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Saturday, January 19, 2013

A Rotten Christmas -- December 28, 2012

In the weeks preceeding Christmas, there have been a few special religious services select prisoners have been allowed to attend. There was a performance in the old chapel building as well as Kyros. Kyros is well liked by inmates not because of the sermon or Christians who attend to act as mentors, but because of the home baked cookies they are permitted to bring. Catholics had a special Christmas mass last Friday along with their regular rosary service the day after. Black Muslims and a handful of Jews were also recognized, although the latter were mostly mocked. Whether it is Christmas, Kwanzaa or Hanukkah, they are all phony holidays in my opinion mainly observed by hypocrites in prison. More men looked forward to visits with family members they do not regularly see or a holiday card accompanied with a money order. Simply a Western Union money transfer receipt is appreciated. For prisoners who did not receive visits or money, the Christmas meal was most anticipated. On Christmas, like Thanksgiving Day, men are served vastly better food. However, this year Christmas meal made me and hundreds of other prisoners at Stateville as well as the nearby Northern Receiving Center gravely ill. For the majority of incarcerated men here, Christmas will not be remembered for religion, family, or money, but the poisoning epidemic.

Christmas day began for me with a bowl of bran flakes and a couple of peanut butter sandwiches. In the middle of the night, doughnuts were tossed on the cell table next to the bars by inmate workers for breakfast, but these were taken by the time I awakened. My cellmate knows I do not eat doughnuts and greedily swipes them when he returns from work. He can eat as many doughnuts as he wants in the kitchen, but apparently he has an insatiable appetite for the high sugar, trans fat treat. There is a reason I occasionally call him the Doughboy or Gomer Pile when I repeat excerpts from the movie “Full Metal Jacket” mimicking the drill sergeant who finds a jelly doughnut in the lock box of a pudgy man going through basic training. Anthony is not nearly as overweight, but I like to make fun of the former marine with two Grim Reaper tattoos.

There were normal operations on Christmas and my gallery as well as the one below were scheduled for morning gym. The “doughboy” was going to miss the recreational period and I woke him up at 8 a.m. If I had a bugle, I may have used it, but I simply pounded on the underside of his bunk. Anthony does not exercise throughout the week in the cell as I do. His only workouts are at the gym and large South yard where there are a few weights and benches. On the small yard, he will occasionally play basketball. Since he was assigned the midnight shift in the kitchen and as the weather has become cold, however, he does not bother going to the small yard.

For a few weeks, the gym has been decorated with some tinsel on the upper floor where most religious services are held. I thought it was absurd given how miserable life in prison was and how debilitated the building was. I turned in my ID card to be given a steel pin to use the machine weights. There are three universal machines but one is completely inoperable and the only equipment which works on the other two are a lat pull, shoulder press, and pec deck. I made the most of these machines improvising so I could do other exercises such as tricep extensions, arm curls, and bow pulls. My cellmate worked out with me for most of the time except when I ran laps around the gym. The former Marine did not want to run and went AWOL.
We were given a little extra time in the gym because we were last to be fed and serving Christmas meal takes longer than other meals. I made use of every minute in part because I knew the lunch being served was to be heavy in protein and calories. Prisoners were given the identical meal they had on Thanksgiving: turkey, pork, or both, along with a helping of sweet potatoes, stuffing, and macaroni and cheese. Collard greens were also offered as a vegetable but many prisoners chose not to have it scooped on their styrofoam trays. A second premade cold tray was also given to inmates and it consisted of a small salad, a couple of rolls, and a thin slice of prepackaged pumpkin pie. The tiny dessert made many men angry and I had to listen to Wally complain for an extended period of time.

Before prisoners from the gym were fed, we had to wait in the chow hall for nearly an hour as other galleries in our cell house went through the two serving lines first. It was a waste of time and I would have preferred to continue to work out in the gym. However, most other inmates seemed happy to play games of chess and cards, or socialize. At my table, prisoners spoke of the ridiculous cosmopolitan holiday decorations on the walls behind the feed counters. There was a “Feliz Navidad” banner for all the Mexicans at Stateville as well as a picture of a black Santa Claus. Christmas decor and pictures were also mixed along with Kwanzaa, a Swahili celebration which has been adopted by Muslim African-Americans. A happy Hanukkah and menorah was displayed, although there are probably fewer than ten Jews in the entire penitentiary and I doubt any of them are Semitic. Oddly, the hand drawn pictures of candles for Hanukkah and Kwanzaa looked like phalluses and when I pointed this out to the men around me, it got a great deal of laughter. They did look like penises and Big John said this was probably done intentionally because of all the homosexuals in prison. What I thought was most amusing was, however, a Barack Obama Santa Claus. For weeks before Christmas, Rush Limbaugh has been calling the president “Santa Claus” because of all the presents he gave out to various constituents of the Democratic electorate to win reelection.

After getting our food, we again were forced to wait in the chow hall before a line was run back to the cell house. The crowds and noise were annoying and I could not get back to my cage soon enough. I sat in silence with a frown the Grinch probably could appreciate. I listened to prisoners yelling and talking, including Wally griping about the tiny wedge of pumpkin pie. A Muslim walked by shouting he had been given pork and wanted to trade it for the dessert, and a short, overweight man at my table quickly exchanged with him. I could not believe how much food Steve smashed onto his tray. He was unable to close the lid and transferred some of the food to his cold tray. I said to Anthony, “Gluttonous,” and he mentioned how the man actually asked him if he was given leftovers during his shift in the kitchen he would buy them.

Returning to the cell, I let my cellmate bathe in the sink first. While he was in the back with a privacy curtain up, I ate half of my Christmas meal at the table near the bars. The cell house was extremely loud and inmates yelled to each other about various things including the telephone. Many men wanted to call their families on the holiday and negotiated phone times. My aunt had told me to call while part of my family was at her home for Christmas, however, last year when I did this I was placed on speaker and did not have any substantive conversations with anyone. Over two decades, like many prisoners, I have become estranged from most of my extended family. Some of them who married into the family I have never met and their children were not even born before my arrest. What was there to say with these people but shallow words, particularly when they were preoccupied and my time on the phone was limited?
I ate the turkey and stuffing while saving the pork and macaroni and cheese for dinner. The meal was too large for me to eat in one serving and I even considered splitting it into three meals. The meat was good and I appreciated having unprocessed turkey for a rare change. Some people including my cellmate said the boiled meat was dry, but I thought it was fine and I elected not to have any gravy. Instead, I ate the cuts of turkey and stuffing while drinking the grapefruit juice passed out at breakfast. I commented to Anthony some cranberry sauce would have been nice, but the prison has not served it in many years. I used the sweet potatoes as a substitute.
I switched places with my cellmate so I could bathe and brush my teeth. He sat at the table and ate as I had just done. By the time I finished and began washing my shorts and boxer briefs, he was already climbing onto his bunk to go to sleep. I was not surprised because he only slept a few hours during the night. I considered taking a nap myself. My lower back was painful and I was tired from the workout as well as all the commotion during the morning. However, I stayed awake to go over stock reports. With the so called “fiscal cliff” looming a week away, I thought I should be prepared to advise my family on their investments. I tended to believe the president and congress would come to some partial or temporary deal to avert a market drop after New Year’s Day, but it was better to be safe than sorry. Plus, the real negotiations I assume will not come till later when the government has exceeded its borrowing limit and is incapable of shuffling funds around to pay debts without new money. President Santa Claus cannot continue to give out presents even if he robs successful professionals and entrepreneurs.

Around 8 p.m., I had finished a couple of charts and letters. I unwrapped the rest of my Christmas meal and sought something of interest to watch on TV. Using my remote control stick I have nicknamed the “Spear of Destiny,” I scanned the channels. There were a few Christmas shows or movies on, but I cared less to watch them. The holiday was twisted from its original pagan Yule traditions and had nothing to do with the birth of Jesus. Furthermore, as a prisoner with a wretched protracted death sentence, there was nothing to be joyous about. I would rather watch the film “Faces of Death” than some sappy and sentimental Christmas program. I briefly stopped at a station playing “It’s a Wonderful Life” when Jimmy Stewart was contemplating jumping off a bridge. I thought his problems were minute compared to mine. If he lived at Stateville, he may have valid reason to end his life.
Not long after I ate the pork and macaroni, I had an upset stomach. I did not think much of it because it was a lot of food. Nothing tasted odd, and in fact the pork tasted good. It was very rare prisoners were served pork and I was glad the meat was served to us sometimes. I went to bed and it was not a couple hours later that I awoke with sharp pains to the gut and cramps. I got up to use the toilet but all I had was noxious gas. I was glad my cellmate had left to the kitchen because the smell was worse than sulfur dioxide. Anthony would be trapped inhaling fumes less appealing than emitted from a refinery or chemical plant. I turned on my fan to air out the cell and then curled up in a ball on my bunk with a thick wool blanket over me. Surprisingly, I fell asleep but was again awakened later in the night to use the toilet. Typically, I hate living in such small quarters where the commode is a few feet from my bunk. However, I was glad it was there the night after Christmas and into the morning. I have had five bouts of food poisoning this year, but this was the worst case.
About 9 a.m., a guard came to my cell and told me I had a lab pass. I did not want to go because I was ill. If I needed to use the toilet again, I may not be able to do so. There was a toilet at the H.C.U., but I could be captive in a holding cage or en route. The lab appointment was unusual because I had just given my blood to be analyzed in November. Possibly, there was something wrong with my blood work and I was being retested. I also pondered if I was not suffering from food poisoning but some other ailment. Prisoners are sometimes found to have failing kidneys or livers and considering how long I have been using NSAIDs, I could have a problem. My curiosity got the best of me and I dressed in my state blues to leave. Fortunately, I was not in the cell house holding cage for long and I left quickly.
A number of people were at the prison’s health care unit to give a blood or urine sample. It seemed like medical staff intentionally scheduled many men for lab work at the same time to increase efficiency and replicate an assembly line. I was not going to be at the back of this line, however, and made sure I was one of the first few people to be stuck with a hypodermic needle. The brunette nurse was friendly and playfully flirtatious. If I were not ill, I may have responded more enthusiastically. I asked the nurse if there was something wrong with my last test and she said, "No, everything was fine." I asked, "I am not suffering from ulcers, kidney or liver failure?" "No, no, no," she assured me. I then semi playfully asked if I was dying of cancer. No, I was told. What was I doing back up here, I wondered. My guess was the doctor wanted to see if the new NSAID I was taking, Mobic, was having a detrimental effect. Medical care is so terrible here, though, what prison doctor would ever order a precautionary test? Before I left, the nurse said, "Happy belated birthday," which made me reply, "Happy belated Christmas," even though neither day was nice.

In the H.C.U. holding cage was a prisoner I know who goes by the nickname Wild Bill. Bill was my neighbor in a different cell house and although he is obnoxious and talkative, I get along with him or at least in small dosages. Bill, as always, was very social and talking my ear off. He wanted to know who I liked to win in the college football bowl games as well as the NFL playoffs. I told him I had not been paying as much attention to the sport as I used to, but I had a wager for Alabama to defeat Notre Dame by more than a touchdown, and as usual I was hoping the New England Patriots won the Superbowl. Wild Bill who is Irish wanted Notre Dame to win and thought the Denver Broncos would be victorious in the NFL. Bill knows I am quiet but apparently I was being even less talkative than usual and he asked what was wrong. I asked him if he got sick from eating the Christmas meal. He said no, and then I told him how all night and into the morning I had cramps, gas, and diarrhea. Even at that moment, I did not feel well and I was glad the bathroom was close by. He asked me why I did not tell the nurse I had just seen. I said there was no way I was going to tell a nice looking younger woman that, and regardless, she was a lab technician, not a doctor. Bill said he did not care if the nurse was gorgeous if he was sick, he would tell her. I believed him. Wild Bill had no restraint or compunction.

When I returned from the H.C.U., I again had to use the toilet. My cellmate was awake and from behind the privacy sheet, I asked him if he became ill. He said "no," and I told him how I was up much of the night. He told me he thought there was something wrong with me when he returned from work. Anthony went on to say the cell smelled like death, and I told him how I attempted to blow the stench out of the cell by turning on the fan. He said he noticed, along with the female guard who unlocked the cell door to let him in. I replied that he was fortunate he was not locked in the cell the entire night. Again I asked him if he did not get ill at all from the food, and he steadfastly said "not at all," but went on to say he has an iron stomach, and like a lion, can eat rotten flesh. Despite how Bill and "Anthony the Lion" did not get sick, when we went to the prison store many people spoke about getting diarrhea. Prisoners attempted to figure out if the food was rotten or contaminated and which food it was. My guess was the pork because my symptoms began almost immediately after eating it.

Anthony was called in to work the 2nd shift which has never occurred before. He told me afterwards that two units in the NRC were on quarantine. I asked him why prisoners were being kept isolated for food poisoning. He speculated the administration was just being cautious. A kitchen supervisor informed him a few hundred inmates at the Receiving Center were gravely ill with chills, fever, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Food was being made at Stateville and then trucked over to them. The norovirus was suspected but a virulent strain of the flu could not be ruled out. I thought speculation of the flu was moronic and it was obviously from the food served. Norovirus was a better guess because I knew it was typically spread by poor hygiene and food handling. I spoke to Steve later and he told me when he worked on cruise ships, they routinely had outbreaks of norovirus from food contamination. Coincidentally, I noticed on the television news two cruise ships were reported to have norovirus epidemics causing them to port on the coast of South America until passengers and crew recovered.

The kitchen at the NRC as well as at Stateville is filthy. Occasionally, I will see cockroaches on the feed counter and plastic trays are often not washed properly. Food from previous meals will be stuck on the trays and they are always dripping wet because they are not dried. Kitchen workers tell me what I do not see is even worse. In the back, mice run rampantly eating through food, defecating or urinating on it. Food is also not rotated correctly or left out of the freezer too long causing it to go bad. I noticed workers used gloves but they do not take them off and put new ones on after touching other things. I am told this is regularly done behind the scenes, and many surfaces let alone just their gloves become contaminated. It is no wonder most guards bring their own meals from home. If I did not have to, I would not eat the food here either.

Yesterday, I was sent to the University of Illinois for another MRI on my lower spine. When I returned, I was supposed to see the medical director. However, he was too busy seeing numerous Stateville inmates who were still sick from the Christmas meal. They looked very ill and looked at the floor silent unlike most other inmates who were talking to one another. For some reason, some men did not get ill at all, others became mildly ill for a short duration, and yet others became very sick for a couple of days. I never did get to see the doctor and my appointment was rescheduled. Back in my cell, I was just able to catch the 6:00 Chicago news report that Stateville had an outbreak of norovirus and part of the penitentiary was on quarantine. Although norovirus may have initially been suspected to be the cause of the epidemic, it was false.

From speaking to medical staff and prisoners who work in the kitchen, norovirus was not to blame. None of the stool samples taken and analyzed had the virus in it. The symptoms exhibited by men being treated were completely consistent with food poisoning. Kitchen workers told me how the meat had been left out to thaw in the prep room for days. The prep room is not kept cool enough to prevent meat from spoiling. Bacteria can grow on pork quicker than turkey and this probably explains why I and others became sick from it rather than the turkey. The holidays are a ridiculous facade in prison and it was ironic the one thing I looked forward to was spoiled. This year was literally a rotten Christmas.

UPDATE:  April 1, 2013
I filed a grievance about the spoiled meat served on Christmas day which caused hundreds of inmates at the NRC and Stateville to become sick. The counselor responded she cannot verify if I actually became sick, and noted that she had not received any other grievances about the matter. Today, I finally received a response from the grievance officer. She claims the medical director who works in the state capital as an administrator has concluded the outbreak was due to stomach flu and not food poisoning. (Odd that the head doctor at Stateville told me otherwise.) I suspect the IDOC is attempting to deny any culpability.