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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.