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Friday, October 4, 2013

Stateville in Transition -- August 3, 2013

Since the beginning of summer there has been rumors of industry and kitchen workers being moved to X House. Then in July, prisoners heard about a much broader idea to move all workers to the Roundhouse and reclassify the quarter units. The administration never notified men about their plan which would shuffle hundreds of inmates throughout the penitentiary. Prisoners were left to guess the authenticity of rumors until a few weeks ago when work supervisors confirmed them. This caused a great amount of anxiety and a wave of prisoners quit their jobs including my cellmate. They did not want to be uprooted and take a chance of being assigned someone they could not live with. The Roundhouse was also considered a punishment rather than a reward for menial low paying labor. The great move was not done abruptly as initially thought, but over a period of weeks and there is still more to do. It is yet to be seen if the transition was a success.

The first I was to learn about administrators contemplating reordering Stateville was from an industry worker who lives on my gallery. Flaco is a white man about my age and in my opinion looks similar to the rap music singer Eminem. He was arrested around the same time as I was and has spent most of his years at Stateville. Although most prisoners here are from Chicago, Flaco grew up in the suburb of Addison, a town in DuPage county I know fairly well. He has a natural life sentence like me and his only hope of being freed is a dream state legislators will return the parole board. I do not see him often because his job is basically his life. Periodically, he will leave his cell in the summer to attend evening yard to play handball. Otherwise, I do not see him unless I go to his cell bars after a visit or if he stops by after his work assignment.

Flaco is the clerk at the industry building and because of this he regularly talks with his work supervisor. The administration is under the belief the prison will become more violent and rebellious as more men are packed in who have nothing to lose. The Supermax Tamms was closed and Pontiac may need to be opened to general population leaving segregation space limited. Lockdowns may be used to confine men in their cells most of the year. If industry and kitchen workers were moved to X House, they could continue to have movement and work. These two job assignments are most important to the penitentiary. Industry makes bar soap for the IDOC and periodically fills furniture orders. The kitchen workers are needed to make all the meals for nearly 2,000 prisoners as well as some staff who eat in the officers dining room. Typically, prisoners from the minimum security unit will be brought inside the wall to do this work during lockdowns. However, if people think the food is bad when prepared by experienced labor, they should try eating it when made by MSU inmates.

X House is an isolated building from the rest of general population. Due to this, it can easily be operated independently. At one time, X House was simply death row. It was basically one aisle with about 10 spacious one-man cells on both sides. For people who saw the movie "The Green Mile," it looked similar but there are no bars and the execution chamber was below in the basement. Stateville ceased to do executions in the mid 90s and an addition was made to the building. Two double tiered wings of cells were added and it functioned as a reception unit for new arrivals. For a period time it housed protective custody, but those men were either transferred to Pontiac or placed in F House. In their place inmates who were deemed no security risk and or were eligible for medium security transfers were celled there.

In July, rumors began to circulate that the administration was considering moving all workers to F House a/k/a the Roundhouse. While X House can only hold a little over 100 prisoners, the large circular domed building can hold about 450. This is plenty of room to accommodate one floor of segregation and 3 floors of workers. However, F House is the last place men with work assignments would want to be. Crazy and bored prisoners in Seg scream and bang all hours of the day. A few of them smear feces on their walls or spray passersby with urine. The entire building is infested with roaches so fierce they may survive a MOAB ("Mother of All Bombs"). There are also numerous electrical and plumbing problems sometimes leaving prisoners without both. Electrical timers control the sink and toilet water allowing men to only flush once every 10 minutes. Furthermore, the cable television outlets in many cells do not work and because of the circular structure of the building, there is no privacy. At any given time a few hundred prisoners can be staring in your cell. I lived in the roundhouse for a couple of years and even with good cellmates it was unpleasant.

My cellmate nor I knew whether to believe the rumors. No memorandum had been put out by the warden and the guards were unsure. Nothing had been said to them during roll call and thus prisoners were left to guess what to expect. The uncertainty of the future made many men concerned, including myself. I did not want to lose a cellmate I got along with well and had adapted to. Anthony also did not want to be uprooted especially to be placed in the Roundhouse. It was not worth the $18 a month he made working 6 nights a week. The perks of being a kitchen worker also did not compensate for taking a chance with a new cellmate or the worse living conditions. He not only thought about the roaches, echoing continuous noise, and lack of privacy but cable TV. Without television, my cellmate would go through withdrawals.

Anthony's kitchen supervisor could not or would not tell him if he was going to the Roundhouse. However, a kitchen worker who worked the first shift with the boss left him a note. The note said all workers with the exception of cell house help were to be moved. Furthermore, the entire housing of prisoners were going to be transitioned. X House was going to return to being protective custody. E House was to hold all the most violent prisoners, including staff assaulters. B House was designated for those perceived to be moderately aggressive. D and C Houses were for men deemed the least troublesome but the latter unit was for those 40 years old or older. C House was also to have all the cripples and men with severe health problems. I said to my cellmate after reading the note that it was basically what the policy at Stateville has been for years except for making F House a worker-Seg building. He wondered if he quit his job we would still be moved to D House and I told him I thought it was unlikely. I was going to be 39 this year and he was only a year younger.

On the day he received the note, he wrote a letter to the placement officer informing him he was quitting his job in the kitchen and not to move him to the Roundhouse. However, he continued to go in to work the next few nights. His supervisor told him the plan had been put on hold and may not occur at all. After a quarter of the midnight shift ceased coming into work, she implored him to stay. Most of the prison workers who quit were lazy, irresponsible, and could easily be replaced. However, she greatly depended on him to do a lot of the work. My cellmate got along well with his kitchen supervisor, and I thought possibly she had convinced him to stay. However, when she did not come in to work, he told a different supervisor he was quitting and he never returned.

On the week Anthony ceased working, over 20 other prisoners in the cell house did so as well. Most of them quit for the same reasons as my cellmate. However, others quit because they had jobs which only lasted a year. To increase turnover rates, nearly all jobs except kitchen and industry had a one year limit. Prisoners were automatically laid off and could not be reassigned until another year had passed. This policy was created to address men's complaints of not being able to get a job and it also was favorably looked upon by security to prevent inmates from creating close relationships with staff. Most of the jobs at Stateville are unskilled labor which can be easily rotated. However, when men know their jobs are temporary, they are less likely to value it. I spoke with a prisoner who worked at the law library and he quit the week before my cellmate because his assignment expired in less than a couple of months. He did not want to go through the transition of moving twice in a short period of time. It is unfortunate because he is very knowledgeable about the law and helps many prisoners. Most of the law library jobs require a lot of experience and should not be temporarily assigned.

Neither Flaco nor any of the industry workers quit their jobs. Industry jobs are the most coveted in the penitentiary. Men are paid by output and typically make between $100 and $200 a month. Most of the inmates have worked there for over a decade. There has been no new hiring for years and the workforce has dwindled to about 20 prisoners. My cellmate speculated none of the kitchen workers who continue to make $80 a month will quit either. There was a wage freeze placed on all prison jobs about 5 years ago, limiting men to $30 a month, but $2 is always taken for rent and they would regardless be given a $10 stipend even if they were unassigned.

Despite how my cellmate ceased working, he was kept on the assignment list. From others who quit, we learned they were also. This led us to believe the Placement Officer planned to still move all these men to the Roundhouse and they would be given the option of going to Seg or retaining their jobs. Last week, we noticed a prisoner's property box being inventoried and thought he may have possibly refused to work and was being sent to Seg. However, the man had flashed a nurse two months ago and nearly everyone had forgotten about the incident. He was not punished for so long because there was no room in segregation which now only consisted of one and a half gallery in the Roundhouse. Apparently, there would be no space to take over 100 prisoners who had ceased working to Seg, however, I continued semi-joking with my cellmate and last weekend I made what I called "The Last Supper".  "This is the last meal we may share together," I told him.

Our neighbor, Leprechaun, had ceased going in to work, however, earlier in the month he told us how the laundry building had been brought a couple hundred black striped shirts to be washed. Anyone who had ever assaulted a guard or any employee in the IDOC would be forced to wear these shirts. From what he said, it was just a regular blue state shirt but a wide black stripe had been stitched around it. Apparently, the administration wanted guards to be able to identify them in movement lines or make them feel bad, but I thought many prisoners may regard it as a mark of honor. More prisoners may want to be given the black stripe. As well as the new shirt, these men were all moved to E House.

Throughout the second half of July, many prisoners were shuffled in the penitentiary based on security, health and age. All prisoners are evaluated periodically to determine their escape risk and aggression level. Those men thought to be highly aggressive were moved to E House along with those who had staff assaults on their records. All of the "level E's" or designated very high escape risks were also originally planned to be moved there as well, but the administration had second thoughts about putting all 50 in one cell house and some were kept in other quarter units. A number of cripples were sent to C House and the unit is beginning to look like a geriatric ward. One fat slob who can barely walk was placed on the lower floor across from the shower holding area. Prisoners loathe the cripple not because he is disabled but because he is a homosexual and a pedophile. He is rumored to watch men getting undressed to take a shower from his cell or while in the shower area. A prisoner who goes by the name "Farmer" refused to live with him and walked himself to segregation.

Prison workers did not begin to be moved to the Roundhouse until this week. Unlike some rumors, they did not occur in one massive move. Plus, the Placement Officer seemed to be thoughtful in coordinating the cell assignments. Every day this week, several prisoners from my unit have been moved. No one who did not want to go was forced but they lost their assignments if they had not already resigned. Furthermore, most prison workers were moved in with compatible cellmates sometimes of their choosing. Flaco and his cellmate have yet to be moved but apparently they are going to remain cellmates and simply be assigned a cell in F House together later next week.

The only mass move to be done was on Tuesday. During the evening, the prison was placed on lockdown and inmates were fed dinner in their cells. Initially, I did not know what the cause of the lockdown was, but when trays were passed out a prison worker told me protective custody was being moved to X House. All of the inmates were moved at the same time and they were put in one of the dining areas in the chow hall until those in X House were cleared out. Most of protective custody was transferred to Pontiac, however, I believe about 40 men remain. X House also will hold men in administrative detention, from what I am told. Prisoners are placed in A.D. for various reasons but mostly because the administration believes they can be a security threat.

After it became apparent me and my cellmate were going to be moved, we decided to paint parts of our cell. The week has been pleasant with high temperatures in the 70s. The extended forecast is for more of the same weather without any rain. Therefore, we thought it was good timing and received a bottle of industrial gray paint from a cell house worker. My cellmate first scrubbed the rusty table by the cell bars. He even used toothpaste and a scratch pad before washing and then painting it. We did not have a paint brush and he used a sock. I made fun of him for only applying paint to the topside and said that was tantamount to painting one side of a fence. Grudgingly, he did the side underneath. Later, when I painted the counter top and shelves beneath I understood his reluctance. The latex paint was incredibly thick and difficult to work with, especially without a brush. I spent a couple of hours working with the noxious paint which had the consistency of oil.

At night I searched for some programming to watch on television before I went to sleep. PBS often has these live music concerts, however, they are nearly always terrible. I often ask myself how the public broadcast station believes they can raise money playing this garbage. However, yesterday the station had the Vienna Philharmonic Symphony performing from the Austrian capital and I was glad a number of compositions by Richard Wagner were played. Unfortunately, paint fumes continued to annoy me as well as the noise from the cell house. I thought older, crippled men would be quieter, however, they were not. This may be due to them just settling in as arrivals from F House or the displacement of workers. Men with assignments do not need to occupy their time shouting and are generally less obnoxious. Furthermore, it seems a number of prisoners under 40 were moved to the cell house on the upper galleries.

Earlier in the year, wardens from Menard Correctional Center and the director were at Stateville. Possibly, they visited the penitentiary to discuss how things were operated there and this gave fruit to the plan to move inmate workers. At Menard, all workers are in one cell house. It is more efficient and orderly having everyone assigned in one place. It also diminishes the contact prisoners have and their ability to transfer contraband. The North Cell House in Menard has tiny cells and prisoners think of them as coffins, but workers do not spend much of their time in them. They are at their assignments and have access to yard regularly even when the rest of the prison is on lockdown. The building, furthermore, is not shared with Segregation but with model prisoners. The four floors of the North House are divided in half and are not stacked on top of each other reducing noise as well as contact with those who are unassigned. Unlike the huge dilapidated dome building, it is in good working order and has no roach infestation. Menard has a full complement of cable stations and prison workers are treated more favorably. Guards are also not as strict about enforcing petty rules and security is more relaxed in the North House. Such conditions would probably be incentives for prisoners to work, contrary to what the Roundhouse offers.

Making general population quarter units distinct can have benefits as well as disadvantages from both prisoners and administrative perspectives. By putting most of the dangerous prisoners in E House, security can focus its attention and resources on it. Nonviolent or well behaved prisoners may be less oppressed or harassed. Isolating cell houses also gives the administration more control and the ability to try and confine some bad apples from rotting the entire batch. Furthermore, specific units can be locked down while others continue to have normal operations. In Menard, the East and West Cell Houses have the most dangerous convicts and those cell houses are typically on lockdown half the year. The North and South Cell Houses contrarily have less violent men and are rarely locked down.

Today I watched a DVD played for prisoners called "Warm Bodies." It is a silly movie about a zombie falling in love with a girl and becoming human again. Other undead also had their affliction reversed. The film reminds me how despondent thousands of prisoners in the IDOC are. Draconian sentencing laws have taken away any hope of redemption in these doomed men. With legislators and the governor not acting, it is left to the IDOC administrators to tame the live undead before they begin eating the brains of their captors. IDOC has tight control over the prison system currently, but brains are looking more appealing every day.