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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Boredom and the Other Death Penalty -- August 2013

Except for a few days, the prison has been on lockdown for five consecutive weeks. From sources I am told the lockdown will continue until the end of the month. Locked in their cells 24/7, many prisoners are restless and have difficulty preoccupying their time. I tend to like the isolation and ability to schedule my days with little interruption. However, this week, even I have occasionally become bored in this 6 x 11 foot cubicle. Life in a maximum-security prison can drag by and without any possibility of parole I regularly am searching for meaning to my grim and empty existence. Even this blog is an attempt to fill a void. Hopefully, this post is not as boring as my time in this cell.

The week began with most prisoners occupying their time watching professional football. This was the second week of the NFL season and the Chicago Bears played a very close game with the Minnesota Vikings. Numerous men yelled, cursed, and cheered with excitement as the Bears won by a single point. I did not watch any of the game and was annoyed by all the shouting. During the afternoon, I reviewed a corporate report by ONEOK Partners, a publicly traded master limited partnership engaged in piping natural gas as well as gathering and processing the fossil fuel. Despite the resistance of President Barack Obama, drilling has grown immensely on privately held land, particularly in shale rock formations. Pipeline businesses such as ONEOK have grown immensely to meet demand for infrastructure. America has surpassed Russia to be the world's largest producer of natural gas and is increasingly becoming energy independent.

The end of the 3rd quarter has passed and I am preparing to give my assessment of hundreds of various companies to my family and a pen pal in Canada if he is interested. The Dow Jones Industrial average this week posted an all time high of 15,677 after Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke said he would not slow mortgage and security purchases. This I already knew and predict the Federal Reserve will continue to debase U.S. currency by printing $85 billion each month until sometime in 2014. Despite the huge stimulus, however, I believe stocks will make a correction next month when Democrats and Republicans refuse to come to an agreement over government funding and possibly increasing the nation's enormous debt. The impasse may create a buying opportunity.

Overnight temperatures have been falling into the 40's leaving the cell house like a refrigerator. I awakened repeatedly to put on more clothing until my cellmate gave me his state issued wool blanket. Now, I sleep with thermal underwear as well as two blankets over me. The hot water pipes which lead into the units' two blowers will not be turned on until mid-October and the central heating system not until November. Apparently, I will be chilly during the nights for some time. If I was former British Special Ops Bear Grylls, I would wake up to exercise and then go back to sleep to keep warm. However, I do not think I could get much rest doing this for several weeks and would be very distressed. I doubt my cellmate would be very happy living with me either and this may be in part why he gave me his blanket.

Cellmates have had a number of arguments with each other and have even fought over small matters during the lockdown. Late one night, my cellmate told me he heard two prisoners arguing loudly. They were about to become physical, but a guard on the midnight shift separated them by placing one inmate into the cell house's holding cage for a couple of hours to cool off. This did not work, however, and not long after they were reunited they began to fight. I asked my cellmate what the argument was about and he said one of the men insisted on sleeping with his head near the back wall. Nearly all prisoners at Stateville sleep the opposite direction just in case their cellmate may need to use the toilet. The bunk is only a couple of feet from the commode in the back of the cell.

Although temperatures were chilly at night, they rose to about 70 degrees during the day. Prison  workers were considering shutting the windows, but before they did I wanted to repaint the shelving unit in my cell. When the Orange Crush came through, they gouged the top counter and the mark greatly annoyed me. I spent a couple of hours painting the entire shelf with a wash cloth. Out of boredom, I also painted the cell door bars which were chipped, mottled and rusting. My cellmate asked me why I did not paint all the bars and I responded that we would not have a space to place our garbage or laundry bags. When the door dries, I intend to finish painting when I am able to get more paint.

The latex paint takes a long time to dry and to speed the process my cellmate and I used our fans. The breeze left me chilly and I dropped a wool blanket over myself occasionally to the amusement of Anthony. He asked me if I was pretending to be a Jedi. I told him I was a Sith Lord and he should not provoke me or I will use the dark side of The Force to snuff him out. This threat did not prevent him from pestering me on occasion, and while writing a letter to my sister he repeatedly interrupted with silly antics, talk or questions. For example, he asked, "Are you writing your fan club?" When I told him I was writing my sister, he asked if I had any naked photos of her and so on until I put the letter away for another time.

My cellmate asked me if I had seen the memorandums which were posted on the television. I had not, and he told me that beginning on November 1st, the IDOC would no longer process money orders. All money being sent to inmates' trust funds will thereafter have to go through Western Union or JPay. I never heard of JPay but assume it is another money transfer service. The prison administration made the change apparently to make it easier for the mail room staff to process mail and to avoid extra work by the business office. Staff in the mail room must go through all incoming mail looking for not only contraband but money orders. The money orders are taken out and then sent to those who work in the finance department. Oftentimes, these money orders took over a month to be processed and many prisoners complained about the delay. I commented that men will no longer have this problem to gripe about, however, Anthony replied that JPay would not do this service for free and people sending money will probably have to pay a service fee of $8 or more. (Update: There is no service fee if money is sent to their Florida address to be processed.)

Although there may be an added expense to send money to prisoners, the rates of telephone calls have declined. According to a second memo, Securus Technologies will drop their fees from $4.05 to $3.55 for 30-minute calls. The change in rate is due to the FCC ordering all state prisons to no longer charge more than 12 cents a minute for interstate calls and 20 cents a minute within the country. This directive has come after prisons and phone companies have fleeced inmates' friends and families for decades with exorbitant fees. However, despite the lower rates, prisoners can no longer have the person they call make 3-way calls for them. In fact, the person you call cannot even answer another incoming call without being disconnected. The most problematic issue with Securus is that prisoners cannot set up their own accounts or accounts for people they wish to call. I sought to call a couple of private investigators and attorneys but found I could not. They had to set up a prepaid account with Securus in order for me to talk with them. This is a serious problem because my letters are so untimely and I cannot engage in conversation necessary to gain legal help. I wrote one private investigator that he had to create an account with Securus and I never heard from him thereafter.

While writing my current attorney to tell her how time is of the essence, my cellmate left me alone. In the evenings, he is preoccupied watching TV. Monday night was the season finale of "The Dome," a show based on a book by Stephen King where an entire town is mysteriously trapped in an electromagnetic field. I finished my letter to watch part of it. The show somewhat reminded me of prison. Everyone incarcerated at Stateville is essentially trapped here. Instead of a dome, we are held captive by walls, razor wire fencing, or bars. Given a choice, however, I would definitely choose the former. The people in the town may not be able to leave, but they still have their freedom within it. Unfortunately, Stateville cannot be like the movie "Escape from New York" where prisoners were free to do as they pleased but were trapped on New York Island.

My quest for peanut butter continued this week. Both my cellmate and I have lost over 10 pounds during the lockdown. While he asks guards occasionally for extra trays, I ask cell house workers to find me food in exchange for coffee or prestamped envelopes. Eventually, I found a coffee addict and he traded me packets of peanut butter for a half bag of instant coffee. I was immensely pleased to be able to supplement my diet or discard prison meals altogether. The food continues to be meager and terrible despite how Stateville kitchen workers are back to work. Before I was able to procure the peanut butter, I was eating very little. The extra cartons of skim milk I was able to get from those passing out trays did little to add to my caloric intake.

In my boredom, I thought it would be a good time to read one of the books I had received. A few weeks ago, my parents had brought me "Day of Reckoning," by one of my favorite political commentators, Patrick J. Buchanan. I have read all his other books and watch him weekly on the PBS program "The McLaughlin Group". Many of his political positions are aligned with my own and I was disappointed when he was unsuccessful winning the Republican primary for president years ago. Another book I was looking forward to reading was "The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum" by Temple Grandin. Like myself, Grandin seems to be on the high end of the autism spectrum and I was interested in her perspective. The book was just published earlier this year and apparently one of the readers of my blog thought I would like to read it. It was sent directly from the book vendor and thus I do not know who to thank.

I never got around to reading any of the books, however. Because of the dysfunction in the mail room, I received 3 newspapers and 2 magazines all on the same day. These publications I wanted to read first due to their time sensitivity and to remove clutter from my cell as soon as possible. Last week, my subscription to the USA Today began. It is a rag of a newspaper and I am disappointed how much the quality of the writing has deteriorated and is slanted to the left of the political spectrum. However, I was able to get the paper for a special 2 month trial price of $22 and my cellmate as well as a number of other prisoners seem to like it. Anthony enjoys reading the reviews of TV shows, movies, and pop music or other news in the Life Section, although most other men want to see it for its heavy coverage of sports. From my cell, the papers go to my neighbor and then to several prisoners on the lower floor.

The headlines in the USA Today have been about the shootings at the D.C. Naval Command Center. Initially, it was not known why the former Navy soldier went on a shooting spree, however, it soon became apparent he was another nut case. From what I read, he believed extreme low frequency radio waves were controlling his thoughts. The schizophrenic even scratched into his shotgun the acronym "ELF." Despite how the liberal media continues to press for more gun control, the Washington Yard Shooter only illustrates a failure by the military to give him security clearance or the mental health care system which allows many to fall through the cracks. Indeed, as I read one newspaper article, the cell house sounded like a medieval sanitarium with prisoners screaming over each other. The vast majority of these men are just obnoxious, blabbering fools bored after a month of being locked in their cells. However, some are mentally ill.

Along with my newspapers, I received a post card from The Other Death Penalty Project advertising their book "Too Cruel, Not Unusual Enough". I have never heard of this organization, but before reading the opposite side, I knew what their cause was. Life without the possibility of parole is becoming pervasive across the country and it is certainly the most torturesome form of punishment being used in the U.S. today. Over 40,000 people have been sentenced to protracted death sentences and while many of these convicts deserve swift executions, there is no purpose to keeping others incarcerated indefinitely. Not long ago Eric Holder, the U.S. Attorney General proclaimed the federal government would no longer uphold mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders, however, excessive sentencing statutes exist across the criminal sentencing statutes. I have LWOP for purportedly lending my car to a roommate who then killed a man at a different location.

Nearly every week I watch an episode of the TV show "House," yet this week out of boredom, I watched two straight hours of reruns. The main character reminds me very much of myself and I enjoy his sardonic wit. During a commercial break I stood up and told my cellmate who was watching TV on the bunk above mine that I could have been a brilliant diagnostic doctor just like Gregory House. Just think of all the lives I could have saved but instead I am made to languish in prison all my life. Anthony seemed amused and said I definitely was smart and an ass, a smart-ass just like the doctor, but he could not see me as someone who cared much about people. I told him he missed the point. Dr. House did not save lives because he was a "people person" but due to the challenge of solving medical mysteries which stumped most of his peers. My cellmate told me to see how well this argument flies to some hypothetical parole board.

After the television shows, I stared into one of my plastic prison mirrors and brooded about how old I look. Not only did my age bother me but the color of my teeth. Despite brushing my teeth after every meal, they were almost yellow in color. On closer inspection, I found plaque buildup on the backside of some teeth around the gum line. This was unacceptable and I began to think of ways to scrape it off. Prisoners rarely ever get to see the dentist at Stateville particularly for a cleaning and I refused to wait a year or two. Using a sewing needle I carefully removed all the plaque after a couple of hours. Happy about my achievement, I told my cellmate who was watching me that not only could I be a diagnostic doctor but a dentist as well. "Just think of all the teeth I could have saved. The possibilities were endless," I jested.

Receiving a visit mid-week broke up some of the boredom of being on lockdown. However, although a few other prisoners were anxious, I was not particularly happy. My parents I knew had come to see me and it was difficult watching them deteriorate over time. I could not be Dr. House, a dentist, or anything. I could not even be a son from behind these walls. Before I went to the visiting room I was also told to expect "Inspector Gadget" to be in the strip search room. Not surprisingly upon entering the room I heard a prisoner complaining that he had felt raped. While they continued to exchange words, I asked the guard if he was looking at butt-holes again. The man began to defend himself saying words to the effect that he was just doing his job. Eventually, I asked him if he had ever heard of a prisoner smuggling contraband into a visit. He admitted the policy of strip searching men before visits was largely redundant, but once he had caught a prisoner who had forgotten he had some marijuana on him.

Normally, I work out in the morning, but because I was expecting a visit and my underclothes had yet to return from the laundry, I waited until I returned. While exercising, a strong thunderstorm passed over the penitentiary. After a loud clap of thunder, I jumped off the floor onto my cellmate's bunk and yelled, "Thunder Buddies!" I was mimicking parts from the movie "Ted" where a Teddy Bear comes to life and does such zany and hilarious antics. I was attempting to entertain my cellmate who seemed bored watching an episode of "Extra" with a glazed look on his face. I definitely surprised him and he did not expect such a radical departure from my normal solemn and nonsocial demeanor.

This week was boring not only for my cellmate but me as well. Jokingly, I asked him if he wanted to play a game of chess. I knew he was not interested because I can so easily defeat him. Later, however, he accepted my challenge to play the game show Jeopardy with me. Unlike chess, Anthony is pretty good with trivia and at the end of the show we were essentially tied for points. However, there was still the Final Jeopardy question to answer. The subject was pop music albums and my cellmate thought he had me beat because I know very little about pop music or any pop trivia for that matter. However, thanks to my mother having once been a fan of the Beatles I was able to name the album "Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club". Smugly, I touted my victory as if it mattered in my life. I only played the game to engage my cellmate and break a tedium of boredom.

I have been incarcerated over two decades and have spent nearly a quarter of this time on lockdown. Being confined to a cell for long periods of time is common in maximum security prisons. Generally, I have found numerous ways to preoccupy myself, however, this week I have fought off boredom. Increasingly, I am cognizant of how meaningless my life is despite what I do. As I grow older in captivity, I see opportunities and dreams fade away. All that is left is a downward slow spiral. I can only hope it will end before I reach the bottom or come so near that it does not matter. Lockdown or no lockdown, natural life without parole is indeed "the Other Death Penalty".