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Friday, April 4, 2014

The Question of Happiness -- Feb. 15, 2014

I am often confounded by how many prisoners at Stateville can be happy. They live under very austere and oppressive conditions. There is no meaning to their existence and the vast majority have sentences of LWOP or the equivalent. It is a slow, protracted, and miserable death sentence. Yet often I notice these condemned men appear to be content or even joyful. There is even plenty of humor and laughter. How can this be when I am so gloomy and bitter? A psychologist brought this to my attention this week, but it is something I have increasingly pondered for years.

On Monday, half of C House was permitted to shop. My gallery was the first to be sent to the prison store and we left before 8 a.m. Inmates were excited to spend the money family or friends sent to them on various items, but particularly coffee, sweets, and other snacks. How much joy could some honey buns or potato chips give a man? The food served in the penitentiary is distasteful and regularly unhealthy. I also prefer not to go to chow if possible. However, despite this, I was not jubilant to be at the store. I limited myself to meals I could substitute for those served in the chow hall and were not overly priced. Although some men spent a hundred or more dollars, I bought a mere twenty and left the commissary building as soon as possible.

Close to 10 a.m., chow was announced over the cell house loudspeaker. Prisoners once again were very loud and excited. They shouted to one another from their cells and when walking down the stairs. On the menu was burgers, but I did not see any reason to be happy about it. It was not ground round nor were they even made with any beef. They were turkey-soy burgers fried in grease. The huge oven in the kitchen was broken and all food was being boiled or fried this week. The thin burger did not come with cheese, tomato, onion, or any condiments. It was just plain with bread and if I recall correctly there was some lettuce. I brought my processed turkey-soy burger back to the cell to run water over it and attempt to wring out as much grease as possible before eating it.

On days commissary lines are run, the noise in the cell house is much greater. As I read about master limited partnerships in a Barron's  newspaper, I listened to cassette tapes on my Walkman. The headphones I typically use were taken by the counselor this week to be shipped back to the company to be repaired. In their stead, I had to use ear buds which continually slipped out of my ears. Eventually, I crushed some toilet paper to stuff in my ears to not only keep them from falling out, but to muffle the noise in the building. Despite this, I still occasionally heard shouts including from one obnoxious prisoner yelling, "Send me something!" Every commissary day, he will shout to his fellow gang members for charitable contributions. His demands can be amusing if I am not attempting to focus on anything because they remind me of all the free loaders on government aide who expect "something" for nothing. However, on this day he was quite annoying and I turned up the volume on my radio.

At night the clamor in the unit began to fade as men increasingly were preoccupied by television programming. Television can be the greatest source of entertainment for prisoners at maximum security institutions. My cellmate will watch numerous hours of TV every day and even has a subscription to not one but two TV guides, despite how men at Stateville do not get even one fifth of the listings. Guards made him and about ten other prisoners very unhappy when they decided to search some cells during prime time television. While standing in the cell house holding cage for nearly a half hour, I overheard a few men complain they were going to miss the ending of a TV show called "The Following".

Overnight temperatures dropped to -20 and I did not expect yard lines to be run in the morning. It was sunny, but news stations still reported negative temperatures across the Chicago metro area. Because I had turned in my sweat shirt, pants, and thermals to be washed I did not go outside. The thin jacket prisoners are supplied was not nearly adequate for the brutal cold and therefore I exercised as usual in the cell. Later a biker was to ask me why I did not go outside. He was the only white person on the yard and I suspect he was lonely. Bone is very talkative to the point of being annoying. He did not as much want someone to lift weights with but to talk to.

At noon I had a pass to see the psychologist and as usual I waited a long time in the cell house as well as at the Health Care Unit's holding cage. The cage in the H.C.U. was packed and numerous men spoke over each other to be heard. I went to the back where I planned to stare out one of the narrow windows, but was addressed by a prisoner who said he recognized me from 20 years ago at a different penitentiary. I was skeptical at first because of how much older and different I now look, but he remembered details no one could have known. He recalled how my hair was lighter and I was much more muscular. He also spoke about my cellmate at the time in great detail as well as his own. I remembered his cellmate Motorhead and was surprised to learn he was in prison for the brutal beating and rape of an 8-year-old girl. He had told me he had a murder case, but almost all prisoners with child offenses will lie.

In the psychologist's office, the subject of my own conviction was brought up. Like many people she could not understand how my co-defendant could be acquitted of the murder but I was held accountable for his actions and on top of that given the most severe criminal penalty. I had to explain to her that we had separate juries and my jury was not aware Faraci was let go two days earlier. I also had to explain how at the time the media and state's attorneys office depicted me to the public as the prime suspect of a mass murder at a Brown's Chicken and Pasta Restaurant in Palatine, Illinois.

I assume the psychologist was interested in the subject because this was probably our last meeting. The provider of health care for prisoners at Stateville was hiring a couple of extra mental health care staff and the case loads of the two current psychologists will be shuffled. The new staff will not be technically psychologists but LPNs. These employees have less education and clinical experience, but they are of course cheaper to hire. Wexford is increasingly relying on LPNs to do more work in the IDOC. I did not like the idea of having a psychologist with less capability or authority. Already, the current staff has little to no understanding of autism and they generally are not helpful.

Before I left the psychologist's office, she asked me about the prisoner who committed suicide and how I felt about it. It was an ambiguous question and I asked her to be more specific. I was told just to begin talking about it and she will direct my monologue. I made the mistake of saying that I believed he made a rational decision based on his circumstances. Given a choice between being miserable for an untold number of years and a quick death, the latter was preferable. In fact, I would have killed myself a long time ago if I believed in a hereafter as Garcia did. This was not something you admitted to a prison psychologist because they have the power to put you in the "butt naked room." However, unlike most people, I have little deceptive ability and tend to speak with brutal honesty.

I was not isolated in a barren cell without any clothes, but the psychologist definitely wanted to probe my thoughts. One of the more interesting questions I was asked is why many other incarcerated men at Stateville did not share my view that it was better to be dead than to suffer in prison indefinitely. As a follow-up question, she asked if I had not noticed how most prisoners seemed much less despondent and unhappy as me. I am not the best person to interpret feelings, but I had to admit I saw a disparity. At the time I mentioned that a great deal of this is probably correlated to our backgrounds. Those middle and particularly upper class people who are condemned to prison for the rest of their lives have lost a lot more and thus their grief is greater as well. Most of the population at Stateville came from the ghetto or other poor neighborhoods. However, I had just scratched the surface of the matter and throughout this week I continued to dwell on the matter.

For dinner, prisoners were fed barbecued friend chicken and if readers thought turkey-soy burgers excited the men at Stateville, they would be astonished by the reaction to BBQ bird. As chow lines were about to be run, I mentioned to my cellmate we should be careful not to get in the way of the African-Americans and their fried chicken. It was ridiculous and one may think the kitchen was serving steak and lobster. Even if men were regularly served good meals, I did not see how this could make prisoners not only complacent but happy.

When I was a teenager I read a book on psychology that went over Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs". According to the psychologist, there was a pyramid of needs all people strive for. At the bottom were the basic necessities like food, shelter, and safety. When those were met, people sought out higher needs although not everyone was motivated to reach the pinnacle of their abilities. The majority of convicts at the prison were probably satisfied with having the lowest strata of these needs met whereas others needed to reach higher levels of achievement to be happy. Often I attempt to be productive and to having a meaningful existence in prison. I am highly goal orientated and speculated that because I could never attain "self actualization" in captivity, I would always be incredibly unhappy.

In the chow hall I sat with a full table of prisoners.  The main topic of discussion was "Colonel Bill". Colonel Bill was an old black man whose property was packed up on Monday.  After serving 40 years in prison, he was finally being released.  I asked my cellmate if he knew who he was and he said that he had seen him a few times in the cell house.  He rarely left his cell because he could not walk and was always moved around in a wheel chair.  At one time he was a robust soldier who served in the Vietnam War,  but now he was a cripple in his 70's who had major health problems. He doubted he would live another 3 years to serve out his parole.

The release of Colonel Bill spread like wild fire in the penitentiary. The following day when I went on a visit, I met various other men, staff and inmates included, from other cell houses who knew about it. While I thought being released in my 70's as a cripple was horrific, this brought great hope to many prisoners. I came to the realization that what made a lot of inmates more optimistic and cheerful was their belief that eventually one day they also would be released. They still had appeals yet to be filed or decided upon and even those that did not have any legal avenue dreamed of changes in the sentencing statutes which would be applied retroactively to them. The vast majority of these hopes were fanciful, however, they clung onto them. Contrarily, I am a realist. Despite my innocence, I know very well that most likely I will die in prison.

It was a state holiday limiting visits to one hour and my mother was still sick but she came to see me anyway. She wanted to tell me that hundreds of people were writing about my case on a website called "Reddit". Furthermore, my attorney recently sent her a message that she will soon be sending me a copy of the appeal she has been working on. I was very impressed by the number of people who were moved enough to discuss my prosecution at length on that website and I told my mother to send me a copy. I was told it would take almost a hundred pages to print the thousands of comments and because my mail is so slow I would not receive it until March. She was very happy about these developments, however, I was skeptical. I hope that many people sent letters to Governor Quinn in support of my request for executive clemency, but I knew it would be a very risky decision for him unless he waited until after the election and lost to a Republican opponent. As for my attorney, she has repeatedly told me "the check is in the mail". I have little faith in her and for the most part I think of myself as being without counsel. Even if she was not crying wolf yet again, a post conviction petition takes 5 years or longer to be adjudicated in Cook County. I may even be near my 50th birthday before I am released if my case must go through all the legal proceedings and continuances.

My cellmate was sleeping when I returned and this was just as well. I was in a sour mood and may have ranted about my conviction for an hour or longer. In retrospect, another reason that I am so angry and bitter is because I am innocent. When you have not committed any crime and yet are convicted anyway, you have an enormous amount of hate built up. The longer I languish in prison and grow older, the more this hatred grows. Many prisoners have been over sentenced, however, there are only a few who are innocent. Guilty prisoners do not feel the injustice and their time is generally easier to bear.

My cellmate eventually awakened to go out for dinner. When he inquired if I was going as well, I curtly told him no, and then made fun of him for waking up out of a sound sleep to get a meal. He regularly did this and I told him a fat dough boy like himself could afford to miss a chow line. He claimed that he was emotionally hurt by my mean spirited words, although I could tell he was playing. He then went on to say maybe I was not so unhappy because of being unable to fulfill Maslow's hierarchy of needs but because I was just simply an unhappy, grumpy person. I contemplated this and that may be true to some extent. Even before my arrest, I tend to believe most people probably thought I was serious and melancholic. Other teenagers seemed very immature to me. They seemed goofy, unfocused, and generally took life casually. Even men in their mid-20's could strike me as having the same attributes.

The following morning I was enjoying the relative peace and quiet before prisoners were stirred. It was abruptly ended when a man began yelling for a med tech. When guards did not respond about twenty other prisoners began shouting. This went on for about 10 minutes and I said to my cellmate, "Just let the man die." I could not understand why anyone at this prison would want to be resuscitated. I went on to tell Anthony that if I ever fallout from low blood sugar, a heart attack, or just accidentally splitting my skull when exercising because my back gives out, not to say anything until he knew I was dead. He said, "Like how you left Little Bobby?"  Bobby was my former cellmate who died in his sleep from a heart attack. I was not aware he was dead and may have been on the yard at the time. Regardless, my cellmate had jokes.

Humor is often a way people deal with a grim reality. Joking in prison can be akin to comic relief. Sometimes, I will engage in the same morbid or satirical humor myself, although people may not always recognize it. My jokes are often said or expressed flatly. I recall once a prisoner saying a minute after I made a joke that he finally got it and began chuckling before he went on to joke about how uncommon or imperceptible my humor was. Occasionally, my jokes are just for my own amusement and I care less if others recognize it. My prison psychologist may sometimes misinterpret the laughter and jokes of prisoners as demonstrating they are happy. However, this as well as how most people wear masks to conceal their true feelings, I suspect distorts perceptions. Not many people are as transparent and truthful as me.

Thursday, while in line at the chow hall, I could not help but make fun of all the drawings posted on the wall in support of Black history month, regardless of who was listening. To one prison worker I inquired if any of them were his masterpieces of art. Most of the drawings were ridiculous in their message or poorly drawn. I assume they were made during one of the volunteer programs they have at Stateville. Last week when I heard "black skills" announced over the loudspeaker, I had to ask my cellmate what that was. We came to the agreement it must be how to teach black people how to make crack, conduct stick-ups, and braid hair. Apparently, though, they also draw things as well.

Above the rudimentary needs at the base of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is social interaction and relationships. I was a nonsocial person and could do without any friendships. In fact, while many prisoners would be greatly disturbed to be in solitary confinement, I would enjoy it. I could go years without speaking to anyone and not be bothered. What bothers me is being in a cell house with over 300 people stacked on top of each other. However, it seems many prisoners like this. African-Americans make up over 3/4's the population at Stateville. Because many know each other from neighborhoods in Chicago and have the same cultural background, it helps them form friendships and makes life much more comfortable for them. This may in part explain why they can be so happy or more content than a Caucasian who is a tiny minority and has little appreciation for socialization.

This week I finally read the book "The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum" by Temple Grandin. Most of what she wrote I already knew or suspected. However, it once again reminded me of the problems many people with autism have and how these are made incredibly worse in prison. Most men will agree life in a maximum security penitentiary is miserable, but for those with ASD it can be torturous at times. I do not just dislike prison, I hate it. Physical pain is nothing compared to the mental anguish I experience due to having autism.

Like most Thursday nights, I will watch an episode of the TV show "House". Despite being reruns, I still greatly enjoy the program. In this episode a patient was found to be using cough syrup to dull his intelligence. The man was extremely brilliant, but apparently it made him depressed. Ironically, he would rather be dumb than a genius. Sometimes I wonder if instead of having autism I could simply be an idiot. If I were retarded, I could just be oblivious to how wretched my existence was and drool on myself with a smile. Retards do not dwell on all their hopes and dreams being crushed or their inability to attain self actualization. They are not even aware of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Ignorance is bliss and (ending removed by editor).