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Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Food Police -- April 5, 2013

Last week there were a couple of incidents in the chow hall which has, at least in part, precipitated an increase of security at the penitentiary. It is common practice for guards to wand prisoners with a metal detector when leaving the cell house. Furthermore, prisoners are randomly pulled out of movement lines to be frisked. In the last two weeks these practices have increased along with strip searches. Guards in the cell houses and the movement team are being assisted by Internal Affairs and even SORT in full tactical gear. The main purpose was to find weapons, however, for the most part they were simply finding food. Many prisoners including myself will return with food they were served in the chow hall to eat later. This food is commonly confiscated by guards and thus why I have begun to call them the "food police."

Nearly two weeks ago, the top gallery in E House refused to leave the chow hall. Inmates will regularly delay leaving when they have only been given five or ten minutes to eat. However, in this particular instance, the men seemed to have been protesting a perceived injustice or grievance. Typically, in such cases an administrator will come to hear the complaint and resolve the matter. I tend to believe no one of authority would listen to the inmates and instead the Orange Crush was sent in to distract them by force. From what I have been informed, the tactical team's mere presence persuaded the prisoners to leave without any resistance. They were escorted back to the cell house and placed on lockdown. The feed lines for the entire penitentiary were greatly delayed and there was an order to stop all movement. I have as yet been able to learn what the gallery of men were protesting. I rarely leave my cell and do not have many communications particularly with prisoners in different cell houses.

A couple of days later on Wednesday, there were two incidents which also caused a delay in operations at the prison. Lunch lines were not run in my cell house until after noon and I was uncertain if I would be able to go on a visit. According to what I was told, a prisoner was assaulted by two other inmates on the F House yard. Later when they went to chow another man was attacked by yet two other prisoners. In neither incident was a shot fired by the guards in the gun towers. I am unaware of the motivation in the assaults and the Roundhouse is more isolated than the quarter units. However, this week, the Orange Crush searched a number of cells in the building and prisoners were questioned by Internal Affairs. Investigative personnel from IDOC's state headquarters also were involved which led me to think security personnel believed there to be a broader security concern.

The movement team will occasionally pat down inmates going to and from details. However, in the last couple of weeks, they have been particularly aggressive and thorough. I have listened to men who have various jobs complaining about how every day they are being harassed with intrusive frisks. One prisoner said he felt he had been molested by a gay guard who felt all around his body. I am told how the guards are being petty in confiscating various items which are not security related. One man had some hard candy in his pocket which was taken. In another frisk, a Walkman was found on a prisoner. Prisoners are not supposed to bring anything with them but men like to listen to the radio while working. Kitchen workers have complained mainly about how they are unable to bring back food. Some will sell this food for trade, but others are just bringing back leftovers for their own consumption which would only be thrown out. Kitchen workers can be fired  for theft, but small takeouts are sometimes permitted by the supervisor.

Over the weekend, a detail yard is run. This allows many prisoners who have work assignments and miss regular recreation periods to have some time outside. Quarter unit detail yard is alternated between the small and large south yard on Saturdays with half the building attending one and the other half the other. My cellmate is allowed to go, but never does. Instead he watches TV and this is his preferred recreation. Last Saturday I was surprised he left to attend a special Easter religious service. When he returned, he was very disappointed to have missed his shows. Apparently, the religious service was not inspiring and I was told prisoners read Scripture and sang songs including rap songs about Jesus.

Prisoners who attended the detail yard returned in the early afternoon. A couple of them stopped at my cell to talk with Anthony. They said he should have gone out to the South yard with them instead of the religious service. They also mentioned how guards had an assignment list and were checking men's names at the gate. A few prisoners were turned around and possibly written disciplinary tickets if their name was not found. Occasionally the list will be inaccurate or incomplete but other times men will try to get an extra yard period who do not have a job. I assume this extra screening was done not to prevent prisoners from receiving a privilege they were not entitled to, but for security reasons. Unlike other yard or gym periods, men with details can congregate with those on different galleries and from a different cell house. Segregating prisoners is a way security keeps a tighter control over the penitentiary.

I do not have a job and the only extra security I have been able to witness is on the way to or back from the chow hall. Since the fights involving prisoners from the Roundhouse, there has been a significant increase in the inmates searched. Many more people are being pulled out of line to be frisked, particularly in the morning for lunch. On one occasion, a Mexican was told to step out of line, but he kept walking. The prisoner was not attempting to avoid being patted down. He simply was not paying attention and the female guard was ambiguous about who she wanted to search. The woman was a recent transfer from Dwight C.C. and seemed to overcompensate for the misunderstanding. She yelled at the prisoner in Spanish saying something like "Yeah, you! Get your ass over here. Don't tell me 'no English'." Some inmates may have become angry by her tone or words, but he seemed more embarrassed than anything. I think I noticed him blushing when he walked back although this may be due to the inmates who were razzing him.

Many times I will find myself uncertain if a guard wants to frisk me. Sometimes, though, because I have been at Stateville so long the guard will call me by name. A guard, however, who I did not know that was working in the cell house pointed toward me to be patted down. I dislike being always subject to searches and being touched. In prison, it is just something I have had to become accustomed to. I tend to believe it is similar to going through airport security every day. Fortunately, the guard did not grope me although he did go through my jacket pockets. He saw that I had a carton of milk and a couple slices of bread. Occasionally, a guard will confiscate the food and throw it on the floor for cell house workers later to put in the garbage. However, this guard just tapped me on the back to continue on up to my cell.

On Thursday of last week, I went out to chow to bring back a chicken-soy patty. It was only 9 a.m. and I was not hungry at all. I had just eaten my breakfast a couple of hours earlier and did not plan to eat again until at least noon. I knew the cell house would be first to be fed, but did not want to save the breakfast tray for later. Breakfast is served to inmates in the middle of the night and I do not even bother to wake up. When my cell mate returns from work he will take the styrofoam box trays from the bars and put them on the table. By the time I wake up, the food is already hours old. If I saved it any longer, the milk would probably be bad and I would have nothing to eat with my cereal. Thus why I was planning to take my chicken-soy patty to go to eat later.

Typically, prisoners are able to sit where they want in the chow hall. However, on this day a guard was assigning tables and I had to sit with a group of inmates I did not care for, or possibly vice versa. One prisoner was intentionally trying to avoid being seated with me. I have nicknamed this fat prisoner "the Elephant." The elephant has been avoiding me ever since a guard mentioned to him a blog post where I made fun of him for being obese and trying to convince me to give him my dessert from the Thanksgiving meal. The guard thought it was funny and many joke about the man's weight. A name which seems to be catching on is "The Eclipse". The fat man is so big he can blot out the sun. He is actually very useful on hot summer days when lifting weights on the yard and people will actually ask him to stand in a certain spot while bench pressing.

I tend to think the Elephant was angrier about my mentioning how he takes psychotropics and talked to the psychiatrist at length. I do not care if the obese man does not like me particularly after learning what he is in prison for. From law books, I learned he killed his twin 9-month old children. The appellate court's ruling gives a description of him smoking crack and going ballistic when the babies would not stop crying. He is said to have even thrown one baby into a dresser and the other into a wall 12 feet away. His arguments on appeal are not about being innocent as there was no dispute he was the killer. Rather he argued he should be held less accountable due to being under the influence of drugs and having a mild bipolar disorder. His murders are such that I do not care to be funny and joke about his weight, which I have done more so to be playful than mean spirited. After bagging my chicken patty and bun, I turned away from the table and waited to leave.

On the way out of the chow hall, a lieutenant was counting prisoners as they passed by. I knew what she was doing. Every so many prisoners got the good fortune to be strip searched. I happened to be one of the "lucky" ones and was told to stand to the side with a few other men who had been chosen. While standing there, I thought how I had wasted my morning and came out only to be annoyed by a loud and crowded chow hall. The icing on the cake was being strip searched and having my chicken patty taken away. I considered throwing away the food I had brought out into a nearby trash bin, but doing so may have caused suspicion.

After the last of the prisoners went by in the chow hall, I was brought into a long room with a concrete floor. The room had wooden dividers with plexiglass tops to allow prisoners to be seen all the way to the back. In the front was a wood desk where a guard sat and collected our identification cards to record in a registry. I was told to take booth number 3 where another guard went through my clothing as I undressed. My chicken patty and bread hit the floor not causing him any pause. The guards are used to finding food and even though my cell house was the first to eat, I noticed a little pile of state cakes and condiments when I came into the room. My clothes were all put on a plastic chair which was in each of the booths and then naked I raised my hands, lifted my genitals, opened my mouth, turned around,  lifted my feet, and bent over. The guard did not need to tell me the procedure. I have been strip searched thousands of times.

As I got dressed, the guard was talking to another prisoner. While other people may think of a strip search as a serious violation and indignity, it was routine in maximum-security prisons. Prisoners do not have any rights and can be searched at any time. I was almost more bothered about the loss of my lunch than having to undress. I considered asking if I could have the food back but it had hit the floor which was dirty and I reasoned the guards had to show their supervisors evidence they were doing their jobs. I assume the guards were looking for weapons or some other serious contraband. They were not impolite and the guard who strip searched me said he preferred to be doing something else. He has worked at Stateville for a number of years and from my experience acts professionally and is considerate.

This morning, prisoners on the lower floor and part of the 2nd were told to bring their laundry bags to chow. From the chow hall, the line to commissary was being run. I had largely been avoiding the chow hall particularly during the morning. I did not want to deal with the hassle of being frisked or strip searched again. I also did not like much of the food or the crowds of loud, obnoxious or repugnant convicts. However, I could not miss commissary. Unfortunately, I have become more dependent on overpriced commissary purchased food, the more I stay in my cell. My cell mate was sleeping and I woke him up to get ready to leave. He also did not want to go to lunch, but could not miss the line to the prison store.

On the way to the chow hall a prisoner I know was returning and stopped to whisper to me that the Orange Crush was waiting on the other side of the building. He apparently was warning me in case I had some contraband on me. I did not, but was apprehensive about what awaited us. What was the SORT's intentions? Were we all going to be strip searched? Tested for drugs? Spend all day handcuffed behind our backs while our cells were ransacked? When I turned the corner I saw a group of the tactical unit just inside the building in full gear. It was odd and I still could not discern their purpose. As the line went into the chow hall, however, they were pulling men out to frisk them. They did not frisk everyone and I went by them without being harassed. Inside the chow hall,  I asked Anthony what his opinion was, but he had no idea. The SORT was not used to frisk prisoners in the past. Apparently, SORT was also frisking men on the way out as well, but we were taken out a different door to go to the commissary building.

The manpower being used to search prisoners seems excessive and wasteful to me. Metal detectors can do the job of finding most serious weapons that are carried by inmates. They can also act as a deterrence to men taking them out of the cell house. The violence within a maximum-security prison can never be totally eliminated and it is a matter of reducing the incidence. However, much of the security measures applied are redundant and superfluous. They make more work for guards while tending to dehumanize and anger prisoners. Even I who have been incarcerated for two decades am not immune to the continuous invasions of my person. There is a need for conducting searches within a penitentiary, but they can be done much less often and more discriminately. Hopefully, this time period of increased frisking and strip searches was only temporary to address some real and specific perceived threat. When guards are reduced to food police, it devalues the worth of everyone.