You are reading a rare, detailed account of everyday life in Stateville Prison.

Click to read Paul's blog quoted on:
To contact Paul, please email: paulmodrowski@gmail.com
or write him at the address shown in the right column. He will get your message personally.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Clear Tech Watch -- June 23, 2013

Nearly ten years ago, I bought a cheap plastic watch from the prison store. I paid $17 for it, although it was probably worth less than a quarter of that amount. The low quality Casio time piece is the type of trinket I would expect to be sold for a few dollars at the check-out counter or be given away free with another purchase. Before my arrest, I would never have considered buying it, however, in prison you have little choice. It was the only watch being sold and if I wanted to know what time it was, I had to buy it. The watch served its function adequately until a few years ago when it became temperamental and simply moving it caused it to cease ticking. Thus, I never wear it on my wrist anymore and it simply stays wrapped around a bar on my bunk. I have thought of buying a new watch, but those being sold now are of even less quality and are disposable. I never heard of a disposable watch before. Apparently when the battery dies a prisoner must pay another $15 for a new one.

Last year when I was in the shower holding area, a black man with a gold tooth offered to sell me a digital sports watch. He was in his cell and both him and his cellmate seemed to use their location to sell all types of merchandise. Although the frequency of prisoners being able to shop at the prison store has improved since new staff have been added, at that time inmates waited up to two months. Furthermore, there are limits on the amount of a certain product prisoners can buy. Therefore, to make extra money, some men in the cell house will have their own stores and sell commissary for twice its cost. They will also occasionally sell a variety of things not sold at the prison store.

A few convicts around the cell looked at pornographic magazines, Tupperware and a pair of new sweat pants. Sweat pants are sold at the commissary and I assume the pawn shop dealer just wanted to trade them for some other merchandise. I was not interested in any of these items, but I did look over the watch carefully. It was a durable brand name sports watch with various features. It not only displayed the time, day and date, but had a pulse rate, alarm, and multiple stop watch functions. As a person who times their workouts, I was very inclined to buy the watch especially when I was told it ran on the same batteries sold at the commissary. However, the price he asked was high considering it could be taken by guards as contraband at any time. The $50 investment would not be worth it if I only had it for a year or less.

Digital watches were once sold in maximum security prisons in the 1990s. Medium and minimum security prisons continued to sell them, but I am uncertain if any do currently. While I was at Pontiac C.C. I purchased one of them. They were not very impressive and only read the time and day. Eventually I was able to procure a sports watch similar to the type which was offered me last year with various features. However, during a shake-down of my cell while I was at Joliet, a guard confiscated it. I considered complaining or writing a grievance, but the watch was probably not purchased legitimately through the prison store. I also had no proof of purchase and therefore let the issue go.

All electronic items sold in maximum security prisons are now made of clear plastic. Televisions, Walkmans, fans, headphones, adapters, and even watches are now see through. The administration of the IDOC has an obsession with security. Many other commissary items are also made with clear packaging such as the deodorants, pens, cups, electric razors and various food products. I noticed the company which makes Ramon Noodles has even made their packaging more see through to please the security concerns of prisons. Prisoners joke that eventually our clothing will be made of clear fabric. Possibly, the IDOC will seek out a contract with Lululemon yoga apparel to buy all their extra sheer fabrics.

Recently, the National Football League announced a new policy. Anyone who attends one of their games cannot bring a bag unless it is a small pouch or made of see through plastic. Apparently, this was in response to the pressure cooker bombs used in the Boston bombing which were concealed in backpacks. It is odd to see how the excessive security measures that have been taken in the U.S. prison system are being applied to the public at large. For years now, guards and other people who work at the penitentiary have been forced to buy clear plastic bags to hold their lunches or various other personal property. It has done nothing to improve security at Stateville and only serves as an inconvenience, but it is enforced rigorously anyway. The same is being done outside these prison walls and eventually I imagine there will be no difference. All Americans will get to enjoy the security measures of Stateville.

While my cellmate was reordering his property box, I noticed he had a spare watch. I inquired why he had two and was told he traded a few pieces of fried chicken for it simply to have the band. The wrist band on his watch had broken and he needed a new one. The watches sold in prison are very cheap and all the bands are made of a thin plastic which easily tears. The band on my watch had snapped long ago and I made a replacement for it. Many prisoners have done the same using various materials or asked others to do so for them. I have made a few wrist bands for people and would have made one for Anthony had he asked.

My cellmate gave me the watch he was not using and I put a new battery in it. It was more durable than the watch I currently had and did not stop ticking when I shook it. The only problem was it was made out of clear plastic and I could barely read the time because the hands of the watch matched the mechanics inside. Both were a silver color. I thought I could easily remedy this problem by opening up the watch and placing a dark blue background in it or by coloring the clock's hands. However, after spending an hour meddling with the watch, I learned nothing could be done. Although the back could be taken off to exchange the battery, a piece of paper could not be placed between the silver mechanics and the watch hands. The watch hands also could not be painted because they were sealed in a plastic chamber.

Despite how the watch was difficult to read from a distance, I asked my cellmate what he wanted for it. He told me $30. This was a ridiculous price, so I simply ignored him and continued to play around with the watch attempting to add contrast. Later he told me to pick up a new mirror from commissary for him. I asked him what he had done with his other mirror and he told me he cracked it. I said that is what he gets for looking at it too long.

I was not going to buy my cellmate a new mirror when I had plenty in my property box that he could have. I took out a mirror from the bottom of my box that I had rarely handled and asked him if it was sufficient. He scrutinized it and commented the reflection was not as perfect as a brand new one. I told him this was probably for the best. In fact, his self esteem may be uplifted if he used an old dull mirror. The mirror was perfect and I snatched it from his hand and began to put a magnet on the back. Prison mirrors once were sold with magnets, but this was discontinued. The magnet I used was from an older mirror he broke. It will allow him to attach it to any of the metal surfaces in the cell including the cell bars where he usually shaves.

On Memorial Day, I had some free time and I spent it making myself another watch band. The other band fit perfectly with the watch I received from my cellmate, but it was faded and worn. I had worked out with it on my wrist for years before it became too sensitive to do so. The dark blue color turned to a mottled gray-blue and the fabric had worn away at the clasp. I saved a Velcro band from the back of a baseball cap just in case I would have a need for it in the future. With a minimal amount of sewing and cutting I was able to make a new watch band for myself. A more difficult project was sewing the new state pants I received. About 10" of the waist band had separated from the rest of the fabric. Apparently, the female inmate workers at Dwight C.C. cared little about the quality of clothing they made just before they lost their jobs and were transferred to Logan.

My cellmate was impressed by all the sewing I had done and made a joke about how one day I would make a good housewife. I retorted that in exchange for some commissary I could probably sew him a woman's suit so he would not have to tuck his genitals in anymore. Lately, I have been causing Anthony to crack up with laughter mimicking the serial killer "Buffalo Bill" in the classic horror film "Silence of the Lambs." My cellmate has been regularly opening himself up to such jokes when he slathers lotion on his skin or applies chap stick. Anthony's chap stick reminds me of lip gloss and I have asked him if that is why he wants the new mirror so he can pucker up in it. I also ask if he would like to hear some light 80's techno music so he can dance pretending he is a woman like in the film. Over the weekend, I was imitating the voice of Darth Vader while watching Star Wars and although I have the actor James Earl Jones' voice down perfectly, it does not seem to amuse my cellmate "Giggity, Giggity" nearly as much.

The TV show "Hannibal" comes on every Thursday night at 9 p.m. Hannibal is based on the film "Silence of the Lambs" and I usually watch it with my cellmate if I am not too tired. This week I was at the sink getting a drink of water when he asked me what time it was. He wanted to know if the program would be on soon. He has his watch fastened to a clip on the wall next to his TV, however, he was currently at the steel table by the bars. I told him I didn't know. It is difficult telling time on the invisible Clear Tech watch he gave me. The watch was wrapped around my bunk bar where I usually sit. From five feet away in a very little light telling time on it was impossible.

I have begun to wear the watch on my wrist and it has drawn the interest of other prisoners. Mainly they want to scrutinize the design. The top band is just a dark blue cloth with a steel clasp on the end of it. The bottom is a strip of two types of Velcro which is thread through the ring and back to adhere onto itself. A white prisoner who is intellectually dull and drugged on medications was particularly impressed by my craftsmanship. He claimed to have a black leather watch band he had made. There are a couple of men who have taken the time and have the skill to cut the leather out of a pair of boots, but I doubt he was one of them. Lunchbox, as prisoners have been jokingly calling him, said he would later send it up to my cell and if I wanted, I could keep it. During the evening, a cell house worker dropped it off and I showed the band to my cellmate so he could get a laugh. It was garbage and I flushed it down the toilet.

On another day, I spoke to Big John about Lunchbox's watch band. Big John has been helping the man out by giving him commissary on occasion. He does not have any family or anyone else sending him money and must rely on his monthly state stipend of $10. Big John was not surprised by the haphazardly stitched and unusable band Lunchbox sent to me. He told me during the month he gave him two watches. The first one he took apart to paint with Harley Davidson colors and a decal. However, it never worked again afterwards. Thus, he sent him another watch with instructions not to tinker with it. The dumb man who sometimes acts like a big retarded kid was recently assigned a job and this will give him an additional $20 a month. Big John was pleased because now he can be more self sufficient.

Yesterday, prisoners on my gallery and below were allowed to go out to the yard after dinner. I razzed Lunchbox about where his Harley Davidson watch was. I told him he should have tried to paint himself a Mickey Mouse or Scooby Doo watch instead. Despite the teasing inmates gave him, he takes it with good humor. I tried to have John lure him out into the middle of the yard where I could quickly come from behind and capture him in a soccer net. John thought it was amusing, but would not be my accomplice. Although Lunchbox was the butt of our jokes, we did not want him to lose respect amongst other prisoners who may take it as a sign of weakness.

According to my new Clear Tech generic watch, it is 8 p.m. and "The Empire Strikes Back" is just about to come on TV. I know my cellmate is looking forward to my mocking criticisms of the film which is less science and mostly preposterous fiction, as well as my Darth Vader impersonations. Actually, he is probably annoyed by them by now, but I cannot always entertain "Gigitty, Gigitty" despite his generosity in giving me this Cracker Jack trinket. My parents tell me they still have my expensive Swiss made Movado watch waiting for me at home. Hopefully, I will be able to wear it someday soon.