concerned enough to ask me how my cellmate was doing after his return and said he would be extra vigilant and try to look out for him. Later, I learned this same correctional officer was to discover my cellmate after a nurse walked right by his cell with his medications claiming he refused them. The lieutenant said, regardless, there is always a scapegoat even when shit just happens.

At the offices of I.A., I sat on a hard wood bench in the waiting room. For some reason, I.A. always keeps a radio on in there. Some prisoners speculate the intelligence unit has eavesdropping equipment that can separate background noise from conversation. The radio noise may dupe inmates into thinking they can talk without being overheard. Possibly, however, the radio has a less devious role. It may simply be to put prisoners at ease before being questioned. If that was the case, they should make the waiting room less austere. Currently, the radio was not dialed in properly and was emitting static. I did not care, however. My cellmate had just died and I was at the mercy of my captors. I was numb and despondent.

A few members of I.A. came and went through the doors while I was waiting. One of them was a female guard I had known since she began working at Stateville. Upon seeing me on the bench, she came over to talk to me. I was surprised to see her in the I.A.'s office and asked if she was now working for them. I was informed she just began last month and I amusingly inquired if she was going to be my interrogator. She smiled and said no, another person would be. I continued to engage her in a little banter which I am usually unable to do because she is rarely seen. I thought this was probably for best because even though she had gained some weight, she was still a cute woman. I never liked seeing her working in the zoo and was initially concerned about her safety or being continually harassed. The assignment at I.A. would probably be a good way for her to use her intelligence rather than brawn and stay away from convicts. Before she left, she asked me what my preference of music was. I really did not care at the moment, so she turned to a country music station which probably was what she liked. I thought she was a country girl.

Eventually, a large Hispanic man told me to come with him. We went up a flight of stairs to what was a large partially renovated room. In the far corner was what seemed to be a mock prison cell. It had a property box next to a mattress with a dummy under a blanket. I looked at it quizzically attempting to discern what its purpose was and concluded it was used as an exercise program. I sat at the other side of the room beside a personalized desk while the man typed on a computer. On a file cabinet behind me was yet another radio, and oddly, gospel music was playing. The man commented how he hated it and I said I was wondering if it was his taste in music. Apparently, the desk and room were used by many people.

My interrogation was more like a casual routine questioning than an intense strategic grilling. The man began by saying, "Obviously you know why you are here," and he made some basic inquiries which I expected. "Where were you when the body was found? When did you go to sleep, awake, and what was your cellmate doing at those times? How long were you cellmates? What was your relationship like?" The main focus of his questioning, however, pertained to Bobby's health problems and his medical treatment or lack thereof. The man from I.A. sought specific information on this subject and I attempted to provide it, even giving him specific dates or time frames. A couple of phone calls broke up the Q and A and although I could not hear what the caller was saying, it seemed apparent that preliminary information was being reported back to him. Sometimes, there were other pauses as he typed on the computer a summary of what I had told him.

The summary of my statements was printed and he asked if I would sign it.  I am always very suspicious, if not fearful, of police fabricating or twisting my statements since the interrogating officer in my criminal case did so. I read over what was printed very carefully and pointed out several spelling errors, but most importantly a sentence which was ambiguous about when my cellmate was complaining of chest pains. In pen, he crossed out the sentence and reworded it. Satisfied, I then signed the statement. Every defense lawyer will tell a client never to speak to police and that everything said will only be used against them. However, in this circumstance, I did not foresee how I was a suspect in any crime. The man conducting the interview thanked me for my cooperation, but told me I still must be sent to Segregation until the investigation was complete. He went on to say, "Hopefully, it will only be for a few days."

I knew I was going to Seg as soon as I saw my cellmate wheeled away. It is standard procedure for all inmates whose cellmates died to be placed in Seg under investigation status, regardless of circumstances. Prisoners remain in Seg anywhere from 3 to 30 days until they are cleared of any foul play. An autopsy is typically performed and the coroner must give his report. The state police as well as Internal Affairs had to conduct their investigations and come to a conclusion. In some cases it is a redundant and absurd formality. Lately, the platitude "it is what it is" has become popular and although I think it is a stupid comment, it seemed to apply.

The cell house lieutenant after my questioning placed me in handcuffs and took me to the Roundhouse. The Roundhouse is a huge round domed building which houses about 500 inmates. They yell, scream, bang bars and doors, and make a cacophony of other noises which echo around the circular structure nearly around the clock. The building is also filthy, debilitated, and roach infested. Being trapped with the hordes of roaches reminded me of the horror movie "Creepshow" where a meticulously clean scientist is overrun by roaches and eaten alive. However, what I dreaded the most was being trapped in a cell with one of the violent, mentally disturbed or deplorably filthy men who are known to reside in F House. All the cell houses have these types of convicts, but the Roundhouse and particularly Seg had more of them.

Just outside of the Roundhouse, I was locked in one of two small holding cages. I was kept there for a few hours while staff tried to figure out where to put me and a couple of other inmates. Apparently, Seg was filled to capacity and men had to be released to make room for new arrivals. Stateville has decreased its segregation capacity and F House is mostly general population now. Still, I tend to believe the approximately 150 bunks are more than adequate to fill the penitentiary's needs. Many prisoners who are not a threat and have committed minor rule violations are sent to Seg. There are other punishments inmates can be given in lieu of confinement. A rumor is afloat that administrators are considering confining some rule violators in their cell without moving them as space becomes a premium in the IDOC, and I think this is a practical solution.

In the cage next to me was a Hispanic prisoner and I inquired why he was being placed in segregation. He told me it was for a fist fight and I immediately deduced the fight was the cause for the two gun shots heard on the small yard outside of C House. The man confirmed my suspicion, so I asked what the fight was about. He told me it was over a basketball game they were playing on the yard. I scrutinized his face and it was a little red. I told him that by the look of it he seemed to have won, for whatever that was worth. Fighting over a basketball game was rather immature, in my opinion, but I kept that to myself.

Guards working in the Roundhouse were curious about my cellmate who had died and several came to talk to me. They asked me how he died, his age, what his general health was, as well as who he was. My cellmate has the very common last name of Johnson, and this did no good in guessing so they asked for a physical description to figure out if they ever had met him before. The guards expressed how stupid it was that I had been sent to Seg under the circumstances. Amongst themselves they debated the mandatory segregation of all prisoners whose cellmates died, and speculated that I could be in the unit for three days.

A couple of hours passed when the shift commander came to see me and return my ID card. The white woman with short auburn hair seemed empathetic to my situation. However, she repeated what I already knew: it was procedure to place men whose cellmates died in Seg for investigation. When I heard her say "investigation," I remembered that prisoners are allowed to have all their property. I asked her if I could be sent at least some of my things while I was in Seg so I would not be left in a barren cell with nothing but the clothes on my back. She told me a lock had been placed on my cell and no one was allowed to go in there except the police, but she said she'd get me a "start up bag". The guards in the interlock were not too enthused about getting one for me and the major had to strongly insist it be done. The guards were lazy and they were already looking forward to going home, their shift being almost over.

Eventually prisoners were moved to create bunk space in segregation. I was apprehensive walking toward the cell and did not know who or what type of cellmate I was assigned. I imagined the worst, but was surprised when the door opened and I knew the inmate inside. His name is Al Oliver and he is the same man I wrote about in "Defending the Damned." Oliver was represented by Marijane Placek, a public defender in the former capital litigation unit at the Cook County Public Defender's Office for a cop killing in Chicago. Unfortunately, I knew more about Oliver's case than I did him. I only spoke to him on a few occasions prior and he was a stranger for the most part.

Oliver seemed pleased I was to be his cellmate and possibly we both worried about who we would be trapped with in a box. Almost immediately, Al asked me why I was in Seg, and I repeated everything I had told everyone before. Since Tuesday, I have had to talk about Bobby numerous times to various people, and I do not care to do so anymore. Even this journal entry has been a task I have had to motivate myself to complete. However, I know how people, especially in the penitentiary, were interested in hearing every detail and more. Bobby's death was big news at Stateville.

As I talked to Oliver, he interrupted to yell down to other prisoners what had occurred. He yelled through a crack in the sliding door because in F House there were no bars on the cell doors. Prisoners in Seg also had plexiglass up against the perforated steel fronts of their cells. Oliver and a couple of other men in the Roundhouse knew my former cellmate from before all of their sentences were commuted to life without parole by ex-governor George Ryan. Men who had been on death row had a unique solidarity amongst themselves.

Oliver was a small black man with short graying hair. He was well groomed and the cell appeared clean and orderly, although it did not look like he had much property. I did not know how he managed it but I did not see any roaches. When I asked he said he had sealed up many of their hiding places to keep them at a minimum. He warned me, however, they will be crawling about at night and I should never leave food out. Oliver seemed restless and he talked incessantly. While listening to him, I got the impression he was not mentally sound and I recalled from years ago seeing him at the psychiatrist's office. He claimed it was a ploy to get himself to Dixon Psych which was a medium-security prison most prized by prisoners in maximum-security facilities, but I am now skeptical.

Oliver told me he was in Seg because of a conspiracy. He rambled on about a chain of events I did not quite follow, although I was distracted by my own circumstances and experiences during the day. I did catch that the disciplinary report he was given stated he had an extra fan which was not his own or was unmarked. There may be some legitimacy to his claims of retaliation. For one, he was continually writing grievances and letters to various authorities about staff and a myriad of other things. He also was widely known to file lawsuits and I do not know if they are frivolous or not but no one likes to be served with a complaint. Finally, Oliver was a convicted cop killer and I am sure this does not go over well with correctional officers.

While Oliver spoke, I looked in my start up bag. Inside was a thin towel, toothbrush, a small bar of soap and toothpaste. There was also one set of clothes but apparently some guard had a sense of humor and gave me a size 6XL T-shirt and boxers. The boxers were so huge that I could fit both my legs down one leg opening. I thought these may even be too big for "the elephant" who was an obese man who lived on my gallery.

I brushed my teeth and then washed up in the sink with my little bar of soap. I had not been able to bathe since I had worked out early in the morning and I could not tell if I had body odor or not but I wanted to clean up regardless and then lay down. Unfortunately, I still did not have a mattress, sheets, blanket or even a roll of toilet paper. Oliver reminded me the toilets only flushed once every 10 minutes and I could pester the sergeant about some bedding that night hopefully before I went to sleep. To my astonishment, however, I did not spend the night in the Roundhouse.

Sometime during the evening, the F House sergeant told me I was being released from Seg. I was in disbelief until he had the door opened and gestured for me to quickly follow him. He led me into the basement where my general population clothes were thrown in a pile. While I undressed and changed into state blues, the sergeant said it was just retarded I was sent to the hole. My cellmate had a heart attack and there was no reason to suspect foul play. I knew the sergeant was not able to authorize my release and only someone high up the chain of command could do so. Whoever it was, I was glad they broke with traditional procedure. As I walked out of the Roundhouse, prisoners were screaming and I heard one of them shout out my name. However, I was not looking back. I was glad to get out of the madhouse as soon as possible.

The padlock on my cell had been taken off when I returned. Some property was shifted around and I noticed that Bobby's mattress was bare. The guard told me to pack up my cellmate's property and it was not a duty I was looking forward to. Putting his belongings into his two boxes made me dwell about his death and death in general. Several prisoners had the nerve to ask me to give them certain valuables of his. For example, his flat screen TV, razor, headphones, and brand new gym shoes were coveted. Convicts joke about when someone dies they take all his property even the shoes off their feet, but I did not expect the vultures to be circling in reality. One man was angry that I refused to give him anything and claimed Bobby had no family anyway. According to him, Internal Affairs would just give away his stuff to their snitches. I did not know if Bobby had any family who cared about him or having any of his possessions for sentimental reasons. However, I did not like the idea of robbing the dead.

Prisoners customarily give away their belongings when they are released. Some will even say a particular person or persons can have their property when they die. However, I did not think the people who approached me were Bobby's friends. Chubby, who I mostly seen him talk with, did not ask me for anything. I asked a cell house worker who I trust what he thought was proper. He told me I was right to pack away his property and not give any of it away. He went on to say he would go downstairs and watch when guards inventoried his boxes so no one stole anything.

Going through my cellmate's boxes I discovered a lot of junk he had been hoarding. I knew he was a clutterbug but not to this extent until I had to make room for his TV, fan, and other possessions. I could not fit everything in and I threw miscellaneous garbage in a pile against the wall. If Bobby had any family, they did not want extra rolls of toilet paper, spoons, pieces of cardboard, rags, stripped wires, empty bottles, etc. I also took out or did not pack all the state issued clothes, sheets, and blankets he had. One thing I thought his family was certain to want was a large leather bound Bible he often read.

While I was solemnly packing away Bobby's property, my neighbor kept trying to get my attention. He was obnoxious, and I told him to wait until I finished. Later when I spoke with him he told me what happened earlier. According to him, the nurse who passes out medications in the morning was in a hurry. When she stopped at my cell and did not see my cellmate get up right away for his pills, she kept on going. She told the guard escorting her that he had refused. Not long thereafter, my neighbor was let out for his health care pass and found it odd that Bobby was still in bed. He began to yell his name, but when he did not stir he went and got the sergeant who opened up the door to find my cellmate dead.

Since Tuesday, some prisoners are looking for someone to blame. They believe there is a lawsuit which can be filed by Bobby's family for gross medical negligence. My cellmate complained of chest pains for two weeks before he was sent out to St. Joe's Hospital. On the week of Thanksgiving, Bobby was at the H.C.U. a few times and was given an EKG test. I recall him saying that he did not think the doctor even knew how to conduct the test let alone read the results, and it was done twice. He was given a shot and a nitroglycerin pill at least once but this only alleviated his symptoms temporarily. During the lockdown, a black female med tech refused to authorize him to be taken to the H.C.U. She claimed there was nothing wrong with him and if he was having a heart attack, he would be sweating profusely. I cannot say if Bobby would be alive today had he been treated earlier and better by prison medical staff. However, there is a great deal of incompetency, negligence, and malpractice which occurs by medical staff at Stateville on a regular basis.

When prisoners are doomed to die in prison, I often believe sooner is better than later. Medical staff may have ironically did Bobby a favor. In retrospect, I wish the Palatine Task Force which surrounded me at gunpoint during my arrest had shot me dead. I knew they wanted to, and I should have given them an excuse to do so. It would have prevented the misery my family and I have endured the past 20 years. As I become older the prospect of freedom looks ever the less appealing to me. Some prisoners are gossiping about a rumor that state legislators may pass a bill that will make inmates eligible for parole if they have served 25 years or more and are over the age of 50. I care less to get out when I am 50, yet alone 60, which my cellmate was. At that point, my life is for all practical purposes over. Am I supposed to be happy about getting out when I am an old crippled and feeble man? The only thing I will care about at such an age is justice, and after I am exonerated I can then kill myself.

This was Bobby's 2nd murder conviction, and I have doubts he was innocent. He claimed to be so but his signed confession and other evidence, I believe, was overwhelming. I asked other prisoners and ironically there is some opinion that his confession was possibly a reason he would be released. Many inmates at Stateville claim abuse by the infamous cop Jon Burge or his co-workers, including my cellmate. Rather than retrying him for the gang murder, prosecutors may have simply offered him a plea bargain where he would receive time served. Bobby had already done about 30 years which was over the maximum amount of time he could have done under the law in the 1980s, had he avoided the death penalty and not had any of his good time revoked. However, I question what type of existence he would have had even if he hung in there longer.

In one of my favorite movies "Gladiator," the illegitimate emperor of Rome asks Maximus why he does not fear death. He replies "Death smiles at us all and all a man can do is smile back." The emperor wondered if his friend smiled at his own death whereupon Maximus answered, "You should know. You were there." During my sleep, Bobby had a nightmare which briefly awakened me. It is possible this is when he met Death. Few can live without fear of their demise and smile at Death. However, there was also a deeper meaning of what Maximus, the former lead general of Rome, turned slave and then gladiator was saying. It is not how or when we die, but how we live. Life in prison is meaningless, oppressive, and miserable. Some may want to, or believe they can enjoy life outside these walls after serving decades. I have no such illusions. In death, Bobby is free from prison and false hope which deceives and torments many captive men.


  1. I have read local newspaper articles about men who were killed by their cellmates in Stateville prison, so I am glad to learn there is an investigation following each death. Regardless, Paul, you seem to have been treated decently during the process and rightfully so! I also assume the guards at Stateville who know you understand your predicament. Being an innocent victim of our judicial process is one of the worst things that could happen to anyone.

    I appreciate your "inside" views and your interesting well-written posts. I hope and pray your current lawyer is successful in righting this wrong against you--soon.

  2. Paul, I've signed your clemency petition and I've been keeping up with your blog for months. I find it hard to believe that despite the support that you have from your family, friends, and readers, our Governor (and I use that term loosely) still turns a blind eye to your plight. I truly hope that you are granted justice and freedom soon. Having served a little time with the Feds myself (24 months), I can only imagine the hell that you have been going through for almost twenty years. Hopefully knowing that you have a lot of people that are looking forward to the day when you can walk out a free man makes that hell a little more bearable.

    1. Thank you for signing my online clemency petition. I hope people continue to add their names to the list and write the governor directly. However, I realize the odds of my request for a pardon based on actual innocence or in the alternative a commutation to time served are minute. This is my 5th petition and the last four were rejected by previous governors. Granting executive clemency particularly for someone convicted of murder is extremely political and rare.

  3. Paul, stay positive. You will be going home and this nightmare will end for you. When it looked most bleak for Damien Echols of the West Memphis Three he wrote a book titled "Almost Home". A few years later he walked out of prison a free man. Your fate is the same. It is inevitable. Every day you have more light on you and your case. By the way you are a better writer than Damien Echols and you should start thinking about which actor you want to play you when Hollywood wants the film rights to your life after you've been exonerated.

    1. I appreciate your kind words of hope and encouragement, but there is a big difference between Damien Echols and me. No movie was made about my case nor do I have the support of any celebrities. Plus, I do not have the death penalty and few people care if I am nailed on the "tree of woe" ad infinite. This blog may have a large readership, but it has no where near the publicity of the West Memphis Three.

  4. I would gladly sign a clemency petition if someone can provide a link. Thank you.

    1. Just click on the photo of Paul at the top of the page. It will bring you to the online petition to the governor! Let us know if you have problems signing.

    2. FYI, the clicking the photo links to a petition addressed to Blago....who I believe may be having problems of his own receiving mail these days :-) The other link above goes to Pat Quinn's page.

      Love the blog and sending good vibes to Paul. Keep the faith.

    3. Almost everyone knows that the petition began when Gov. Blagojevich was in office. He was soon after convicted of several crimes and put in a nice cushy prison in Colorado!

      For those who didn't know, the new governor of Illinois is Patrick Quinn. The petition and signatures are now periodically mailed to him. I know I am not alone in saying that I hope Gov. Quinn, a Catholic man of faith, will do the right thing and exonerate Paul--soon. He has the power to do so.

    4. You are correct. Clicking Paul's photo above brings you to the online petition originally written to ex-Gov. Blagojevich. You can still sign that one because periodically it is printed and mailed to the current governor (Pat Quinn). Clicking the words: "Click here to contact Gov. Quinn" brings you to a fill in the blank email that instantly goes to Gov. Quinn. The latter allows you to write a personalized message via email. You can do both! I did.

      Paul's actual Executive Clemency Petition was filed a nearly 3 years ago. It didn't allow for signatures other than his own. It is a huge document with about 50 exhibits that support/prove Paul's claims of innocence. I think it was filed nearly 3 years ago. Governors are very slow to grant or deny these petitions for obvious reasons: political backlash can occur based on public opinion.

      The way Gov. Quinn has been trying to solve Illinois debt problems, he seems fearless! I seriously hope he continues to stand up for what is right and just even when unpopular.


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