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Sunday, March 3, 2013

A Violent Neighbor -- January 30, 2013

Last week, someone new took over the responsibilities of the placement officer. At Stateville, the placement officer is in charge of all inmate housing and job details. For the last couple of years the position has been held by a woman who has a poor work ethic and attitude. Job assignments were regularly not filled timely or properly leaving many men who wanted to work and were approved to do so left in their cells. While bunks were quickly filled, the placement officer thought little or nothing about cellmates compatibility. She also did not care about the medical permits of men who were supposed to be assigned a low gallery or lower bunk due to their age, injury, or disability. When inmates wrote her about job or cell assignments, they were often ignored. The new woman who has taken over as placement officer is much friendlier and competent. She has worked at the prison many years as a counselor and is very diligent in her duties. I was therefore not surprised when she began to quickly address the backlog of problems.

Before the weekend, about ten men in the cell house were notified they would be moving on Monday. Some of these men were old or crippled and were moved to lower galleries. For example, an old black man who could barely walk and rarely left his cell was told he was being assigned a low bunk on the ground floor near the exit of the building. Chino had been waiting a long time for the accommodation and was repeatedly ignored by the former placement officer. A few of the men told they were being moved did not get along with their cellmates and had asked to be assigned another cell. I spoke with Big John on Saturday and he was not happy to not make the list. He and his cellmate continue to be very hostile towards each other. The sergeant, however, told him to be patient and the new assignment officer will probably get to him soon.

Also over the weekend, I spoke with Steve who was disappointed to be losing his cellmate. Steve has spoken in the past about how blessed he was to have an industry worker to live with. Industry workers are gone from early morning to late afternoon. For Steve it was almost like not having a cellmate. The industry worker, however, was an older man with a low bunk permit like him. I told Steve to just share bunks together and he said he likes his cellmate but not that much. He complained about how he no longer will have all the cell time to himself and that his new cellmate was excessively social. I inquired who was exchanging cells with his current cellmate. When he told me Chubby, I thought less of his complaints. Chubby or Chub as most inmates call him, was indeed social, but he was not obnoxious and was friendly. Almost everyone gets along with Chub and Steve will too.

Guards let out prisoners who were being moved early Monday morning before assignment and library lines were run out of the cell house. I noticed the two prisoners in the cell next door were being moved out. In their place, a man with a low bunk permit and "Leprechaun" were moving in. Leprechaun is an ugly troll-like man and earlier when he told my cellmate he may be our neighbor, my cellmate told him the "new laws" of having this privilege. No bothering us to pass items when the prison is not on lockdown, no yelling needlessly, and he must wash all our laundry. Leprechaun works in the prison's laundry department and is able to take extra clothes with him to work to be washed. I added that even if he is not called to his assignment, he still must do our clothes by hand. While he was disagreeing with this last part, I told him to furthermore never sneak up on our cell bars to scare me with his hideous appearance.

While property boxes, televisions, and fans were being moved, I overheard "Snake" our current neighbor complaining to the troll laundry worker about moving. I was not paying attention to his griping much because during the morning I have a regimented routine and I always try to block out most everything going on outside my cell bars. Apparently, though, Snake was not happy switching cells with Leprechaun. Personally, I thought the cell was ideal because it is the last cell on the gallery and has no traffic going by it except for an occasional guard or cell house worker cleaning the floor. Yet, the idea of just being inconvenienced to move seemed to bother him. He even argued with the other man who was also moving in the cell from an upper gallery about the matter. Hooch was sick with a bad cold and I could tell he did not want the aggravation. He told him if he did not like it, he should speak with the sergeant or lieutenant. Snake accused the cell house worker of using his influence to have the move done.

Snake is a dark skinned black man probably in his mid or early 20's. He is about my height and build but not as physically fit. He tends to have an aggressive and disagreeable character with the appearance of your typical ghetto gang banger thug. Snake has been in a couple of physical confrontations according to rumor and does not seem to get along with too many people. A couple of his prior cellmates asked to get away from him and I would not be surprised if his current cellmate did also. Snake probably has a high inmate aggression level and I am not certain why he was even assigned to C House where many older laid back prisoners live. His complaints about moving 2 cells seemed petty when he probably should have been moved to a different cell house.

Not long after the argument with Hooch, I heard a commotion outside my cell. I quickly turned around to look and saw Snake throw a wild hay maker punch. The old man easily dodged it and then backed away out of my sight. At the time, I was facing the back wall of my cell scrubbing a rag with bar soap to wash the floor. The incident happened so quickly, it was only a blur to me. I was not even certain what I witnessed until others confirmed it. Guards immediately came to the scene and approached Snake. They sought to know what transpired and initially he denied anything until guards said they saw him throw a punch. Even my cellmate who was asleep woke up to the loud disturbance and saw him attempt to hit the cell house worker.

Fights in maximum or high medium security prisons are common. There regularly are disputes which will lead to the throwing of punches. Many times they will be minor scraps and years ago these would be ignored by guards unless they had to break it up. Fighting even today is considered a minor rule violation only punishable by one month in Segregation. I could sense the sergeant assessing how best to handle the situation. A prisoner threw a punch and there was no further engagement. The situation was under control and the two men were divided with the cell house worker downstairs. The sergeant finally told Snake and Leprechaun to finish moving their property whereupon they were locked in their cells. I thought that was going to be the end of the matter, but apparently after contemplation, Snake was told to pack a Seg bag. Although throwing a punch is not technically fighting, rule violation #601 covers attempted violations of rules, including fighting.

When Snake was informed he was being sent to segregation, he was furious and initially refused to be handcuffed. He shouted at the sergeant and other guards they were racist and he was being treated unfairly. The "race card" is deployed often in prison, even at Stateville where most staff are non-white. His rants of conspiracy and prejudice seemed absurd to me particularly when I tended to believe Snake was a racist himself. It did not matter to me and I have respect for blacks who have pride in their background, but I did not appreciate it when he attempted to make a racial issue out of my prior cellmate dying. He spoke to various black prisoners attempting to incite them against me. Every issue seemed to have a racial angle to Snake, even a man who died of a heart attack. After arguing with guards for awhile, he finally settled down. The sergeant is a big man but also calm and knows how to diffuse a situation. The prisoner was handcuffed before his cell door was opened and he was led to the Roundhouse.

Not to appear impartial, Hooch was sent to Segregation also, but for investigation. Even if a prisoner does not start a fight, was only defending himself, or did not even fight back, he can be sent to Seg.  I remember an even more ridiculous situation where a prisoner came down the stairs going to chow threatening a cell house worker. The cell house worker ran behind a guard and then a staircase to avoid the man who was trying to hit him. Both of the prisoners were also taken to Seg for fighting despite no contact actually occurring. Internal Affairs sent Hooch back to the cell house not long after he left. However, on the 2nd shift, he was again sent to Seg and has not returned since. I assume the cell house worker was initially cleared by the investigative unit until Snake made some accusations or there simply was no room in Seg to hold someone for being swung at. In the evening, Leprechaun was given a new cellmate who came from the Roundhouse and I speculate space was made in Seg.

In the days since the incident, I have heard various rumors amongst prisoners. Purportedly, I missed some of the action before witnessing the wild swing. Although I heard Snake griping to Leprechaun, I did not go to my cell bars to see what was happening. Snake, congruent to his prison nickname, allegedly struck the little man without warning with a quick left right combination to the face. He must not have hit him too hard if the stories are true because he has no marks. Leprechaun, according to what I heard, just took his two licks and did not attempt to retaliate. He may have been afraid to engage the much bigger man. The horror film Leprechaun would not have been a pacifist and probably would have jumped on his back to gouge his eyes out or stab him in the throat. This Leprechaun may look like the character, but seemingly does not have his tendency for vicious violence. Despite his appearance, he seems to be a friendly person.

Rumor also has it that the punch I saw thrown by Snake was the last of a salvo. What made me turn around was a loud commotion of sorts and possibly there is some credibility to these stories. Despite the gallery worker being a slightly senile old man, he apparently got the best of the young thug. This infuriated Snake and is what caused him to throw wild punches attempting to make up for his bruising and possibly cause a knock out blow. The old man is known to have served in the Navy many years ago and has claimed to be a Navy Seal. Prisoners joke that possibly he has not lost his touch over the decades. Hooch has bad hearing and sometimes seems senile forgetting much of what you tell him. I also noticed he is sometimes clumsy and once slipped on the gallery last year in front of my previous cell. He flew off the floor and landed hard on his back. I thought he had seriously injured himself and asked if I should call for help. He took a long time getting up and was somewhat delirious, but he said he was fine. If Hooch was a Navy Seal in his youth, I doubt he still has those refined instincts.

My current cellmate was in the Marines for four years before attending Illinois Eastern University and then being arrested. He may have been in good shape a decade ago, but is now a slightly pudgy doughboy. Every now and then he will say, "That's it! It's go time," implying he had enough of my razing and he wanted to fight. To counter his jest, I will say, "I eat Green Berets for breakfast" after a punchline in the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie "Commando," and then add "Doughboys like you will be like Girl Scout cookies." I do not have any military training, but I have been in training most of my life. Unlike many prisoners who have been locked away for decades, I also have not let myself go. I have aged greatly in the last 20 years and am probably not half the man I once was, however, I still try to fight my physical deterioration for myself and for a possible confrontation with a convict like Snake.

I am told after Snake was escorted to F House, he was placed in a cell with a weak old Caucasian man. Like many of his previous cell mates, they did not get along. Apparently, my former neighbor attacked him, beating him severely, including shattering his eye socket. Then Snake allegedly raped him. I was skeptical upon hearing this last bit of news. Snake did not give me the impression of being a homosexual. In prison, there is a lot of gossip and it is sometimes difficult sorting fact from fiction. However, the information I have been told about Snake was corroborated by staff. He was written a disciplinary ticket for violent assault and rape. Soon he will be transferred to Pontiac segregation and will probably face new criminal charges.

I tend to doubt Snake cares if he is prosecuted for the crimes. He is already going to spend the rest of his life in prison. Being transferred to Pontiac Seg is also probably not a huge punishment. He may miss his radio, TV, and not being able to socialize. However, there is little difference between Seg and general population at maximum security prisons. Stateville, and particularly Menard, are regularly on lockdown and even when not there is little movement. These prisons are called correctional centers, but they are really punitive. Pontiac will be much of the same but he will be served better food and after 3 months can request to have his television back. Pontiac, unlike Stateville, has a full complement of cable stations. It is also cleaner and run more competently. The last remaining violent and some mentally unstable prisoners from Tamms were transferred to Pontiac last month. It seems my violent neighbor will be in good company.