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Monday, April 15, 2013

Conversation with a Religious Volunteer -- March 24, 2013

On weekends, there will occasionally be religious volunteers or missionaries who will wander the galleries of the prison. They will often offer Christian literature or discussion about Scripture. Typically, I will ignore them or tell them I do not care for the illusive spiritualism they offer. However, yesterday, I noticed an old white man who looked like the Star Wars character Obi-Wan Kenobi. I was just about finished eating a turkey-soy burger and was bored. The old man with the appearance of actor Alec Guinness seemed to be an interesting person to engage. Since I was a child, I have been a Star Wars fan. Maybe he could entertain me with stories or the powers of "The Force."

From outside my cell bars, the man asked me how I was doing. I told him I was the living dead. He spoke with an odd accent and I was not certain if he understood what I said. He also seemed to give me an expression of puzzlement and so I said, "zombie" and illustrated by holding out my hands with a blank look. Often I am told I appear expressionless or stoic and I exaggerated my performance for maximum effect. Apparently, I did not need to do so and the man told me he knew what I meant. He seemed to want to know why I felt this way, as if my captivity in a maximum security prison was not enough. I told him I had been incarcerated 20 years and will most likely die in prison. It was a miserable and meaningless existence.

Having spoken to other religious people before who proselytize in penitentiaries, I should have known his response. It was the same dumb and rehearsed response they give time and time again. I expected more from Obi-Wan Kenobi and was disappointed he could not deliver some better morsel of wisdom. People on the outside have little to no perspective of what it is like to live behind these walls. Those who are religious zealots are blinded by their faith or hypocrites. I wonder if the tables were turned how much comfort they would take in their message. The answer I received was: "Although you are physically captive, your mind is free".

I told the man my mind and body were one. There is no spirit which transcends the flesh and if there was, I would have killed myself long ago. I am trapped here to suffer and die. All my ambitions, hopes, and dreams fade away with my physical being. It was a miserable and meaningless existence. He replied that I could be free and yet still miserable. This was of course a possibility, but it was an absurd consolation and I could not imagine my life being so wretched if I were not condemned to die in the Illinois Dept. of Corrections. Contrarily, I often daydream about what my life would have been like had I not been arrested at the age of 18. I asked the man how old he was and if he had a good or fulfilling 74 years of  life. I also asked about his accomplishments over the years and if he had a wife, children, and grandchildren.

Old men tend to like to talk about their past and my inquiries gave him an opportunity to do so. I know this not only from other elderly people, but myself as well. I may not be an old man in my 70s, however, I tend to think of my life as over. There is nothing currently which brings me joy nor do I have any future to look forward to. There is only the distant past. Usually, I will just reminisce in my thoughts about my childhood or teen years before I was arrested. At times, I will share a story with my cellmate when he is not too preoccupied with watching television. Other prisoners who have also been incarcerated decades will also enjoy telling a story from long ago. They will usually speak of prison which I care little to listen to. The old man outside my cell bars, however, had stories of a free man and he put down his black leather bound Bible on those bars to tell me a few of them.

He was born in the Ukraine in 1939 not long before the outbreak of World War II. Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union happened in 1941 when he was a small child and he remembers none of it. Through his parents he was told how they had hoped the Germans would be successful and liberate them from the Russians. Even after it became apparent the Wehrmacht sought to conquer rather than free, they still favored German rule over their current masters. The Soviet Union was the most cruel, oppressive and tyrannical state. The man told me of the barbarity of communism largely hidden behind the iron curtain when Russia was allowed to take over East Europe after Germany was crushed. He and his family witnessed the mass ethnic cleansing, state murders, and gulags of the Soviet regime. Often the U.S. liberal media is fixated on villainizing Nazi Germany and they ignore the atrocities of Stalin and communism. However, the man I spoke with had no such misconceptions. He had a fervent hatred of the USSR and told me how his family was eventually able to escape its grip.

Fortunately for my father's grandparents, they immigrated to the United States before the war and tyranny of communism I told the man. I explained to him I knew a great deal about history and my family's ancestry. A young woman I used to write even searched the Internet to learn the Modrowski line could be traced all the way to the early 1700's Prussia. Other distant relatives of mine did not immigrate, however, and lived under the yoke of Soviet rule. I also was aware of the hardship, oppression, and strife in Eastern Europe and not just through books or news. I tended to believe the Ukrainian was attempting to illustrate to me how life could be miserable for those outside prison.

Yet despite how my direct descendants and I had escaped communism, I grew up in an America which was becoming the police state it had so fiercely once fought and distinguished itself from. Ironically, as the Soviet Union imploded, the prison industrial complex was being built in the U.S. There are more people incarcerated in the U.S. than any other country in the world. There may be more wrongfully convicted people here as well, and I was one of them.

I tend to believe the prison visitor still sought to minimize how my life was not so relatively terrible or to show he could empathize with me by telling me two of his wives had died and his third was in the hospital currently with heart troubles. However, the fact he had been able to have three wives only emphasized how much opportunity and a long rich life he had. It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. The longest relationship I ever had was a courtship through the mail while in prison. I have been incarcerated since my teens and although I was fortunate to date a lot of girls, I never had a chance to marry. I have no children either, let alone the many grandchildren the person preaching spiritualism had.

During our conversation, I learned he was a chemist and he traveled frequently in his retirement. I know chemists make a good wage and mentioned how it must be nice to travel the world. He downplayed his salary and said he was no longer as motivated as he once was to vacation or do many other things and he began to tell me about an old Polish prisoner who no longer cares to leave the prison. He was content to live behind bars until he died. The man he spoke of I knew as well. He was in a different cell house at one time with me. I recall how when he was first placed in the cell he had some urgent problem and a guard came to me to help translate. I do not speak Polish, however, and only know how to say hello and a few other words.

The Polish man was in his mid-70s and was never going to live long enough to see his outdate. From his former cellmate, I was told he was once a taxi cab driver in Chicago and was convicted of murdering one of his passengers he had gotten in a dispute with. He had many health problems and I am surprised he is still alive. Several years ago, I would occasionally sit at the same table in the chow hall with him. His hands were so arthritic that he had difficulty eating and would regularly spill food on the front of his shirt. In sign language, I tried to tell him the objective was to get the food into his mouth. He would break out in a hearty laugh. I learned he had a pacemaker when he batted away a guard who was trying to wand him with a metal detector. He had troubles walking to and from the chow hall and occasionally would grab onto the cyclone fence to catch his breath. Once he had to use the toilet when returning from chow but the movement correctional officer refused to give him permission to leave the line. After cursing at him in Polish, he walked past the guard ignoring him. The guard went to grab him but a cell house guard saw him and told the other guard to just let him go. The old Polish man was regularly breaking minor rules. The last I heard, staff had gotten mad at him for stuffing his clothes with so much food when leaving the chow hall, but he continued to do so because he could not eat fast. As a punishment, guards strip searched him to confiscate all his food. The old Polish man threw his shit stained underwear in one of their faces. The Ukrainian did not know why the last time he spoke with him he was in Segregation, but I did.

I agreed with my visitor that I may similarly not care anymore one day. Sometimes, I will point or gesture toward a man named Pete and tell my cellmate that in 30 years he may be my future. Pete is another old Caucasian man who will never get out of the prison. He is near 70 and is a tall, thin and gaunt figure with gray hair. He has an odd gait and walks around stiff but with an irregular limp. Pete is also going senile and can be just as slow mentally as physically. I refer to Pete as the cartoon character Bullwinkle because of their similar goofy voices. I may be like Bullwinkle in the future but hopefully I am not as dull witted or have that silly voice.

Recently I spoke to a cell house worker named Spooncake. He told me his lawyer had sent him a bill drafted by the Illinois legislature to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling prohibiting LWOP for juvenile offenders. States across the country are crafting devious statutes to get around the judicial order such as eliminating natural life but replacing it with a term of years no human could possibly serve. In Illinois, I am told their idea is to make life parolable but only after 15 years. If parole is denied, the juvenile offender will get a second chance after serving another 15 years. If he or she is denied parole twice, they will spend the rest of their lives in prison. I told Spooncake I thought the bill was preposterous because there is no cap and the state can just simply decide never to release any of them. I also was curious what the bill had planned for those who had already served over 15 years. He said he would bring me a copy to look at. Spooncake was a lookout for a double homicide when he was 14 years old and has been incarcerated almost as long as me.

In my discussions with the Ukrainian man, he had seemed to insinuate he had turned to the Bible for moral direction and thought it may help prisoners turn away from crime. I was not for certain and thus asked him directly why he was at Stateville. I explained to him nearly everyone at this prison had natural life without a chance of parole or an equivalent sentence, and regardless if he changed someone's belief system, it would not matter. They were not going to get any second chances. Usually, Christian missionaries will quickly answer that they are here to save souls as if the flesh and spirit that resides within were separable. Another answer is that even a condemned man in this life can be redeemed in the next. Fortunately, the elderly man did not give me such stupid answers. Possibly, he was wise enough to discern I would never believe in such supernatural abstractions or he did not quite believe in them himself. He simply told me because he lived in Venezuela for a decade before migrating to the U.S., he could speak Spanish. The chaplaincy had a need for people who could discuss Scripture to the large and growing population of Mexican inmates.

I appreciated that this elderly man was more practical and down to Earth than most other religious volunteers who did rounds in the prison. He did not seek confessions or prayer. He also did not want to read verses of the Bible to me nor did he profess scripture as the answer to everything. Not long ago I watched the movie "The Outlaw Josey Wales" which was played by Clint Eastwood. A man in the film continued to preach about the wonders of his elixir. He claimed it could virtually cure any illness or problem. Eventually, Josey Wales had enough of his yapping and spit a wad of chewing tobacco on his suit. He said, "How good is it with stains?" This is often the sentiment I have with Bible thumpers and those trying to sell me their faith. If these people really cared, they would offer their practical assistance and not prayers, Scripture, or salvation for the spirit. My salvation was in this world and in the flesh. For me it meant freedom from imprisonment.

Apparently, the Star Wars impersonator lost track of time and was concerned when I told him it was 2:00. He was supposed to check out of the cell house before the hour. Quickly he said farewell and left without trying to give me any religious literature or a prayer. I did not even get a "and the Force be with you." However, I felt more for the man for not doing so. Even if he was not Obi-Wan Kenobi, he was an interesting man to meet and I do not feel like I squandered a half hour talking to him. My cellmate seemed surprised I bothered to engage him in conversation. It was unusual for me but I sought a break from the monotony which can regularly accompany life in prison.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Visit on the First Day of Spring -- March 20, 2013

This morning, I was uncertain if the penitentiary would be on lockdown. Yesterday, there was restrictive movement while the tactical team searched another cell house. The reason for the search was unknown to me and I furthermore did not know if it would be expanded to other units. I was expecting a visit, but it may be cancelled. The administration often prohibits or limits visits during lockdowns. Last week my father had told me of his plans to come and he may be joined by my mother and sister. My father's physical health has been deteriorating rapidly and I do not see him as often as I once did. I was looking forward to visiting with him and was pleased to learn SORT had completed their search. The prison was back to normal operations.

Early in the morning, an announcement was made over the cell house loudspeaker for assignments to get ready for work details. This was soon followed by a law library standby and the list of men who were permitted to go. A guard went down the gallery asking prisoners if they wanted to get a haircut at the barbershop school. I turned my head gesturing no. All too often I have received bad haircuts by the inexperienced students and prefer to cut my hair myself. Regardless, I had a lot to do this morning before my visit arrived.

I began my exercise regimen at 8 a.m. at the front of the cell near the bars. My cellmate was sleeping behind me on his top bunk. It was cramped living with another person in such a confined space, but I try to be as considerate as possible. To cover the noise I made, I turned my fan on high and placed it on a nearby table. The first half hour I did strength exercises using my own body weight or my property box for resistance. As details and other prisoners were let out of their cells, the noise level went up considerably and this is when I did my more noisy and vigorous cardiovascular workout. Despite how loud the cell house had become, for the last part of my exercises I took off my shoes. My socks were quieter and even the stomping I did on the concrete floor could not be heard over the yelling and commotion in the building.

While I exercised, I often faced out toward the bars and out the cell house windows. The windows were large but they were opaque and covered in years of grime. Although they are not clear, I could see prisoners lining up on the concrete walk to go to the library, assignments, and elsewhere. Beyond them were some barren prison grounds extending to the wall. In the 1980's, Stateville had a large grounds crew that kept this land lavishly decorated with flowers and decorative plants. The only thing which remains now is a few short fir trees. Their needles were brown and they looked dead. Possibly they may green when the temperatures rise, but for now they look lifeless.

It was the first day of spring despite the winter weather which continued. On the morning news, I watched while eating breakfast, were reports of snowstorms in the U.S. Even the Chicagoland area was supposed to have snow later in the day. Earlier in the week, I heard of people suggesting Punxatawny Phil, a celebrity groundhog, should be killed and eaten. The groundhog predicted winter was over with on February 2nd. I do not think anyone takes the groundhog's purported prediction seriously, but the yearly ritual was clearly a focus of absurdity by news media this year.

After bathing out of my sink, I dressed and began to read financial newspapers and reports. The stock market continued its upward trajectory on a wave of unprecedented Federal Reserve stimulus and low interest rates. Corporate reports for the first quarter were complete and I was attempting to discern how long the run on stocks would continue. Chow lines were run out of the cell house but I did not stir. The prison was serving yet another disgusting meal and with my expectation of a visit, I could eat my lunch then. Many prisoners will gorge on vending machine food while on visits. The food, however, in the machines is usually not much better, in my opinion. There were plenty of snacks and high fat unhealthy food. I was rather finicky about what I ate and stayed away from such junk. Sometimes, I will refrain from eating anything on my visit and will wait until I get back to my cell. My property box has commissary food. If I were lazy, I would just eat a tuna or sardine sandwich.

My father was rather punctual and thus as I read I was already dressed and ready to leave whenever my name was called over the loudspeaker. Rather than announce my visit, however, a guard yelled up to my cell from the lower floor. A lieutenant also stepped out of the office which is almost directly below and asked if I was ready to leave. I nodded yes, so as to not disturb my cellmate and it was apparent I was waiting when he saw me dressed in prison blues. The lieutenant yelled to the guard he should have already known I would be ready to leave. I regularly receive visits and almost always at the same time and day of the week.

Not long thereafter the guard came upstairs and unlocked the sliding cell barred door. As soon as it was opened my cellmate got up as if he was waiting for me to leave. My cellmate was eager to enjoy some cell time to himself and I do not blame him. I do not leave the confines of the cage we share often, and am somewhat of a hermit. It is annoying and uncomfortable always being in close proximity with another person and not having any privacy. Even with a person you get along with, there is a need to have space. I should make more of an effort to do this, but I disdain prison life and am a recluse.

It was chilly outside of the cell house. The temperature was in the low 30s and there was a slight wind. Gray skies that matched the monolith prison building reminded me of a huge mausoleum. It was nearly a 100 foot high and over a city block long. About a thousand prisoners, most without a chance to ever be freed, were contained within. I walked through a corridor of high cyclone fencing topped with razor wire besides the main prison building. An escorting guard walked with me until we reached another building and what is known as Gate 5. Gate 5 was the first of five gates leading to the free world.

Both of the visiting rooms at the prison are now being used and there was a line of Stateville as well as NRC inmates waiting to be strip searched. Inmates from the Northern Receiving Center (NRC) have grown in number and they now far exceed those who reside beyond the wall. There are nearly 2,500 NRC inmates and many are bussed to Pontiac or are left in the Cook County Jail due to the overflow. NRC inmates formerly only waited a couple of weeks to be processed and sent to penitentiaries, but now are sometimes held there for half a year. There is no space in the IDOC for more prisoners and bunks are being set up in the basements and gymnasiums of minimum and medium security prisons. I appreciate that the prison administration has opened the other visiting room to accommodate the prisoners from NRC, but there was still only one strip search room and at the time I arrived only one guard conducting the searches.

I was waiting in line for over a half hour and during this time a guard at gate 2 informed me my visitors were waiting. I assumed as much but for some reason I have yet been able to discern, I must be strip searched going in for a visit. Eventually, the guard working the strip search room let me and another prisoner in. The room is a little larger than a prison cell and it has a few chairs lined up for inmates to place their clothes on. It also has a small table and chair in the corner for a guard to sit on. A fat guard was conducting the searches and it was apparent he did not want to work there. Many guards disdain looking at naked men all day and going through their clothing. Some prisoners are not hygienic and have dirty underwear or bad body odor. Ironically, this time it was the guard who smelled foul after passing gas. He turned on a ventilation fan but it like many things at Stateville did not work. Rather than pardoning himself, he attempted to blame me. I was amused by his childish deflection of blame and when I went to leave, I told him I was going to allow him to savor his flatulence by closing the door behind me.

I had a special side room visit in one of the legal rooms due to my father's disabilities. My father is very old and has a number of medical problems. He can barely hear and even with a hearing aid he is virtually deaf when in the crowded general population visiting room. Furthermore, he has severe arthritis and most problematic is a disintegrating spine. A couple of neck surgeries have left him even worse off than before and when I saw him he was wearing a large neck brace. It was sad to see the once robust father I knew as a teen before my arrest had become a crippled old man. I gave him a hug but did not pat him too hard on the back thinking I may break something.

The legal rooms are off the main hallway between gates 2 and 3. They are about 10 by 18 feet and have a large pressboard table in the center with plastic chairs on both sides. A barred window which can be opened is on the far wall, but due to the cold it was closed and an old radiator emitting heat and steam was underneath it. The legal rooms are better to visit in because of the noise and crowds in the visiting rooms which can bother me immensely. It is like a zoo and almost unbearable. The table and chairs are also an improvement to the miniature foot-high tables and uncomfortable steel stools. It is unfortunate I cannot have all my visits in these isolated rooms.

I spent about half of my 2 hour visit talking to or listening to my parents discuss a home my father had found to his liking in South Carolina. From what he described, the rustic home in the countryside with several acres of land seemed appealing. However, both my mother and I were skeptical if he was up to the challenge. Many of the things he sought to do or would like to do are now beyond his physical capabilities. How would he maintain such a large estate or be as active outdoors as he wanted? Furthermore, I knew although my father was nonsocial like myself, my mother was not and most of her family was here in Illinois. I knew the social support my mother had was good for her and she would be unhappy elsewhere. If I were free, I could assist my parents in their old age, but from prison I was impotent. I even could not come to a conclusion about what was best for them having been beyond the wall for so long. How well do I know them or the world outside of prison?

During my visit, I saw a lieutenant I know outside in the hallway and waved for him to come in. I wanted to introduce him to my parents. He came into the room and chatted for a little while. Possibly, it was odd I think now in retrospect. I have spent so many years in prison, I have come to know and be acquainted with my captors almost as much as my family. Gang members and many convicts would probably look at me with disdain for consorting with the "enemy" let alone introducing them to my parents like a friend. Prisoners are housed and treated like animals if not sometimes worse. We live in cages in the most deplorable and oppressive conditions. The conditions in the maximum security prisons of Illinois cannot be found in nearly the entire Western world. However, for the most part of my incarceration, I have much less animosity towards those who work in the prison system than those who are responsible for me being here.

While I was talking to my father, my mother went downstairs into the visiting room to see if there was any food I would like in the vending machines. She returned with some chicken wings, an egg roll, and a blueberry bagel. The vending machines are always filled with barbecue chicken wings and they are popular among many prisoners at Stateville. However, it was very rare that there would be an egg roll or bagel. I had not eaten an egg roll in decades and it is something I cannot ever recall being served in prison. Recently, bagels were donated to the prison but there were purportedly not enough of them to be served to the entire prison population. Only guards and kitchen workers had access to them. Some prisoners on special diets were given them for breakfast once or twice. I was able to get one of those diet trays but the bagel was plain and not as good as the one I ate on my visit. My mother asked if I wanted it heated in one of the microwave ovens, but this was not necessary. I have become accustomed to eating cold food. My parents often think they can make me happy with some food as if this will make up for all the injustice and misery I have endured. It is nice they care, but it is an insignificant trifle.

What is important to me is the progression of my appeal. It has still yet to be filed and much of the investigative work I want goes undone. My attorney has procrastinated working on my case and has persuaded my parents seeking new evidence is not worth the money or will not strengthen my issues. I tend to believe she wants to focus on a few things believing less is more. However, I have heard that before and it did not work out so well. More is more, and the greater my evidence of innocence is, the better. Why should I not present everything I can before the court? I asked my mother for about the tenth time for the address or phone number of a private investigator. It is apparent to me my parents want to maintain in control despite their declining mental and physical faculties. It is incredibly frustrating to be dependent on others and I assume this is a common feeling amongst prisoners who are fighting their conviction in a very adverse criminal justice system.

On the return from my visit, I took a nap. Visits regularly can leave me exhausted. Despite not having to deal with the packed visiting room, it was greatly taxing. Seeing my parents in such poor health and being unable to do anything for them was upsetting. It was upsetting also they are not willing to help me with my appeal. Do they wish to die before their son can be exonerated? Have they given up hope? Would they rather buy me overpriced vending machine food than pay the fees for diligent counsel and outreach? I am slowly dying in prison and they are almost in the grave. The sands in the hour glass are almost gone. As I write this post I can see the snow falling in the night. Today was supposed to be the first day of spring and yet it seems like a long dark winter remains before me.

Friday, April 5, 2013

A New Phone System -- March 16, 2013

Last week, a new phone system was installed at the penitentiary. Securus is basically the same as the prior company which processed inmates' collect calls, but it gives men the ability to set up their own accounts. It is also purportedly cheaper, although I have not as yet been able to verify the cost. The most visible change has been the new smaller handsets which are now in the cell houses for prisoners to use. Inmates were only given a week's notice of the switch in telephone services and many people were initially confused or angry. There is a perception every institutional change is made to the detriment of prisoners. I was not greatly concerned about the new phone system because I have become accustomed to being at the mercy of my captors and the phone was a small issue compared to other injustices or oppressions. If the new system was more expensive or problematic, I would simply cease to use it. I had previously boycotted using the phone for a decade and have few people to call anymore after being incarcerated 20 years. Since Securus has been installed, I have had a couple of minor difficulties placing calls and learned of one new restriction. However, there is generally not much of a difference and I completed my first phone call earlier today.

In late February, a memo was posted on the prison's cable network. I did not notice it until my cellmate brought it to my attention. Channel 17 is typically a blank blue screen and therefore I had deleted it. The fewer channels I have, the quicker I can discern what is on television or turn to a specific station. Remote controls are not allowed in prison and the cheap plastic channel buttons on my TV are close to breaking. Therefore I only programmed the 15 channels I watch most frequently and channel 17 is not one of them.

The memorandum to prisoners found on channel 17 was very vague and left most people confused. It basically said a new phone system was going to be used, but was very short on details. What little description and instructions given were also not articulated well. Immediately, my cellmate began to speculate what it meant and he was not happy. Other prisoners who I overheard talking about the memo also advanced their interpretations. Over the years, changes in the IDOC have predominantly been made to increase control and make inmates' lives more miserable. It was no surprise the majority of prisoners thought negatively of the new phone service. Although the memo said the change was meant to "modernize" the current system, the word was not well received and apparently brought with it the same connotations I associate with the U.S. president's use of "forward" during his reelection campaign. The company's name "Securus" which was obviously associated with the word security did not help with prisoners' perceptions.

Personally, I did not draw any conclusions from the memorandum. A customer service phone number was given and I wrote this down. In a letter to my parents, I told them to call and find out more information. Prisoners were unable to call themselves despite it being a free 800 number. All phone numbers must gain approval before being called. A call will not even go through unless the number has been approved and processed into the system. Prisoners must fill out a form which includes not only the phone number, but the name of the person, their address, age, race, and relationship. At Stateville, it can take a few weeks to have a new phone number added.

The current phone system was already highly controlled and monitored. When I read the memo, I was not certain how the prison administration could make it more secure. Inmates not only had to submit phone numbers and various information about the owner for approval, but they were given a three digit PIN to add to their institutional number when placing calls. Prisoner Identification Numbers were used by Internal Affairs to identify inmates. All calls were recorded and kept forever in a data base which security personnel could review at any time. The data base is organized by caller, time, date and various other ways to efficiently assist those using it. A prisoner told me they even have a special recording system which is used when certain key words are said. I know N.S.A. has such a filter to monitor calls and texts going in and out of the U.S., however, I tend to believe IDOC does not nor has a use for it.

The current phone system also is able to cut off the phone privileges of prisoners. Inmates who are punished with segregation may not only have very limited access to the phone but their access cut off altogether. Incarcerated men are prohibited from allowing others to use their PIN and can be held responsible for its misuse by others. I have never heard of anyone ever getting punished for putting another inmate on the line to talk with someone they had called, but I have heard of disciplinary action taken for making 3-way calls for another person.

The PIN system was put in place in the late 1990s. Prisoners despised having to submit a list of numbers to be approved and the lack of anonymity. Before, prisoners could call anyone they wanted and as many people as they wanted without restriction. Phone calls were always monitored, but they were not recorded in connection with a specific person. They also did not automatically disconnect after a half hour and therefore force a person to place yet another collect call with its large acceptance fee if they wanted to talk longer. Inmates at the prison I was at previously came together and vowed to boycott the new phone system. However, after a period of time, inmates caved in and began to use the phone when it became apparent the administration did not care. Despite this, I continued to refuse to use the new system and a decade passed before I did.

When a person is arrested, they typically have a number of friends and family to talk with. However, when sentenced to indefinite incarceration and years pass by, there are fewer and fewer people who you want to talk with or who want to talk to you. I have never been a social person and the boycott was not a major sacrifice for me. In fact, it was good to put people outside the wall behind me. My future was in prison and I had little faith in my appeals despite how unjust my conviction was. There is a lot of anguish trying to keep relationships intact from inside a prison and I have seen many men greatly upset that these crumble away with time. Prisoners are powerless to keep even bonds with their wives or children from dissolving.

What finally made me use the phone again was that I had been writing a woman for a couple of years. She was in an Indiana prison for a D.U.I. conviction. I had gotten her address from a penpal list another prisoner had and was going to throw out. He was furious that he paid money for a list of women who were incarcerated like him. I thought contrarily that it was great because I did not have to worry about them having sex with other men and they would be similarly situated. However, I wrote Krista pretending to be a free man. As our relationship progressed, I became increasingly bothered that eventually my fantasy would be shattered when she was released. In fact, I was sad I could not pick her up from the gates of the prison. I owed her an explanation and thus collected all the most terrible newspaper clippings I could find about my arrest and conviction and sent them to her. I thought she would never want to have anything to do with me again but oddly she told me her feelings had not changed. I knew the relationship was not going to work out but I promised I would call. Possibly, she thought it would be harder for me to say goodbye over the phone or maybe she just wanted to know what my voice sounded like. Regardless, that was the first time I used the phone in about 10 years and the last time I ever had any communication with Krista.

On March 7th, the new phone system was installed at Stateville. A guard announced over the loudspeaker the phones would probably be inoperable for the day. Since the memo was posted on the TV, a few inmates had gotten ahold of a written description of the changes. They were not passed out, but apparently posted at some job assignment areas. My cellmate had been given a copy which I read. The written memorandum was more detailed and from it I got the impression there was little distinction between the new and the old systems. Apparently, Securus allowed prisoners to prepay their accounts and this way those they called would not be charged. This was appealing to me because I recall a time a woman regularly wanted me to call her and it bothered me immensely that she had to pay for my collect calls. I sent her $100 through my trust fund account, although she was reluctant to accept it. Securus is also different in that it seems to allow people who accept the collect calls to be billed by their phone company or theirs. I am not certain to this day whether Securus just passes their bill to the called party's telephone company or if there is a different rate. Securus says they charge $4.10 a call. It does not mention local or long distance rates and I got the impression it did not matter. The $4.10 charge is also the same flat fee whether you speak one minute or the full half hour. This is a better price than the other phone service which had varying rates for weekends and weekdays, day or night, as well as for the time you spent connected. A local call on the cheapest time and day of the week formerly cost $4 for one minute graduating to $5.25 for 30 minutes, plus several kinds of taxes.

After I made the call to Krista, I did not use the phone again for a long time. It was odd talking into the plastic receiver and I had little to say or people to say anything to. Eventually though, I met another woman who wanted to talk to me and considering she lived in Europe she was not able to visit often. This relationship, however, was doomed like all the others. I was in prison for the rest of my life. How many women are willing to be faithful to a man in prison? How long until they lose interest or the division causes too much grief? Now, I will only call my parents or sister occasionally. Once in a great while I will call a relative or my attorney.

Last Saturday, I called home and was concerned when no one answered. I called several times during the day and usually my parents will pick up. Due to their ages and health problems, I wondered if one was in the hospital or worse, the morgue. I had not spoken to or seen anyone in my family for a few weeks and did not know what to make of the unaccepted calls. The phone service's recorded message said the calls went through but no buttons were pressed suggesting an answering machine or voice mail. It was not until this week that I learned my parents intentionally did not pick up because the new phone system identifies the call as coming from an 800 number. Apparently, this means a telemarketer or salesman is calling and they do not bother answering the phone. Eventually, they checked their answering machine messages and heard the recording from Securus and knew it had been me calling, but by then it was too late.

When I made my first call, the phone system records your name to repeat it to the person who answers the phone. I was misinformed by another prisoner that for each call the service will ask for your name. To prevent inmates from saying quick messages and not their names, however, I was only asked once. Now, whoever I call will just hear "Paul," and not my full name as before. No one in my family knows anyone in prison but me, but if I were to call my lawyer or someone else in the future, they may not know who I am. Thus, I asked my counselor if the new phone system's recording could be reset so I could say my complete name. She did not know nor did she care to find out. Apparently, I will have to contact Securus myself.

When I returned from my visit on Wednesday, a prisoner whose bars I went to while waiting to be locked in my cell told me to look at the new phones. I do not know if the IDOC, the inmate trust fund, or the new phone service provided them but inside the cell houses there are now black handset telephones. They do not have any unique features from the previous phones, but they are much more convenient to move and use than the large desk top phones. Often those phones would be broken by inmates dropping them. The handset phones can be passed through the cell bars easier and although they are also made of cheap thin plastic, they seem to be less prone to damage.

The main problem with these phones is that the cords are regularly shorting out. Long cords connect the phone to a few outlets in the ceiling of the gallery. A phone is regularly moved back and forth on the long gallery of cells. The wires become tangled, stepped on, ripped out, and twisted. Considering how many cords are broken and need to be replaced, it may have been worth the extra expense to provide the cell houses with cordless phones. This would certainly have been modernizing the phone system. I do not know how many people in 2013 still use phones with cords. It seems everyone but my parents use cell phones.

One of the extra security abilities of the new phone system is it immediately disconnects people who use the 3-way calling feature. Even if the person the prisoner calls switches over to another call momentarily, the call will be abruptly ended. Security personnel were probably interested in such a new phone service to control calls. Now there is no possibility an inmate can call someone who is not on their approved list, even with the assistance of the person they called. I do not have to ask to know that a lot of men are unhappy about this. It was nice for inmates to be able to connect with others without having to call them collect or go through the process of approval. I do not know if Securus has the capacity or permits calls to other countries, but the last one did not. In order to speak to someone in Europe I had to use 3-way or call forwarding. A large proportion of inmates in Illinois prisons are Mexican and have family or friends in Mexico. Apparently they will not be speaking to them any more.

Earlier today, I called home again and this time got through. I spoke to both my mother and father. They seemed pleased to hear from me and I made two 30-minute calls. I was informed they were going to visit me next week so long as their health holds up. I do not know how many more years they will be alive and it is nice to have the ability to keep in touch. Unfortunately, I cannot do this from beyond these prison walls.