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Friday, February 22, 2013

Sub Zero Yard -- January 23, 2013

The weather has been relatively mild in the Chicago area for this time of year. However, this abruptly changed earlier in the week with a mass of cold arctic air settling over the upper Midwest. On Tuesday, the town of Babbit in northeast Minnesota recorded the lowest U.S. temperature in 48 states this winter. Temperatures dipped below -20 F and wind chills neared -40 F. When I awoke in the morning, I made myself a hot cup of instant coffee with my breakfast to eat while watching the news. Joliet, a southwest suburb of Chicago, was cited to be -3 F accompanied with -20 F wind chills. These temperatures were not as brutally cold as in northern Minnesota, but were making me contemplate whether I should go out to yard if it was not cancelled.

Sometimes, the prison administrators will cancel yard periods when temperatures are below zero. Security is not a problem because guards are able to sit in their cozy warm gun towers to oversee prisoners. However, there is a concern inmates will not be able to bare the cold and they would be held liable. Frost bite can occur in 15 minutes in -20 F wind chills let alone in the two hours prisoners are typically kept locked on the yard in general population. There is also a concern of hypothermia where body temperatures drop to unsafe levels. I had not been able to attend the South Yard since December and was eager to use the weights despite the health risks. However, I was not stupid and began to prepare for the frigid cold as soon as I heard the sergeant announce on the cell house loudspeaker for inmates to standby for recreation lines.

Layered clothing was the ideal way to dress for the cold because it creates pockets of warm air. I began by putting on snug thermal underwear followed by a thin polyester blend of blue state pants mainly to act just as a wind blocker. Over the pants, I wore a long pair of cotton shorts which went below my knees. Over my thermal shirt, I put on three T-shirts and borrowed my cellmate's sweat shirt. My own sweat shirt and pants I had bagged and sent out to be washed. The gym shoes I had were made of thick leather and had thick plastic soles. However, I knew this would not be adequate and doubled my socks. I also doubled my gloves with small white Mickey Mouse gloves which barely fit my hands underneath the thicker insulated gloves. For my head, face, and neck, I used two wool skull caps, a towel in lieu of a scarf, and head band ear warmers to go around my face. As an extra precaution, I smeared Vaseline over my face to protect my skin from frostbite.

My cellmate rolled over in his sleep to awaken momentarily to see me at the cell bars stretching. I had taken off all my upper body clothes because I had began to sweat. He asked me if I had changed my mind about going out in the cold and was going to work out in the cell instead. I told him I still had intentions of gritting it out in the arctic air and in fact to display how tough I was, I was going to endure the sub zero weather without a shirt on. Anthony said "have fun" before pulling a sheet over his head and going back to sleep. Although my cellmate was a U.S. Marine for four years, he was now a soft "Pillsbury Doughboy" and I did not expect him to endure the extreme cold.

Prisoners were let out for Rec lines from top to bottom in the cell house. Those who were on the 5th floor were let out first followed by the 4th, 3rd, 2nd, and the bottom. Each gallery was separated and went to different locations except for the bottom two galleries of men. I noticed except for the gallery which was scheduled for gym, nearly no one came out of their cells. I was hoping to have the South Yard entirely to myself, but surprisingly a dozen prisoners lined up with me on the walk outside the cell house from the lower two galleries. They were bitterly cold within minutes despite being bundled from head to toe.

Only a few guards were outside managing the movement lines of inmates. They wore solid black clothes with only an opening for their eyes. They may have looked like ninjas except for how heavily insulated and cumbersome their attire was. A few were fat and lacked the stealth or dexterity to be assassins or highly skilled martial arts experts from ancient Japanese folklore. Some guards enjoyed working outside during times of the year when the weather was pleasant. However, in the winter, most tried to be reassigned to different job assignments.

To many people, the South Yard probably gave them the impression of the grounds of the gulag in the far east of Siberia. The area was surrounded by old rusted cyclone fencing and razor wire and a gun tower was positioned just outside the perimeter. I would estimate the yard was 3 football fields but unlike the NFL, it was poorly maintained and debilitated. The asphalt track and basketball courts were cracked and uneven as well as the concrete where the weights resided. Nearly all of the small assembly of rusted barbells and benches were bent or broken. There once was a concrete water fountain along with a backstop fence for prisoners to play softball. They were removed, but it is just as well because inmates at Stateville have not been permitted bats since the turn of the century. Thin snow drifts covered parts of the area giving it an even more desolate and austere appearance.

No one I regularly spoke with came out to yard and I walked the asphalt track to where the weights were by myself. Cold gusts of wind whipped against me and I was glad to have thought of covering my face with Vaseline. I clipped my ID card to the fence to prevent it from being blown away while I was working out. I also left my bottle of water underneath it and questioned if I would have a need for it on this sub zero morning. As I walked down the incline to the weights, I was met by a few black men who also were willing to endure the cold to exercise.

Although I stretched out before leaving the cell house, my body felt stiff lifting weights. The cold seemed to take away the flexibility in my joints and the abundance of clothes I wore left me cumbered. After bench pressing, I used a 200 pound weight to do squat presses. Squat presses are how I injured my lower back and I was very careful when performing the exercise. I checked my footing to make certain there was no ice on the concrete before lifting the weight onto my shoulders from the rack and also maintained a strict form when lowering the iron. My legs are very strong and I was not concerned the weight was too heavy for me to press although I was concerned the disks in my lower spine would compress or move subtly to pinch nerves leading out of the vertebrae and causing my back to go out. However, despite the risk, I knew squat presses were the best way to become warm and limber in the extreme cold. The muscles in the legs are the largest and when exercised create the most blood flow and metabolic energy.

I was impressed a black man who goes by the name Ghetto was able to lift weights without the use of his gloves. It was bitterly cold outside and I dared not take mine off. In fact, between sets, I put my hands in my pockets or curled my fingers together inside the gloves. I thought about how mittens would be preferable because they did not allow air to be between the fingers. Ghetto offered me his gloves and I initially told him no because I did not think a third pair could go over my hands. However, he insisted and after some struggle I was finally able to get most of them on.

No one sat at the steel tables bolted into concrete to play cards, dominos, or chess. I imagined it would be too uncomfortable or even impossible to do so. The steel stools were undoubtedly extremely cold to sit on and the games would have to be played while wearing thick cumbersome gloves. Gusts of wind would cause chess pieces or cards to fly off the table without being weighed down with heavy rocks. The basketball courts were also void of people and no one even bothered to bring out a ball. In sub zero temperatures a basketball will not even bounce and shooting "bricks" into hoops was apparently not appealing. Instead the prisoners who were not lifting weights mainly clustered in a few groups and walked around the track like penguins. A semi-crazy and obnoxious white man who has a bullet wound to the skull sang loudly to himself off tune while listening to his Walkman and power walking past the penguins. Yet another off kilter man who was black kicked a frozen bottle of water around and yelled at it like it was a dog. Occasionally, he barked at other men who approached his bottle. A couple of times, I noticed inmates standing against the handball court wall apparently seeking shelter from the wind.

Tuesday was an overcast day and the dull gray clouds matched the buildings and other structures which could be seen on the yard. However, at one point, the sun appeared for a few minutes. It seemed to increase the temperature at least 5 degrees before it was a translucent glow behind some clouds and emitted the same warmth as the moon. I stared up at the sun until it was completely shrouded by clouds and never seen again. The sight broke up my weight lifting regiment and I gave Ghetto his gloves back before jogging a mile.

The asphalt track felt like running on metal and my gym shoes seemed to be made with wooden soles. I tried running on the grass thinking it may be softer, but the ground was frozen and because it was an uneven surface it was even worse than the track. The frigid cold air I breathed was harsh despite having the band of ear warmers going around my face to mitigate the temperature. During my last lap, I went full speed and had a desire to pull the band down to enable me to take in more oxygen, but I knew from prior experience this would be foolish. The sub zero air rushing directly in to hit the moist lung follicles would cause them to freeze and give me a hacking cough for days. When I finished my run, I took off the cloth and was not surprised it was frozen from my respiration. There was no point putting it back on and I adjusted the towel I was using as a scarf to go over the lower half of my face.

Thirsty from my run, I walked over to the fence where I had clipped my ID card and had a bottle of water. Initially, I thought the bottle was frozen solid, but noticed there was still some liquid in the center. I squeezed the plastic soda bottle cracking the ice inside and then shook it to get a swig of ice water. The water I was able to get out had shards and chunks of ice and I chewed these up. I thought the drink would not help me increase my body temperature, however, I was more concerned about sweating. From watching the TV program "Survivorman," I knew sweating was one of the worst things that could occur when out in the extreme cold. The survivalist of the program, Les Straud, had a saying he repeated: "If you sweat, you die." I considered taking off some of my damp inner garments, but unlike Survivorman, I was not lost in a frigid wilderness. I was at Stateville and guards would be coming within an hour to unlock the gate.

When I returned to the weight pile, it was deserted and I was glad to have the area to myself. I noticed a 300 pound bar next to a stool of one of the metal tables and thought this weight was conveniently located for me to do some shrugs. Normally, I would shrug weight behind my back while standing, but not needing to pick the weight up was safer for my lower back injury. After squat pressing earlier, I was particularly concerned about aggravating the lumber disks. However, when I went to pull the iron bar upward, it did not budge and was frozen into the ground. I thought of trying to dislodge it with another weight or just kicking it, but it was easier to just use another barbell which was feet away.

Towards the end of my weight lifting regiment, I did some calf raises. At least with the squat press I could take the bar off the rack. However, with calf raises, I had to clean the barbell from the ground and over my head to place on my shoulders. It was not so difficult cleaning 200 pounds but after I did my set of calf raises off an elevated concrete slab, I did not like bringing it back down. Normally, I just let the iron bar slip off my shoulders to hit the ground. Due to the sub zero temperatures, though, I could not do this. The bar would probably snap. Thus, I had the extra burden of cleaning the weight and bringing it back down after each set. I did not mind the additional exertion but my lower back was my Achilles Heel and I had to again, be extra careful.

Guards let us stay on the yard for 2-1/2 hours and normally inmates would be happy for the additional half hour. However, in the frigid weather, they were eager to leave. Most of the men stood around the gate shivering and waiting for it to be unlocked. From the yard, inmates had to go to the chow hall with their corresponding galleries before returning to the cell house. The relative quiet and open space on the yard compared to the cacophony of noise and herds of people was an annoying transition. I would have preferred to stay out in the cold while prisoners ate and went directly back to the quarter unit. Eventually, I was able to return to my cell and while taking off my many layers of clothes, my cellmate asked me how it was on the yard in what seemed like a sarcastic tone. I told him "cold," however, I doubt he understands how little the harsh conditions bother me. My greatest anguish lies elsewhere.

This afternoon before writing this post I watched one of my favorite childhood films "Conan the Barbarian." Interestingly, the fantasy-adventure movie made in the 1980s was largely ignored by the public. It was almost banned from most movie theaters and cable networks due to nearly receiving an X rating for graphic violence. Furthermore, Arnold Schwarzenegger was considered by critics to be a muscle bound but incompetent actor who could barely speak English. However, it was his stoic silence and crude acting on the backdrop of a passionate and intense story which resonated with me when I was a child. Even in my late 30s, I continue to be moved by the film. I have also lived a brutal, austere, and unjust life in captivity. At one point in the movie, the wizard who chronicles his tale says "He did not care anymore. Life and death: the same," and this is just one of the sentiments I share. I do not care if I live or die anymore and have become desensitized to physical suffering. The cold out on the yard I experienced is nothing compared to what I have been through or the two decades of life I have lost in prison. Hopefully, like Conan, I will be set free one day while I can still be stirred by freedom and have a meaningful existence. However, I tend to believe I will remain nailed to the "Tree of Woe" and languish for an untold number of years.