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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Visit on the First Day of Spring -- March 20, 2013

This morning, I was uncertain if the penitentiary would be on lockdown. Yesterday, there was restrictive movement while the tactical team searched another cell house. The reason for the search was unknown to me and I furthermore did not know if it would be expanded to other units. I was expecting a visit, but it may be cancelled. The administration often prohibits or limits visits during lockdowns. Last week my father had told me of his plans to come and he may be joined by my mother and sister. My father's physical health has been deteriorating rapidly and I do not see him as often as I once did. I was looking forward to visiting with him and was pleased to learn SORT had completed their search. The prison was back to normal operations.

Early in the morning, an announcement was made over the cell house loudspeaker for assignments to get ready for work details. This was soon followed by a law library standby and the list of men who were permitted to go. A guard went down the gallery asking prisoners if they wanted to get a haircut at the barbershop school. I turned my head gesturing no. All too often I have received bad haircuts by the inexperienced students and prefer to cut my hair myself. Regardless, I had a lot to do this morning before my visit arrived.

I began my exercise regimen at 8 a.m. at the front of the cell near the bars. My cellmate was sleeping behind me on his top bunk. It was cramped living with another person in such a confined space, but I try to be as considerate as possible. To cover the noise I made, I turned my fan on high and placed it on a nearby table. The first half hour I did strength exercises using my own body weight or my property box for resistance. As details and other prisoners were let out of their cells, the noise level went up considerably and this is when I did my more noisy and vigorous cardiovascular workout. Despite how loud the cell house had become, for the last part of my exercises I took off my shoes. My socks were quieter and even the stomping I did on the concrete floor could not be heard over the yelling and commotion in the building.

While I exercised, I often faced out toward the bars and out the cell house windows. The windows were large but they were opaque and covered in years of grime. Although they are not clear, I could see prisoners lining up on the concrete walk to go to the library, assignments, and elsewhere. Beyond them were some barren prison grounds extending to the wall. In the 1980's, Stateville had a large grounds crew that kept this land lavishly decorated with flowers and decorative plants. The only thing which remains now is a few short fir trees. Their needles were brown and they looked dead. Possibly they may green when the temperatures rise, but for now they look lifeless.

It was the first day of spring despite the winter weather which continued. On the morning news, I watched while eating breakfast, were reports of snowstorms in the U.S. Even the Chicagoland area was supposed to have snow later in the day. Earlier in the week, I heard of people suggesting Punxatawny Phil, a celebrity groundhog, should be killed and eaten. The groundhog predicted winter was over with on February 2nd. I do not think anyone takes the groundhog's purported prediction seriously, but the yearly ritual was clearly a focus of absurdity by news media this year.

After bathing out of my sink, I dressed and began to read financial newspapers and reports. The stock market continued its upward trajectory on a wave of unprecedented Federal Reserve stimulus and low interest rates. Corporate reports for the first quarter were complete and I was attempting to discern how long the run on stocks would continue. Chow lines were run out of the cell house but I did not stir. The prison was serving yet another disgusting meal and with my expectation of a visit, I could eat my lunch then. Many prisoners will gorge on vending machine food while on visits. The food, however, in the machines is usually not much better, in my opinion. There were plenty of snacks and high fat unhealthy food. I was rather finicky about what I ate and stayed away from such junk. Sometimes, I will refrain from eating anything on my visit and will wait until I get back to my cell. My property box has commissary food. If I were lazy, I would just eat a tuna or sardine sandwich.

My father was rather punctual and thus as I read I was already dressed and ready to leave whenever my name was called over the loudspeaker. Rather than announce my visit, however, a guard yelled up to my cell from the lower floor. A lieutenant also stepped out of the office which is almost directly below and asked if I was ready to leave. I nodded yes, so as to not disturb my cellmate and it was apparent I was waiting when he saw me dressed in prison blues. The lieutenant yelled to the guard he should have already known I would be ready to leave. I regularly receive visits and almost always at the same time and day of the week.

Not long thereafter the guard came upstairs and unlocked the sliding cell barred door. As soon as it was opened my cellmate got up as if he was waiting for me to leave. My cellmate was eager to enjoy some cell time to himself and I do not blame him. I do not leave the confines of the cage we share often, and am somewhat of a hermit. It is annoying and uncomfortable always being in close proximity with another person and not having any privacy. Even with a person you get along with, there is a need to have space. I should make more of an effort to do this, but I disdain prison life and am a recluse.

It was chilly outside of the cell house. The temperature was in the low 30s and there was a slight wind. Gray skies that matched the monolith prison building reminded me of a huge mausoleum. It was nearly a 100 foot high and over a city block long. About a thousand prisoners, most without a chance to ever be freed, were contained within. I walked through a corridor of high cyclone fencing topped with razor wire besides the main prison building. An escorting guard walked with me until we reached another building and what is known as Gate 5. Gate 5 was the first of five gates leading to the free world.

Both of the visiting rooms at the prison are now being used and there was a line of Stateville as well as NRC inmates waiting to be strip searched. Inmates from the Northern Receiving Center (NRC) have grown in number and they now far exceed those who reside beyond the wall. There are nearly 2,500 NRC inmates and many are bussed to Pontiac or are left in the Cook County Jail due to the overflow. NRC inmates formerly only waited a couple of weeks to be processed and sent to penitentiaries, but now are sometimes held there for half a year. There is no space in the IDOC for more prisoners and bunks are being set up in the basements and gymnasiums of minimum and medium security prisons. I appreciate that the prison administration has opened the other visiting room to accommodate the prisoners from NRC, but there was still only one strip search room and at the time I arrived only one guard conducting the searches.

I was waiting in line for over a half hour and during this time a guard at gate 2 informed me my visitors were waiting. I assumed as much but for some reason I have yet been able to discern, I must be strip searched going in for a visit. Eventually, the guard working the strip search room let me and another prisoner in. The room is a little larger than a prison cell and it has a few chairs lined up for inmates to place their clothes on. It also has a small table and chair in the corner for a guard to sit on. A fat guard was conducting the searches and it was apparent he did not want to work there. Many guards disdain looking at naked men all day and going through their clothing. Some prisoners are not hygienic and have dirty underwear or bad body odor. Ironically, this time it was the guard who smelled foul after passing gas. He turned on a ventilation fan but it like many things at Stateville did not work. Rather than pardoning himself, he attempted to blame me. I was amused by his childish deflection of blame and when I went to leave, I told him I was going to allow him to savor his flatulence by closing the door behind me.

I had a special side room visit in one of the legal rooms due to my father's disabilities. My father is very old and has a number of medical problems. He can barely hear and even with a hearing aid he is virtually deaf when in the crowded general population visiting room. Furthermore, he has severe arthritis and most problematic is a disintegrating spine. A couple of neck surgeries have left him even worse off than before and when I saw him he was wearing a large neck brace. It was sad to see the once robust father I knew as a teen before my arrest had become a crippled old man. I gave him a hug but did not pat him too hard on the back thinking I may break something.

The legal rooms are off the main hallway between gates 2 and 3. They are about 10 by 18 feet and have a large pressboard table in the center with plastic chairs on both sides. A barred window which can be opened is on the far wall, but due to the cold it was closed and an old radiator emitting heat and steam was underneath it. The legal rooms are better to visit in because of the noise and crowds in the visiting rooms which can bother me immensely. It is like a zoo and almost unbearable. The table and chairs are also an improvement to the miniature foot-high tables and uncomfortable steel stools. It is unfortunate I cannot have all my visits in these isolated rooms.

I spent about half of my 2 hour visit talking to or listening to my parents discuss a home my father had found to his liking in South Carolina. From what he described, the rustic home in the countryside with several acres of land seemed appealing. However, both my mother and I were skeptical if he was up to the challenge. Many of the things he sought to do or would like to do are now beyond his physical capabilities. How would he maintain such a large estate or be as active outdoors as he wanted? Furthermore, I knew although my father was nonsocial like myself, my mother was not and most of her family was here in Illinois. I knew the social support my mother had was good for her and she would be unhappy elsewhere. If I were free, I could assist my parents in their old age, but from prison I was impotent. I even could not come to a conclusion about what was best for them having been beyond the wall for so long. How well do I know them or the world outside of prison?

During my visit, I saw a lieutenant I know outside in the hallway and waved for him to come in. I wanted to introduce him to my parents. He came into the room and chatted for a little while. Possibly, it was odd I think now in retrospect. I have spent so many years in prison, I have come to know and be acquainted with my captors almost as much as my family. Gang members and many convicts would probably look at me with disdain for consorting with the "enemy" let alone introducing them to my parents like a friend. Prisoners are housed and treated like animals if not sometimes worse. We live in cages in the most deplorable and oppressive conditions. The conditions in the maximum security prisons of Illinois cannot be found in nearly the entire Western world. However, for the most part of my incarceration, I have much less animosity towards those who work in the prison system than those who are responsible for me being here.

While I was talking to my father, my mother went downstairs into the visiting room to see if there was any food I would like in the vending machines. She returned with some chicken wings, an egg roll, and a blueberry bagel. The vending machines are always filled with barbecue chicken wings and they are popular among many prisoners at Stateville. However, it was very rare that there would be an egg roll or bagel. I had not eaten an egg roll in decades and it is something I cannot ever recall being served in prison. Recently, bagels were donated to the prison but there were purportedly not enough of them to be served to the entire prison population. Only guards and kitchen workers had access to them. Some prisoners on special diets were given them for breakfast once or twice. I was able to get one of those diet trays but the bagel was plain and not as good as the one I ate on my visit. My mother asked if I wanted it heated in one of the microwave ovens, but this was not necessary. I have become accustomed to eating cold food. My parents often think they can make me happy with some food as if this will make up for all the injustice and misery I have endured. It is nice they care, but it is an insignificant trifle.

What is important to me is the progression of my appeal. It has still yet to be filed and much of the investigative work I want goes undone. My attorney has procrastinated working on my case and has persuaded my parents seeking new evidence is not worth the money or will not strengthen my issues. I tend to believe she wants to focus on a few things believing less is more. However, I have heard that before and it did not work out so well. More is more, and the greater my evidence of innocence is, the better. Why should I not present everything I can before the court? I asked my mother for about the tenth time for the address or phone number of a private investigator. It is apparent to me my parents want to maintain in control despite their declining mental and physical faculties. It is incredibly frustrating to be dependent on others and I assume this is a common feeling amongst prisoners who are fighting their conviction in a very adverse criminal justice system.

On the return from my visit, I took a nap. Visits regularly can leave me exhausted. Despite not having to deal with the packed visiting room, it was greatly taxing. Seeing my parents in such poor health and being unable to do anything for them was upsetting. It was upsetting also they are not willing to help me with my appeal. Do they wish to die before their son can be exonerated? Have they given up hope? Would they rather buy me overpriced vending machine food than pay the fees for diligent counsel and outreach? I am slowly dying in prison and they are almost in the grave. The sands in the hour glass are almost gone. As I write this post I can see the snow falling in the night. Today was supposed to be the first day of spring and yet it seems like a long dark winter remains before me.