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Friday, August 2, 2013

Big Brother -- July 21, 2013

This week, a multitude of new video cameras began to be installed throughout the penitentiary. Some replaced old cameras but a great number of extra ones were added on the outside and inside of various buildings. The additional surveillance will allow the administration and Internal Affairs to monitor all large movement of prisoners as well as staff. Other than in my cell there is a camera watching almost everywhere I go. Along with Internal Affairs' network of snitches, the monitoring of phone calls and mail, it gives them almost omniscient power. I notice pervasive surveillance has not only occurred within these walls, but outside them too. Purportedly, it is done for our protection and safety. However, I only see it as the further usurpation of our freedom and privacy. George Orwell may have been off by a few decades in his book "1984" but Big Brother is definitely here today.

Last Wednesday is when I first began to notice the extra surveillance cameras being installed. In the morning, I was in a line with other prisoners from my cell house being escorted by guards to the commissary building. We happened to walk by a few maintenance men who were replacing a video camera which faced the walkway into the chow hall. I speculated the new similar looking rectangular box unit with camera inside was an upgrade to the old rusted one which had been there for years. I recalled in the spring how birds occasionally built nests on top of the old unit. The birds and their hatchlings seemed oblivious they were on top of a camera in a maximum security prison. How nice it must be to have wings, I thought, and hopefully I will be a free bird someday too.

In the hallway which went around the perimeter of the chow hall was yet another camera. This one was encased in a dark circular glass on the ceiling. A little camera was inside that swivels to look down in both directions. The hallway can be dangerous because there is no gun tower to overlook it. During chow lines, guards and lieutenants will be at the entrance or outside. However, when something occurs at a different place or time, the hallway can be vacant except for escorting guards. I recall on one occasion a brawl between a number of prisoners that went on for a long time before responding personnel were able to get the situation under control. The new camera will not prevent such incidents or decrease response time, however. It will only allow I.A. to identify participants and see what occurred. In this circumstance, guards were not certain who was involved and they checked the entire line of men for marks, particularly on the fists.

The line I was in came to a large steel sliding door which led to a pathway to the commissary. There are several of these doors in the prison and they are opened by those who work in the control room. Escorting guards must call on their radios to have the doors opened if they are not being monitored. All of the sliding locked doors have cameras posted on them. It is yet another largely redundant security measure especially since there no longer is any free movement in the prison. All inmates must be escorted by staff where ever they go in the maximum security prisons of Illinois, and it has been this way since the late 1990s. An idea of allowing inmates again to go to visits and the Health Care Unit unescorted was fleetingly considered, but dropped. It would have reduced waiting times and freed up guards to do other things. The union opposed it based on safety although mainly because of the possibility some of their workforce could be deemed unnecessary.

At the commissary building, I waited in the corner of a waiting room until my name was called. I did not notice any cameras placed in there as of yet, although possibly there should be. A lot of theft occurs in the store and inmates are virtually robbed every time they shop. I spent a little over $100 for just one bag of goods. Commissary is regularly overcharging prisoners and the only choice we have is not to buy their overpriced goods. It is not like we can go to another store. There is no competition and the prison store has a monopoly. Next time prisoners are allowed to shop, I plan to stay in my cell. I must save my money.

As prisoners walked out of the commissary building, escorting guards stopped the double line. A moment later, we saw a number of guards and a few lieutenants running down the walk to the gymnasium. Prisoners made fun of the fat or slow guards who could not keep up and had to stop and rest. It did not matter though, because whatever happened was long over with. Escorting guards told us to go back into the building and many went into the holding room with a window facing the gym. Prisoners soon saw a Mexican inmate being led out in handcuffs behind the back with blood on his white T-shirt. Although I did not see a second man led out, I assumed he was in a fight with someone and did not just punch himself in the face.

Eventually the commissary line was allowed to return to the cell house. I noticed the maintenance crew had not only replaced the camera which was once an enticing nesting spot for birds, but added a second one. The second camera faces the opposite direction and down the walk of the west side of the quarter units' building. A complimentary camera was being mounted on another building to look down the east side as well. A prisoner commented how line movement would be slowed ever more because of guards' fear of being written up. A game of "green light, red light" is already played with prisoners where they must stop numerous times going to destinations within the penitentiary. This is done to reestablish the formation of a line or double line of inmates. Prisoners are not army recruits at boot camp. At Stateville most men are convicted murderers who will never be released and they care little to walk in strict formation. On occasion, lines cannot be neat and orderly due to the number of old or crippled men, particularly in C House. Those men with crutches are allowed to walk separately and ahead of others in an effort to solve this problem.

The prison was not placed on lockdown for the one on one fight which occurred in the gym and I was able to go on a visit. Afterwards in the strip search room a particularly overzealous and weird guard assisted in the search of me and two prisoners. He is not liked by a number of inmates and his co-workers. Some think he is queer and he has various nicknames including "locomotive engineer" for the strange hat he usually wears. During the strip search, he got into an argument with a prisoner for insisting he spread his butt cheeks. The guard said it was necessary because he may be hiding something there and mentioned the prisoner who was found with a cell phone up his ass the previous month. I knew the incident may give some gay or Robocop-guards justification to examine men's asses. However, as the prisoner pointed out, how was a person going to shove a cell phone up his ass in the visiting room? The visiting room is supervised by at least two guards, there are no blind spots, and all inmates must remain seated at their assigned table which is lower than the connecting stools. Furthermore, there are two cameras continually monitoring the visiting room. One is a swivel camera in a bubble that can look in all directions from the ceiling in the center. The other is immobile but can see the entire visiting room from a wall.

The following day, my cellmate went to one of the two small yards. He rarely goes to these yards which basically are just two concrete basketball courts surrounded by cyclone fencing and razor wire. However, he may have been enticed to play some ball or if nothing else walk around the perimeter listening to his Walkman. When I spoke to him later in the day, he mentioned how a new bubble camera was recently installed on the cell house exterior to watch prisoners on the two yards. The camera is about 100 meters away, but purportedly they are equipped with a sophisticated zoom lens which can read the cards in a prisoner's hand as he plays a game of Spades.

Thursday evening, I went out to the chow hall. Inside, I noticed a new camera was installed to look down a tunnel that leads to the quarter units building. The tunnel is almost never used for inmate lines even when it is pouring rain or freezing cold outside. The administration prefers inmates to be escorted by guards via a circuitous route because they are then kept under the gun towers. Not only was a new rectangular box camera set up to look down the tunnel, but two additional bubble cameras were installed in the ceiling of the feeding circle with one on each side of the gun tower. Chicken-soy patties were served for dinner and as I ate I listened to a prisoner say how all the new cameras were donated as a tax write off. I have no idea if this is true. Last week he was saying there was going to be a big Orange Crush raid which never occurred.

There are three dining rooms in the chow hall. Two of them have been divided by a cyclone fence to permit an entire cell house to be fed separately by gallery. For years, there have been cameras in the corner of each dining room near the ceiling. Apparently these were old and the administration wanted to upgrade them. All three of them have been replaced with the new camera design. The cameras have never had a deterrence effect on prisoners and numerous fights break out in the chow hall. Inmates already are serving natural life or the equivalent sentence and going to Seg is not a significant punishment for many. Furthermore, many fights are fueled by instantaneous anger that would not be repressed by a thousand cameras. Finally, even in circumstances where there is no surveillance, there is often a guard or snitch to witness the event.

Not long after I returned from the chow hall, I began to watch a news program following the trial of George Zimmerman. The jury had been selected and opening statements were scheduled to begin Monday. I was surprised the entire jury was made up of women. While racial prejudice has been at center of this trial, nothing has been said about how the perceptions of men and women may be different until now. If I was Zimmerman, I would be concerned about how females may be more influenced by emotion and not be able to follow the law. I know very well from personal experience when the prosecutor lacks evidence, he or she will resort to emotional appeals and drama. This case has already been hyped by irrational passionate exuberance.

While watching the news coverage, a cell house worker came to my cell bars. He was formerly on the 3rd shift until those assignments were eliminated after a female guard in Danville was attacked late at night. For over a month, he did not have a job until this week when the midnight shift workers were reassigned to days or evenings. He speculated that when they are done installing the cameras he may get his original job back. I asked, "What cameras?" He said two additional cameras were mounted facing opposite directions on the cell house wall. I had not even noticed those. The last I knew there was only one camera in a bubble over the shower holding area with the exception to the old cameras fixed on the back stairs which have not worked in years. I looked out my cell bars to see if I could locate the new cameras the cell house worker was talking about, but he said not to bother. They were far past my vantage point and behind the front staircase.

On Friday, I went out of my cell for both lunch and dinner. The first day of summer was warm with a high temperature just exceeding 90F. Inside the chow hall it was warmer still and some men brought hand cloths to wipe sweat from their brows. In the chow hall again prisoners spoke about all the new cameras and whether they will ever be used to substantiate inmate's claims of excessive force, battery or other abuse by guards. The overwhelming opinion was that those tapes would be lost. I thought this was very possible, but that the expanded surveillance would be used to monitor staff's conduct if not for inmates' benefit but for following rules, procedures, and the orders of supervisors. I happened to meet a guard who I knew from taking me on hospital writs. He mentioned he quit the writ team long ago after the administration had cameras placed in all the vans to watch them. This was done after an inmate escaped from one of them and there were questions about how he got out. After a brief manhunt the inmate was found hiding in a portipod and he died sometime thereafter apparently from the chemicals, his injuries, or some combination thereof.

Earlier today I stopped to talk with the lieutenant who was standing by the door on my way out of the cell house. My cellmate who had a visit also stopped by the door and happened to stand on the other side of him. I was not paying attention but my cellmate turned toward the lieutenant apparently in an intimidating fashion. The lieutenant in turn took out his two cans of mace and began to play with them as if they were old west gun pistols. I asked the lieutenant if he was going to go bizerk like another lieutenant did earlier in the week in the Roundhouse. From what I was told by witnesses, a cell house worker KO'd another prisoner in a single punch. The incident was over, but the lieutenant began maceing everyone. He maced not only the man who threw the punch, but a nurse and a few other bystanders. He even maced the unconscious prisoner on the ground. The cell house lieutenant I was speaking to asked if that was one of my guys as he holstered his "guns". I assume he was referring to the similar sounding names we have. "I do not know if he is one of my guys," I said, "but he is Polish." Then before I left I commented he looked like the actor Richard Dreyfuss. Maybe Dreyfuss was "one of his guys".

Coincidentally while writing this blog post, my cellmate mentioned to me the CBS realty TV show "Big Brother" was going to begin next Sunday. Some type of preview which described and pictured the contestants was being advertised on TV. Like many of the shows he watches, the women are a major factor. After he told me there were a number of attractive females who will be on the show, I got up to look at his TV screen. I was baffled and began to say they were all ugly until I saw a young blond haired woman named Aaryn Gries. Although she was extremely pretty, I doubt I will watch the goofy show. There are a few other survivalist reality TV shows I intend to check out including "Naked and Afraid" which comes on tonight on Discovery. The show "Big Brother", however, is very popular in prison and I can only speculate it is because we also have no life and are trapped in a house, albeit "the big house" under constant surveillance.

In the last week, Americans outside of these prison walls have been given a little peek into the real Big Brother government which exists through the disclosures of Edward Snowden. Snowden was an IT contractor who worked for the NSA until he could not in good conscience keep the spying activity of the U.S. government a secret any longer. All Internet and phone calls of American citizens can be monitored by the intelligence agency. The massive amount of data is crunched by computers to make connections and focus on suspicious activity or communications. For Snowden's revelations, he has become an enemy of the state and fled first to Hong Kong and today to Russia, he really has not said anything which should not have already been known or suspected. The government has been eavesdropping on Internet activity and phone calls for many years without probable cause. Even when they sought to be lawful, they simply had England do the work and pass on the Intel to the U.S. Long before the Internet existed, the FBI kept track of books purchased or taken out from libraries. The only difference now is the government has vastly more information about the American public, and no, we are not any safer for it.

Big Brother is not always covert, but all around us. From what I read and saw on television, there is pervasive surveillance and it is only going to get worse. There are video cameras posted everywhere in cities and throughout much of suburbia. They are in and out of buildings, at traffic lights, toll booths, and in various other public areas. Government knows what you read online, what you watch on TV, who you call, and what you say. They also know where you go and can track cell phones as well as many cars. If this was not enough, there are numerous spy satellites orbiting over the planet and soon local and federal government plan to use thousands of drones to roam across the U.S. Military aerospace companies have found new lucrative markets for their flying surveillance machines amongst law enforcement and other agencies within the country. Already some of these drones are being used, but the sheer scale of what is to come should frighten Americans. The ominous predictions in George Orwell's book "1984" are coming true.

As a wrongfully convicted prisoner, I despise the loss of my freedom and privacy. However, what I find more insidious is the growth of an oppressive, omnipotent Big Brother government. The U.S. can pervasively spy abroad or use predator drones around the world and I do not mind. The drones can also be put to good use on the country's southern border. A strong military, intelligence agency, and secure borders are a great benefit to the nation, but this immense power should not be directed inward. This country was founded on the principles of limited government, freedom, and inalienable rights, and it should remain so. If government is not kept in check, what I experience in prison will be the experience of all Americans. Then everyone can write a blog titled "On the Inside."