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Saturday, February 22, 2014

New Year's Lockdown -- Jan. 3, 2014

The penitentiary has been on lockdown since New Year's Eve. It is not uncommon for prisoners to be kept in their cells on the 1st of the year and the evening before. Many guards will not come in to work because they have plans to party and are hung over the day after. This year, staff had an excuse to stay home beyond the holiday due to snow and extreme cold temperatures. Temperatures have occasionally dropped below zero and there have been a couple of waves of snow showers in the Chicago metro area. Other than Monday when I went to chow, I have remained in my 6 x 11 foot concrete cell. Despite the confinement, my life has largely remained the same and I continue to exercise, read, and write. College football bowl games and the end of the NFL's regular season have also kept me preoccupied.

Last Sunday, many professional football teams fought for position in the playoffs or simply just to make it. The most closely watched game by far at Stateville was between the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears. The victor won the divisional title and went on to play for a chance to win the Superbowl. The loser went home and contemplated next season. For the pivotal game, I made nachos for my cellmate, neighbors, and myself. With Styrofoam trays from breakfast, I made four plates to accommodate tortilla chips, refried beans, rice, beef, and melted cheese on top of it all. I began making the food at 2 p.m. and finished just before kickoff.

There are about 300 men stacked on top of each other in the cell house and nearly all of them watched the game. Even guards tried catching parts of the game while running shower and chow lines. Almost everyone was a Bear fan including those I made nachos for. I jested with my cellmate to get his "cheese head" on and told him it was not too late to be a Packer's fan. He refused, and like most of those in the cell block, was disappointed when the Bears lost 28 to 33.

With Aaron Rodgers back as the quarterback for the Packers, I thought the outcome of the game was very predictable. However, my other picks against the spread were terrible. I did not expect so many teams already secured a spot in the playoffs to dominate their opponents in the last week. Both the Colts and the Broncos won by 20 points and the New England Patriots defeated the solid defense of the Buffalo Bills by two touchdowns. The Saints clobbered the Buccaneers 42 to 17 and even the Kansas City Chiefs almost beat the San Diego Chargers despite only playing a few starting players. In fact, they should have won the game if not for a bad call by referees. While all these results were baffling to me, only one game cost me any commissary. Foolishly, I thought the Arizona Cardinals would not only keep their game against the San Francisco 49ers close, I thought they would win. In the last seconds of the game, I was able to watch the 49ers kick a game winning field goal and it negated any smugness I felt about predicting the Packers making the playoffs. Interestingly, they will play each other in a couple of days at Lambaugh Field.

Monday afternoon there was a cell fight on the gallery above mine. My cellmate and I could hear the commotion followed by the screaming of one of the men. Cell fights can be dangerous because of the confined quarters and hard objects all around. The bunk and toilet are made of steel as are any counters that may be in a cell. Plus, the floor is concrete and there is no escaping any opponent. There are also no rules in this cage fight and convicts often will attempt to inflict the most bodily injuries possible. The majority of prisoners in maximum security penitentiaries will never be freed and segregation is a minimal deterrent. It is yet another reason why inmates at Stateville and other institutions should have single man cells, or at a minimum, be able to choose who they are trapped with inside a cubicle.

Staff eventually heard the fight and hustled up the stairs to intervene. Jokingly, I asked my cellmate which of the 3 he thought were going to be first through the door. We both knew it would be the sergeant who is strong and has an imposing bearing. The only alternative was an overweight female guard or the lieutenant and although he can be spunky, he was an older grey haired man. Not long afterwards, I noticed the two cellmates being escorted down the stairs in handcuffs behind their backs. One of the men was badly beaten and had blood splattered on his white T-shirt. Both were taken to Seg and later I learned mace was used to subdue the prisoner who refused to disengage hostilities. I am confident the sergeant could have simply used physical force, but it was probably a lot easier after blinding and suffocating the prisoner with pepper spray.

The cell fight did not greatly interest me and I did not seek details from other inmates or staff. I have seen probably a few hundred fights since my incarceration. However, I was disappointed to be unable to watch Saturday's UFC championship match between Anderson Silva and Chris Weiderman. The morning after the event, the ticker tape on ESPN read the fight was stopped in round 2 when Silva broke his leg. It was not until after the weekend the sports news station explained why or showed any video. He apparently threw an inside leg kick which hit the knee of Weiderman. Although Weiderman was unaffected, Silva broke the bones in his calf. The strike was not televised but Silva was shown on the mat clutching his leg and wailing in pain. This fight was a rematch of the one in July where Chris Weiderman KOed Silva to take away his middleweight title. Previously, the Brazilian jujitsu black belt fighter was hyped to be one of the best in MMA history. His defeat, however, was much overdue in my opinion and was I was surprised he had not lost years earlier.

On New Year's Eve, the prison was placed on lockdown purportedly due to a lack of staff. Most years, many guards will not show up for work on the 3 to 11 p.m. shift because of plans to drink heavily and/or attend social events. However, this year staff did not want to come in on the morning shift as well because they knew they had a good chance of being "mandated". If no one volunteers, the administration can force personnel to stay when enough people do not come in to take their places. Some staff like the overtime because they are paid time and a half, or even double time on holidays, but on New Year's Eve those people are few and far between. Personally, I think the penitentiary operates with well over twice the manpower needed and mandates are unnecessary. However, for over a decade there has been a growing overzealous concern for security despite how violence has receded.

In the morning when it became apparent "recreation" lines were cancelled and there would be no movement, I exercised in my cell. For the first half hour, I did a nonstop regimen of strength exercises using my body weight or small property box which weighs nearly 100 pounds when full. For the second half hour, I did various calisthenics focusing on speed and agility. News of the UFC fight motivated me and I incorporated many mixed martial arts moves into my workout. Anderson Silva and I are in the same weight class and I wish I could have challenged him for his title before he lost to Weiderman in the summer. I also wondered how the hero of Brazil would fair in a prison cell fight rather than the UFC's Octagon.

Most of the rest of my day consisted of watching college football. I watched two bowl games, the first of which was between Rice and Mississippi State. I was hoping for the Owls to win but they were trounced 7 to 44. At night, I watched a much more exciting and competitive game between Texas A and M and Duke. Despite being an underdog by nearly two touchdowns, Duke came out in the first half with a big lead. The Texas team was favored so heavily because of their explosive offense led by quarterback Johnny Manziel nicknamed "Johnny Football". Manziel was a candidate for the Heisman Trophy and although it went to Jameis Winston of Florida State, he will still be a top pick in the NFL draft. A prisoner on the gallery above mine throughout the game yelled out obscenities, ridicule, and disparaging remarks about the Aggie's star football player and much to my annoyance was engaged by several other men. Their clamor was reduced when Manziel had a remarkable performance in the second half and rallied his team to win.

All prisoners were kept in their cells New Year's Eve except for those with emergency medical needs or visits. During the first shift, however, cell house workers were allowed out to do much of the manual labor. This included sweeping, mopping, passing out lunch trays, picking up garbage, and other tasks. When one of the workers passed by my cell, I asked him if he was again going to be on his hands and knees cleaning the stairs with a tiny toothbrush. The day before a few workers were removing the grime in between the metal grill staircase. There has to be a better way I thought and was largely making fun of the worker. Apparently the quest to clean the five flights of stairs with toothbrushes was discontinued. I would rather be in my cell 24 hours a day than do the menial labor of cell house workers, despite what trivial perks they receive.

Fortunately at midnight I was not awakened to any foolish celebration of the new year. In the morning, I was also glad the cell house stayed relatively quiet. Once again the prison was on lockdown due to a lack of staff. Many guards were probably hungover or simply just wanted to sleep late on the holiday. They had some excuse not to show up for work this time due to some snow and frigid temperatures. For breakfast I ate rice cereal which was on my tray and made myself a banana-peanut butter sandwich. Bananas have regularly been given out with meals this week. Usually, men are given a state cake as a dessert for lunch or dinner. There is a rumor the penitentiary ran out of dessert cakes and cookies which are brought in from another penitentiary and this may explain the bananas and other substitutes.

The holiday was the same as many other countless days I have spent incarcerated. After breakfast and the morning news, I exercised, bathed out of my sink, and then cleaned up the mess I created along with the toilet and sink. The toilet needs to be scrubbed with soap and disinfectant every few days or it will begin to stink of urine. Regardless, I need to clean it because this is where I will wash and rinse my clothes after working out. I cannot always wait a week or longer for laundry bags to be picked up. My cellmate awakened when lunch trays were passed out. He razzed me about moving around like an old man. The medication I am given for having a couple of crushed disks in my lower spine is not adequate to treat my pain. Plus, I have had to cut back on the pills I take because I am almost out of them and I highly doubt I will see a doctor any time soon. Although there are times I think I can take on a UFC champion, other times I just feel like a cripple and want to lie down.

In the evening, no inmate workers were let out and guards passed out the dinner trays. Inside them were imitation bologna, bread, and some noodles mixed with leftover vegetables. This was not food for a man, but my toilet I thought so I dumped the contents into the commode except for the bread. In lieu of the prison meal, I made burritos for my cellmate and I with commissary food. Although Anthony quickly ate his two, I waited for the Rose Bowl to come on TV. It was a decent game except we repeatedly commented to each other how Stanford's coach seemed incompetent. His plays calls were terrible and I was not surprised the Michigan State Spartans defeated them.

After the game, I spoke to my cellmate about my cousin Tom who had gone to the Rose Bowl and speculated what big games I could have played in. If I had played college football, I would have gone to the University of Nebraska. Looking through our almanacs we discovered the Cornhuskers never went to the Rose Bowl between 1993 and 1997. However, they did attend the Orange Bowl multiple times and were national champions in '94 and '95. In 1997, they shared the title with the Michigan Wolverines. Contemplating what could have been, however, was ridiculous conjecture. I have no idea what my life would have been like had my former friend and his wife not tried to frame me for the Brown's Chicken massacre in Palatine.

Yesterday, the prison remained on a partial lockdown. Feed lines were run, but not much else. On the morning news, I learned temperatures were very cold and almost a foot of snow had fallen in the far northern suburbs. However, south of Chicago, there was less than half this amount and roads were clear. Other than missing yard, I did not care about spending another day in the cell nor did my cellmate. He slept until the afternoon and I went about my day as usual.

There has been no mail delivered since Monday and I was eager to read some recent financial news. In lieu of any newspapers, I watched a television news program which reviewed the year of 2013. The stock market was at new highs. The Dow Jones closed the year at 16,577, NASDAQ 4176, and S & P 500 1848. These good times cannot last forever despite economic pundits who continue to be bullish. Whenever investors are too rosy and comfortable is typically when there is a correction. With the Federal Reserve continuing to taper security purchases, it is bound to let the air out of the balloon to some extent. It is unfortunate I did not have access to the Internet to make short sales. Instead I will just have to stick to football. Incredible odds makers have the New Orleans Saints an underdog and are giving the San Diego Chargers a touchdown. There has to be commissary to be made on the NFL playoffs this weekend.

Many people celebrate New Year's Day with partying and optimism. However, for the men at Stateville the day was largely inconsequential. There was no hope for a better future and 2014 was simply just another calendar year. Football helped distract me and probably others of this grim reality, but it was fleeting. As I conclude this post I can only think about all the time I have been incarcerated and all the time I have yet to do. It is a never ending downward spiral and there is nothing "new" about New Year's Day.

UPDATE  3/24/14:  According to the Associated Press, the lockdown overtime pay cost the IDOC an extra $83,400. Over 400 guards did not report to work on five consecutive shifts on the New Year's holiday. The price tag for the 2013 year across the Illinois prison system for overtime was $60 million or over 3% of the IDOC's entire budget. The staggering sum is drawing scrutiny to guards being given time and a half pay when they work past their shift. The true problem, however, is the superfluous amount of staff at prisons and the mandates which are not necessary. The guards union, AFSCME, has tremendous power at the state capital to increase employment and administrators are overzealously concerned about security. Stateville can operate with half the security personnel it currently has and I suspect many other penitentiaries could have large cuts in manpower as well.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Gifts of Christmas -- Dec. 28, 2013

Prisoners at Stateville had many reasons to be happy this Christmas. After a few weeks of intermittent cable reception, the old satellite TV dishes were replaced by a new company. Incarcerated men did not get an additional 100 networks or even one. It was the exact same contract only through a new vendor. On Christmas Day, prisoners received a large meal of roast turkey, pork, or both. Unlike last year, the meal did not cause widespread vomiting and diarrhea from food poisoning. For the first time in over a decade gift bags were distributed to inmates. However, unlike in the 1990s when men were given packs of cigarettes, bundles of candy and bags of nuts as well as various brand name soaps and shampoos, they received a brown bag of religious materials with a token candy bar and stale cookie. The gifts of Christmas are probably too numerous for me to recount, but I will attempt to do so without becoming too giddy with excitement.

I called home this week to learn my elderly mother is extremely ill. She believes she has the flu but is uncertain. I attempted to pressure her to see a doctor whereupon I was told she has an appointment in February. This is what I would expect at Stateville but not outside these walls. "Is Obamacare already causing such huge delays?" I asked. Apparently, she wanted to see a specific doctor and was too sick to go anywhere anyway. She had not left the house in weeks and with snow unshovelled, she was practically buried in. My father had left and there was no one to help her. As a prisoner, I could do nothing. I was as abandoned and helpless as she was.

Although I did not, many incarcerated men received visits this week including my cellmate. On Christmas Eve, I began my exercise routine early in the morning as customary. My cellmate typically sleeps until noon but surprised me by getting up and shaving. A few times he invaded my space in the front of the cell until I gave him a kick. He knows I do not like to be crowded and I thought it was rude of him to interrupt my workout. When his name was called for a visit I then understood why he was acting that way. He was trying to get ready for his visit and had overslept.

Anthony received a visit from his sister and niece. When he returned he was in a good mood and had forgotten that I had kicked him earlier. He told me a little about his visit and what his family was doing for Christmas. My immediate family was not doing anything and I was not aware of any plans by relatives. I have been incarcerated over two decades and rarely ever have any contact with aunts, uncles, cousins, or others. Possibly, I will get a Christmas card or two in late January, however, after so much time has passed, prisoners lose contact with family, myself included. With my father in South Carolina, I told my cellmate I will probably only receive a few visits a year if my mother dies.

Last Sunday was the Winter Solstice and it marked not only the first day of winter but the least amount of daylight. Throughout this week, I was glad to awaken before dawn and for the sun to set early. On the few days there was no cloud cover, I could see the dim light reflecting off the prison's 30 foot front wall when the guards counted prisoners between 3:30 and 4 p.m. The dark, cold, gray days did not bother me, but some of the cheerfulness of convicts was annoying. What were these men condemned to die so happy about?

Stateville's contract with a satellite TV service expired earlier this month. Inmates were dreaming Santa Claus would install a full range of cable networks. However, the administration simply switched satellite TV providers. The large black satellite dishes which were bolted into the concrete in the front of the main prison building were taken away and exchanged with two different ones. Inmates had a dozen networks before and now they have the same dozen after the switch.

Other than football, I found little of interest to watch on TV. Some prisoners thought the Chicago Bears were going to make the playoffs and I was able to profit off their delusion. Last Sunday the team was romped by the Philadelphia Eagles and on Thursday the Bears were given the extra gift of Christmas called Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers is the starting quarterback for the Green Bay Packers and one of the best in the NFL. After weeks of uncertainty, he was finally cleared to play against Chicago in the final game of the season to decide which team goes on to the playoffs. I anticipated the Bears being favored at home by a field goal to being an underdog by a field goal. A gambling addict and Bears' fan had already locked in bets with me. I am smugly confident the Packers will win tomorrow and add commissary to my property box.

My cellmate has a subscription to two TV guides, but despite how I looked for something to entertain me before going to sleep, I was at a loss. On Monday, I found myself momentarily watching Miley Cyrus. I asked Anthony what was this freak show that was on the CW. He told me it was called "The Jingle Ball." I was somewhat used to the pop singers antics including her wrecking ball video, butt dance, and "space cat," but this seemed to take things to a new level of absurdity. On the dance floor with her was a black female midget in a bikini of sorts except the top was two large tin man hats. I could not watch the nonsense and listened to my radio until I fell asleep.

The Koss stereo headphones which I so treasure developed a short. I use them so often while in the cell that the wire was bound to break eventually. It was not a matter of if, but when. Fortunately, they have a lifetime guarantee and on Christmas Eve when a cell house counselor was conducting rounds I gave him the paperwork to have the cost of postage and handling paid for. He took the money vouchers but not the headphones. He said it will probably take the business office a month or longer to process and in the meantime I may as well keep my headset. I have considered cutting into the wire to take out the short. I do not know if I have the patience to wait a couple of months to have sound in both ears and my backup pair of ear buds are not nearly as good at blocking out noises.

Later in the day, I noticed cell house workers packing up an inmate's property on the ground floor. When property was inventoried, it usually meant a transfer or trip to Seg.  Later at chow, I learned the man was sent to an outside hospital to have his foot cut off. Apparently, he had diabetes and because of the poor health care, gangrene had set in. Prisoners gossiped that his feet may not be the only body parts to be taken off but he could lose his legs. I asked how a person could not know their limbs were rotting and demand something to be done. One prisoner told me diabetics can cause numbness which can cause it to go unnoticed. I would rather be dead than lose my legs, and I wonder if he would have his feet amputated on Christmas day.

Christmas Eve had a morning low below zero and an afternoon high of only 15 degrees F. I did not realize how cold it was, however, until I left the cell house for dinner. Prisoners must walk a couple of blocks to reach the chow hall and unlike the previous night, a short tunnel passageway was not used. Walking in line, I regretted not putting on any thermal underwear. The polyester blue state pants provided to prisoners were thin and the jacket also had little insulation. Guards on the movement team, contrarily, were heavily dressed in clothing from head to toe. They even wore black ski masks so only their eyes were visible. When I returned to the cell, my cellmate asked me if I noticed the day shift sergeant. I had not recognized any of the staff outside in the dark in their winter ninja suits. He said he was only able to identify him by his long beard. We speculated he was not happy to be mandated to work two shifts on Christmas Eve and then have the assignment of being outside in the bitter cold rather than in the cell house.

After chow, I read about a few nitrogen fertilizer companies that were having trouble with sales due to competition from China and lower demand. I concluded the problem was temporary and their long term outlook was still good. While making my assessment, I took a break and noticed my cellmate was watching a Christmas choir. This was even worse than when I found him watching a remake of "The Sound of Music". He commented there was nothing else on television to watch when I made fun of him. No television was better than bad television, and I sat back down to review corporate reports. I put my half working headphones on and listened to a heavy metal cassette tape. No, I was not in the Christmas spirit. I would rather pull my fingernails out with pliers than engage in the delusion of Christmas cheer. Governor Quinn may have granted 36 requests for Executive Clemency, but I was not one of them.

Christmas morning, the cell house sergeant with the assistance of prison workers passed out gift bags donated by the Willow Creek Community Church in So. Barrington. For a couple of weeks prisoners had heard rumors of the donation and were looking forward to them with excitement. Stateville has not permitted a charity to give inmates gifts since the turn of the century. For prisoners who have been incarcerated a couple of decades or longer, they thought of cigarettes, candy, chocolates, and a variety of nice hygienic products not sold in the commissary. However, what they received was a little candy bar and a flat cardboard tasting cookie along with a stack of religious materials. Not surprisingly, these books and pamphlets quickly found their way into the garbage. The day after Christmas, I noticed a box by the door of the cell house filled with the Christian literature.

I had never heard of the Willow Creek Church until earlier this month when the talk radio show host Eric Muller aka "Mancow" mentioned that he attended it. I rarely watch the goofy Mancow Show except during commercials of morning news which I watch almost every day with my breakfast. My cellmate who stays up late at night will occasionally watch the shortened one hour re-telecast at midnight. He was the one who first told me about how the church planned to donate a Christmas package to inmates at Stateville. Mancow, from what I was told, supported the plan despite how he generally has a low regard for criminals because there were far too many people incarcerated and for excessive amounts of time.

Going to the chow hall for Christmas lunch was unpleasant for me. Everyone in the cell house left their cells and the lines were crowded and very noisy. Men pushed and rubbed against each other like cattle going into a feed chute. Behind the counter were a number of diverse and hokey holiday decorations. There was a picture drawn by an inmate of a sinister looking black Santa Claus and I told my cellmate he looked like he was robbing people of presents rather than giving them out. As for the Barack Obama Santa Claus with a big smile on his face, he was as well except he called it a redistribution of wealth. At the end of the line, I told a white kitchen worker that if they hang up any mistletoe he better be careful or he may be kissed by some homosexual.

Not everyone was gay and merry. While waiting in line I noticed a female kitchen supervisor who seemed sad, despite having on a red and white stocking cap with a fuzzy ball on top. For a moment I wondered what her real life was like outside the penitentiary. Prisoners are around many guards and other personnel, but we rarely get to know them. I assume most convicts do not care what these people do or how their lives are outside these walls. The administration even discourages staff from revealing personal information. However, I dislike superficiality and occasionally find myself pondering what the real lives, feelings, and personalities are of those I interact with.

After I left the line with my two Styrofoam trays of food, I sat at a table with an inmate who is known as "Sergeant Major". Sergeant Major is an old man in his 70's who rarely ever leaves his cell at the end of the gallery. He was in the army for nearly three decades before retiring. Previously, he told me how he was arrested for DUI's and released until he rammed into a car and killed its occupants. He is unlike most convicts here who I think of as criminal low lifes. Although I considered him a well grounded and conservative person, he surprised me with some of his wacky beliefs. For nearly an hour I listened to him talk about Area 51, space alien visitation, and various conspiracy theories. Despite how he at one time worked in the PTC, a Pentagon Intelligence agency, I thought he had lost some of his marbles going senile and being isolated in his cell for so long.

Sergeant Major is not the only military veteran I have met who is in prison due to drinking. My cellmate was drunk at the time of his offense as well. Most people will make a huge distinction between a car accident and a strangulation, however, what they fail to understand is the other drugs he was involuntarily intoxicated with which together could make the most peaceful man do the most violent acts. On the Monday before Christmas, CBS evening news had a 5-minute segment on Mefloquine, an inoculation for malaria the U.S. military uses. Despite that in 2009 the FDA warned the armed forces about the severe potential side effects of the drug, soldiers stationed in certain areas of the world continue to be given the shot. The inoculation is not a choice, and service members are not even told about the psychological disorders that may result. One interviewed combat veteran and his wife spoke of radical personality changes, including violent mood swings. The effects of the drug seem to be waning with time but his life was greatly impaired. These reports are one of thousands of independently verified claims.

Although there was no mail on Christmas, I received mail on the days before. One of the letters included several pages of new comments and emails readers had sent to me in November. On Christmas, I read through these and discovered a number of critical comments to my post "Lynched but Alive," not all of which were published. Those were in regarding my belief that my cellmate should not serve the rest of his life in prison. Anthony was convicted of breaking into a residence and killing an innocent woman who attended Eastern Illinois University with him. Some people think he should have been executed and cannot understand how I could believe he should not only be given a term of years but that I could choose to be his cellmate. However, I think they fail to realize what effect Mefloquine combined with Paxil and enormous amounts of alcohol can have.

Like people outside of prison, inmates will occasionally exchange gifts. My neighbor gave me a couple of pairs of state issued socks and a used thermal shirt. To reciprocate, I gave him a sweatshirt I had recently bought and after washing it shrank so much it no longer fit me. I knew the sweatshirt was a size or two too small, but I thought I would take a chance. The prison store was selling the Pakistan-made product for only $3. My cellmate asked what I got for him, and I said, "The pleasure of my company." He said the prison administration should pay him for putting up with my autistic antics. I asked him what he wanted. He was so difficult to shop for. While he thought about it, I said, "I already made you Tasters Choice coffee (TC is a luxury commodity at Stateville), and gave you a package of Swiss Rolls.  How about some Christmas cards from the Willow Creek Church?" Earlier we had talked about how dumb it was that prison staff gave them to us on Christmas day. Even if we had regular mail service, they would not have arrived until at least New Year's Eve. With Stateville mail, they would not have reached their destination until February.

Christmas evening was boring and I cannot even recall what I did. I became so bored that I began to look through the religious literature donated by the church. There was a booklet entitled "How to Survive on the Streets" which was meant for possible parolees. I had a life sentence and I tossed that one back onto my shelf. There was a "Spiritual Guide" that was over 200 pages long and included a calendar going to the year 2017. I commented to my cellmate that they need to give inmates at Stateville a calendar going to year 2077. This must be for the Minimum Security Unit or the Northern Receiving Center. Another book was called "Freeway" and according to their pastor Bill Hybels, it was supposed to lead a prisoner to true freedom. I began to go through the interactive, easy to read book occasionally telling my cellmate some of the silly questions it asked as well as my comical, although brutally honest, answers. The book seemed designed for children and I thought it should come with a set of thick crayons. Possibly though it was appropriate for the level of intelligence and education of most men at Stateville.

While I flipped through the book Freeway, I stood by the cell bars. A guard downstairs yelled up to me a "Merry Christmas" and it was then I realized it was late. If he was getting ready to leave, the time was well past 10 p.m. After waving to him on the ground floor outside the sergeant's office, I thought it was time for me to leave myself. The best gift of Christmas I gave myself was sleep. Only in my dreams did I experience freedom.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

A Week of Radio -- Dec. 20, 2013

Much of my time in the cell is spent listening to the radio. This week I did so more than usual in part because the prison's satellite TV was not working. Since early in the month, reception has progressively become worse until inmates are currently limited to several analogue stations. The loss of television has not greatly bothered me because I have other preoccupations including radio. I listen to radio for news, music, and to block out the nearly continuous noise in the cell house. Unfortunately, I cannot escape my prison environment entirely.

Sunday morning, nearly all television stations were out. Prisoners speculated it was due to the cold weather or the IDOC not paying the service fees. Many vendors have ceased to do business with Illinois because the state is late paying bills. My cellmate thought it was due to the satellite dishes in the front of the prison not being aligned correctly or the satellites themselves were out of position while orbiting the earth. This last idea I thought was amusing and asked Anthony if he believed there were some runaway TV satellites. I was not certain what the problem was, but I did know Stateville was the only penitentiary in Illinois with satellite TV. The rest have cable, including Menard and Pontiac Correctional Centers. Prisoners at these maximum security institutions have a full range of cable networks with the exception of premium stations. In contrast, Stateville has only a dozen stations in addition to broadcast.

This week was the controversial return of Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler. Cutler began the season until he was injured two months ago. Backup quarterback Luke McCown has been playing well and many fans questioned the coach's decision to bench him with only three regular season games remaining and the Bears being playoff contenders. One of the few stations with reception was the FOX network and prisoners were happy to be able to watch the game. I do not know if the coach made the correct decision, but the Bears defeated the Cleveland Browns 38 to 31. They will face much more difficult opponents in Philadelphia and the Green Bay Packers particularly if their star quarterback Aaron Rodgers returns.

For the first time this year, I went downstairs to take a shower. It did not take me long to remember why I have avoided doing so. I was locked in the holding area for 2 hours. While waiting for a shower to be available I noticed some prisoners on the lower gallery were watching the Carolina Panthers/New York Jets game. The football game was on CBS, a station they were only able to pick up by creating an antenna for digital TV reception. The game did not particularly interest me and I went to the back door where there is a little square window. Outside I could see the moon and I watched it until it moved out of sight despite the cold air drafts coming in. Other prisoners did not seem to mind waiting. They socialized, played cards, chess, and even craps, throwing dice up against a wall underneath the back stairs.

On Monday, I went out for lunch because I believed we were being served chicken stir fry. However, I was mistaken and on the feed line was a greasy mush of processed turkey-soy, rice and leftover vegetables. I picked out a few of the carrots and pieces of broccoli and listened to inmates complain about the cable. My neighbor was repeating a rumor that Stateville had not renewed their satellite TV contract and was going to switch to a cable provider next year. I was skeptical of any deal that would cost the penitentiary extra money. Many prisoners, however, who spend much of their days watching TV, were greatly seduced by the prospect.

The mail is greatly behind and delays seem to get worse as the holidays approach. I received a large bundle of letters all from mid-November, including a few birthday cards. I thought I had managed to largely avoid thinking about my birthday this year, but it seems a few of my family members are still intent on reminding me. My cellmate is envious of the amount of mail I receive and after noticing the birthday cards joked that if we had cable I could watch the movie "40 Year Old Virgin." I was not a virgin nor yet 40, but he will occasionally flout the 50 plus women he has "hooked up" with to the teenage girls I dated before my arrest. I am not impressed with the number of promiscuous women he has had sex with but I am bitter as to how my life was cut short.

In the evening, I read some of my letters while listening to Monday Night Football on the radio. ESPN network was not coming in on the television but I was able to get their radio station. Listening to football is not nearly as entertaining as watching it and I expressed disappointment to my cellie. He also wanted to see the Baltimore Ravens play the Detroit Lions. Possibly, it was better that he did not, I told him. During the last Monday Night Football game where the Chicago Bears trounced the Dallas Cowboys, he spilled his coffee all over the place. Because he watches TV from his bunk, the coffee soaked into his sheets and ran down the wall onto my mattress before I had time to pull it away. I spent an hour scrubbing my sheet, rinsing, and then drying it while I cleaned the puddles underneath the bunk. Accidents like this will occur living in such tight quarters, but I thought this was a good time to razz him about his clumsiness.

Tuesday morning I went to the prison's gymnasium. I was not particularly motivated in going and contemplated if I could not get a better workout in the cell. Yet another pulley had broken and there were only three exercise machines that worked. For the most part, my cellmate walked around listening to music on his Walkman while I tried to make the best of what I could with the weights. Waiting in line to use the Lat machine, a big black convict complimented me on my physique. Because of how many homosexuals there are in prison, I questioned his sexuality and thought this was yet another reason why I should have remained in my cell. I was not fearful, but I did not like exercising in public particularly with a crowd of unsavory people.

In the afternoon, I read a few newspapers while listening to the radio. I have a cheap clear plastic radio/cassette player, but very good Koss stereo headphones. The headphones I keep over my ears much of the day when in my cell. There are approximately 300 prisoners living on top of each other in the quarter unit and the noise can be very aggravating. They will yell in crude ghetto speech or "Spanglish" much of the day. With many TV stations out, the noise seems even greater as men have fewer alternatives to preoccupy themselves.

Radio reception is very difficult in the cell house. All of the concrete and steel blocks out the weak low band widths. Although AM is able to break through most of this interference, FM stations cannot. Except for a few music stations, I am left to cassettes unless I hang a wire outside my bars. Some prisoners have even strung wires outside of the gallery or even out of the cell house. Occasionally, I will listen to my neighbor's radio who listens to classic rock from the 80's. However, unless I am working out, I much prefer having my headphones on.

One of the birthday cards I received was from my aunt and I was glad she spent the time to write several pages along with it. On a steel table which comes out of the concrete wall at the front of my cell, I wrote her a letter back. Because I was next to the bars, I placed my Walkman on them and dangled the headphone wire outside to gain better reception. Periodically, I dialed or tried to dial in different FM stations. A couple of Mexican stations came in crystal clear, but to get any music I liked took determination. Eventually, I just took a cassette tape out of my property box to listen to. I have 11 cassettes. Most of them are heavy metal tapes but I have a few rock and classical music recordings. Outside I could see a full moon rising through the dingy cell house windows and wished I was somewhere other than in prison. Even death was more preferable and occasionally I thought of the man who killed himself a week ago.

Since the suicide I was able to talk to a prisoner who lives next to the 5th floor staircase landing. He told me just before Angel jumped he said to no one in particular he was going home. For many of the thousands of prisoners in the IDOC, it is only in death they will ever be free. While the governor has permitted those with nonviolent convictions to earn good time credits to reduce Illinois' bloated prison population, others are not afforded this opportunity. Over a decade ago, legislators even passed truth in sentencing laws where convicted murderers must do 100% of their time and any violent offender 85%. This leaves nearly 10,000 prisoners who are doomed to spend the rest of their lives incarcerated including myself, although I was not technically convicted of any violent act, but was found guilty via a theory of accountability.

Midweek what the prison calls nachos were served for lunch. Not a fan of the greasy chips and synthetic cheese, I gave my food away to my cellmate and instead ate a package of beef stew with Ramen Noodles when I returned to the cell. While I ate, I listened to WLS talk radio. WLS is a local conservative news station which carries the programs of John Kass, Rush Limbaugh, Roe and Roeper, Sean Hannity, and Mark Levine at night. Throughout their shows, there will be news updates. One of the subjects mentioned was the largest Powerball Jackpot Lottery in history: $636 million. While this may sound like an incredible sum, people fail to realize how much the lottery takes out if a winner wants a lump sum. Furthermore, federal and state taxes are enormous. There were two winners and the ticket sold in Georgia will get about $120 million, yet the California winner only a little over $100 million due to the state's 16% tax. When the odds of over 200 million to 1 are factored in, the lottery is one of the biggest state rackets. I told my cellmate that it is no surprise most players are poor and uneducated. People have a better chance of being struck by lightning than winning the lottery.

More important news that I listened to on talk radio was a federal budget compromise and Ben Bernanke's announcement there will be a decrease of $10 billion in security purchases next month. I anticipated that when the Fed began to taper its stimulus the stock market would also fade. However, the Dow Jones went up 300 points surprising me. I could not understand the market's reaction and can only speculate investors continue to have little other place to invest their money. Banks, treasury bills, and municipal bonds continue to pay very little interest and this will continue well into 2015.

I have not missed CNN or other liberal news that prisoners at Stateville normally have access to. In fact, it has been refreshing to be without their liberal propaganda ad programming. I much rather listen to blunt straight talk like that which is needed for fiscal responsibility and to chop a growing $17 trillion debt. Like the conservative talk show hosts I listened to, I was disappointed with congressman Paul Ryan's federal budget deal which will increase spending until some distant date in the future. Previously, the former vice presidential candidate had impressed me with his tough economic reforms. I can only speculate his compromise with Democrats was a political strategy. A government shutdown more than likely would have again been blamed on Republicans. It may have been better to lose this battle to win the war. Republicans have a good chance to win the senate in 2014 and the White House in 2016. With control of both congressional chambers, conservatives can enact spending cuts so desperately needed. Currently, they are at the mercy of Barack Obama and his socialist colleagues in the senate.

On Thursday, I did not leave the confines of my cell the entire day. In the morning, I read a few papers while listening to John Kass. Kass is a very witty editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune and I am glad he now has a couple of hours on WLS. Not all good writers can make good radio talk show hosts, but he seems to have a knack for both. After his show, my cellmate went out to the yard and I immediately began my workout. I have learned how to do a high intensity exercise regimen in a small area of space, however, it is better if I can use the entire cell. I am sure my cellmate also appreciates it if I wait until he leaves. During my workout my neighbor played classic rock. Songs such as "Don't Fear the Reaper" by the Blue Oyster Cult reminded me of Angel's suicide.

When my cellmate returned, I was already back on my bunk and once again reading with headphones over my ears. The USA Today had an article about executions that caught my attention. In 2013, there were only 38 and this was the second time in 20 years there has been less than 40 in America. The newspaper writer seemed to approve of this development along with the drop in the number of new death sentences and those on death row. It cited the decline in executions due to more opportunity for prosecutors to seek life without parole. This is what I despise about death penalty abolitionists. The alternative of life in prison is not better, more humane, or more just than execution. What would be a cause of celebration is more executions and fewer sentences of natural life without parole or the equivalent.

Yet again today before I began writing this post, I was listening to WLS talk radio. Rush Limbaugh had taken the day off and in his stead was Eric Erickson, author of "Red State Dot Com." The subject of conversation was Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty. I had never heard of the show until this week. Prisoners do not have the TV station Arts & Entertainment even when the satellite dish is working. Apparently, though, it is a popular show with an average viewing audience of 12 million and is the center of much controversy due to what the main character, Phil Robertson, said in an interview. I have no idea why condemning homosexuality or comparing it with bestiality has made such a fuss except for it ruffling the feathers of the LGBT community and those of liberals who only like tolerance and freedom of expression when it suits their propaganda agenda. Already produced programming is distorted and corrupted, yet these same influences want control over reality TV as well. This is yet another reason I care little if the prison's satellite TV is repaired. I have radio and this blog which I seek to be as unfiltered and real as possible.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

A Dive to Death -- Dec. 13, 2013

The prison was on lockdown and during the afternoon it was relatively quiet in the cell house. Without my headphones on I was writing a letter on a steel table near the front bars. Before I completed it, I heard a clang followed by a couple of thumps. Initially, I thought the noise was a fight but because the penitentiary was on lockdown I speculated a gallery worker had fallen down some stairs. My neighbor periodically stumbles due to back and leg pain. However, after a brief silence, there was a scream and a great deal of commotion. Something much more traumatic than Hooch falling down a few stairs must have occurred. Later, I learned a prisoner had committed suicide by jumping off the 5th floor landing of the staircase.

My cell is on the 2nd floor and about 20 feet from the staircase. The screams caught my attention and I looked through the cell bars to determine what had happened. From my vantage point, I could only see part of the ground floor from the sergeant's office to underneath some of the staircase. However, I noticed guards converged to the other side while calling for medical personnel. Even men suited up in full tactical gear who were searching the adjacent cell block came through the interlock. No one knew what to do before a major walked in and began giving orders. She told all the guards to leave and give the paramedics space. For a woman, I was impressed by her ability to immediately take command of a situation. She deserved the rank of major and it was not due to seniority or some affirmative action policy.

At the onset of chaos, guards had told gallery workers to go to their cells to be locked in. This was standard operating procedure. However, when it was clear there was no security issue, guards never opened up these men's cells. My neighbor who I had thought had an accident stood nearby and I asked him what happened. He told me a man jumped from the top of the stairs. "What is his condition? Is he still alive?" I inquired. He told me there was a lot of blood and he thought he was dead. Hooch seemed rattled and like he did not want to talk about the matter. He walked off possibly to get away from my questions.

Medical personnel from the prison Health Care Unit were slow to arrive. Health care at Stateville is always slow whether or not it is urgent. After a lull, prisoners began shouting, "He's alive! Get the med tech!" They continued to yell for medical personnel for a minute. I believe they finally arrived going through the interlock and underneath my gallery. I never saw any of the response team. I assumed the man was dead and there was no hurry. The shouts for a med tech probably came after the corpse twitched. About an hour passed before my cellmate and I saw a gurney being wheeled outside with a man half covered on it. His head was wrapped in bandages. Because Anthony was on the top bunk and I was still sitting by the bars, he got a better look out the dingy cell house windows. He told me the man appeared to be a white prisoner and he could see he had many tattoos which caused us to speculate who on 10 gallery may have killed himself. Strangely, a more vigorous debate opened up between us about whether the man was dead.

Anthony's proposition that the person was still alive was preposterous to me. I told him anyone who jumps from nearly 60 feet onto concrete is "jacked" (prison slang with various negative meanings). My cellmate countered that he had seen a few people jump off the roofs of buildings three stories high. They were fine or just had minor injuries. I said this was certainly possible if landing feet first and onto grass, but this man sought death and probably dove onto the concrete. Then I spoke about how long it took medical personnel to respond and the fact that they slowly wheeled him away on the walk could have only meant he was dead. Anthony responded that they did not care about prisoners. On death row a friend of his committed suicide and they had plenty of time to save him before he bled out but they did not. To end the argument, I told him I will give him 100 to 1 odds the man did not survive.

The penitentiary was on lockdown because Internal Affairs got a tip there were drugs in B House. I have a tip for I.A.:  there are drugs in all the penitentiaries and every cell block at Stateville. However, this does not mean the administration should take everyone out of their sells all day and search from top to bottom. A much more practical solution is using drug sniffing dogs and drug tests. Almost as if the warden read my mind, the following day some prisoners in C House were dropped. About 20 men were selected but none tested positive. Due to the lockdown, it was difficult getting news about the suicide even from my neighbor who was working at the time.

I tapped on the side of his cell with my plastic mirror. This is similar to knocking on a person's door outside of prison, and I waited for an answer. Hooch did not respond, but his cellmate came to the cell bars to talk. I asked him a number of questions about what he knew. Looking at Leprechaun through my mirror and hearing his vague answers, I got the feeling he did not want to talk about the subject due to Hooch being nearby. One thing I did learn, however, which greatly surprised me was the name of the person who jumped to his death: Angel Garcia.

Angel was a prisoner celled on my gallery and I had spoken to him on occasion. The week before we had bench pressed on the yard together. I recall he seemed to be in a good mood listening to music on his Walkman and dancing in part to it. Jesting, I asked him if he thought he was at a mariachi party. Later, he razzed me for struggling with pressing the 220 pound weight. He said whatever I was doing in the cell, I needed to stop. I did not know if he was referring to my regular cardio-calisthenic routine or joking that I was looking at porn. The only odd conversation I had with him came later when I mentioned how ridiculous it was the administration would not allow us to buy dental floss. There was no way prisoners could use it to cut through bars. Angel responded that it was not to prevent escape attempts but strangulation. "Strangulation?! There are numerous things a convict could use to strangle a person: an extension cord, cable wire, shoe laces," I said. There were endless possibilities and I told Angel to just think about it. This seemed to alarm him and he exclaimed he did not want to think about it and put his ear buds back in his ears so he could not hear me continue to list things.

Angel has only been in this cell house for several months. When he first arrived, I sat at the table with him in the chow hall. He told other men there that I.A. had threatened to send him to Menard if he did not provide them with information. He did not want to be sent to the penitentiary in southern Illinois because he would be far away from his family. I did not inquire why he was put in Segregation or what security thought he knew. I had only had one conversation with him previously.

I first met Angel a few years ago. We were both leaving the visiting room at the same time. He asked me if I was that person with the blog site, but it was more of a statement rather than a question. Angel was the first prisoner to approach me about the matter and I wanted to deny it. However, he went on to say his girlfriend had recognized me and had read a number of my posts. Unlike another Hispanic men who later found out about my blog, he kept the information to himself and did not have a problem with it. Contrarily, he seemed impressed and said it was a good idea. I appreciated his sentiments and the fact he kept my secret.

My cellmate and I speculated why he would commit suicide. The movie "Its a Wonderful Life" had recently been on television and Anthony spoke about how many people get depressed during the holidays, particularly prisoners who could not be with their families. We also spoke of the effect shortened days and less daylight has on some people. It was an odd phenomena to me because I contrarily liked the dim light and darkness. However what seemed most likely to be a factor was that Angel just came off a visit. That is why he was outside his cell during the lockdown and had the opportunity to run up the staircase, climb the railing and leap off. Something must have occurred during his visit to put him over the edge.

The warden and a few members of I.A. were in the building after the suicide. A black female guard went cell to cell on my gallery asking men what they had seen or heard. I told her I did not see anything but I did hear the fall and the screams that followed. She asked if it was the inmate's or staff, but I could not answer. A Mexican a few cells down from me seemed to know something others did not or were not willing to tell I.A. The man was taken out of his cell and brought to their offices to be questioned more thoroughly. Later, I learned Angel had apparently been planning to kill himself for some time. He gave away nearly all of his possessions and had a last meal of sorts.

A psychologist also did rounds in the cell house. Fortunately, I was asleep when she stopped at my cell. These shrinks are not very competent and only go about talking to prisoners out of formality. Furthermore, the conversation served little or no function. When the administration became aware that I had autism I was placed on the list for mental health services. Engaging in talk with a psychologist does nothing in itself. What would improve my life is accommodations and better living conditions. The psychiatrist has prescribed me Klonopin and the antihistamine Vistaril to help me cope with stress and sleep better. It is only somewhat helpful and does not address the underlying problems in my environment. My cellmate told me when I awoke from my nap that the psychologist simply asked how we were doing and expressed disappointment that I was sleeping. "How nice," I said sarcastically.

Workers were let out of their cells Friday morning. I spoke to a black man while he was sweeping the gallery. He told me he did not personally know what happened, but he spoke with a prisoner just moments ago who is in a cell just above where Angel hit the floor. He was of the opinion that Angel was definitely dead. The movement prisoners saw later which caused them to shout for help was involuntary spasms. He went on to say he would never commit suicide and you can never give up. This attitude seems very prevalent amongst the black population and it is very rare for them to kill themselves despite how they will most certainly never be released. I tend to believe it is not only a mental toughness from living in the ghetto but because prison is relatively less of a punishment for them. Contrarily, upper and middle class Caucasians from the suburbs have a radical departure from the lifestyle they are accustomed to when they come to prison. Furthermore, blacks and to a lesser extent Hispanics have many friends and even family members in the penitentiary. One black man I know was incarcerated with his father, two half brothers, a cousin, and he knew numerous people from his neighborhood in Chicago.

The prison was taken off lockdown today and there were normal operations. On the way into the chow hall, I had the misfortune of being around an obnoxious inmate who was insinuating that Angel was a pedophile. Normally, I would not have said anything, however, I do not like the man nor people who spread untrue slander. I rebuked him for his lies and told those listening that Angel was convicted of murder and was sentenced to 70 years. I contemplated hard slapping the prisoner who rambled there was "one less child molester" in the prison. However, it would have made no difference. Earlier in the year someone had beat him up for his disrespectful behavior and his demeanor only changed for a brief time.

I sought out the company of my acquaintance Steve who is celled almost directly in front of where Angel fell. Finally, I learned all the details which alluded me earlier. Steve was near his cell bars when the incident occurred. He told me the clang I heard followed by a double thump was because Angel did not directly hit the concrete floor. His head smacked onto the edge of a steel food tray. On the ground, Angel was facing upward and blood was pooling out of his shattered skull, even from his eyes. The screaming I heard was not from any convict but a black guard who does not work in this cell house often. In fact, nearly all of the staff working Thursday were irregulars. Despite how a few of them were shocked and did not know what to do, a Code 3 was sent over the radios. A long time passed before anyone from the prison's Health Care Unit arrived. The first nurse to come on the scene was a woman many prisoners at Stateville oddly find attractive. She was as useless as the guards and let out an "Oh, my God." It was not until later that more competent nurses and then paramedics from an outside hospital tried to help.

I asked Steve if there was anything which could have been done and if he was dead on contact. He was no doctor but speculated that if the paramedics had immediately been there he may have lived on life support the rest of his years. He described how when they finally moved his head to wrap it, the skull fell apart and he could see brain matter. If he had a pulse before, he was then dead. A doctor from the prison actually tried opening his trachea because he was apparently drowning in blood. Thus, he was not killed immediately, although he was certainly not conscious despite the movement of his arm. The scene looked horrendous, but Steve did not think he endured any prolonged pain.

From other prisoners I learned the reason Angel committed suicide was because his girlfriend or wife told him she was moving to Texas along with their children. She had already told him of her plans before she visited him and I assume he just wanted to see her one last time. Women can be a source of much sorrow for incarcerated men. I cannot count the numerous times I have seen even the most hardened convicts disturbed when their girlfriend or wife separated with them. Some men have nothing but that relationship and when it is gone they are as well. I still remember a white man from the Cook County Jail who was desperately trying to save the relationship with his wife and children. He asked me to draw pictures of him with his family, as if this would make a difference. I told him he had to let go. "You are going to prison for many years. This is your world now and theirs is out there," I said to him, but he would not listen. Before he was sentenced, she had left him as I knew would happen eventually.

I wrote many girls over the two decades I have been incarcerated. However, I always broke things off after a period of time. I realize no woman can remain faithful and the relationship is doomed to fail. I made one exception to a pretty Scandinavian girl who promised to wait for me indefinitely. She seemed to have all the qualities I was looking for and I really wanted to see if things could work. I greatly enjoyed corresponding and talking to her on the phone. When she stayed in the U.S. during her summer breaks and I was able to see her were some of the best moments of my imprisonment. Eventually, though, I awakened from fantasy and told her to move on in her life without me. It was difficult and still years later I am bitter that we were never given a chance. This week I learned she had a baby and was in a relationship with a man. The news renewed my unhappiness. More than anything, however, I am angry. I am angry at an unjust system that has taken everything from me.

This morning a couple of chaplains were walking around. They were not the prison chaplains, but from an outside church. For some reason they stopped at my cell to talk to me and Anthony. I do not need any prayers or God in my life. I also care less for comforting small talk. I want justice. The man and woman were friendly people with good intentions, but they did not understand. I was not at all disturbed by the suicide and I have seen and I have been around much worse things. Most of my life has been a series of brutality, oppression and anguish. If I believed in an afterlife as these Christians do, I would have killed myself a long time ago. While in the Roundhouse I often contemplated taking a swan dive off the top gallery. However, then these twenty years of suffering would have been done in vain.