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Saturday, October 19, 2013

Overreaction to a Fist Fight -- September 7, 2013

The prison was taken off lockdown fleetingly Tuesday. During the morning, a few convicts threw batteries at the warden and B House was put back on lockdown. Two days later, all prisoners were confined to their cells 24/7 after a fight on a walkway. I was on the South Yard at the time and could see two inmates throwing punches at each other. A lieutenant sprayed the men multiple times with mace, but they continued. Two shotgun blasts from a distant gun tower not surprisingly also had no effect. Eventually, however, the prisoners were taken down, handcuffed, and taken to Segregation. Although I thought little of the fight which is a regular occurrence in prison, the administration overreacted. Numerous guards escorted inmates from around the penitentiary accompanied by high ranking staff. Later I heard rumors of a staff assault. I did not see any, but it is possible staff were clipped trying to break up the fight or other fights occurred inside a nearby tunnel.

Normally, I would not care about yet another lockdown because I do not like leaving my cell. However, both my cellmate and I have not been able to shop since mid-June. We were both entirely out of food and had to eat what was served us or go hungry. The warden had a memo posted on a cable station scheduling commissary dates for all units and galleries in the penitentiary. It was an attempt to create order and consistency from what was a very irregular pattern. Prisoners never knew when they were going to be allowed to shop. Unfortunately on Monday the prison was kept on lockdown and my cell block was unable to make any purchases. Many men were angry because Sunday night convicts had filled out commissary order forms and were expecting to be given their store the following day. Now, they had to wait two more weeks or possibly a month.

Prisoners in C House were, however, allowed to immediately have some time on the yard or gym. Tuesday morning, normal operations were announced on the loudspeaker and recreation lines followed an hour later. It was a nice day, but I knew nearly everyone in the unit would be going out after 2-1/2 weeks of lockdown. On the small yards, prisoners would be packed in areas which were a little larger than two basketball courts. Thanks, but no thanks, I preferred to stay in my cell. I could exercise there just as well and without any people except for my cellmate who stayed asleep on his bunk.

At chow, I basically had to leave my cell to eat. Already, I was losing weight and by October I thought I may be emaciated. A few prisoners in the line to the chow hall asked why my cellmate and I did not go to the yard considering how pleasant the weather was. We told them there was nothing to do but play basketball. A prisoner replied that a bench and two pieces of iron were placed on each small yard where a small walk led to the basketball courts. Even upon hearing this news, I did not feel as I missed anything. I imagined there was a long line to use the 2 iron bars and I did not want to be on the crowded little yard. In the future, however, when it becomes cold outside, I may begin to go. Fewer prisoners go to the yard on cold days or when they have regular movement.

Men on the walk going to chow spoke about how B House was on lockdown. From what they said, the warden was conducting rounds in the unit and prisoners began to yell insults at him. Double A batteries which prisoners are sold for their Walkmans and electric razors were also thrown. They were either thrown toward him or at the windows. To my left was the quarter unit which many years ago was divided from C House. I did not notice any broken windows. However, the cell houses are enormous and the two combined is a city block long.

In the chow hall I spoke with Steve who I had not seen for weeks because of the lockdown. He said he had been approved to attend an unaccredited humanities class. Occasionally, the administration has been permitting teachers to come into the penitentiary to teach subjects other than general high school studies. The class will meet once a week for a couple of months unless disrupted by a lockdown. In a maximum security prison, there is little reason to give prisoners an education, particularly above that necessary to pass a GED exam. Nearly all prisoners will never be released and they do not have the intelligence to comprehend advanced courses. In medium and minimum security penitentiaries, low level vocational skills are taught which will help prisoners to a limited degree get jobs when released. I assume at Stateville the administration is seeking to keep men preoccupied without spending any money. The teachers are volunteers and do not earn any money.

Tuesday evening, I did not want to join the cattle herd to the chow hall. The food being served was terrible and I preferred to go hungry. Fortunately, someone gave me a Styrofoam box tray full of salad from the officers' dining room. Staff basically eat the same food as prisoners here unless they bring their own to work, but they always have a salad bar. If prisoners are served salad with their meal, it is typically just iceberg lettuce. The tray I was given, however, had chopped cucumber, broccoli, cauliflower, onions, tomatoes and shredded cheese. I shared part of it with my cellmate because I knew he was hungry too.

The following day when I returned from my visit my cellmate asked me where his smoked ham and cheese sandwich was. Regularly when I go on visits he will jokingly ask me to bring him some vending machine food. Prisoners, however, are prohibited from doing so and are strip searched. Instead, I gave Anthony my lunch tray which had a rectangle of pizza on it along with some noodles in mayonnaise. Since I wrote the post "Prison Pizza," pizza has been oddly served nearly every week, sometimes twice in a week. The small thin slice of pizza was cold and not very filling, but my cellmate seemed happy to have it.

Thursday, my cellmate and I were looking forward to going to the South Yard. We had been confined to our cells virtually 24/7 for a few weeks and it was nice to be out in some open space. Unlike the yard on Tuesday, this one was well over 20 times the size. It also had several benches and about 15 barbells, albeit bent, rusted or broken. While I waited for yard lines to be run, I made myself a mug of tea and listened to a heavy metal band from the 1980's called Slayer. The tape "Seasons of the Abyss" was their best in my opinion and it seemed to resonate with my mood often while in prison. The music along with the lyrics was despondent but very aggressive. I felt like a zombie, although with a great amount of pent up energy.

It is difficult having any enthusiasm or motivation in a maximum security prison. Life is oppressive, austere and wretched. On the dilapidated prison yard, inmates often inquire how I could so over zealously work out. I tend to believe it is a force of will despite the hardship and hopelessness I endure. Most men on the yard socialized, walked laps around the quarter mile asphalt track, or simply sat around. Others played games at a group of steel tables bolted into concrete. My cellmate joked to me that in 20 more years I will be one of the old men sitting there playing dominoes. I told him I would rather be dead. In fact, I already wish I was because my life ended long ago.

While using the incline bench, we noticed a fight on a roofed walkway outside the perimeter of the yard. I have seen hundreds of fights in my lifetime and it was unremarkable. I continued to press iron and then spot my cellmate. When I stood above him, I watched the two black inmates throw punches at each other. A lieutenant moved from position to another making the prisoners. Then I heard the guard in the gun tower nearly directly above us pump a shotgun before firing it. Even as a warning, it was a foolish reaction. The gun tower was about 150 yards away and I doubt the rifle had the capacity to go half that distance. Even if it could, shotguns have no accuracy and the distance was transgressed by a light post and two layers of cyclone fence with razor wire. She would probably hit the lieutenant, other staff responding, or bystanders. Furthermore, the only time a guard should fire their rifle was when there was a risk of serious bodily injury or death. Two men fighting was not serious and I yelled up to the guard in the tower to stand down, but she took yet another shot. Possibly, she thought just the booming sound of the shot gun was enough to scare the two prisoners into surrendering.

Although I did not think the incident was serious, the administration seemed to think so. Not long after the prisoners were taken to Seg, a large contingent of guards came onto the yard yelling at men to leave. On the way out, I noticed a number of lieutenants and majors as well as the warden. It was odd they were acting with such urgency and force. They could have left prisoners from C House at the gym and the three yards. The men from our unit had nothing to do with the fight which occurred when prisoners from E House were returning from chapel services at the gym. It is customary for the penitentiary to be placed on lockdown for a couple of days any time a guard fires a rifle, but in this instance I did not see the purpose.

Because I felt short changed being forced off the yard early, I completed my workout while my cellmate bathed in the sink. Mostly, I did leg exercises using my correspondence box as extra weight. Prisoners are given two property boxes when they are sent to the IDOC. One is a large box about 2 x 3 feet and the other is roughly 1 x 2 feet. Both are almost a foot deep and are made of thick gray plastic with sliding lids. The smaller of the two boxes I have filled with books, magazines and papers. It weighs nearly a hundred pounds and I regularly use it for a variety of exercises in the cell in lieu of bar bells or other equipment.

My workout was not really finished and after bathing, I washed a set of underclothes, a pair of shorts and gym shoes along with my state blues. Washing clothes by hand out of a sink and a toilet is not easy or quick work. I spent a couple of hours, scrubbing out the commode with disinfectant and soap, refilling the toilet with hot water and laundry detergent, and agitating all the clothes and the shoes I had gotten dirty on the yard. Rinsing was just as laborious as I had to flush the toilet multiple times to get all the soap out. Not having a dryer, I finally had to hang all my clothes and use fans to evaporate the moisture. My family regularly asks me what I do with all my time in a cell. Often it is doing mundane tasks like washing laundry. They do not stop to consider I do not have many of the modern conveniences they enjoy which saves a lot of time.

In the evening, I heard many prisoners shouting to their "homies" to ask whether they had food to spare. Most of them were looking for coffee. Since tobacco has ceased to be sold in the IDOC, coffee has become the new addiction. Although I only drink it occasionally, I always buy the maximum amount at commissary to use as barter or on occasions like this where prisoners will trade for something worth much more. Currently, I was sitting on a couple of 3 oz. bags of instant coffee and was thinking of selling it for some food. However, I then spoke to my neighbor who told me information why my coffee may become even more valuable later in the month.

One of my neighbors is a cell house worker and his assignment requires him to continuously speak with guards and prisoners. From what he heard there was something more to the one-on-one fight we saw on the yard. Guards were claiming there was a staff assault. "A staff assault?!" I asked with bewilderment. Are they now considering staff who break up a fight and are clipped in the process to be assaulted? He said there may have been some other hostilities in the tunnel between guards responding to the fight and prisoners black marked as staff assaulters. Although I could not see into the tunnel the two men were fighting near, I tend to doubt there was any other incident involving other prisoners. Regardless, if the administration was going to classify this as a staff assault, the prison would be on lockdown for another couple of weeks. Men in C House would not be able to shop until October and this would make my coffee worth its weight in gold.

Yesterday, prisoners continued to yell out from their cells for coffee. One man began to offer "coffee balls" for sale. A ball of coffee is enough to make 3 large cups of coffee and is sold for a dollar. It is an outrageous mark-up, but he found a couple of suckers. The yelling of inmates trying to barter or find a handout was annoying. I was trying to understand the merger of two natural gas pipeline partnerships. The information I was sent in the mail was incomplete and complicated. It was like trying to make sense of an intricate jigsaw puzzle with half the puzzle pieces missing. Regardless, I gave the person who wrote me my take on the combination of Crestwood Energy Partners and Inergy Corporation along with their subsidiary.

When I finished, I looked up to see what my cellmate was watching on TV. Surprisingly, it was not on and he was reading a novel. It must be a very bad day for television if my cellmate prefers to read. I asked what he was reading and he said a Michael Crichton book called "State of Fear." I think Michael Crichton is a very good writer and appreciate how he mixes true science and history along with his stories. That novel was one I had wanted to read myself but never got a chance to do so. In it, Crichton debunks the myth of man-made global warming in the context of a well told story. I wish Barack Obama who continues to stall the Keystone Pipeline and is using the EPA to crush industries which emit carbon dioxide would read it.

Anthony mentioned that Steve wanted it ASAP so he could dispute his hippie, environmentalist humanities teacher. Apparently one of the first subjects they will discuss is global warming. I told my cellmate he can take his time because apparently we are going to be on lockdown for another couple of weeks. After I told him what my neighbor said, he was highly skeptical. There was a one on one fight and staff did not seem to be responding to any other incident inside the tunnel which goes around the chow hall. I agreed but mentioned how the line returning from the gym had a number of inmates with black stripes around their waists indicating that at one time in their past they had an incident with staff. It would not be unrealistic for guards or the administration to feign a staff assault to justify more money and personnel.

Tonight I plan to watch Bellator MMA fighting. I like these competitions much more than boxing, wrestling, or other sports because they are more authentic. However, even mixed martial arts leagues have toned down the sport and made many rules since its professional beginnings. I recall in the early 1990's that UFC pay-per-view fights when almost anything was allowed. The sport has become soft along with society. I am in a maximum-security prison where fist fights where no one is seriously injured causes major drama and lockdowns. This would have never occurred when I was initially sent to prison. How greatly times have changed.