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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.