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Friday, April 25, 2014

March Madness -- March 22, 2014

The NCAA basketball tournament began this week to the excitement of many incarcerated men at Stateville. Basketball is their favorite sport and those who do not play it, greatly enjoy watching games on television. Not surprisingly, bracket sheets were abundant and many inmates filled them out in the hopes of winning commissary in organized pools or just for the mere entertainment value of it. There were 64 college teams excluding play-ins all competing to be the national champion. I watched a couple of games this week and will probably watch a few more in proceeding rounds, however, the tournament was only a minute preoccupation for me. There was other "March Madness" that caught my attention inside and outside the penitentiary.

On Sunday morning, I watched a few hours of political news programs. The main topic of discussion was Crimea's vote to split from the Ukraine or join Russia. The referendum was a ploy by the former to justify their seizure of the peninsula. During the Soviet era many Russians moved to the area and other ethnic groups were forcibly moved out or killed. Ethnic Russians currently make up a little over half the population, however, the numbers were irrelevant. Even if the people wanted to stay part of the Ukraine, this was not a ballot option and like many other elections, this one was rigged. The fate of Crimea was sealed and all people who wanted to stay under the governance of Kiev could do is flee. However, this was no guarantee with a Russian invasion of the entire country imminent.

Arizona Senator John McCain criticized the fraudulent election along with the negligence of the Obama administration. He spoke about how many actions could have been done before the crises in the Ukraine to deter Russian aggression. He also favored supplying the east European country with some meager assistance which would have no value if Russian forces invaded. I was humored by his comparison of Russia as a big gas station masquerading as an empirical power, however, it also trivialized the danger and America's obligation to protect Ukrainian territorial sovereignty. In 1994, the U.S. was a signature to the Budapest Convention which in exchange for the Ukraine giving up its nuclear arsenal, its borders including Crimea would be guaranteed.

Most of my day was spent writing, however, at 6 p.m. I turned my television on again and like many other prisoners watched the NCAA tournament configuration. For the first time, the teams in the competition were announced along with who they would play. My cellmate had a blank bracket sheet and busily filled in the 64 outer lines. After he finished, I spoke to him about Warren Buffet's pool which awarded $1 billion to anyone who could fill out a perfect bracket. Strangely, he had taken out an insurance policy to cover half the cost of a winner. The "Oracle of Omaha" had to know the odds were astronomical and he will reap an enormous profit. Anthony was under the impression it was much easier and Buffet was allowing people to play for free. His thinking was preposterous and I ridiculed him for his stupidity.

It was chilly in the cell house on the morning of St. Patrick's Day. The waffles on my breakfast tray were cold and I boiled water to make a steaming cup of instant coffee to pore over them along with a package of syrup. Since I have been at Stateville, breakfast trays have been passed out between 1 and 2 a.m. However, recently a prisoner won a lawsuit against the IDOC and the meals are now arriving an hour or two later. The court ruled in the inmate's favor not because of the ridiculous time breakfast was served, but because he has diabetes and is not able to take his insulin until about 5 a.m. Regardless, breakfast is always cold when I eat. The thin Styrofoam boxes do not retain heat long.

During my cell workout, I noticed Internal Affairs had rushed in the building and frisked inmate workers before searching some cells on the gallery above mine. One worker had a bracket sheet on him and initially I thought the security unit wanted to put a damper on March Madness, but later I learned otherwise. According to what I was told, a snitch who had recently went to protective custody told on a prisoner who was fixing televisions and radios. He had a set of interchangeable screwdrivers to open the electronics. At Stateville, there is no repair shop and thus a few men will open up business themselves if they have the skills and tools. There is a lot of demand to repair broken TVs and radios and repairmen can make a good hustle. Security personnel, however, do not like prisoners being able to tamper with electronics and the man sent to Segregation may have been written a disciplinary ticket not only for dangerous contraband, but a weapons violation.

Later in the morning, I went to the chow hall to pocket some food to bring back to the cell to eat at yet again a more reasonable hour. There was nothing special being served for St. Patrick's Day but there were some holiday stickers up. I asked my cellmate who was standing beside me in line which of them our neighbor would most like for a tattoo. Our neighbor goes by the name Leprechaun and he is a short Irish man with balding orange hair. I mentioned he could not get the 4 leaf clover because it was a symbol used by the Aryan Brotherhood, but the pot of gold tattooed on his butt would be humorous and not potentially get him stabbed. Anthony thought any of the decals including "Irish Pride" would be funny if put on his ass. At the chow table, Leprechaun was not amused when we asked him his preference. He seemed grumpy and I inquired if it was because he did not have his Lucky Charms for breakfast. No, he was pouting about Stateville being the only penitentiary in Illinois without cable.

Although letters were still behind a month, I received my subscription to Barron's timely on Monday. The newspaper is rather thick and has an abundance of financial data that I sifted through for a few hours at a table near the cell bars. One article which caught my attention was that Russia dumped nearly a billion dollars worth of U.S. Treasuries. The writer concluded it was not meant to destabilize the dollar but to prevent the money from being frozen by economic sanctions. However, despite how this demonstrated Russia was not going to relinquish control over the Crimea and was contemplating a larger invasion, he insinuated this was unlikely due to economic repercussions. Oil and gas exports were over half of government revenue. Since troops were sent into the peninsula, the Ruble had plummeted and it had to be propped up with $28 billion in currency reserves and the central bank increased interest rates  1.5%. Furthermore, with Moscow's stock market falling, Putin's oligarchs had lost roughly $18 billion. I have news for the Barron's editorial board: The president of Russia has already fully calculated the cost of war and the addition of Crimea and the rest of the Ukraine was well worth it. Unlike the international business community, Putin places national interests first.

Worse than the reaction of international business was that of the U.S. President. For weeks, I have thought he lost his mind, but Monday night I heard news of his four minute statement in response to Crimea's referendum to join Russia which made me think he was literally mad. Barack Obama was placing 7 travel and asset restrictions on Russians who had no plans to come to America or any money in the country. This rightfully elicited laughter and mockery in Moscow. Some Russian leaders even wondered if the U.S. President's public statement was written by a prankster and the Duma to return the joke agreed in a vote that it should be sanctioned as well. Obama's minute and meaningless response to the seizure of Crimea and military forces about to roll over east Europe was true madness.

Tuesday morning another prisoner's property was packed up for Seg in front of the sergeant's office. I thought it may be connected with the small raid by I.A. the previous day but was mistaken. A prisoner was found in possession of hooch. Hooch is a disgusting wine made by inmates with fermented juice and or fruit. Later when I went out on my visit I learned that guards discovered it in a cell occupied by a "Level E". It was rather dumb of any convict deemed an extreme escape risk to have hooch in their cell. Their cells were searched once a week or sometimes even more often.

My visit was abruptly cut short when guards stormed into the room and yelled for everyone to leave. The only explanation was the penitentiary had been placed on lockdown. Inmates were quickly strip searched and then brought to gate 5 to be escorted back to their living units. There was a great amount of noise and chaos in the hallway and a usually very polite and soft spoken female guard began to blow a whistle in an attempt to restore some order. She was unable to get command of the situation, but there were about 50 other guards and 10 lieutenants who corralled prisoners. In the cell house I was expecting to learn something serious and requiring urgent lock-up had occurred. However, the prison was simply on lockdown due to the electric power being on the fritz and a backup system was being used.

Tuesday was election day and there were a few key primary races I was interested in. During the evening, I went back and forth from WGN, a local TV news station, to WLS news radio. Depending on the subject or a commercial, I simply switched my ear buds from an extension leading to my television or the Walkman I had beside me. At 7:30 p.m. the backup power went out for an hour and left me with just radio news. Although the electricity was out, I still had batteries for my cheap Chinese made radio-cassette player. In the darkness, my cellmate joked that possibly the Russians had taken out America's electric grid before a first strike. He was referring to a Russian news anchor who had bellicosely remarked on air that Russia was the only country which could make the U.S. a nuclear ash heap. Going along with Anthony's joke, I said, "If true, I bet Obama will continue to say it's not too late for diplomacy as Russia's nuclear missiles are minutes away from touching down." Mimicking the U.S. President's voice and pretending I was on the phone with Vladimir Putin I said, "You know we can still talk this out. This is not the way 21st century countries settle their disputes." In the war room, ICBMs were monitored on the big screen by nervous Pentagon officials and Obama changed his tone and said, "You realize there will be serious consequences to your actions. If you do not turn those missiles around, I am going to void your visa and there will be no G8 summit!"

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn won easily to Tio Hardiman and was announced the winner early in the night. However, the Republican primaries were more difficult. Unions had given millions of dollars to fund Kirk Dillard's campaign. They also had organized voters in Chicago who were Democrats to take Republican ballots. The money and crossover voting created a closer than expected race. Fortunately, Bruce Rauner still won and will attempt to unseat Quinn in the general election in November.

Before Rauner was even declared the victor, I watched an attack ad already out against him. Pat Quinn was setting the stage for a class warfare campaign. In the commercial, Rauner is quoted as saying he is against raising the minimum wage and then Quinn's new running mate Paul Vallas talked about the need for more funding of public education. The lieutenant governor was deliberately chosen because of his credentials for being the Chief of Chicago Public Schools. Personally, I thought this was a bad decision because of how terribly dysfunctional they were, however, there was this public perception that throwing more money at a problem will eventually fix it. This was a great misconception and the money will simply be wasted. There was also no need for pre-K schooling and it is just a government sponsored day care program.

The running mate for Bruce Rauner was also a calculated political decision. Evelyn Sanguinetti introduced him for his victory speech in Spanish to apparently court Chicago's growing Mexican population. She told the audience and television crews that Rauner was going to shake up Springfield and bring back Illinois. He sought term limits for career politicians, and to raise opportunities and prosperity in the state. Bruce Rauner then took the stage to chants of "Bruce, Bruce, Bruce!" He attacked the governor's record of increasing taxes, driving business out, and having the country's 2nd highest unemployment rate. He then went about undermining Vallas by stating numerous children were trapped in failing schools in Chicago.

The electric power at Stateville was fixed before I went to sleep and in the morning the prison was off lockdown. There were normal operations and school, library, and barbershop lines were run. I did not go to any of these nor did I go to the shower room or chow hall as my cellmate did. Later my neighbor returned from the barber school with a bald head. He must have become tired of the Leprechaun jokes but now he looked like Dr. Evil's Mini-Me in the movie Austin Powers. I told him to dance and sing "It's a hard knock life". His cellmate who is a foot taller than him and also sports a bald head came by and it made the joke even funnier. It was Dr. Evil and Mini-Me. Anthony said Hooch should carry Leprechaun on his shoulders.

For dinner the prison was serving pizza and I walked down the corridor of cyclone fencing and razor wire to get myself a slice. The lieutenant I commonly have political discussions with was standing just inside the chow hall. I asked him if he voted for Bruce Rauner which got a frown from him but caused a couple of other lieutenants nearby to start laughing. He probably was already complaining about the Republican candidate who was staunchly opposed by the guards' union, AFSCME. Rank and file state union members may not be so supportive of Governor Quinn's reelection, however. On election day, I asked a guard if he voted and he was apathetic. He did not care for either Rauner or Quinn who signed legislation cutting pension benefits.

When I returned to the cell, I turned on WLS expecting to hear Sean Hannity, however, his show had been replaced by Rick Savage. I have not formed an opinion about Savage, but I did like the heavy metal he played on his program. Sound bites off of Motley Crue's first album and Metallica were used regularly. On Wednesday he was making fun of Obama for seeking to defund the military after Russia just annexed the Crimea and was seeking to gobble up more of Europe. He also ridiculed Vice President Biden for saying America will protect its eastern allies. "With what?" he asked. "A water gun?"

Thursday morning, the SORT rushed into the cell house. Six were dressed in full tactical gear and bright orange jumpsuits, but two were in plain clothes. They went up the stairs to the 3rd and 4th galleries. Not long thereafter, I saw Juan Luna, Puppet, Moon, and a few other prisoners come down the stairs in handcuffs behind their backs. My cellmate speculated I.A. had received Intel that the Latin Kings may be up to some mischief. I did not think Luna was a King, but his cellmate Serianno may be. Later after questioning, they were all brought back except him. He was sent to Segregation or transferred, however, I am uncertain as to the reason. More important to me at the time was the Orange Crush had turned off the water and I could not use the toilet. Plumbing was not restored to the cell house until noon.

The prison was kept on lockdown the entire day making a number of inmates unhappy. Many had waited to the last minute to turn in their NCAA Tournament brackets. I suspected pools in other cell houses were also short and those who made their picks early will only receive a small reward if they win. Barack Obama, however, made his bracket a priority. Even with Russia threatening east Europe, there was always time for basketball. On one news program I heard the President beat 75% of those who submitted brackets. Unfortunate that he was not as good or interested in global affairs. This was amusingly portrayed in a political cartoon I saw recently where Obama is making out his picks and an adviser has to tell him he may want to take Crimea off.

Yesterday, Stateville was taken off lockdown and towards the end of the first shift the warden as well as an assistant made rounds in the cell house. The assistant listened to my neighbor "Mini-Me" complain about the cable for 5 to 10 minutes. Later I asked him if he made the argument that he was being racially discriminated against. My silly neighbor had filed a grievance saying the satellite stations selected were racist because administrators chose Black Entertainment Television and he could not watch ice hockey anywhere. No, he did not make this argument to the assistant warden in person, but he ranted on and on to me about it. Why do all the black prisoners get to watch game after game of basketball and he cannot see a single Black Hawks game? I told him he was nuts. Over 3/4's of prisoners are African-American and he thought the administration should cater to his desire to watch hockey?

Prisoners were rather rambunctious earlier today before I began writing this post. Throughout the morning, they shouted obscenities at staff to fix the water. The building had no hot water and in fact a guard told me the entire prison was without it due to a "situation" in X House. He never explained what the situation was but the lieutenant yelled up to convicts that he was working on the water. To this he was told to "work on these nuts!" which got some laughter from the peanut gallery. In the chow hall, a tour of college students walked through the outer hallway. Some were young attractive women and a big black man with a crazy beard slammed himself up against a clear Plexiglas door as they walked by. I could not see their expressions, but they may have thought he was looney.

To end off a week of March Madness, I was just recently told a prisoner died a day before his release. In December, he was taken to an outside hospital after doctors at the penitentiary's Health Care Unit discovered he had gangrene in his feet. On Christmas Day, his feet were amputated, however, apparently it had spread. Thursday, he finally succumbed to the disease, one day before his out date 3/21/14. With my appeal yet to be brought into court and it being far from a slam dunk, I wonder if I may ultimately die before I can prove my innocence. Just like the NCAA basketball tournament, there are many games to be played and even the top seeded teams are not guaranteed to win.