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Friday, March 15, 2013

Statewide Max-Security Lockdown -- February 15, 2013

An inmate was beaten to death purportedly by his cellmate last month at Menard Correctional Center. However, due to the questionable circumstances of his murder, many prisoners suspect foul play at that prison where there is great tension between captives and their captors. Earlier this week, a group of inmates attacked two guards and a chaplain who apparently happened to get caught up in the melee. The prison at Pontiac also had a staff assault although this was an isolated incident. I suspect this occurred in one of the segregation units but cannot be for certain. Stateville guards have been hyper security conscious and after some suspicious activity, the penitentiary has been placed on lockdown as well. Prison officials seem paranoid about losing their tight control of the IDOC. They continue to exaggerate dangers and lobby for a reversal of prison closures as well as for more superfluous staff. However, they choose to ignore the root of the potential for increased violence.

Menard C.C. is located in southern Illinois and is adjacent to the Mississippi River just south of St. Louis. It is a much cleaner, efficient, and competently run facility which is not nearly as dilapidated as Stateville. However, guards are pettier about rules and there is greater friction between staff and inmates. In the West and East cell houses, there is regular conflict where most of the more aggressive prisoners are housed. From transfers, I am told about many hostilities and how guards will retaliate. According to rumor, the inmate who was killed was the victim of such retaliation. Rumors within a penitentiary can often be false or distorted let alone between prisons even if inmates are regularly transferred between them.

The man rumored to be killed by staff was a gang member and there is speculation of a correlation between his death and the fight during religious services. According to a downstate newspaper, approximately 15 inmates at Menard beat up the two guards and the chaplain. The newspapers did not mention the race of those involved in the melee, but it is largely speculated they were Mexican. There are two large Hispanic gangs in the IDOC and when they believe one of their own is mistreated, they often seek revenge. Security personnel perceive the gangs to be the most dangerous due to the unity and growing strength in numbers. The only significant Caucasian gang was disbanded long ago because of a lack of purpose. Unlike other gangs, the North Siders were never a street gang brought into the prison system. It was a gang created on the inside for the protection of white inmates. Danger has greatly receded and white men are expected to stand on their own. Black gangs are largely fractured and unorganized although they continue to make up the vast population of inmates.

Stateville was placed on lockdown Wednesday afternoon. According to what I was informed, there was a large group of Mexican inmates congregating on the yard. There was no violence or even the violation of a minor prison rule. However, a guard in a gun tower reported the group and the Internal Affairs Unit became paranoid possibly in part due to the happenings at Menard CC. All inmates were ordered to leave the yard and were locked in their cells. Stateville has a new warden since the beginning of the year and he is said to be extra security precautious. He ordered the entire penitentiary to be placed on a level 4 lockdown.

A level 4 lockdown is not as strict as a level 1. Inmates are allowed to attend health care passes, some work details are permitted, and visitation is not interrupted. I was on a visit at the time the prisoners in E House were ordered off the yard. Guards in the visiting room did not even mention the lockdown and visits continued until their customary time. However, due to a stop all movement order, I had to wait in the visiting room afterwards and then again in a holding cage in the cell house. Steve, a prisoner I am acquainted with, had returned from some religious service and was stuck in the holding cage with me. It was Ash Wednesday and he had a dark cross ash mark on his forehead. I asked him if extra ashes were put on the heads of more prolific sinners. He told me he was just given preferential treatment which puzzled me. I told him if he likes I can put an even bigger and darker cross on his forehead with a thick black magic marker.

Later in the day, inmates in their cells were brought their dinner meals in styrofoam trays by cell house workers. I did not mind the room service or the lack of showers. Typically, showers are run in C House on Wednesdays, but I have not gone to the shower room all this year. Earlier, I had bathed out of my sink and I prefer doing this rather than going downstairs. My cellmate went to work in the kitchen as usual at 10 p.m., although he did not want to go. He was hoping the lockdown would give him some time off.

Thursday, prisoners were kept in their cells for another day except for men with job assignments. I spoke with my cellmate as well as other workers about the strange lockdown. Never before has the prison been locked down simply because there was a large group of men talking on the yard. My cellmate reminded me that two weeks ago, he along with all other midnight shift kitchen workers were questioned by I.A.  A few pieces of steel were found in the handlebar of a cart. The pieces of steel were not sharpened, although security personnel believed they were intended to be made into shanks. No one in the kitchen knew anything about the metal and any number of people could be responsible. Other workers mentioned how about 30 mostly Hispanic inmates in segregation were transferred to Pontiac and swapped with prisoners from that institution. Apparently, administrators were trying to shuffle the deck a little believing this disrupted any organized gang activity.

Early this week, Hooch returned from segregation and was placed in the cell next door to me. The Assignment Officer had assigned him to the cell before the incident with Snake put him under investigation for fighting. After two weeks, Internal Affairs determined there was no reason to justify a disciplinary ticket to be written. Despite the accusations of Snake, guards did not see anything but Hooch dodging a swing and moving away. I asked Hooch what he knew about the transfers. He had been released from Seg, however, before the lockdown and did not know anything about the Latinos who were sent to Pontiac. He was aware a few Hispanics were taken to the offices of IA to be questioned though and more were spoken to in other cell houses. I assume all those who were on the yard from E House were brought in for questioning as well.

Unlike most prisoners, I could care less about lockdown and in fact usually prefer it. Lately, I care less and less about anything. People ask me occasionally how I am doing which is a broad and stupid question in my opinion. What exactly do they want to hear? Is it merely social protocol, a greeting, or do they really want to know and to what degree? I am in prison serving a protracted death sentence for a crime I did not commit and am usually miserable or bitter. However, I tend to think people do not want to hear this. Yesterday, I had more reason to be in a sour and melancholic mood because it was Valentine's Day. To add to my unhappiness my mother was nice enough to mention a woman I wrote romantically for several years until I knew it was pointless. I was never being released and could never have a real relationship with her. I do not know why my mother and her continue to occasionally write, but I do not want to hear about it.

Throughout the day in my cell, I periodically thought about girls I had written in the past or dated before my arrest. During the evening, I took a break from rewriting a post that my blog helpers did not like to watch television. There was nothing on that captured my attention, however, and I ended up looking at a Charlie Brown Valentine's Day cartoon. It reminded me of a girl I liked throughout grade school. On Valentine's Day while in the 5th grade, I made Kris a very nice Valentine's Day card, however, I signed it "anonymous". I think she knew it was from me but regardless she and all the other girls got handwriting samples from all the boys. Apparently, I have unique penmanship and they laughed and giggled at me. I told my story to my cellmate because I have no one to share it with. He thought it was mildly amusing, but he was in his own fantasy world thinking about celebrity women on television at least until there was a commercial break. By chance while I was telling my story there was an ad for the David Letterman Show and one of his Top 10 Lists said, "Since you're my cellmate, you may as well be my Valentine." This was disturbing to both of us and I sat back down to dwell about my life being over.

Today the prison began the day off lockdown and there were normal operations. However, in the mid afternoon I heard shouts of prisoners yelling "I.A. in the building!" I had just awakened from a nap and looked down to see a handful of the investigative unit looking around on the ground floor. They seemed to be searching for something small. I wondered if cell house help or a guard lost an item until they began to go through the pages of books left on a fire hose box and then mop rags hanging on a pipe. One man took a small flashlight and looked inside the hot air vents where last year a shank or prison-made knife was found. The silly randomness of their search made me think it was an act. About a half hour later a guard claimed he found a shank in the shower drain. I highly doubt he found anything. Either I.A. planted the piece of steel or they had a snitch tell them where to look. In another cell house I.A. just happened to find other knives by coincidence.

It is late Friday evening as I write and the prison is now on a strict level 1 lockdown. Everyone is locked in their cells and the telephones have been collected. Guards passed out dinner trays and later picked up trash. I sense that a full lockdown was what prison authorities wanted. In my cellmate's newspaper there is an article about how the union is still complaining about the closure of Tamms Supermax. They contend that there is overcrowding and lack of staff which has led to an increase in violence and danger in the IDOC. The loss of isolating confinement at Tamms is exasperating the problems. This is a farce as much as I believe the lockdown is.

The truth is the Illinois Department of Corrections has never been safer since I was sent to the penitentiary in 1995. Furthermore, there is more than double and possibly triple the amount of staff there was in the 1990's. Maximum security prisons have always had weapons and violence has always been common. Before the turn of the century, nearly everyone had a shank on their being and security personnel should be satisfied now that there are only comparatively few and they are hidden away. The diminished amount of violence is a radical departure from the past. Convicts who have been incarcerated a couple of decades or more joke how Stateville is a protective custody unit. In fact, protective custody in the 90's was extremely violent compared to general population in 2013.  Drew Peterson, an ex-cop with a very high profile murder conviction, can probably be housed at Stateville without much problem, if any, I told my cellmate. I hope Peterson refuses P.C. and is transferred to Stateville because I think he would be an amusing character. Plus, I may be able to get an interview for my blog.

Logan C.C is being cleared out to make room for female prisoners from Dwight. This, of course, is going to cause overcrowding in the system. From what I have read, prisons that are medium security now are being set up with dormitories in their gymnasiums just as in minimum security prisons. The IDOC is well beyond its capacity, but this has been true for a decade. Illinois could not build enough prisons to keep the number of inmates coming in confined as designed. Maximum-security is not supposed to have cells doubled up and yet even Segregation is doubled. The solution to this is not more guards or prisons. It is fewer inmates.

If the guards union and the IDOC were not self-serving, they would be lobbying for sentencing reform. Any potential increase in the danger within prisons is due to men increasingly being sentenced to natural life without parole or other similar sentences that mean they will die in prison. The prison system in Illinois is being filled with thousands of convicts who have no hope of ever being released. What type of control can guards have when the majority of inmates have nothing to lose? Possibly, if sentences were reasonable and inmates had incentives to behave, the violence prison officials portend would rarely occur. Nonviolent offenders only have to do half their time if they do not misbehave. They can also earn good time credits to reduce their sentences. This, if applied universally, would greatly influence prisoners' behavior as well as solve the problem of overcrowding.


  1. They said in the local news that former officer Peterson had stopped off overnight at Stateville but was then transferred to "the thunderdome" (so-called), at Pontiac CC. I read in one article that "PC" was a possible classification for him, obviously given his status as a former cop for many years. Paul, a question without any disrespect intended, you are able to maintain your hygiene with only daily "baths" in the sink? I guess maybe on the outside more people should try that to conserve water. I was surprised to read, unless I misread it, that you had not actually hit the shower room since last year. I can't say I blame you there, but, just wondering if it is in fact as "effective" that way for a reasonably full-body clean. Nice blogs as always, keep in touch.

    1. You did not misread the post. I have not taken a shower since last year. It may seem like I could not clean myself as well bathing out of the sink, but I believe I can. The showers, by the way, do not work well and either dribble out water or spray it haphazardly in various directions. These are not the showers most people think of that are in their homes or at hotels. See my post "Stateville Showers" for more information.

  2. Drove by the empty Dwight prison the other day. Heard some kind of rumor that Cook County may need to open and rent Dwight because of the anticipated overcrowding at the Cook County Jail.

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