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Friday, January 18, 2013

A Compatible Cellmate -- December 15, 2012

On the 11th, I was moved to another cell. The cell is different in many ways and it took me a while to adjust. It is located near the front of the gallery and because the stairs are on the other side, there is very little traffic. This is a blessing, but the sergeant's office is almost directly below and the guards and cell house workers can be noisy on occasion. Another trade off is that I now have a table and shelf but they take up space in the small rectangular cell. Exercising is difficult and I must be careful not to hit any of the steel edges. The cell sink dribbles out water and only for a second which is extremely annoying. I asked Anthony how he could live with the sink operating like this for so long. He says it doesn't bother him, but I asked a guard to put in a work order. Possibly it will be fixed in a couple of months.

Initially, it was difficult acclimating to the new cell and yet another cellmate. Even if you get along very well with someone, it is not easy living in a closet with anyone. Anthony has an odd schedule due to working the midnight shift in the kitchen. Although he told me to keep my same routine and not worry about waking him while he is sleeping during the day, there are various things like exercising that I do not want to do when he is resting. I attempted to synchronize my schedule to his, but I have been unable to keep his hours.

It has been odd to have a cellmate who shares similar interests and I can interact with. At Stateville, I have typically been celled with men I have nothing in common with, are obnoxious, hostile, or like James, insane. With Anthony I can have intelligent conversations about politics, history, science, or various other subjects. He is also not overly social, though, and we can keep a proper balance. Prison can be immensely stressful and Anthony gives me time to myself. He is rarely distracting and has his own preoccupations. He does not need a cellmate to share his time with, although sometimes we will.

Anthony Mertz is the first compatible cellmate I have been assigned in years. Initially it was difficult adjusting to a new cell and cellmate after being with Bobby for nearly a year. However, having known and interacted with him since the autumn of 2011, it was much easier and comfortable acclimating to the change. Despite his murder conviction of a young college woman which put him on death row for about a decade, I get along well with him and we share a number of common interests. It is a relief not to be trapped in the small confines of hostile, disruptive, or mildly insane man. In the maxium-security prisons of Illinois, a compatible cellmate can make a world of difference. I prefer to have a single man cell where I can be by myself, but at a place like Stateville, Anthony is one of the best men I could be celled with.

He is a Caucasian man roughly the same age as me. He is also nearly the same height and build, although I will sometimes call him the Pillsbury doughboy because he is pudgy. He has extra body fat and lacks the chiseled physique I expect men to have. Every now and then I will poke him with my remote control TV stick half expecting him to make a giggle like the biscuit company's cartoon character. He keeps his dark hair very short as if he was still in the Marine Corps. Like me, he keeps a well ordered property box and cell. I greatly dislike cellmates who are sloppy and collect clutter, thus, I am happy by his organization. Some prisoners have commented that we could be brothers. However, I believe this impression is in part due to the fact most of Stateville's inmates are black or Hispanic.

The cell I was moved into is located on the other side of the long gallery. It is actually the third cell from the wall and because of this there is little traffic. However, this benefit is negated by being almost directly above the sergeant's office. Guards will sometimes be noisy as well as inmate workers. Cell house workers have all their supplies on the ground floor on this side of the building. There also seems to be louder prisoners in this area and I will hear radios, televisions, and shouting more often, particularly from a Cuban inmate who goes by the name "Smiley." Smiley is generally a friendly person as his nickname implies, but he is very social. He was my cellmate years ago in another cell house for a few months. He asked to be moved to be with another Hispanic inmate and also because I was so quiet. We have almost polar opposite personalities.

Miguel who swapped bunks with me was not happy with the move. He did not want to live with the crazy disheveled old man who looked like a homeless person. When he was told about the move, he ripped off all the hooks and pegs on the wall to take with him. Thus, one of the first things I had to do after ordering my property and unpacking was to make new fixtures. With cardboard squares, paper clips and glue, I adhered five hooks to the back cell walls so my cellmate and I had somewhere to hang our wet bath towels, wash clothes, and clothes. I also made a new hook for a privacy sheet when we wash up in the sink or use the toilet. Finally, I made several cardboard squares with twister ties to tie up cable and electric cords along with one for my Walkman. This way I can take down and move the Walkman easily if I want to.

I use my Walkman regularly throughout the day and was glad I was able to fix it last month. Cassette tapes, especially the longer ones I own, were dragging and the power jack as well as the batteries were intermittenly not working. Anthony is a TV junkie and spends nearly all his waking hours watching it when he is in the cell. I have offered him the use of my Walkman or radio on occasion since he has neither, but he has yet to do so. I recently bought a new heavy metal tape for a bag of coffee. He listened to the first side and then gave my headphones back to watch some more TV. I do not know why television is so entertaining for him.

Prisoners in maximum-security often spend huge amounts of time watching TV, but I think my new cellmate takes it to a new level. The man has an entire regimen of shows he watches and will even shape his routine around them. A few times, he woke up in the middle of his sleep to watch programs. Anthony likes not only sitcoms, dramas, action, and mystery shows, but movies and some special shows about shows and the actors or actresses in them. He does not have a subscription to one TV guide but two, and goes through the weekly magazine marking every show he wants or may want to watch. Occasionally, he will watch programming despite how boring or stupid it is because there is an attractive woman or women in it. Contrarily, I seldom watch television and prefer to listen to music or WLS talk radio while I do other things. For example, I am currently listening to a cassette tape as I write this post.

I do enjoy watching good movies and sometimes I will watch them along with Anthony. In the last couple of weeks, several new DVDs have been played for prisoners to watch. Two of them we watched together and I made special meals for us to eat during them. Typically, when I cook I make two servings and eat just one portion, saving the other for later. However, now I just split it with him. For the movie "Lawless," a film about moonshiners during prohibition, I made two burritos. While watching "The Dark Knight Rises," I made a better theater treat of two large bowls of tortilla chips with hot melted jalapino cheese poured on top along with refried beans, salsa, and shredded beef. "The Dark Knight Rises" was probably the best new movie I have seen in a year.

A few times I have watched the TV game show "Jeopardy" with Anthony. He boasted how he was a fountain of knowledge and I would never beat him at the game. I was skeptical but he does have a wide collection of trivia facts stored in that jar head of his. My knowledge is focused on select categories while I am totally ignorant of other subject matter like pop trivia. As my new cellmate bragged, he defeated me the first two times we competed. The last time we played, however, I had a come from behind victory. Anthony was winning by about double my score until the final Jeopardy question which pertained to British statesmen. I know a lot about history and politics and thus wagered all my points. Although my cellmate was stumped, I was certain the answer was "the British naval admiral Horatio Nelsen" who crushed both the Spanish and French fleets in decisive battles during the late 1700s. I celebrated my victory as if I had just scored an ending football touchdown.

It is refreshing to have an intelligent cellmate. Anthony is one of the smartest and most educated people I have lived with while incarcerated. The vast majority of prisoners in maximum security prisons are morons and very few have much education. Many men never completed high school. My last cellmate did not know how to read, write, or multiply numbers. The average intelligence quotient at Stateville is at least 15 points below normal. I am not a social person but when I do converse, it is nice to have someone who can speak with intelligence. Many times I did not even bother to talk with other cellmates because I knew they were oblivious to the subject matter and could add nothing. With Anthony I can discuss history, politics, science, philosophy, classic art, and even stocks to a limited degree.

Earlier this week, I received all the earnings per share and other fundamentals of over 1,000 stocks. Every quarter, I will assess most of the publicly traded companies on the New York Stock Exchange as well as the NASDAQ. It can take me a week to narrow these down to a few hundred, record the valuable statistics of each and then compute their value using my own algerbraic equation. I showed Anthony how to read my comprehensive charts and data of about a fifth of the stocks I was interested in. His assistance allowed me to assess energy, chemical, agricultural, mining, and machine manufacturing companies in a couple of days. It was a very tedious process and I fell asleep in the mid afternoon on the two days after making thousands of calculations.

My new cellmate reads regularly as I do. He has newspaper subscriptions to three central Illinois newspapers. He will also read my Wall Street Journal or other magazines when I am done with them. Oftentimes, he will read while listening to television. I do not know how great his comprehension or focus can be, but occasionally he will talk about a specific article. The Newtown Connecticut grade school shooting is one topic we discussed. Both of us thought the media was over sensationalizing the story and gun rights should not be curbed. In fact, due to our strong beliefs in limited government and the U.S. Constitution, we thought many gun laws should be abolished. I went into a long discussion about how America was once an elite Republic where the ignorant, emotional masses did not have universal voting rights and those who were educated and allowed to vote often voted directly through representatives. America was never meant to be a country where the mob ruled. It was a constitutional Republic which upheld the values of freedom and bravery, not fear and a police state.

A lieutenant I debate politics with came to my cell while working overtime in the cell house to see how I was doing after my cellmate died. He noticed Mertz was now my cellmate or as he says "my Tea Party colleague," and remarked that I need an opposing political figure to moderate my alleged right wing extremism. He mentioned my former cellmate in B House who was a socialist (and thought the Marxist revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara was a hero) was a better fit for me. Although I got along well with Cracker, it was like the marriage of Mary Matelin to James Carville. The lieutenant just liked the arrangement because when he would stop by my cell to talk politics, Cracker, AKA Carville and beloved Che supporter, would assist him in debates. It takes at least two liberals to combat the ideas of a conservative.

The new cell I am in does not have working plumbing. The toilet works fine but both the hot and cold water buttons on the sink dribble out water. In order to get a drink, my cellmate has taken a short rubber tube and placed it into the faucet. It is still bothersome because it takes an extraordinary amount of time to bathe or wash clothes. The hot water button also shuts off after only a half second and thus my cellmate devised yet another device to keep it running. He has a shoelace tied around the peg in the back wall and lassoed tautly to the button to keep it pressed. I have made fun of Anthony for his ridiculous ingenuity and asked why he just did not ask a guard to place a work order. Yes, a plumber will not fix the problem for probably a month or two, but it was better than living with his makeshift solutions.

The cell does have the benefit of a table and shelf. The stainless steel table does not have a stool, but I can sit at or write there. Because I have become so accustomed to writing on my property box lid while sitting on my bunk, I have rarely used it. Eventually, I assume I will change my habits.The shelf along the wall opposite the double bunk I rarely use also. Prisoners must put away nearly all their property when leaving the cell and it has little use as permanent storage. All that I have put in it is my radio and a roll of toilet paper. The shelf and table mostly serve to cramp the space in the cell. I feel more claustrophobic and it makes exercising difficult. I no longer have the first 3 feet of the cell to work out in and must be very careful not to hit the sharp steel corners.

Anthony keeps some weird hours because he works the midnight shift in the kitchen.  He leaves the cell about 10 p.m. and returns in the middle of the night. He can be back anywhere between 2 to 5 a.m. Thus, he will be sleeping usually most of the morning and many times will take afternoon or evening naps. I can never tell when he will be sleeping because he does not have a regular routine. Contrarily, I do nearly everything in a consistent order. He has told me to continue to do so, but I do not want to wake him. I have attempted to stay awake during the hours he is gone so I could workout, wash clothes, and do other things while he is gone and also just to enjoy have not been  able to. Sleeping during the day is nearly impossible even with earplugs. The cell house is very noisy and there is a lot of commotion throughout the first and second shifts. The only time it is quiet is from 10 to 7 a.m. and sometimes there is a brief respite for an hour around 2 p.m. Since I have been unable to alter my routine, I simply just try to be as quiet as possible when Anthony is sleeping. I will do part of my workout without wearing shoes and will turn my fan on high to muffle any noise I make.

Initially, I thought being celled with Anthony would be a bad idea because we already shared time outside the cell. It may be annoying being around the same person all the time. Even if a person has a best friend outside of prison, I do not think they realize what it would be like to be trapped with that person in a small cage for endless hours of time. However, the situation between Anthony and me has seemed to work out well.Neither of us are social and we have our preoccupations to keep us busy without interacting. Regularly he is watching TV on his bunk and I am on mine listening to my radio and reading or writing. Sometimes we will both read newspapers for hours without saying a word. Plus, part of the day he is asleep or at work. I am pleased to have a cellmate I get along with and who is not disruptive or obnoxious.

Big John has expressed some disappointment he was not able to have his cellmate move in with me. He readily hates the person he is in the cell with. I told him he was the person I specifically spoke to staff about but for reasons I am unaware of, I was moved in with Mertz. Some prisoners are jealous about the move because they also have tried to get assigned to another cell. "The Elephant" asked me how I am able to get special treatment and not him. I told him when his cellmate abruptly dies from a heart attack, he may be given an accommodation. This shut him up and he began to talk about what kind of food my new cellmate could get him from the kitchen. However, on another occasion a prisoner who goes by the name of  "Leprechaun" has vented his frustration with getting a cell change and from what I was told continues to pester the sergeant.

Leprechaun is not your cute, friendly, sprite leprechaun such as illustrated on a box of Lucky Charms cereal but the ugly troll-like creature from the goofy horror film "Leprechaun." He looks so similar to the latter character, that I sometimes half expect him to say some crude quips like "If I don't get my schilling there will be another killing."  Leprechaun lives a couple of cells down from me now and I must see his ugly Irish mug regularly when he comes and goes to work or to chow and the shower. I do not know him very well except for the notorious gossip that he put a large turd in the pea salad of the officers' kitchen salad bar while at Menard C.C. He is now assigned to work in the laundry department and I believe guards and inmates alike trust him more washing clothes than making our food.

Some readers have sent me emails or posted comments critical of Mertz. I have even heard an earful from my mother, and just this week I received an email from a friend of the victim in his case. How can I explain how I can be friendly with the man who killed someone he cared deeply about? For nearly two decades I have lived amongst men who have committed the most serious and terrible crimes. Nearly everyone at Stateville has been convicted of murder and very few are innocent. People who live beyond these walls have the liberty to choose where they live and who they interact with. I do not. Furthermore, many times the crimes of men are not reflections of who they really are. I tend to believe society, particularly in the U.S., does not appreciate the totality of a person and fixates on their offense.

When Mertz left the Marine Corps, he suffered from some post traumatic stress and was given a psychotropic medication. He partied a lot when he attended Eastern Illinois University and was unaware of how the drug would interact with alcohol. Even the pharmaceutical company was unaware at the time and did not put warning labels on the bottles until much later. Shannon's murder was terrible and her family and friends have my deepest sympathy. However, the man I know in prison as not the same man they knew. Anthony is an intelligent and educated man. He can sometimes be lazy and unambitious, but he has more potential and worth than the vast majority of inmates at Stateville. He is a loyal and honest person with many other virtues which are readily lacking in prison. Anthony also has a personality that I like and I hardly like anyone in this despicable place. He may never be my "BFF"  but he is a good cellmate and I am content to share this cage with him.