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Monday, April 15, 2013

Conversation with a Religious Volunteer -- March 24, 2013

On weekends, there will occasionally be religious volunteers or missionaries who will wander the galleries of the prison. They will often offer Christian literature or discussion about Scripture. Typically, I will ignore them or tell them I do not care for the illusive spiritualism they offer. However, yesterday, I noticed an old white man who looked like the Star Wars character Obi-Wan Kenobi. I was just about finished eating a turkey-soy burger and was bored. The old man with the appearance of actor Alec Guinness seemed to be an interesting person to engage. Since I was a child, I have been a Star Wars fan. Maybe he could entertain me with stories or the powers of "The Force."

From outside my cell bars, the man asked me how I was doing. I told him I was the living dead. He spoke with an odd accent and I was not certain if he understood what I said. He also seemed to give me an expression of puzzlement and so I said, "zombie" and illustrated by holding out my hands with a blank look. Often I am told I appear expressionless or stoic and I exaggerated my performance for maximum effect. Apparently, I did not need to do so and the man told me he knew what I meant. He seemed to want to know why I felt this way, as if my captivity in a maximum security prison was not enough. I told him I had been incarcerated 20 years and will most likely die in prison. It was a miserable and meaningless existence.

Having spoken to other religious people before who proselytize in penitentiaries, I should have known his response. It was the same dumb and rehearsed response they give time and time again. I expected more from Obi-Wan Kenobi and was disappointed he could not deliver some better morsel of wisdom. People on the outside have little to no perspective of what it is like to live behind these walls. Those who are religious zealots are blinded by their faith or hypocrites. I wonder if the tables were turned how much comfort they would take in their message. The answer I received was: "Although you are physically captive, your mind is free".

I told the man my mind and body were one. There is no spirit which transcends the flesh and if there was, I would have killed myself long ago. I am trapped here to suffer and die. All my ambitions, hopes, and dreams fade away with my physical being. It was a miserable and meaningless existence. He replied that I could be free and yet still miserable. This was of course a possibility, but it was an absurd consolation and I could not imagine my life being so wretched if I were not condemned to die in the Illinois Dept. of Corrections. Contrarily, I often daydream about what my life would have been like had I not been arrested at the age of 18. I asked the man how old he was and if he had a good or fulfilling 74 years of  life. I also asked about his accomplishments over the years and if he had a wife, children, and grandchildren.

Old men tend to like to talk about their past and my inquiries gave him an opportunity to do so. I know this not only from other elderly people, but myself as well. I may not be an old man in my 70s, however, I tend to think of my life as over. There is nothing currently which brings me joy nor do I have any future to look forward to. There is only the distant past. Usually, I will just reminisce in my thoughts about my childhood or teen years before I was arrested. At times, I will share a story with my cellmate when he is not too preoccupied with watching television. Other prisoners who have also been incarcerated decades will also enjoy telling a story from long ago. They will usually speak of prison which I care little to listen to. The old man outside my cell bars, however, had stories of a free man and he put down his black leather bound Bible on those bars to tell me a few of them.

He was born in the Ukraine in 1939 not long before the outbreak of World War II. Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union happened in 1941 when he was a small child and he remembers none of it. Through his parents he was told how they had hoped the Germans would be successful and liberate them from the Russians. Even after it became apparent the Wehrmacht sought to conquer rather than free, they still favored German rule over their current masters. The Soviet Union was the most cruel, oppressive and tyrannical state. The man told me of the barbarity of communism largely hidden behind the iron curtain when Russia was allowed to take over East Europe after Germany was crushed. He and his family witnessed the mass ethnic cleansing, state murders, and gulags of the Soviet regime. Often the U.S. liberal media is fixated on villainizing Nazi Germany and they ignore the atrocities of Stalin and communism. However, the man I spoke with had no such misconceptions. He had a fervent hatred of the USSR and told me how his family was eventually able to escape its grip.

Fortunately for my father's grandparents, they immigrated to the United States before the war and tyranny of communism I told the man. I explained to him I knew a great deal about history and my family's ancestry. A young woman I used to write even searched the Internet to learn the Modrowski line could be traced all the way to the early 1700's Prussia. Other distant relatives of mine did not immigrate, however, and lived under the yoke of Soviet rule. I also was aware of the hardship, oppression, and strife in Eastern Europe and not just through books or news. I tended to believe the Ukrainian was attempting to illustrate to me how life could be miserable for those outside prison.

Yet despite how my direct descendants and I had escaped communism, I grew up in an America which was becoming the police state it had so fiercely once fought and distinguished itself from. Ironically, as the Soviet Union imploded, the prison industrial complex was being built in the U.S. There are more people incarcerated in the U.S. than any other country in the world. There may be more wrongfully convicted people here as well, and I was one of them.

I tend to believe the prison visitor still sought to minimize how my life was not so relatively terrible or to show he could empathize with me by telling me two of his wives had died and his third was in the hospital currently with heart troubles. However, the fact he had been able to have three wives only emphasized how much opportunity and a long rich life he had. It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. The longest relationship I ever had was a courtship through the mail while in prison. I have been incarcerated since my teens and although I was fortunate to date a lot of girls, I never had a chance to marry. I have no children either, let alone the many grandchildren the person preaching spiritualism had.

During our conversation, I learned he was a chemist and he traveled frequently in his retirement. I know chemists make a good wage and mentioned how it must be nice to travel the world. He downplayed his salary and said he was no longer as motivated as he once was to vacation or do many other things and he began to tell me about an old Polish prisoner who no longer cares to leave the prison. He was content to live behind bars until he died. The man he spoke of I knew as well. He was in a different cell house at one time with me. I recall how when he was first placed in the cell he had some urgent problem and a guard came to me to help translate. I do not speak Polish, however, and only know how to say hello and a few other words.

The Polish man was in his mid-70s and was never going to live long enough to see his outdate. From his former cellmate, I was told he was once a taxi cab driver in Chicago and was convicted of murdering one of his passengers he had gotten in a dispute with. He had many health problems and I am surprised he is still alive. Several years ago, I would occasionally sit at the same table in the chow hall with him. His hands were so arthritic that he had difficulty eating and would regularly spill food on the front of his shirt. In sign language, I tried to tell him the objective was to get the food into his mouth. He would break out in a hearty laugh. I learned he had a pacemaker when he batted away a guard who was trying to wand him with a metal detector. He had troubles walking to and from the chow hall and occasionally would grab onto the cyclone fence to catch his breath. Once he had to use the toilet when returning from chow but the movement correctional officer refused to give him permission to leave the line. After cursing at him in Polish, he walked past the guard ignoring him. The guard went to grab him but a cell house guard saw him and told the other guard to just let him go. The old Polish man was regularly breaking minor rules. The last I heard, staff had gotten mad at him for stuffing his clothes with so much food when leaving the chow hall, but he continued to do so because he could not eat fast. As a punishment, guards strip searched him to confiscate all his food. The old Polish man threw his shit stained underwear in one of their faces. The Ukrainian did not know why the last time he spoke with him he was in Segregation, but I did.

I agreed with my visitor that I may similarly not care anymore one day. Sometimes, I will point or gesture toward a man named Pete and tell my cellmate that in 30 years he may be my future. Pete is another old Caucasian man who will never get out of the prison. He is near 70 and is a tall, thin and gaunt figure with gray hair. He has an odd gait and walks around stiff but with an irregular limp. Pete is also going senile and can be just as slow mentally as physically. I refer to Pete as the cartoon character Bullwinkle because of their similar goofy voices. I may be like Bullwinkle in the future but hopefully I am not as dull witted or have that silly voice.

Recently I spoke to a cell house worker named Spooncake. He told me his lawyer had sent him a bill drafted by the Illinois legislature to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling prohibiting LWOP for juvenile offenders. States across the country are crafting devious statutes to get around the judicial order such as eliminating natural life but replacing it with a term of years no human could possibly serve. In Illinois, I am told their idea is to make life parolable but only after 15 years. If parole is denied, the juvenile offender will get a second chance after serving another 15 years. If he or she is denied parole twice, they will spend the rest of their lives in prison. I told Spooncake I thought the bill was preposterous because there is no cap and the state can just simply decide never to release any of them. I also was curious what the bill had planned for those who had already served over 15 years. He said he would bring me a copy to look at. Spooncake was a lookout for a double homicide when he was 14 years old and has been incarcerated almost as long as me.

In my discussions with the Ukrainian man, he had seemed to insinuate he had turned to the Bible for moral direction and thought it may help prisoners turn away from crime. I was not for certain and thus asked him directly why he was at Stateville. I explained to him nearly everyone at this prison had natural life without a chance of parole or an equivalent sentence, and regardless if he changed someone's belief system, it would not matter. They were not going to get any second chances. Usually, Christian missionaries will quickly answer that they are here to save souls as if the flesh and spirit that resides within were separable. Another answer is that even a condemned man in this life can be redeemed in the next. Fortunately, the elderly man did not give me such stupid answers. Possibly, he was wise enough to discern I would never believe in such supernatural abstractions or he did not quite believe in them himself. He simply told me because he lived in Venezuela for a decade before migrating to the U.S., he could speak Spanish. The chaplaincy had a need for people who could discuss Scripture to the large and growing population of Mexican inmates.

I appreciated that this elderly man was more practical and down to Earth than most other religious volunteers who did rounds in the prison. He did not seek confessions or prayer. He also did not want to read verses of the Bible to me nor did he profess scripture as the answer to everything. Not long ago I watched the movie "The Outlaw Josey Wales" which was played by Clint Eastwood. A man in the film continued to preach about the wonders of his elixir. He claimed it could virtually cure any illness or problem. Eventually, Josey Wales had enough of his yapping and spit a wad of chewing tobacco on his suit. He said, "How good is it with stains?" This is often the sentiment I have with Bible thumpers and those trying to sell me their faith. If these people really cared, they would offer their practical assistance and not prayers, Scripture, or salvation for the spirit. My salvation was in this world and in the flesh. For me it meant freedom from imprisonment.

Apparently, the Star Wars impersonator lost track of time and was concerned when I told him it was 2:00. He was supposed to check out of the cell house before the hour. Quickly he said farewell and left without trying to give me any religious literature or a prayer. I did not even get a "and the Force be with you." However, I felt more for the man for not doing so. Even if he was not Obi-Wan Kenobi, he was an interesting man to meet and I do not feel like I squandered a half hour talking to him. My cellmate seemed surprised I bothered to engage him in conversation. It was unusual for me but I sought a break from the monotony which can regularly accompany life in prison.