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Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Prison Cell -- April 19, 2014

In maximum security prisons, incarcerated men spend the vast majority of their time in their cells. Lockdowns are frequent and can occasionally last months. Unlike medium or minimum penitentiaries, there are no dorms or day rooms where inmates can walk out of their cells to spend some time. Furthermore, jobs and programs are greatly limited. When there are normal operations, yard lines are run twice a week for 2 hours and these yards usually just consist of a couple of basketball courts. An extra "recreation" period has been added for part of the year, but this is only a couple times a month. There are a variety of religious services, although most convicts only attend these to socialize and escape the confines of their cells. Even for men who are not as reclusive as me, the prison cell dominates their lives.

My cell is 6 x 11 feet with a 7-1/2 foot high ceiling. On average, it is a larger cell than most in the maximum security prisons of Illinois. Other than the former death row, cells in X House are 5 by 10 feet, the same as those in the Roundhouse, although they have a slight wedge shape due to the buildings' circular configuration. Pontiac correctional Center has a city block long building which is almost identical in design as the one I reside in and thus the cell parameters are the same. The penitentiary also has an older long house which has 5 x 10 foot cells. Although Menard Correctional Center has various living units, it has some of the smallest cells in the IDOC. The North and South cell houses have 4 x 10 foot cells. "North 1" is infamously known amongst convicts. The cells in the unit are referred to as coffins and men can barely walk from the front to the back because there is less than a foot of space between the bunk and the wall.

All of the cells in maximum security now house two men except for a few galleries in Pontiac Segregation. For me, a cellmate is oftentimes a greater punishment than being in Seg. While at Pontiac, some guards could not understand that I voluntarily remained there and refused to leave. Eventually, I was tricked to give up my one man cell by being told I was being transferred to a medium security prison. Instead, I was bused to Stateville where I have been ever since. Stateville was the last maximum security penitentiary I wanted to go to for various reasons, however, mostly because I knew I would be assigned horrible cellmates. Fortunately, after some rough times and a couple of fights, I have someone who I can get along with.

My current cellmate is one of the best I have had while at Stateville and hopefully I will not have to roll the dice for another any time soon. Some readers may think he is a terrible person because of what they have read about his conviction and aggravating factors at sentencing, however, they have no clue what my alternatives are. For example, there is a hoodlum celled galleries above me who is continually yelling. I have never met the man but just by listening to him, I know he is a very stupid, annoying, and loathsome person. Initially, I thought prisoners called him by the name of a Star Wars character played by actor Harrison Ford. However, it soon became apparent they were not calling him "Solo" as in Hans Solo or just a person who was a loner, but "So Low". Earlier this week, I heard So Low shouting he was being transferred and I am glad there will be one less loudmouth in the quarter unit, however, I know he will just be replaced by another obnoxious, low-life, if not immediately, eventually.

Before the turn of the millennium, prisoners could muffle some of the noise in the cell house from convicts like So Low. Thick curtains were made which were draped across the bars. Floor rugs and various furnishings also prevented sound from echoing. However, now cells must be left barren. Nothing can be attached to walls and they are an unadorned, mottled grey with patches where paint has pealed leaving exposed concrete. Most prisoners at Stateville violate the restrictions to at least put up a mirror, some hooks, and extension or cable cords. Despite these things, cells look drab and austere.

The majority of cells in maximum security are void of any permanent fixtures except for a double bunk, a sink-toilet combination, and a light. Decades ago there was only one single bunk per cell, but due to the exponentially growing prison population, a second bunk was welded above it. The bunks are 2-1/2 x 6 feet causing my feet to hang off a little if I lay out straight. More bothersome, however, is how narrow in width they are. I frequently roll or change positions in my sleep and now must do so without going to the left or the right. Being accustomed to king or queen sized beds, I regularly fell off the narrow bunk in the Cook County Jail. Hitting the concrete a few times helps a person adjust quickly, but I still sleep with great difficulty.

I tend to think most readers can easily visualize the sink-toilet combination due to how common they are in jails and prisons across the U.S.  Even if one has never had the honor to visit one of these facilities, they have probably seen them on television or at the movie theatre. The plumbing unit is made out of stainless steel and connected to the back wall. In the maximum security prisons of Illinois, it is used for multiple purposes other than what is normal outside these walls including bathing and washing clothes. Instead of levers or dials, the sink and toilet are controlled by buttons. These buttons regularly break and since I have been in this cell, they have had to be repaired several times. Despite this, my hot water continues to dribble water so slow that it will take a full minute to fill a 20 oz. mug.

Except in the middle of night, the tap water does not get hot enough to cook even a Ramen noodle. Prisoners will thus use a variety of means to heat meals or coffee including electric, fire, and the heat emitted from their lamp. My cellmate commonly places a bottle of water on his upturned lamp to make himself hot coffee. The incandescent light bulb, however, has ceased to be sold in prison possibly due to federal mandates to phase it out in favor of more expensive and purportedly more environmentally friendly CFL's or LED lights. There are also rumors the prison administration wants to eliminate them to prevent prisoners from using the glass as a flimsy weapon. Regardless, I use an electric device and when I can, I have a cell house worker microwave my water. This week, I have repeatedly used Bob as a gofer to bring me steaming hot water. A perk of being a cell house worker is being able to use the guards' microwave oven and before Bob is sent to a medium security penitentiary, I plan to get the most out of him.

Some cells in the quarter units have a counter, table, and or stool. The table is near the bars next to the bunk beds. It is approximately 2-1/2 feet wide and 1-1/2 feet deep. Like the counter, it is bolted to the wall and made of steel. The steel was rusting and did not make a good surface to read or write on. My cellmate and I sanded the corroded metal before painting it and then adding a few layers of wax. The counter top which is on the opposing wall of the table took a lot more work not only because it is longer but has a shelf underneath it. The shelf is divided and on my side I keep a broken clear plastic radio, mug, and a roll of toilet paper. Anthony has a pair of gym shoes, a few books, some clothes, a plastic spoon, and a couple of rolls of his own toilet paper.

The table in our cell has no stool to compliment it and instead we sit on a property box. This week I used the table to read newspapers and a couple of corporate reports. I also made new stock charts which incorporate various information including price to earnings growth (PEG) ratios. To block out the cacophony of noise from the cell house, I stuffed ear buds in my ears along with some toilet paper. On one day, I became bored listening to my cassette tapes and the few radio stations I was able to pick up. I sent my neighbor an extension to connect me to his radio which has much better reception. Hooch and his cellmate listen to K-Hits 104.3 FM, a radio station that plays mostly light rock music from the 1980s. It is a bit mellow for my tastes, but played songs from a few classic bands like Journey, Fleetwood Mac, and Duran Duran. I also listened to a song by Banarama called "Cruel Summer" which caused me to stop my work and think about a girl I dated over two decades ago. There have been many more than just one cruel summer.

The counter top typically goes unused by my cellmate and I. The only time I had a purpose for it this week was to make us a meal. With commissary food, I made 4 burritos to go with the prison DVD "Pale Rider". I have seen the Clint Eastwood movie numerous times, but thought I would watch it again without the annoyance of commercials. Both my cellmate and I have our own televisions. His has a 15" flat screen that is tied to a vent above his bunk and rests on a thin cardboard shelf glued to the back wall. My TV is an older 13" RCA which I have squeezed between a horizontal bar and the upper bunk. Their positioning is not only the most convenient location for us, but keeps the counter and table free for other purposes.

Occasionally, guards and other staff will remark how clean and orderly our cell is. Most convicts at Stateville leave a lot of property out and in a disorganized fashion. I hate clutter and along with ASD, I probably have a mild case of OCD where everything must be in its proper place. With other cellmates, I have had arguments about moving their property or even tossing it in the garbage, but Anthony does not seem to mind. He is allowed to keep anything he wants on his shelf, but nothing can remain on the sink, table, counter, or main area of the floor. In addition to keeping our shared areas clear of clutter, I clean them nearly every day. Sometimes to annoy or have fun, my cellmate will intentionally put something in the wrong spot or throw garbage on the floor realizing it will eventually bother me to such a degree that I will put it away or discard the item.

Prisoners have two property boxes made of thick plastic and with sliding lids. The smaller of the two boxes, I currently have on my mattress next to me. The lid is fully extended and I am using it as a table to write on. Every now and then my cellmate will drop down from his bunk during breaks of a PBS mystery marathon to say, "Dear diary..." He knows I am writing a post and likes to make fun of my blog writing. In any event, this box is roughly two feet in length and is one foot deep and wide. Inside, I keep all my folders, magazines and books. Recently, I had to make room for a new book someone sent me from the publisher called No Longer a Slumdog. Apparently, it is a story set in the slums of India with a Christian theme. I appreciate people who send me letters and books, however, this is not a book that appeals to my interests or values and have contemplated discarding it. A better book to send me would have been on Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi who will most likely become India's new president next month after decades of socialist dysfunction.

The large property box is 3 x 2 feet with the same depth as the other. Because of its dimensions, it would fit perfectly side by side with my cellmate's large box underneath the bunk. However, gussets prevent us from being able to pull them out. Therefore, I keep my box turned the opposite direction and keep the lid off unless we both leave the cell. The lid I leave upright against the bars and occasionally hang wet clothing on it to dry. Prisoners in the IDOC once were allowed to use clothing lines and in the 1990s I always had 3 or 4 going across the cell near the ceiling. However, this like the curtains, furniture, and etc. is now verboten. The only line I currently have is well hidden underneath the counter and is seldomly used. I do not know how the administration expects prisoners to dry clothes. Unlike medium or minimum security prisons, there is no place we can go to use a washing machine or dryer. Our dirty clothes are put in mesh laundry bags and must remain in the cell until they are picked up on wash day.

Like my cell, my property box is clean and meticulously ordered. I recall a guard once commenting upon searching the cell, it was way too immaculate and seemed to insinuate this made it suspicious. He was a good humored correctional officer and I miss him being reassigned elsewhere in the penitentiary. My property box is sectioned with cardboard that I get from the writing tablets I buy from the commissary. There is a section for clothes, hygiene items and food. There are also divisions between them to separate the three categories further. For example, my white underwear, socks and T-shirts are folded in a subdivision next to my blue and grey colored clothes. Within these subdivisions are also containers such as peanut butter jars and oatmeal boxes. Each jar is marked on top and has a different food product inside. There is a jar of instant coffee, mixed nuts, refried beans, instant rice, etc. I like having my boxes ordered like this because I can easily find whatever I am looking for.

A prison cell house worker happened to walk by when I had my large property box pulled out and he took note of what was in the "vault". Reggie was only joking but this is another example of what little privacy prisoners have. Without curtains, any passerby can see what you have and what you are doing. Later, I had to return the workers humor while he was wiping the dust off of every gallery bar. I told him he is doing such a great job that I am going to write a letter of recommendation to the governor so he could pad his resume when he asks for parole.  Reggie is in his mid-40's and he has dreams of the 50/25 law being passed. Prisoners on Monday received copies of Stateville Speaks, a newsletter put out by a prison rights advocate, Bill Ryan, and Northeastern Illinois University's Justice Studies program. In it, they went on and on about the bill which has yet to be voted on and may never become law. It was somewhat cruel to give all these convicts false hope, but at the same time amusing.

None of the jobs or programs offered at Stateville are likely to impress the Prisoner Review Board. For example, wiping off bars, sweeping and mopping floors, picking up trash and disposing of it can be done by anyone. Having a cell house help job is not going to teach any marketable skill particularly outside these prison walls. Weeks ago, my cellmate and I were amused also by an attorney who suggested his client should get a reduced sentence based on him learning how to write some rudimentary poetry at Stateville's creative writing class. The reason why Davis will most likely get time served is because he was only 14 years old, has already done over 20 years in prison, and was convicted under a theory of accountability for a double murder.

I rarely left my cell this week, however, I did leave for a few meals. In the chow hall I spoke with Steve who is taking a restorative justice class that seemed much deeper than those commonly taught at the maximum security prison. It is being sponsored by the University of De Paul, the same school he purportedly received his masters degree in music. Not only was a professor from the university teaching the class, but about 10 students drive to Stateville to participate and interact with prisoners. After receiving my degree from Lewis University while at Joliet Correctional Center, all college courses were eliminated and I never thereafter attended any low level or non accredited class. However, I thought this one may be interesting and would be worth leaving the confines of my cell. Unfortunately, I am told only a small number of men were permitted to be in the class and it is now closed.

The heat in the prison was recently turned off. Considering it snowed earlier in the week, it may be premature. Yesterday, I awakened very cold despite wearing thermals to bed and using two wool blankets. Temperatures were in the 40s, although the sun brightly shined into my cell and I could tell spring was here. Earlier in the week, I watched a PBS Nova program on the special sensory abilities of animals. A shark was able to detect magnetic fields and dolphins that were blindfolded could mimic the movements of swimmers in the water with their use of sonar. A dog seemed to know exactly what time of day it was. Later, researchers figured out the Vizsla could predict its owner's return by his nose as the man's scent dissipated throughout the day. Similarly I thought I could tell the time of day and year even if totally isolated and without a watch, TV, radio, or calendar just by the angle and strength of sunlight entering my cell. It was mid-April and close to the day 21 years ago that I was arrested and my life in prison cells began.

Earlier today, I learned Governor Quinn pardoned roughly 40 people of nearly a hundred clemency petitions. According to the news report, the petitions go back to 2007 and the Blagojevich administration. The people pardoned had already served their sentences or never did any time and were simply seeking to have their records cleared. I doubt Pat Quinn will boldly use his clemency powers until after the November election. In the meantime, I will wait in my cell. There is little I care to do outside these bars at the maximum security prison in any event. Even if Stateville was locked down permanently, it would matter little. In fact, unlike most prisoners, I prefer isolation within these walls. What matters to me is not life outside the prison cell, but life outside of prison.