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Friday, February 22, 2013

Sub Zero Yard -- January 23, 2013

The weather has been relatively mild in the Chicago area for this time of year. However, this abruptly changed earlier in the week with a mass of cold arctic air settling over the upper Midwest. On Tuesday, the town of Babbit in northeast Minnesota recorded the lowest U.S. temperature in 48 states this winter. Temperatures dipped below -20 F and wind chills neared -40 F. When I awoke in the morning, I made myself a hot cup of instant coffee with my breakfast to eat while watching the news. Joliet, a southwest suburb of Chicago, was cited to be -3 F accompanied with -20 F wind chills. These temperatures were not as brutally cold as in northern Minnesota, but were making me contemplate whether I should go out to yard if it was not cancelled.

Sometimes, the prison administrators will cancel yard periods when temperatures are below zero. Security is not a problem because guards are able to sit in their cozy warm gun towers to oversee prisoners. However, there is a concern inmates will not be able to bare the cold and they would be held liable. Frost bite can occur in 15 minutes in -20 F wind chills let alone in the two hours prisoners are typically kept locked on the yard in general population. There is also a concern of hypothermia where body temperatures drop to unsafe levels. I had not been able to attend the South Yard since December and was eager to use the weights despite the health risks. However, I was not stupid and began to prepare for the frigid cold as soon as I heard the sergeant announce on the cell house loudspeaker for inmates to standby for recreation lines.

Layered clothing was the ideal way to dress for the cold because it creates pockets of warm air. I began by putting on snug thermal underwear followed by a thin polyester blend of blue state pants mainly to act just as a wind blocker. Over the pants, I wore a long pair of cotton shorts which went below my knees. Over my thermal shirt, I put on three T-shirts and borrowed my cellmate's sweat shirt. My own sweat shirt and pants I had bagged and sent out to be washed. The gym shoes I had were made of thick leather and had thick plastic soles. However, I knew this would not be adequate and doubled my socks. I also doubled my gloves with small white Mickey Mouse gloves which barely fit my hands underneath the thicker insulated gloves. For my head, face, and neck, I used two wool skull caps, a towel in lieu of a scarf, and head band ear warmers to go around my face. As an extra precaution, I smeared Vaseline over my face to protect my skin from frostbite.

My cellmate rolled over in his sleep to awaken momentarily to see me at the cell bars stretching. I had taken off all my upper body clothes because I had began to sweat. He asked me if I had changed my mind about going out in the cold and was going to work out in the cell instead. I told him I still had intentions of gritting it out in the arctic air and in fact to display how tough I was, I was going to endure the sub zero weather without a shirt on. Anthony said "have fun" before pulling a sheet over his head and going back to sleep. Although my cellmate was a U.S. Marine for four years, he was now a soft "Pillsbury Doughboy" and I did not expect him to endure the extreme cold.

Prisoners were let out for Rec lines from top to bottom in the cell house. Those who were on the 5th floor were let out first followed by the 4th, 3rd, 2nd, and the bottom. Each gallery was separated and went to different locations except for the bottom two galleries of men. I noticed except for the gallery which was scheduled for gym, nearly no one came out of their cells. I was hoping to have the South Yard entirely to myself, but surprisingly a dozen prisoners lined up with me on the walk outside the cell house from the lower two galleries. They were bitterly cold within minutes despite being bundled from head to toe.

Only a few guards were outside managing the movement lines of inmates. They wore solid black clothes with only an opening for their eyes. They may have looked like ninjas except for how heavily insulated and cumbersome their attire was. A few were fat and lacked the stealth or dexterity to be assassins or highly skilled martial arts experts from ancient Japanese folklore. Some guards enjoyed working outside during times of the year when the weather was pleasant. However, in the winter, most tried to be reassigned to different job assignments.

To many people, the South Yard probably gave them the impression of the grounds of the gulag in the far east of Siberia. The area was surrounded by old rusted cyclone fencing and razor wire and a gun tower was positioned just outside the perimeter. I would estimate the yard was 3 football fields but unlike the NFL, it was poorly maintained and debilitated. The asphalt track and basketball courts were cracked and uneven as well as the concrete where the weights resided. Nearly all of the small assembly of rusted barbells and benches were bent or broken. There once was a concrete water fountain along with a backstop fence for prisoners to play softball. They were removed, but it is just as well because inmates at Stateville have not been permitted bats since the turn of the century. Thin snow drifts covered parts of the area giving it an even more desolate and austere appearance.

No one I regularly spoke with came out to yard and I walked the asphalt track to where the weights were by myself. Cold gusts of wind whipped against me and I was glad to have thought of covering my face with Vaseline. I clipped my ID card to the fence to prevent it from being blown away while I was working out. I also left my bottle of water underneath it and questioned if I would have a need for it on this sub zero morning. As I walked down the incline to the weights, I was met by a few black men who also were willing to endure the cold to exercise.

Although I stretched out before leaving the cell house, my body felt stiff lifting weights. The cold seemed to take away the flexibility in my joints and the abundance of clothes I wore left me cumbered. After bench pressing, I used a 200 pound weight to do squat presses. Squat presses are how I injured my lower back and I was very careful when performing the exercise. I checked my footing to make certain there was no ice on the concrete before lifting the weight onto my shoulders from the rack and also maintained a strict form when lowering the iron. My legs are very strong and I was not concerned the weight was too heavy for me to press although I was concerned the disks in my lower spine would compress or move subtly to pinch nerves leading out of the vertebrae and causing my back to go out. However, despite the risk, I knew squat presses were the best way to become warm and limber in the extreme cold. The muscles in the legs are the largest and when exercised create the most blood flow and metabolic energy.

I was impressed a black man who goes by the name Ghetto was able to lift weights without the use of his gloves. It was bitterly cold outside and I dared not take mine off. In fact, between sets, I put my hands in my pockets or curled my fingers together inside the gloves. I thought about how mittens would be preferable because they did not allow air to be between the fingers. Ghetto offered me his gloves and I initially told him no because I did not think a third pair could go over my hands. However, he insisted and after some struggle I was finally able to get most of them on.

No one sat at the steel tables bolted into concrete to play cards, dominos, or chess. I imagined it would be too uncomfortable or even impossible to do so. The steel stools were undoubtedly extremely cold to sit on and the games would have to be played while wearing thick cumbersome gloves. Gusts of wind would cause chess pieces or cards to fly off the table without being weighed down with heavy rocks. The basketball courts were also void of people and no one even bothered to bring out a ball. In sub zero temperatures a basketball will not even bounce and shooting "bricks" into hoops was apparently not appealing. Instead the prisoners who were not lifting weights mainly clustered in a few groups and walked around the track like penguins. A semi-crazy and obnoxious white man who has a bullet wound to the skull sang loudly to himself off tune while listening to his Walkman and power walking past the penguins. Yet another off kilter man who was black kicked a frozen bottle of water around and yelled at it like it was a dog. Occasionally, he barked at other men who approached his bottle. A couple of times, I noticed inmates standing against the handball court wall apparently seeking shelter from the wind.

Tuesday was an overcast day and the dull gray clouds matched the buildings and other structures which could be seen on the yard. However, at one point, the sun appeared for a few minutes. It seemed to increase the temperature at least 5 degrees before it was a translucent glow behind some clouds and emitted the same warmth as the moon. I stared up at the sun until it was completely shrouded by clouds and never seen again. The sight broke up my weight lifting regiment and I gave Ghetto his gloves back before jogging a mile.

The asphalt track felt like running on metal and my gym shoes seemed to be made with wooden soles. I tried running on the grass thinking it may be softer, but the ground was frozen and because it was an uneven surface it was even worse than the track. The frigid cold air I breathed was harsh despite having the band of ear warmers going around my face to mitigate the temperature. During my last lap, I went full speed and had a desire to pull the band down to enable me to take in more oxygen, but I knew from prior experience this would be foolish. The sub zero air rushing directly in to hit the moist lung follicles would cause them to freeze and give me a hacking cough for days. When I finished my run, I took off the cloth and was not surprised it was frozen from my respiration. There was no point putting it back on and I adjusted the towel I was using as a scarf to go over the lower half of my face.

Thirsty from my run, I walked over to the fence where I had clipped my ID card and had a bottle of water. Initially, I thought the bottle was frozen solid, but noticed there was still some liquid in the center. I squeezed the plastic soda bottle cracking the ice inside and then shook it to get a swig of ice water. The water I was able to get out had shards and chunks of ice and I chewed these up. I thought the drink would not help me increase my body temperature, however, I was more concerned about sweating. From watching the TV program "Survivorman," I knew sweating was one of the worst things that could occur when out in the extreme cold. The survivalist of the program, Les Straud, had a saying he repeated: "If you sweat, you die." I considered taking off some of my damp inner garments, but unlike Survivorman, I was not lost in a frigid wilderness. I was at Stateville and guards would be coming within an hour to unlock the gate.

When I returned to the weight pile, it was deserted and I was glad to have the area to myself. I noticed a 300 pound bar next to a stool of one of the metal tables and thought this weight was conveniently located for me to do some shrugs. Normally, I would shrug weight behind my back while standing, but not needing to pick the weight up was safer for my lower back injury. After squat pressing earlier, I was particularly concerned about aggravating the lumber disks. However, when I went to pull the iron bar upward, it did not budge and was frozen into the ground. I thought of trying to dislodge it with another weight or just kicking it, but it was easier to just use another barbell which was feet away.

Towards the end of my weight lifting regiment, I did some calf raises. At least with the squat press I could take the bar off the rack. However, with calf raises, I had to clean the barbell from the ground and over my head to place on my shoulders. It was not so difficult cleaning 200 pounds but after I did my set of calf raises off an elevated concrete slab, I did not like bringing it back down. Normally, I just let the iron bar slip off my shoulders to hit the ground. Due to the sub zero temperatures, though, I could not do this. The bar would probably snap. Thus, I had the extra burden of cleaning the weight and bringing it back down after each set. I did not mind the additional exertion but my lower back was my Achilles Heel and I had to again, be extra careful.

Guards let us stay on the yard for 2-1/2 hours and normally inmates would be happy for the additional half hour. However, in the frigid weather, they were eager to leave. Most of the men stood around the gate shivering and waiting for it to be unlocked. From the yard, inmates had to go to the chow hall with their corresponding galleries before returning to the cell house. The relative quiet and open space on the yard compared to the cacophony of noise and herds of people was an annoying transition. I would have preferred to stay out in the cold while prisoners ate and went directly back to the quarter unit. Eventually, I was able to return to my cell and while taking off my many layers of clothes, my cellmate asked me how it was on the yard in what seemed like a sarcastic tone. I told him "cold," however, I doubt he understands how little the harsh conditions bother me. My greatest anguish lies elsewhere.

This afternoon before writing this post I watched one of my favorite childhood films "Conan the Barbarian." Interestingly, the fantasy-adventure movie made in the 1980s was largely ignored by the public. It was almost banned from most movie theaters and cable networks due to nearly receiving an X rating for graphic violence. Furthermore, Arnold Schwarzenegger was considered by critics to be a muscle bound but incompetent actor who could barely speak English. However, it was his stoic silence and crude acting on the backdrop of a passionate and intense story which resonated with me when I was a child. Even in my late 30s, I continue to be moved by the film. I have also lived a brutal, austere, and unjust life in captivity. At one point in the movie, the wizard who chronicles his tale says "He did not care anymore. Life and death: the same," and this is just one of the sentiments I share. I do not care if I live or die anymore and have become desensitized to physical suffering. The cold out on the yard I experienced is nothing compared to what I have been through or the two decades of life I have lost in prison. Hopefully, like Conan, I will be set free one day while I can still be stirred by freedom and have a meaningful existence. However, I tend to believe I will remain nailed to the "Tree of Woe" and languish for an untold number of years.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Prison Hooch -- January 18, 2013

Yesterday, the prison was placed on lockdown as a special tactical unit of guards searched D House looking for hooch. The lockdown came as a surprise to me and I had began my day with a preset schedule in mind. Thursdays, my cell house goes to lunch first and has afternoon yard. Therefore, I ate a small breakfast and dressed in my state supplied blue clothing. For lunch prisoners were to be fed shredded chicken and noodles, a meal probably not particularly appealing to most people. However, it was rare prisoners are fed real unprocessed meat and I was looking forward to it. I was also looking forward to going to the South yard. The South yard, unlike the other two, was a vast area with a quarter mile track and a few debilitated iron weights as well as exercise benches. Prisoners in the quarter units only have access to it twice a month or less.

The first feed lines go out before 9 a.m. Dressed, I waited for chow to be announced on the cell house speaker. Typically, men are told to be on standby so they can put their cells in compliance and get ready to leave, however, nothing was said. Even work details were not announced which was unusual. They are sent to their assignments as soon as count clears and before any feed lines. I did notice a few cell house workers going about picking up garbage, sweeping and mopping floors as usual. Furthermore, telephones were brought out and eventually a couple of visits were announced. Initially, I believed there was a delayed count, but it became increasingly obvious to me the penitentiary was on a low level lockdown. Sitting on the edge of my bunk I began to read a Wall Street Journal.

The main news on television as well as the newspaper was the president's proposals to curtail American's 2nd Amendment rights to bare arms. Ever since the mass shooting last month at a Newtown, Connecticut grade school, Barack Obama along with the support of the liberal dominated news media has been pressuring for more gun legislation. The murders of 20 children are being used to emotionally manipulate the public to give up one of their greatest rights in the Constitution. The right to bare arms was not forefront in the founding fathers of the republic's minds so they could go hunting or for self defense. It was to prevent tyrannical government. Yet the president on Wednesday surrounded himself with children to use as pawns for political expediency. It was even more absurd these children were asked what they thought should be done, as if they had some great wisdom to offer. Later in the day, I heard Rush Limbaugh rightfully mocking the fiasco. I was greatly amused when he used a "South Park" cartoon accent when he pretended to be some of the children giving advice to the president.

Styrofoam trays were passed out about an hour before noon. I asked the cell house worker who gave me the trays about the reason for the lockdown. He told me the Orange Crush was in D House searching the quarter unit for hooch. This did not make sense to me. The special tactical unit was never assembled to look for the makeshift prison alcohol. It did not require any force of manpower or thorough inspection to find the fermented liquid in large plastic garbage bags or bottles. At times, administrators would order regular cell house guards to go in and out of cells before Christmas or New Year's Day. It was quick and easy to open up a couple of boxes or look behind them and spot the containers. Visual inspection was often unnecessary because the pungent smell usually gave it away. The prison worker said this was no ordinary hooch search and already over 10 gallons were found.

The cell house worker I spoke with coincidentally goes by the name of "Hooch." He is a bald Caucasian man with a gray beard. He has been incarcerated for a couple of decades and possibly since the 1980's for a murder conviction. Hooch has been in prison so long he no longer has any family or connections with the outside world. His job seemed to give him a great deal of meaning and I could tell it meant a lot to him. He is regularly moving about the cell house voluntarily assisting in things not required or expected of him. He also works as a clerk helping out with some of the paperwork staff needs to fill out. Hooch in his old age is becoming deaf and a little senile which causes some razing. The fact he is a practicing Jew probably does not help. I am not certain how he began to be called Hooch, but I assume long ago he liked to make or drink it.

In the 1980's or 90's, drinking or making hooch was much more prolific and typically ignored by guards. Guards did not even put inmates in Segregation for it unless they had over 5 gallons in their cell. If a few gallons or less were found, they would simply dump it out without writing a disciplinary ticket. Some guards drank heavily before coming to work and a few even drank on the job. Alcohol was legal and an accepted vice in prison. It also made little sense to discipline adult men for drinking when there were much more serious concerns to address. The primary concern of guards was that it was not mass produced or recklessly consumed. Before the turn of the century, guards did not routinely intervene in the lives of prisoners. It was largely operated and controlled by those who lived there rather than those who worked an 8 hour shift.

Not surprisingly, alcohol contributed to a number of fights and assaults in the penitentiary. Inmates who were under the influence of alcohol lost their inhibitions and common sense. I saw many people act foolishly as well as violently. Fights in prison are commonplace and drunks were typically separated. Sometimes, they were confined to their cells by fellow gang members until they sobered up. Guards usually did not intervene and expected prisoners to be responsible. I once had a cellmate who was in the Aryan Brotherhood and refused to stay in his cell when drunk. He cursed and threatened guards, even one who was in the gun tower with a rifle. A couple of inmates and guards asked me if I would escort him back to the cell. He would not listen to me and I was contemplating physically forcing him back. However, he soon thereafter threw a punch at a lieutenant and was handcuffed and taken to Seg.

Disputes between two drunk rival gang members were the most problematic. Not long after I was sent to prison, a North Sider and Latin Disciple fought each other over some drunk-induced insults. I was on the other side of the yard lifting weights while they circled each other underneath a guard tower with knives. Eventually, the North Sider cut up and stabbed the other man until he fell to the ground. He was not dead and afterwards the two gangs tried to resolve the dispute without escalating the violence. However, the Hispanics wanted their pound of flesh. On the return from the chow hall, they ambushed the white men at the end of the line in a tunnel. It was cowardly because they singled out a few weak stragglers who had nothing to do with the incident except for one of them being the person who provided the alcohol. I do not know if this was a coincidence or done deliberately, but the man was known to make the best moonshine in the penitentiary.

Hooch is simply fermented juice. It is made out of citrus fruit, yeast and sugar. Prisons have stopped selling sugar, and fruits like oranges are rarely served to make hooch more difficult to make. However, there are various different substitutes that can be used. Hooch is a hodgepodge blend of any type of citrus fruit or juice, bread, and sugar based product prisoners can get their hands on. The concoction is usually put in a garbage bag and occasionally opened to air out. Fermented juice has a very pungent order and prisoners will usually wait until after midnight when there is less movement to let it breathe a little before resealing the bag. It takes about a week or longer to make hooch but the process can be shortened by heating. Some men will foolishly put makeshift immersion heaters directly into the liquid. The electric current will dissolve the metal into their hooch making it toxic. Those who drink prison-made hooch which is prepared improperly can over time experience serious health problems.

Hooch is a noxious drink I have never tried my entire 20 years incarcerated. Just the smell of it makes me nauseous. Prisoners who want to get drunk or buzzed, however, find some way to down the coarse, lumpy, and disgusting fluid. They also do not care about the side effects whether it be diarrhea, vomiting or brain damage. Oftentimes men must confine themselves to their cells when drinking hooch just to be close to a toilet. According to rumors I heard today, D House not only smelled like rotting juice but vomit, and toilets were regularly flushing.

Although I have never tasted hooch and never will, I have taken a shot of moonshine. Years ago, men not only made hooch, but whiskey. Very few prisoners knew how to distill the alcohol and it was not as common. It is much more difficult boiling off fermented juice and catching the alcohol vapors drip by drip into another container. In the 90's, moonshiners made a lot of money in prison selling little honey bear containers of alcohol for $10. I recall men testing the value of a moonshiner's product by lighting a flame to it. If it was good whiskey, it stayed on fire. The North Sider who made moonshine could double distill his product so that it was nearly 100% alcohol, but he told me he rarely ever did because he did not get paid for the extra work. A honey bear which is half alcohol brought the same price as one that was nearly pure alcohol.

Yesterday morning, I did not notice any workers go out but a few industry workers had escaped my attention. On their return, one man who lives on my gallery walked by my cell while I was working out. I asked him what he had heard about the Orange Crush search. I was expecting him to elaborate on what Hooch had told me or verify the account. Instead, he told me guards were searching for a can of mace. On Tuesday, the new warden ran a hostage drill in X House. Last year, a hostage situation took place in the unit and I assume they wanted to be prepared for it just in case it happened again. The drill lasted for a couple of hours in the afternoon and apparently during this time a guard misplaced some mace.

After I finished working out and was bathing out of the sink, I spoke to my cellmate about the conflicting news. Why would the men have two radically different stories? Why was the tactical unit looking in D House for a canister of mace lost in X House? Why was the tactical unit being used to search for hooch? None of this made sense to me and my cellmate could not figure it out either. I told him I preferred if the first story was true because then the Orange Crush may not be sent to every unit and they would not be ransacking cells. Depending on how small the canister of mace was, they may upend most of our property. My cellmate said he would attempt to learn the truth when he was let out to work in the kitchen.

My cellmate prepares to leave for work early by leaving his shower supplies on the desk so he can reach them when he returns and immediately take a shower. While we were watching a Bellator mixed martial arts competition, he was playing with his wash cloth. I told him to put it down because he was making me nervous. I was joking with him because his victim was alleged to have a wash cloth shoved down her throat. He looked over at me and I told him to do a sobriety test. Anthony was supposedly drunk at the time he committed the murder. I am not worried about my cellmate in the least, even if he would become drunk on hooch or some moonshine. What would concern me is if he was taking psychotropic medications and drinking. This may make Dr. Jekyll turn into Mr. Hyde. I have seen some prisoners flip out when combining alcohol with psychotropics including a man who tried to stab me and would have if not for my quick reflexes and his intoxication. Sharing a cell with someone leaves you always vulnerable.

Today there were normal operations in the morning and apparently the tactical unit had completed their mission. I went out to lunch and prisoners spoke about how the Orange Crush had not done a total search of D House. Only about 30 cells were looked at for hooch. Very little was found and there was speculation most men who had some dumped it. There were widespread rumors that prisoners in the cell were regularly getting drunk and it alerted the suspicions of guards. The tactical team while searching cells also had numerous people submit to urine samples to be tested for drugs. I assume the administration thought if inmates were drinking, there may be a good possibility they were doing other things as well. However, I do not believe anyone tested positive.

When my cellmate woke up in the afternoon, he basically confirmed what I had already heard. Apparently, prisoners in D House were partying regularly and there was pervasive drinking of hooch. The cell house stank of the putrid juice and men were not only vomiting in their toilets, but in the shower. I asked him how many prisoners were found with hooch and taken to Seg. He said he was not certain but very few. I told him in the 90's, guards would conduct searches for hooch during the holidays and would not make an effort to catch anyone. They were simply satisfied that everyone who had some disposed of it. Possibly, the search was deemed a success even if little was found. The use of the Orange Crush also probably sent a message to inmates which may not have been achieved with the use of other guards.

I was able to talk with a prisoner who lives in the raided cell house and he told me how Internal Affairs had been aware of the pervasive drinking earlier. On Monday, they went directly to a cell and found a few gallons of hooch. The men were given a new cell in Segregation which was odd because usually there are no empty cells there. The cellmate who was making the hooch has not been getting along with the other man and immediately suspected him of snitching on him. From what I was informed, he severely beat him. Guards separated the two and the hooch maker may now be sent to Pontiac for the violent assault.

The canister of mace which was misplaced did not have anything to do with the search and lockdown. The Orange Crush was simply looking for hooch and testing inmates for drugs. I do not know if the mace was ever found. Often property is misplaced or lost by guards and other staff. The items are usually discovered in the most obvious and dumb places. I am reminded of a time when I was in Pontiac in the 90's and there was a big concern about a missing set of keys. It turned out a guard simply forgot to turn them in when leaving and brought them home with him. Possibly, he was drinking prison hooch.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Pensions, Prisons, and the Fiscal Cliff -- January 4, 2013

The prison was placed on lockdown twice this week due to a lack of staff. On New Year's Eve, many guards did not show up for work because of the holiday and wanting to party. Today, many took the day off to drive to the state capital and protest pension reform. The State of Illinois is drowning in debt largely due to accumulating pension liabilities. This has caused government to make minor cuts around the edges of many budgets including the IDOC. However, these cuts are absurdly small and not nearly enough to solve the fiscal crisis. The governor along with a few congressmen are attempting to pass a bill to address pension costs which are the greatest burden on government during the lame duck session. The idea is some politicians who have not been reelected will not be swayed by special interests and vote for legislation without fear of political backlash. It was also in part the impetus for the U.S. Congress to make a deal with the president before large automatic tax increases and government cuts were made on January 1st. Although a tax deal was reached, it did nothing to resolve the enormous debt and entitlement liabilities of the government. Democrats in Illinois I predict will also refuse to address the growing and unsustainable debt levels until the government is on the verge of insolvency. Americans have for months been warned about the looming "fiscal cliff". However, this is a misnomer. Government and economies do not collapse over night from financial dereliction. There is a long downward spiral before collapse.

Illinois has an $9 billion debt, but this does not take into consideration exponentially growing pension liabilities. These are closing in fast on a staggering figure of $100 billion and yet even this sum is actually an accounting fraud. The state's bean counters come up with this number by predicting various factors including growth in their investments. The state government does not simply keep employee's pension contributions in a huge bank vault for when they retire. This money is invested and according to Illinois accountants, these investments will purportedly earn more than any other state pension fund in the U.S. Their outlook is not filtered through rose colored glasses but in my opinion hallucinogens. The true pension liabilities of Illinois are probably double the official forecast at around $200 billion. Furthermore, every day the pension crisis is not resolved, another $17 million is added and compounded.

In the last lame duck session of 2010, the Democratic controlled congress and executive doubled taxes to fill the void between expenditures and revenue. This was not surprising to me because the Democrats knee jerk solution to nearly everything is more taxes and spending. State revenue increased to approximately $34 billion a year, however, as sidelined Republicans warned, the state does not have a revenue problem but a spending problem. The money collected in the last two years was not nearly sufficient to cover the costs of debt and continued reckless spending. Indeed, the state's credit rating was downgraded and will probably be again so it will be the worst in the nation including the dysfunctional State of California. The increase in revenue due to higher taxes, furthermore, is receding as businesses and individuals decrease investment and spending or flee the state. The government worried about losing their largest corporations and employers granted several of them special tax exemptions. Despite the corporate favoritism, they are still shifting business out of the state and some may leave altogether. Even my parents are considering moving to the South and it is not just because of the weather.

How did the pension system become such a problem in the first place? Legislators are more than happy to please constituents by giving them gifts regardless if it is fiscally prudent. They only care about being reelected in the next election cycle and therefore are unconcerned about the long term consequences of their actions. The most powerful constituent groups have the most influence to gain favoritism at the expense of others. In Illinois, the unions have the most sway and they extracted from legislators the most lavish benefits. The grandiose pension contracts they were able to secure, lawmakers probably realized could never be paid. However what do they care about the distant future as long as campaign cash and votes continue to roll in?

The Republicans in states such as Indiana and Wisconsin have been able to reign in the reckless spending of past legislators to solve budgetary problems. However, in Illinois, the state is moving in the opposite direction. On January 10th, Democrats who already dominate both legislative chambers will have a super majority. With this control, Republicans will have no influence in state government and will be completely impotent. In the last few days of the lame duck session, however, unions are worried a bipartisan agreement can be worked out to diminish their lavish pensions. This is why many guards spent today in Springfield pressuring Democrats not to acquiesce to any deal. Ideas in the senate and house are being floated about to trim pensions including freezing cost of living increases and requiring public employees to contribute more of their salaries. Democratic Governor Pat Quinn has been courageously supporting efforts for a bill to be passed. He has even proposed a bipartisan commission to draft legislation which would automatically become law unless both congressional chambers vote it down. Despite this, congress did not even convene today and chances of anything getting done on Tuesday or Wednesday are infinitely minute. However to illustrate how ridiculous state representatives are, a gay marriage law will be passed easily.

The succeeding legislative body to take over is even less likely to pass a bill overhauling pensions. Most Democrats will never risk the wrath of the union and it is remarkable the governor has jeopardized his political future. Even if by some fluke a law was passed, the union has already threatened to challenge its constitutionality under article I section 16 which forbids the government from "impairing the obligations of contracts". I tend to believe the union is correct in their interpretation of the Illinois' Constitution, but other lawsuits by the union have failed in the past including opposition to the closure of Tamms Supermax and other IDOC facilities. This week, the last remaining inmates in Tamms were transferred to Pontiac and the female maximum-security prison in Dwight should be closed by the end of February.

Tamms was Illinois' most costly prison per capita and its operation was the least productive. Tamms spent roughly $60,000 per inmate while in comparison Stateville which is the second least efficient penitentiary spends almost half: $35,000. Amazingly, the supermax prison had 17 kitchen supervisors, the same as other prisons with ten times the population such as Pontiac. With so many employees working in the kitchen, I would imagine it had food as good as served in 5* restaurants, however, inmates tell me that although it was better than Stateville, it was by no means delicious. The capacity of Tamms was 800, but it never exceeded half this amount. In fact, IDOC had to think of creative ways to use the prison as a means to punish and isolate men. Regularly, prisoners were sent there on unsubstantiated disciplinary tickets or suspected gang activity and conspiracy. In 2012, the supermax had a little over 100 inmates, although security and other expenditures were kept excessively high. Personally, I liked the idea of isolation at Tamms, but from an administrative perspective it was expensive and redundant. Furthermore, it encouraged guards to write petty or dubious disciplinary tickets. With Tamms closed and segregation space limited, Seg will be used far more sparingly and reasonably.

Men at Logan Correctional Center are currently being transferred throughout the IDOC to make room for women from Dwight. Logan is adjacent to Lincoln C.C. which already is a female penitentiary. The joining of the two prisons is probably a good consolidation which will save money and resources. Decades ago, the two prisons shared programs and school and many men as well as women liked to be there so they had some opportunity to interact with the opposite sex. However, these coed programs were eliminated years ago. Now I am told male and female prisoners can only see each other from a distance between cyclone fences topped with razor wire.

The union workers who have seniority will have first dibs on job openings at other facilities and those who were recently hired will face possible layoffs. I asked a guard if Stateville may get an influx of new staff from Dwight. She opined few from Tamms or Dwight will want to work here. Tamms is located at the southern tip of Illinois and there is a large distinction in demographics and culture. Furthermore, not many guards will want to relocate 300 miles away. Dwight is only an hour's drive from Stateville, however, the female penitentiary is radically different. Both are maximum security, but women incarcerated are treated much better. Females prisons are much less oppressive and even Dwight has a full complement of rehabilitation programs as well as recreational activities. A guard who works at Dwight will have to make a huge transition to the hostile, retributive or warehousing environment which exists in men's maximum security facilities.

Many men at Stateville who have served their time in maximum security prisons are angry about the double standard in the Illinois Department of Corrections. They believe women and men should be treated the same in the system and there is some envy regarding their more favorable environment. I do not share this view because I do not believe the sexes are equal. What does bother me, however, is the inequality of sentencing between violent and nonviolent offenders. While violent offenders must serve 85% or 100% of their sentences, those with nonviolent convictions only have to serve half. Furthermore, to address overcrowding and the expenses of incarceration, the governor has permitted these convicts to earn good time credits as well as gratuitous early release. In addition to this, there is wide disparity in the judicial system which permits extremely harsh sentences on defendants whose culpability was determined to be marginal. Judges have huge latitude in sentencing which can lead to unjust punishments. Criminal statutes should be more specific and sentencing ranges should be narrowed to be more appropriate. The time all defendants serve after conviction should also be under the same code or policy.

Governor Quinn to his credit has been more politically bold recently in his attempts to save the State of Illinois from bankruptcy. He has used his executive power to cut spending peripherally without the action of the legislature. Democrats who control both congressional chambers are too fearful of the union and prefer to let the governor take on publicly unpopular, although necessary, spending cuts. For this he is often left blowing in the wind and has the lowest gubernatorial approval rating in the U.S.  He is caught between a rock and a hard place with state conservatives never going to like him and his liberal base wanting him to continue reckless spending regardless of the cost. The union in particular despises him and I sometimes listen to the guards complain about how he is not their pawn, although, of course, this is not how they describe it. If they were wise they would have paid attention to events which caused Hostess to declare bankruptcy and then simply liquidate rather than be extorted and bled dry by the bakers and Teamsters unions. Possibly, they and the Democratic base believe Illinois should spend itself into oblivion and have the federal government bail it out. However, the federal government has its own crisis on its hands.

The U.S. government has a debt problem far greater than Illinois'. The debt is over $16 trillion and more than 15 times its current yearly revenue. It is actually over the entire gross domestic product which is a tally of all sales across the country. Government accountants will sometimes say the ratio of debt to GDP is only 80%, but this is misleading. The lower ratio does not include money the country owes itself. The Federal Reserve  has printed a few trillion dollars to buy bonds from the Treasury Department. Currently $85 billion of bonds and mortgage securities are being bought every month and the printing presses will continue until unemployment drops to 6% or inflation goes beyond 2-1/2%. The bond purchases are designed to drop interest rates and increase growth. However while there has been an increase in mortgage activity and the stock market as well as food and energy prices have been inflated, the country's economy is flat lining.

On New Year's Day, the so called "fiscal cliff" was averted in part or at least for the time being. Congress passed a bill addressing taxation, but like in Illinois, they ducked the issue of debt for another time. Corporate taxes which were among the highest in the world were wisely reduced although only by 5% and without reform of international loopholes. Payroll taxes will return to their regular rate before the 2010 hiatus and tax brackets will remain the same except for the upper 2% of income earners. Barack Obama won his war on the wealthy and they will now pay nearly half their income in taxes. Deductions will also be reduced for anyone making over $200,000 a year and while tax write-offs and loopholes should be eliminated across the board, in my opinion, this should have come with lower tax rates. Instead, successful professionals and entrepreneurs will be hit with a double whammy. The socialist president largely got what he wanted while Republicans capitulated to escape higher tax rates on everyone which would dampen growth even further. The next battle will be on spending and, like in Illinois, the outlook does not look good.

President Obama has inferred the debts and liabilities of the U.S. can be paid on the backs of the rich. However, this is a great deception. The additional revenue created by increasing taxes on the wealthy will only amount to $600 billion over 10 years. During this time, the debt will rise by $6 trillion, the Medicare trust fund will be gone, and Social Security will be near insolvency as well. The rising costs of entitlements must be curbed because they will consume the budget and bankrupt the nation. Yet Democrats refuse to address the debt crisis and more than likely will force Republicans to accept sequestration, which is across the board spending cuts of $4 trillion over the next decade. These cuts are not the best way of curbing deficits and will do nothing to reform entitlements.

The downward spiral of state and federal government will be ugly, but there may be some positive outcomes in the end. With government crippled in debt, discretionary spending will be first to be reduced. Budgets will be squeezed to some degree reducing the roll and size of government. Even the prison industrial complex will have to be dismantled and already I see cracks in the walls of Stateville. The nanny state eventually will succumb and people will be forced to become more self sufficient. The more excessive government attempts to sustain itself, the harder and more painful will be its fall. We could see conditions like in Greece or an implosion such as occurred in the Soviet Union. Sometimes things must get worse before they get better.