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Saturday, September 7, 2013

Rainbows Over Stateville -- July 13, 2013

Life in prison can be monotonous and this week was no exception. Inmates were fed a very narrow diet due to food shortages and I regularly made my own meals in the cell. Every day, I exercised and read, oftentimes while listening to music or talk radio. As expected, a conceal and carry law was passed without the governor's approval, but he signed legislation limiting the prosecution of juveniles as adults. Occasionally, I watched television including coverage of the George Zimmerman trial. Counselors were rotated this month and I met with one of the two assigned to the cell block. Tuberculosis testing was conducted and the electric power went out several times as it commonly does during the peak of summer. I continue to seek out a private investigator and contemplate why I bother trying to overturn my conviction when I have already lost nearly everything. After 20 years of incarceration there is very little that inspires or strikes me as remarkable. However, yesterday I witnessed an extraordinary natural phenomenon. A bright double rainbow appeared over the penitentiary for nearly a half hour leaving many prisoners on the yard in awe.

Supplies in the kitchen have fallen to unprecedented low levels. My cellmate as well as other kitchen workers informed me the walk-in freezer and other storage rooms look almost barren. Nearly every night, third shift workers have prepared farina and waffles for breakfast. I do not mind waffles, but the tasteless mush cereal I can and often do without. For lunch and dinner the entire week the main courses were sausage, fish patty, baked chicken, or mystery meat salami. The slick meat or sausage were served every day and I skipped those meals. However, I did go out to the chow hall for chicken. On Sunday morning, I even stripped the thigh and leg bones of meat and brought it back to my cell to eat later.

The chicken sandwich was sufficient to appease my appetite for the afternoon, but not the entire day. In the evening, I made burritos for my cellmate and I with food we had purchased from the prison store. I used the counter along the wall opposite our bunks to prepare them while occasionally looking at Anthony's television. He was watching the popular TV reality show "Big Brother." I was pleased to see the beautiful college student from Texas win the "Head of Household" competition which gives her power to select contestants to be evicted from the game while being protected from elimination. Aaryn Gries seemed to be the target of the shows producers after making a few trivial racial remarks and jokes. The comments were completely overblown by CBS and now I hope the young woman wins the half million dollars.

After the show, a prison cell house worker came to the cell bars and gave us a birthday card to sign. The card was for a prisoner who goes by the name "Danger," but is occasionally called "Lunchbox" due to his child-like behavior and stupidity. He is on psychotropics as well as strong pain medication further accentuating perceptions he is retarded. I have known Danger for about half a year and he has told me much about his past and criminal conviction. After 6th grade, he left home to work for a carnival before becoming an intermittent construction worker and thief. He has a long history of drug abuse and violence which culminated with his arrest in 2006 for murder. This is his sixth time to the penitentiary and his last. Sentenced to 55 years, he will never be released from prison.

The birthday card was drawn by Joe Miller, a serial killer and rapist who was once on death row. The card depicted a sleazy prostitute performing fellatio and on the inside a number of convicts had made brief comments. Most of them were snide quips too vulgar to repeat here. I did not like Miller nor his crude pornographic drawing, but I also added my own joke. Danger was 40 years old this week and has no family or friends outside the prison. He may appreciate that a number of prisoners took the time to sign his card.

Much of my life is mundane and on Monday I washed my fan, gym shoes, and shorts. This was no easy task with a sink that dribbles out hot water and using my toilet bowl to rinse. It took me a half hour just to fill up my small property box part way with water and dismantle the fan without a screwdriver. Fans must be periodically cleaned or they will become clogged up with dirt, hair and blanket fuzz. In a huge cell house where about 300 men are confined, there is an incredible amount of dust and debris floating around. With laundry detergent the fan was easily wiped clean except for certain parts which were not easily accessible. The new shoes I bought are made mostly of a synthetic material rather than leather. The fabric becomes dirty quickly and cannot simply be wiped off. The fact that all gym shoes sold in the IDOC are white to prevent gangs from showing their colors makes the smallest mark of rust or dirt more obvious. Considering I hate imperfection, it seems I will be soaking and scrubbing them in laundry detergent regularly. At least they rinsed easily in the toilet and dried quickly with the fan blowing on them.

Wearing my clean shoes and shorts, I went to the large South yard on Tuesday. Despite being early in the day, it was humid and the heat index was well above 90 degrees. The few men who lifted weights quickly broke out in a sweat. The 300+ pound "Eclipse" only did a few sets before he quit and "orbited" the quarter mile track. During the yard period, a few electricians worked on a transformer just outside the perimeter fencing. They had to wear very heavy protective clothing and take many breaks. I mentioned to a muscular black man lifting weights near me who went by the name "Jughead" that they stood around doing nothing more than they worked. At Stateville though, laziness is customary for union workers whether it is a hot humid day or very cool and pleasant.

A couple of weeks ago, the electric power went out across the entire penitentiary for a few hours and since then there have been other sporadic outages. Most everything at the prison is very old and in bad condition. This week, I was informed an electrical company was contracted to fix a few transformers and some wiring. The power was turned off periodically in the following days for sections of the prison or in its entirety.

When I returned to the cell, my clothes were damp with sweat and I wanted to immediately bathe in the sink. However, my cellmate who had not gone out to the yard was using it. Apparently, after sleeping in he had gotten up to buzz his hair very short and was attempting to get all the shavings off his body. I undressed to my boxers and while I waited for him to finish, I ate a special breakfast tray he had sent in for me. The tray was a large serving of scrambled eggs with some toast. I ate my meal by the bars and listened to the Rush Limbaugh show. Afterwards, I thanked Anthony for the food but made fun of his hair cut.

Not long after I had been able to wash up, the new counselor stopped by the cell bars. He was a Caucasian man in his 40's, immaculately groomed and dressed. He may have even had a manicure. Some prisoners think he may be a homosexual, but I did not get this sense from him. Rather, he seemed very meticulous and orderly as well as thoughtful and intelligent. Prisoners may question his sexual orientation, but they were pleased counselors were rotated and he was now assigned to half of C House. This counselor is thought to be one of the best at Stateville and was a stark contrast to the previous one who was thought to be lazy and have a poor attitude. Personally, I never felt as if counselors were obliged to advise or help me in any capacity. I do know one of their duties is to respond to grievances and I may send this new counselor a couple regarding the delay of my mail and prescriptions. Even with the most competent counselors, however, the grievance procedure is largely a farce and I rarely waste my time anymore.

In the evening while watching coverage of the George Zimmerman trial, I heard a lot of yelling and commotion despite having on my headphones. Briefly, I went to my cell bars to see prisoners from an upper gallery standing on the staircase. I assumed they were having their cells searched. Earlier in the day while I was at yard, my cellmate told me cell house guards had searched several cells on our gallery including ours. My assumption, however, was incorrect and tuberculosis testing was being conducted. Usually prisoners will be tested around their birthdays every other year. This time, everyone in the cell house was being tested on the same day. In fact, I learned everyone in the penitentiary was tested for TB during the week. It was unusual and I asked the nurses conducting the tests if there was an outbreak. They claimed there was not and this was just a more efficient method. I agreed with them and mentioned how I think it should be done more often and for other communicable diseases that are common in the IDOC.

During the day Wednesday, I wrote a few more private investigators. Recently, I learned about a U.S. Supreme Court ruling which allows prisoners to file federal appeals even if they are submitted beyond the one year deadline so long as they are claims of actual innocence. The ruling is not very important to men incarcerated in Illinois because the state's highest court long ago ruled collateral appeals could be filed any time when there is newly discovered evidence of innocence. They key for me is "newly discovered" because much of the evidence I have refuting the interrogating officer's testimony was available at trial and was not used by my attorneys.

My cellmate is condemned to spend the rest of his life in prison as I am, and occasionally we will joke to make light of our hopeless and miserable existences. "The Eclipse" gave us an opportunity to turn our humorous, although disparaging, remarks about ourselves to him. The obese man had just returned from a court writ and was dressed in a huge bright yellow jumpsuit. Normally, I call the suit the banana suit but on him my cellmate thought he looked like a giant lemon. I turned around and could not help being amused. I chimed in that he was the Kool Aid Man and said, "Oh, yeah!" like on the commercials. Dave was going to ask my cellmate for some food, but upon all our jokes, he turned away.

Both on Thursday and Friday mornings, the electric power went out. I was annoyed because I was looking forward to watching the closing arguments in the Zimmerman trial live. Instead, I put some batteries in my Walkman and listened to the news as well as talk radio on WLS. As I expected, Governor Quinn's veto of the legislature's conceal and carry law was passed overwhelmingly on the 10th. What did surprise me, however, was the governor's threat to cut off the salaries of congress until they passed a bill curbing pensions. On the radio there was a debate of whether the governor had the authority to do this and how the state comptroller Judy Baar Topinka would react. According to the Illinois Constitution Article 4, Section 11, the salary of legislators cannot be changed during the term they have been elected. This was incorporated in the constitution to prevent law makers from increasing their salary without being accountable to the voters. Pat Quinn argues regardless he is not altering their pay, but merely suspending it until they come to an agreement. He seems to be technically correct and legislators may not see their paychecks for a long time despite separation of powers and Constitutional concerns. What I do not know is whether the state constitution allows for pension agreements with the state to be broken. Possibly, Illinois will have to consider bankruptcy as the city of Detroit is doing.

While the governor and legislature fight over guns and pension reform, they have come to an agreement about juveniles being prosecuted as adults. Formerly, anyone 17 or younger who was charged with a f3elony was automatically adjudicated as an adult. However, beginning on January 1st, those teenagers will remain in juvenile court system unless they are accused of murder, aggravated sexual assault, and a few offenses involving a firearm. Although I think this is a step in the right direction, I do not believe any teenager should be treated as an adult. The saying "adult time for adult crime" is ridiculous and I have seen numerous men who have been sentenced to life without parole or decades in prison for crimes that occurred before they were able to vote, drink, or smoke who are now radically different. I do not need scientific studies to illustrate how teens are less mature, neurologically developed, or thoughtful. It is also very obvious the rehabilitative potential of young offenders is far greater than adults.

The highlight of my week was yesterday when I left my cell to attend an evening yard period. Despite the cyclone fencing with razor wire, the gun tower, and the few rusted, bent iron bars and benches, I like the open space. Prisoners spend vast amounts of time confined to their cells in maximum security institutions. The large yard which could contain a couple of football fields can give men some semblance of freedom. What made Friday evening even more liberating was the exposure to the elements. The humidity felt throughout much of the week was lifted by strong winds. Dark storm clouds sped across the sky occasionally causing brief torrents of rain intermixed with sunshine.

It was unusual for there to be rain while the sun from the west was streaming through the clouds. After a downpour of rain which left many men attempting to scramble for cover, the precipitation suddenly stopped and to the east the largest rainbow I had ever seen appeared. From the yard, it looked like it went over the main housing unit which was over a city block long and 70 feet in height. The building regularly reminded me of an enormous mausoleum holding captive most the living dead of Stateville. The dull grey monolith eerily contrasted with the bright spectrum of colors over arching it not only once but twice.

The double rainbow caught not only my attention but everyone on the yard. Even the guard in the gun tower was staring at the phenomena. For some prisoners, the sight seemed to be a divine portent. As an atheist I knew the rainbows were simply a refraction of light on water vapor in the sky, however, there was something incredibly remarkable occurring. Every color of the light spectrum could be seen in two complete 180 degree arches. The coincidence of it appearing from our vantage point over the prison also seemed to convey a supernatural message. The rainbows were visible for nearly a half hour and men contemplated if there was any meaning to them. For condemned men, I knew there had to be thoughts of hope. I certainly hoped for the end of systematic injustice and oppressive captivity in Illinois and across America.


  1. The birthday card is a cool story itself. Funny.

  2. You should copyright the phrase Rainbows Over Stateville. Find a good lawyer to do this instead of the hacks you employed in the past. .

    1. If I could find a good lawyer, I would not be here!

    2. True. Glad your sense of humour and wit shines through. Keep writing.


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