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Sunday, March 24, 2013

No Hot Water -- February 28, 2013

On Monday, I was surprised when one of the plumbers came to my cell to fix the sink. Sinks are a low priority for the maintenance staff who work at the penitentiary. For over two months, I have complained about the low water pressure and broken timer on the hot water button. Last week, the hot water ceased to work altogether and nothing but cold water dribbled out of the faucet. Another component within the sink must have broken because the cold water ran nonstop and could not be turned off. Having only cold water in the cell has been an inconvenience for my cellmate and me, but mostly for myself. My cellmate rarely bathes, washes clothes or washes anything while in the cell. Because he works in the kitchen, he is allowed a daily shower and if he needs to scrub any of his clothes, he will do it in the shower room.

Nearly every morning, I will wash the floor and wipe off the table and counter before I exercise. With only cold water, I quickly noticed how difficult it was to get a lather with bar soap. The water was very cold from continuously running and despite how much I scrubbed the cloth together, there were no suds. After working out I had the luxury of bathing with this frigid water. A few times, I took the time to boil some water and dump it into the sink which I had prevented from draining with a piece of cardboard. The couple of mugs of hot water though only made my bath water warmer briefly as cold water continued to mix with it. Furthermore, I had to let this water drain to use clean water to rinse off. The time and effort to boil water was not worth it particularly when my body temperature was high if I quickly washed up.

Typically, I will clean the steel sink and toilet combination after bathing. Bathing in the cell always leaves the fixture a mess with soap and water all over it. Plus, I will sometimes need to wash the shorts I wore while exercising and I use the toilet to do so. The average person who has never been to a maximum security prison in Illinois probably would think I was crazy washing clothes out of my toilet, but this is commonly done by convicts behind the wall. It is the most efficient way to clean and rinse clothes without access to a washing machine or an ample supply of running water. However, without any hot water this is not the case. Boiling numerous cups or bowls of water to fill the toilet to scrub, disinfect, and then repeat the process to wash clothes would take hours of time. I had no intention of doing this and had to wait until bags of clothes were picked up. Clothes are washed in the laundry building once a week.

My neighbor works in the laundry building and I spoke to him about helping me out until my sink was repaired. He told me that they have been washing inmates clothes for over a month with cold water ever since some type of electrical coil which leads into the building broke. No wonder my clothes have been returning dingy, I said. I asked him why it hasn't been repaired. He said his supervisor was already skimping on laundry detergent and bleach to cut costs. A new hot water coil will be very expensive to replace and apparently no one has appropriated the money. I thought about how absurd and unsanitary it was to send inmates clothes back to them dirty. Many inmates have communicable diseases or bugs. I hoped the dryer was hot enough to kill any bed bugs, lice, or germs.

The plumbing for prisoners cells is behind the back wall in the quarter units. When the plumber came to fix my sink he banged on some pipes to get my attention from the corridors which run down the center of the building. I was at the front of the cell by the bars and my cellmate was at the sink getting a cup of water. I told him to answer the plumber, but he refused and wanted me to do so. Therefore I switched places with him and knelt down to yell into a vent in the back wall. The plumber wanted to know what the problems were and I told him. He fixed the cold water button but said he could do nothing about the low water pressure or timer. A timer is a device that keeps the water flowing after the button is pushed. Without it, pressure must be continually maintained. I asked him why he could not replace the timer and was informed they had run out of the part a long time ago. Many sinks in the penitentiary had broken timers and they could not be repaired. I asked if my neighbors timers were in order and if he could not just remove theirs. The plumber and my cellmate laughed, but of course he could not do this.

Not having a timer on the hot water button has been annoying me since I moved into this cell. Have you ever tried washing your hands with only one hand? My cellmate and I have devised various ways to keep the hot water flowing, but they are inconvenient and do not work all that well. The simplest thing to do is wedge a plastic bottle between the button and the edge of the sink basin. However, the bottle then blocks access into part of the sink. It also will slip out of place if not secured just right or if accidentally bumped. When I moved into the cell, Anthony had a shoe lace lassoed tautly to the button and a peg on the wall. The lasso was on precariously and it could slip off or not be pulled tight enough to keep the button in. The best solution is to place a cap over the button which is just the exact circumference of the outer ring, but again this can fail. Because the hot water pressure is so low, it will turn off all by itself requiring the cap to be taken off and put back on perfectly.

I tend to believe the plumber was lying when he claimed the pressure could not be adjusted any higher. An attempt is being made to reduce the amount of hot water being used in the cell houses. The boiler is not being used to its full capacity apparently to save money. Many prisoners complain about the luke warm to cold water during the day in the shower room and in their cells. In the middle of night, the water temperature will be hot, but as more inmates awake and use the hot water, temperatures will lower dramatically. Periodically, plumbers will adjust the thermostat on the boiler, but it is never raised to adequate levels. The boiler is capable of adjusting temperatures automatically to meet with demand, however, purportedly this is not working and a new regulator is needed. Inmates believe this is a ruse to save money and the low water pressure is to diminish the use of hot water and fluctuations of temperature.

Hot water is not just desired by inmates to bathe with but also to make food and drinks. A pack of Ramen noodles, instant rice, refried beans, or other commissary foods cannot be made without 100 degree or hotter water. Furthermore, nearly all prisoners are coffee drinkers and no one wants a cup of tepid coffee. Inmates will regularly turn to various means to heat water when tap water is cold. My cellmate regularly places a bottle of water on top of the incandescent light bulb in his lamp to make hot water for coffee, tea or an occasional noodle. Other prisoners will go "caveman" and burn milk cartons to heat a bottle of water or packages of food. Some will even fry food off the metal table or lower bunk in their cells. Personally, I prefer using electricity. An assortment of immersion heaters are used by inmates at Stateville. Most of them are improvised devices although some men have stingers.

During the week, I was speaking with my neighbor Leprechaun again about the dribble of luke warm water which commonly comes forth from my sink. He has this dream administrators will allow us to buy hot pots off the commissary. Hot pots are sold at medium and minimum security prisons but convicts in maximum security are not trusted to have them. Security personnel are worried they may toss boiling water onto guards. It is a rather dumb logic because prisoners with or without the hot pots or stingers which also used to be sold will devise ways to heat water. Men convicted of murder(s) or other serious felonies and will never be freed are not going to live out the rest of their lives drinking cold coffee and eating raw Ramen noodles. Leprechaun suggested the prison commissary could sell hot pots which were only capable of heating water to a certain temperature. However, I knew this would not satisfy security personnel and they would be concerned inmates would alter the thermostats so they could make hotter water or use it as a frier.

The prison was taken off lockdown on Monday as I expected. The Stateville SORT along with Internal Affairs was searching for shanks or materials that could be turned into shanks. Apparently after scrutinizing the common areas of the quarter units and ransacking most of the cells in B House, they were satisfied. Since the beginning of the week, I have left my cell to go on a visit, attend yard and several meals. The menu has not been so terrible and real chicken has been served a few times, and on Wednesday evening we had lasagna although it was made with turkey-soy. While in line or in the chow hall I inquired if other inmates had water dribbling out of their sinks. Most of them said they had the same problem, but a few had water pressure which was just fine. I have been incarcerated nearly 20 years and knew the pressure for every sink could be adjusted. Water can be turned up so high it flew past the sink basin and into the toilet or beyond. Apparently, plumbers were conspiring to keep the water pressure low. I miss the time when inmate workers did most of the plumbing work in the penitentiary. The sinks as well as the toilets, showers and laundry machines were always in proper working order.

To improvise for the dribble of water, my cellmate cut off a piece of a cable wire. He then removed the wire and plastic inside so all that was left was a two inch rubber tube. We regularly put this tube into the faucet to get water to lift up. Otherwise, it will dribble down the faucet and into the sink basin. Trying to wash your hands or anything else is incredibly difficult. When I moved into this cell, I asked Anthony how he got a drink and asked if he put his lips around the faucet and sucked the water out. No, he had this little tube which he kept to use when he wanted to increase water pressure. The tube not only lifts the water up but constricts it to create more force. It is very useful, although it still does not produce more water and washing takes much longer.

On a couple of occasions this week I spoke with a lieutenant I regularly debate politics with. I told him I predict there will be no deal to evade the sequester. Sequester is an automatic series of cuts to government spending Congress and the president agreed to if Democrats and Republicans were not able to pass a bill to slow the growing national debt which is now close to exceeding $16.5 trillion. I do not believe the cuts are the best way to shrink deficits, but the 2.4% reduction is a drop in the bucket when compared to a $3.55 trillion annual budget. In fact, I related to the lieutenant I agreed with Kentucky Senator Rand Paul the spending cuts should be much greater. Barack Obama's scare tactics were overblown and used solely to coerce Republicans into more reckless spending and taxes. The lieutenant said I would change my mind when the sequester begins to effect me. I have natural life without any possibility of parole, however, and spending cuts are not likely to minutely affect the general anguish, oppression, and austerity I already feel and have felt for all my adult life. Furthermore, the dysfunction of state government and this prison in particular is the cause of incompetent fiscal management, not the federal government.

Stateville is nearly 100 years old and the penitentiary is probably the most debilitated facility in the State of Illinois. Prisons are allotted large sums of money every year to cover their general expenses including proper maintenance. However, this funding is regularly squandered, misappropriated or even stolen. The culture of corruption, graft, neglect, or ineptitude has existed since the prison opened in the 1920's. Initially, it was mafia, then gangs, but now it is mainly staff who milk the system. Budget cuts are frequently cited for the poor conditions at the prison. However, I know very well that Stateville can be maintained, funded, and run much better and more efficiently. There is particularly no reason why inmates cannot have hot water.

UPDATE:  March 27
I have been informed the hot water coil in the laundry building was finally repaired.  My sink, however, continues to dribble out water and accessing hot water in the cell house can still be a problem.