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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Doc and the Day of the Dead -- November 2, 2013

The week began with news that a prisoner died in the infirmary. "Doc" was a well known and liked convict in Illinois' maximum security prisons. Although he had served the majority of the last four decades in the federal system, classified an extreme escape risk until a few years ago, he was moved often between prisons and cells of those prisons. Doc was sentenced to an unlivable term of years for a string of bank robberies in the late 60's-early 70's. He was known by law enforcement as the Gentleman's Robber because he was so polite when stealing. In prison, he continued to be a friendly man and was called Doc after he saved an inmate's life. Doc's slow death was a solemn reminder of the grim future most of us at Stateville have to look forward to. On the week of Halloween, men tried to put his ghost and that of others behind us, however, it was mostly in vain.

The day Doc died, I went out to the chow hall for dinner. I sat with my neighbors and cellmate who all seemed to be glum. Bored with the bland food, small talk, and my existence in general, I had to do something to amuse myself. Prisoners during meals can turn in their ID cards to get a drinking cup. These rubber cups are red and reminded me of the miniature buckets that kids tossed ping pong balls in to win prizes at "The Bozo Show". Crumpling packets of pepper, I took shots into my neighbor's drinking cup, however, he kept on blocking them. Finally, I said, "What is your problem Cookie the Clown?! You keep stopping me from winning a prize!" The prisoner who is known as Leprechaun is bald on the top of his head but has orange hair on the sides and back. His hair looks very similar to the clown and my comment received some laughs. My joke also caused him to put his cup at the farthest distance from me after drinking the water in it. With some theatrics, I leaned back and lofted a packet of pepper directly into it. It was an incredible shot and I demanded Cookie the Clown to give me a bicycle. That was definitely bucket number 6 and deserved the grand prize.

Still feeling lucky back in the confines of my cell, I proclaimed to my cellmate that St. Louis was going to pull off a double upset, winning both their baseball and football games which were being played about a mile away from each other. This was more wishful thinking than reason. The Cardinals and Rams were underdogs. The latter were predicted to lose by two touch downs to the Seattle Seahawks which are considered a Superbowl favorite. My cellmate was watching other TV programming but at commercials he would change over to watch the two games. At one point, he dropped down off his bunk to razz me about the Cardinals being down by one run. I told him it was only the 4th inning and anything could still happen. Coincidentally, moments later, Holiday hit a home run to tie up the game. As the ball soared up and over the wall, I shouted, "It's going, going, and its gone! How do you like that?" I said, and waved my white towel in his face like the fans at Busch stadium were doing. He was not happy, although ultimately St. Louis would lose both games. The Cardinals were unable to score another run and the Rams failed to get in the end zone from the 6 yard line, losing 9 to 14.

Tuesday morning, I went to the dilapidated gymnasium to use the few remaining machine weights which work and run laps around the perimeter. Obnoxious prisoners ran to fill the tables along the wall and others took all the pins for the universal machines despite not using them. Apparently, they just wanted them to have in their possession or to work out later at their leisure. I was not waiting and went to tell one of these men to let me use their pin while they socialized. A biker I know, however, had procured one of the steel pegs and I worked out with him, although I was not much a fan of his company.

"Bone" is loud and can talk incessantly. Fortunately, a man named Horse was there for him to engage. For about a half hour I listened to the bikers talk about drugs and crackpot superstitions. Bone is a firm believer in numerology and has the most ridiculous theories of foretelling the future or summoning supernatural powers. He claims geomancy has been used by many ancient civilizations and I have no doubt this is true but this does not mean they were not totally wrong. Despite my occasional sarcastic comments and ridicule, Horse seemed to be buying into some of what he said. Possibly, with the approach of Halloween, more people are open to the most far fetched ideas.

Before I ran some laps, I asked the numerologist what Doc had died from. Doc had been suffering from many different health problems for years. Mainly, his problem was kidney failure. It became so bad that last year he was confined to the infirmary. He required dialysis daily and occasionally was sent to an outside hospital for blood transfusions. Bone told me he also had heart problems as well as cancer, but did not know exactly what caused his death. In his 70's, it could have been anything. He was in a lot of pain, his mind was slipping, and all he had to look forward to was more years in oppressive maximum security prisons. Bone expressed he was probably better off dead, although he may have liked to live to his birthday in November so he could have another "party".

When I returned from the chow hall and was waiting for a guard to open my cell door, I looked down from my 2nd floor gallery to see property scattered everywhere outside the sergeant's office. Two cell house workers were helping inventory the possessions of two prisoners who were sent to Segregation. My cellmate who had not gone to the gym informed me while I was gone they had been caught with hooch in their cell. Apparently, the fools were using their fans to blow the pungent odor out, but it was smelled easily by guards. This was the second time in a couple of weeks that prison wine has been found in the cell house. In mid-October, a huge garbage bag filled with fermenting juice was taken out of the building by Internal Affairs. The juice was made out of Chiquita Strawberry-Banana Smoothies which were donated to the prison. The juice drinks had been donated because the expiration date expired in September and the supplier could write it off their taxes as a charitable contribution. Prisoners for two weeks were allowed to take as many as they wanted at lunch as well as dinner. The vast majority of them were still good, but I heard a couple of prisoners complain of getting a sour one.

Before the game show Jeopardy came on television, I spoke to my cellmate about Doc. Apparently, the old man had somehow gotten drunk in the infirmary a couple of months ago. He was caught but there is little the administration can do to punish a prisoner who is on their death bed. From what I am told, he was simply confined to his cell in the HCU and lost his phone and commissary privileges. I mentioned how I had just seen him on the hospital yard a few weeks ago when I went on a visit. He seemed better than this time last year when prisoners had a pool based on how long he would live. I guessed before the end of the year and to others who bet longer, I said, "Can't you see that shadow which follows him around even on cloudy days? That is Death stalking him." Anthony says I jinxed him, but it was apparent the sands in the hour glass were running short.

I won another game of Jeopardy by answering the final question correctly. The answer was "Groundhog Day," a satiric comedy with Bill Murray I knew all too well. The movie was my life except I was not trapped in Punxatawny, but Stateville and I have aged greatly. I endure one day after another of oppression and misery. Doc did not seem to be affected as much as I with an indefinite prison sentence. Yet I think he is better off than the rest of us who continue to live in torment. It is not how long one lives,but how well and productive. I would gladly trade my first 40 years as a free man than live to 100 in the Illinois Department of Corrections.

The following day, I received a visit from my frail albeit stubborn mother. It was not a pleasant visit and she as well as I almost left before a guard told us our time was up. For over 20 years, I have been receiving visits from my parents, mainly from my mother. I am very grateful she has stayed with me all this time, however, after two decades nothing has changed except how old we have become. I asked my mother, "Is this your plan?! Continue visiting me in prison until you are too senile, crippled, or die?" Ever since they traded my trial attorneys who I liked despite them being public defenders, for those at Jenner and Block, I have been very upset with their decisions and refusal to let me control my own destiny. In fact, they have sought to control my life since I was a child. I became fed up with it as a teenager and repeatedly while in prison.

In my cell, I slept for a couple of hours. Only in sleep can I escape the grim reality around me. If I could, I would sleep the rest of my life away. I awakened when showers were announced over the cell house loudspeaker. I did not care to take a shower under a shower head that dribbled out water surrounded by numerous men, some of whom were homosexuals. Nor did I care to go out for dinner to be around all the obnoxious and talkative convicts or eat the "slick meat" which was being served. Instead, I brooded about my life or lack thereof in my "coffin." Even the 6th game of the World Series did not grab my interest and when it became obvious the Red Sox would win and the people of Boston would celebrate how "brave" they were, I turned stations to watch the horror film "Halloween." I have seen this movie more times than the number of years I have been incarcerated and went back to sleep before Michael Myers was killed only to come back to life for another sequel.

Halloween day was overcast and dreary. Sunlight did not break through the cloud cover or the prison's dirty windows. After working out, I read mainly by the fluorescent lights on the outer wall of the cell house. I read case law which explained the distinction federal courts make between "free standing" actual innocence claims and "gateway" actual innocence claims. Then, I read an Internet article I was sent in the mail about Stateville's cemetery. According to it, there are two cites across from Caton Farm Road south of the prison walls where men are buried. These are men who died while incarcerated and no family claimed their bodies. I was surprised there were only 177 gravestones until I read that after 1974 the prison began to cremate the dead. Had Stateville continued to bury those who died within its walls, there may be a few thousand. Eventually, I imagined, all of the grounds around the penitentiary would be graves. There would be so many dead, corpses would have to be double stacked just as men now are in their cells. At the NRC and various minimum security prisons, inmates are sleeping in gyms, basements, and other groupings wherever space can be found. I suppose this is the equivalent of mass graves, although most of these men will not die before their release.

Since the large amount of strawberry-banana hooch was found, guards have been conducting more cell searches. Unless a prisoner is deemed an extreme escape risk, their cell will be searched about twice a month. For about ten minutes, guards will look through property boxes for any type of contraband. Lately, however, guards have been conducting compliance and hooch shakedowns as well. These are very quick and they are just seeing if an inmate has an excess of property or fermenting juice. On Halloween, a hefty guard simply walked in, peered in property boxes and took a look behind them. My cellmate joked if he was trick or treating and looking to confiscate any sweets or chips he found appealing.

Prisoners do not get anything special for Halloween, but in the evening I made burritos for my neighbors, cellmate, and myself. I used commissary foods to treat the three men. Making meals in maximum security penitentiaries in Illinois is difficult. First, inmates are not allowed any heating or cooking devices. Then, the Orange Crush took all our bowls with lids and I am limited to a thin plastic spork to stir ingredients together. Fortunately, I know how to improvise from all these and other shortcomings. Everyone was happy with their food including "Cookie the Clown" or his more scary counterpart Leprechaun. The nurse came by while I was making our meal and I joked with her asking where her costume was. She said she was wearing it. Dull gray scrubs were not my idea of a costume and I told her she could have at least been a candy striper.

The DVD played on the prison's cable network was appropriately "World War Z". It is a movie where most of humankind is afflicted with a disease which makes them turn into zombies. The zombies take over most of the world until a Special Ops soldier discovers they do not attack people who are already sick with a fatal disease. Thus, people are given meningitis which is curable. Despite the acting of Brad Pitt, the theme was one already copied repeatedly by Hollywood. I thought of my own version where all the thousands of living dead in penitentiaries across America turned on their captors. Guards, their superiors, and everyone who worked within the walls were cannibalized or made into zombies themselves. The only cure was to make the entire country a prison. When no one had any freedom, the living dead were no longer envious of them.

Yesterday, I woke up early. Late at night and in these early hours is the only time the cell house can be quiet. The hot water pipes which feed the blowers have been turned on and I could hear them clanking. In some folklore there is a belief at this time of year the world of the living and the dead can transcend. I imagined how many prisoners have died within these walls and could roam about as ghosts. Before I join them, I gave my attorney a phone call. It was the first time I spoke to her in a couple of years. I asked her about the progress in my appeal and, of course, there was none, although she claimed to be working on it when I called. It seems I will be in here a long time, possibly indefinitely. Other prisoners, young and yet to arrive, may someday wonder if I still haunt the premises after I am gone. Hopefully, there is someone still alive to claim my ashes so I can finally escape this place.