You are reading a rare, detailed account of everyday life in Stateville Prison.

Click to read Paul's blog quoted on:
To contact Paul, please email:
or write him at the address shown in the right column. He will get your message personally.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Prison Photos -- Nov. 16, 2013

Before the turn of the century, prisoners were allowed to have photos taken of themselves, their families and also friends. The Polaroids were taken by inmates who worked for the Leisure Time Service Dept. during inmate visits and on special occasions for a small fee. The money earned was put in the inmate trust fund. This practice was phased out at maximum and then many medium security prisons. The only photos now taken at these institutions are yearly mugshots. For several months, the Bureau of Identification ceased taking pictures and there were rumors the IDOC was going to discontinue updates. Afterall, the other information kept on prisoners is outdated and the photos that security personnel most cared about were those of men who are considered extreme escape risks. Last week, those prisoners finally had their pictures updated and I thought there would be no more for the rest of the year. However, this week everyone in C House was sent to the B of I. Because of various problems with the digital camera, the process took nearly the entire week.

In the 1990's, pictures were taken in the visiting room unless the penitentiary was on lockdown. Men who went on a visit could have their picture taken with family, friends, or anyone who came to see them. Most prisons had a backdrop where photos could be taken, although it did not have to be used. Prisoners taking the photos were not photographers and the Polaroids generally did not come out too well. If a photo was really bad, the inmate worker would take another without further payment. The photos were not paid for in cash but with coupons. Cash has never been allowed in the IDOC that I am aware of. Coupons were purchased by visitors in the waiting room or inmates bought them at the prison store. Coupons could be used to buy not only photos but various other things offered by Jaycees such as microwave popcorn, pizza, or soda pop. A few "old timers" will still occasionally mention how it was nice to be able to buy a cold soda from the Jaycee shack on a hot day on the yard.

In modern times, photo taking has seemed to greatly increase with the advent of smart phones and social networking. Many people will even take what is called "selfies" at any time or for any occasion. I have never liked photo taking because I do not know how to pose for a picture or I do not want to. It seems artificial for me to pose and I am not good at faking expressions. What you see is generally what you get. This is why there are few photos of me in my teens before my arrest. I did not even bother taking a picture for my high school yearbook. After my conviction it was also rare for me to have Polaroids taken with family or the few former girl friends who came to see me. Unfortunate because now I do not have that opportunity and without a present or future, I regularly reminisce about the past. Mugshots do not have any context except to show how I have aged throughout the years.

Last week when being escorted back to the cell house, I noticed a line of "Level E's." A Level E is a prisoner deemed an extreme escape risk. The letter "E" stands for escape. These men are identifiable because of the green stripe on their pants or jacket. They also have blue state shirts with patches of green on the shoulders and upper back. There are only a few assigned cells in my cell house, but there are about 40 at this penitentiary. For the most part, those prisoners are no more an escape risk than others in maximum security and are used to justify more funding. For example, "Doc" who died the week of Halloween was in his mid-70's. He was a Level E until just a couple of years ago. He could barely walk let alone run from the police. I recall just after they reduced his security classification that he tried playing a game of basketball. Prisoners joked that if Internal Affairs saw him on the cameras they would rescind the reclassification. However, after a few minutes of very slow play, he almost fainted. Then men joked that if he died they would take his gym shoes, watch and newly issued clothing.

I assumed the Bureau of Identification would not be closed completely. Prisoners occasionally lost their ID cards and new ones had to be printed. Furthermore, those considered extreme escape risks by security personnel would need to have their photos updated occasionally. For the rest of general population, however, there did not seem to be any purpose in regular annual updates. Most men looked the same from year to year and I noticed the physical description of convicts never changes on master files or is inaccurate. For example, when I was 20 my hair was dark blond but is now brown. My master file says oddly that I have strawberry blond hair and green eyes. My hair has never had any tint of red and my eye color is blue. I may be 180 pounds currently, but at the time I was sent to the penitentiary I was probably about 200. Prisoners can be in the IDOC for decades, however, the information about them never changes even if it was inaccurate to begin with.

Since spring, I have noticed a sign on the B of I office saying "closed." To my knowledge, no mugshots were being taken during this time period. I recall a few prisoners losing their ID or having an ID which did not have an opening to pull a clip through. Guards going on their lunch break or at other times of convenience when at gate 5 would stop by the office to have a new ID printed up or their current ID punched. Prisoners who have their IDs made at Stateville's NRC continued to be made, but they had no hole in them. Wearing IDs at Stateville is now mandatory. All prisoners must have them clipped to their collars or some other visible area. The closure of the B of I led some prisoners to believe photos would no longer be made yearly.

In the beginning of the week, I was surprised to hear an announcement for all convicts on 10 gallery to get ready to leave their cells for photo updates. I was going to wait to shave until after yard on Tuesday because of the below freezing temperatures, but decided to do so before photos. It is not often I have a picture taken and thought I should attempt to look nice. The mug shots are the only pictures my family has of me since Polaroids ceased to be taken well over a decade ago. When the prison is not on lockdown, razors are passed out on Saturday evenings and then collected an hour later. The razors have become cheaper and smaller every year and I cease to use them anymore. The last time I used one was on a humid and hot summer day and I nicked myself numerous times. While rinsing off my face, I had a sink of blood tinted water. Thus, I use my electric triple head Norelco razor which is much friendlier to my face and neck. In the winter, I will usually keep a light beard and trim it once or every other week with a rechargeable Panasonic beard trimmer.

After shaving, I read a Barron's newspaper while I waited and listened to the Rush Limbaugh Show. I was waiting not only for the B of I line, but commissary. Monday was scheduled to be 6, 4, and 2 galleries turn to shop. All of 6 gallery was run and then most of 4. Close to 2:00, my cellmate and I were finally let out to go. We joined the remaining men who had not been to the commissary and even left the building before staff at the prison store called the cell house to say they were finished for the day. We were turned back and locked into our cells again. It was annoying to me because my entire day had been wasted or altered. Despite being a powerless prisoner, I try to plan my days and am bothered when things do not go the way I anticipated.

Overnight temperatures again dropped into the 20's and it was very cold in the cell house. Hot air blowers were activated in October, but on Sunday the one by my cell went out. The blowers are basically like radiators. They have coils of hot water pipes and a fan blows air through them. There was something apparently wrong with the pipe that either leads into or out of it. Plumbers on Wednesday came and repaired it, but in the days in between I was sleeping under two blankets and with plenty of clothes on. The main wall heat should be turned on next week and prisoners will then gripe about how hot it is. Without proper ventilation, hot air rises to the top of the large building roasting prisoners on the 5th floor. These men who were wearing thermals and sweat shirts will soon be in just their boxers and have their fans on.

Early Tuesday morning, prisoners who had not shopped were told to get ready. I was gone for 3 hours simply to pick up $30 of store. I would not have gone at all had I known that my entire morning would be lost and the irritations I would endure. Prisoners are obnoxious and loud almost always and the commissary holding rooms were no exception. I did not enjoy shopping before my arrest in crowded stores or malls in suburban towns where people acted civilized let alone with ghetto hoodlums at Stateville. The cashier at the window was polite and friendly, but for most of the time I just wanted to leave. At maximum security prisons, however, men have little freedom and I was trapped even after I received my purchases.

A prisoner geeked up on caffeine told a few men he had been able to buy discount sweatpants for only $3. This was a deal I had tried to get the last time I was at the prison store. However, I had already shopped and I could not go back to the window. I spoke to an old white man who had yet to get his order and tried to negotiate a trade if he would buy me the sweat pants. Pete is very slow physically and mentally but the man surprised me by telling me I had to give him a little something extra. Generally, this may make me angry particularly when I was already agitated by the noise and obnoxious people who had been around me a few hours. But, because it was Pete and I did not think he received any money from friends or family, I agreed. The trade never happened, though, because the only people getting those sweat pants were gang members or those who had connections at the commissary.

When I finally returned to my cell, I asked the guard about yard. My gallery was scheduled to go to the big yard Tuesday morning. He told me yard was already over with and those prisoners should be on their way back from the chow hall shortly. Unfortunate, I thought. After being locked in a couple of crowded rooms for hours, I wanted some space. I would have been happy to walk around the quarter mile track alone just for several laps. I then asked about the B of I lines. I was told the camera was not working properly. The tint was making some people look yellow. I mentioned how this did not seem to matter the last couple of times I had my photo taken. I almost had the complexion of Bart Simpson, a cartoon character from The Simpson's.

Once again my day was off kilter. After eating the chicken-soy patty in the lunch tray that was passed out to the men who went to commissary, I went to sleep. I napped until the shift change. With the renewed energy, I washed the floor, worked out, and then bathed out of the cell sink. I also washed a few articles of clothing and then wrote a letter until the DVD "Numbers Game" came on. John Cusack played a former CIA hit man until he began to have a conscience or just became burned out. He then was sent to a post in England which sent out codes for a network of spies and assassins. While he was there, a group of former government assassins tried to take it over to send out codes to kill the administrators who gave the orders. The film was far-fetched but entertaining enough to keep me awake until 10 p.m. when I prepared for another cold night of sleep.

Wednesday was mainly a day of writing and reading. I read a few newspapers and a mutual fund report put out by Fidelity. At night when I became tired, I looked for something to watch on television. There was a new DVD put on the prison's cable network but I only watched a few minutes. The Star Trek movie was a bad prequel and the degenerate morals of the original producer Gene Rodenberry were surpassed. In one of the first scenes a young Captain Kirk is in bed with some space aliens. Possibly, I should be glad they were at least female. However, instead, I watched an hour program of Bear Grylls. Except for lunch when I went to the chow hall to take my square of thin crust pizza to go, I did not leave the cell. The Bureau of Identification was still having problems fixing glitches with the digital camera and no one was sent to have their photo ID updated. A guard I spoke with implied there may not be any more photos until next week.

Thursday morning, however, I was one of about 100 prisoners in the hallway leading to the B of I. I took a spot near the door thinking those first in line would be first to leave. This was a false assumption as was my belief the process would go quickly. For over a half hour no names were shouted out and when photos began to be taken, it was not done with any speed. Usually, prisoners walked in and were out in less than a half minute. Not this time, and I waited and waited all the while wishing I had my ear plugs or was deaf. While other convicts jabbered loudly, I stood silent becoming more miserable and unhappy by the minute.

Eventually, my name was called and I quickly opened the door and sat down. Impatiently, I waited for the camera operator to click a button on the computer and tell me to turn to the left. The woman taking the photos, however, was on the phone and chit chatted casually for several minutes before taking my two mugshots.

Back in the crowded hallway, I worked my way towards the gate. There was no guard to escort a group of prisoners back to the cell house and I was trapped. I considered hiding in the bathroom despite how dirty and how much it stank until I was able to leave. Prisoners could not lock the bathroom and the door not only did not have a clasp but was only a frame from the waist upward providing little escape from the people outside. While waiting a former cellmate of mine from Joliet C.C. greeted me and began to tell me how much muscle mass I had lost over the years. Before he was able to continue to say the obvious, I was fortunate to join a group of other prisoners being escorted to the quarter unit.

Earlier today, I called my mother and mentioned how new mugshots were taken in the cell house. While we spoke, she went on the IDOC website to see my new photo. New IDs were passed out to prisoners upon their return from the B of I and thus, I already knew what I looked like. I also had the commentary of my cellmate who said I had an angry serial killer look. He jested that I could be a government assassin like in the John Cusack film "Numbers Game." "Didn't Cusack's character say he had Aspergers?" he asked, trying to make further similarities. My mother had my photo on her computer screen quicker than it was taken. From what she said, I do not think this mug shot is going in any family photo albums.