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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Disruptions of Communication -- July 12, 2014

Prisoners have little ability to communicate with people outside as well as inside the penitentiary. They are trapped within prison walls and largely confined to their cells. For security reasons, convicts are kept segregated and mostly only have regular interactions with those on their gallery. This is commonly why they will yell to one another in the cell house, the chow hall, or in various movement lines. To interact with the outside world, prisoners are reliant on visits, slow mail service, and an increasingly restrictive collect call phone service provider. Over the 4th of July weekend, Securus has prevented outside calls to anyone who does not have a prepaid account with them. The new policy has abruptly cut ties many incarcerated men have with friends and family. I am not a social person, however, I have also been greatly affected. Not only have I lost the ability to talk with family members, but reach out to lawyers and private investigators.

The last I heard, my attorney was on vacation in Thailand. It does not bother me that she has taken an excursion on the other side of the globe. She may as well have been in Southeast Asia for the last 5 years because she has yet to finish my appeal. However, her trip has reinvigorated my efforts to find legal help. On Sunday, I wrote a few more law schools and made an inquiry at the University of Illinois in Springfield. Their law school has been reviewing my case since the beginning of the year and I have not heard anything from them in months. It was a stark contrast to my dealings with the University of Chicago.

Not long after the University of Chicago began their innocence project, I wrote them. Within several months they had reviewed my case and lawyers contacted me. Mail service at Stateville is very slow and after just a few exchanges of letters, I was visited by Tara Thompson. Initially she came alone, but then I met with one of their private investigators. She and others at the school wanted to represent me on appeal, however, the father and son team at Loevy & Loevy make the ultimate decision. Apparently, one or the other, for reasons undisclosed to me, said no. In any event, the entire process occurred in under a year and there was regular communication via mail, phone, or in person.

Along with finding legal help, I am desperately seeking out a private investigator. Last month, I submitted additional phone numbers to be approved by the warden and entered into the phone service provider's data base. Prisoners are only allowed 20 numbers at any one time to be on their list and it can take a few weeks for them to be registered. If a number is dialed which is not in the system, the call will not go through. Inmates can check to see if a phone number has been approved by entering their PIN (prisoner identification number) and another digit which will then begin an automated listing. On Monday I did this to find out if the phone numbers for a P.I. I had written were permissible for me to call. The automated voice sped through numbers without identifying the person's name and it was difficult ascertaining who I could call. However, after several times, I discovered all three numbers I requested were added.

While I was playing with the phone a prisoner came by to ask me if I would send it down to him when done. Psycho is a kitchen worker who had just finished working his shift. He related a strange story of how security personnel marched into the kitchen and demanded all the plastic milk crates be collected for removal. Milk cartons are delivered to the penitentiary in one foot square baskets and are not only convenient for transport but storage. Their confiscation was apparently due to an incident in Menard C.C. where a prisoner struck a kitchen supervisor and a couple of guards with one.

The ridiculous safety precaution reminded me of the one which was just announced by the TSA. All passengers boarding U.S. flights with phones must turn them on to demonstrate they are in working order. Phones that do not work will be confiscated. The new rule was created in response to an Intel source which claimed an Islamic terrorist group was working on a bomb that could be placed inside a small electronic device. Does it not occur to government security officials that an explosive could be put inside a working phone or various other electronics which would not be easily recognized? The knee jerk safety precautions employed by the TSA have the same redundancy and impracticality as those at maximum security prisons in Illinois. Even the least sophisticated prisoner can find a hundred other objects to hit someone with.

Before I called the private investigator, I wrote down a number of topics I wished to discuss with him. However, it was for naught. After dialing his number, I received a recording stating to stay on line while they sought to gain "acceptance information." This recording was repeated several times with intermittent music before I heard that the party I had called disconnected. I had never heard a message by Securus stating they needed to gain acceptance information. Already, I had filled out a form with the person's name, relationship, and address. What more did they want? As for the call being disconnected, I did not know if that meant the P.I. hung up the phone or his answering machine or voice mail terminated the connection. I assumed the latter because I wrote him a letter saying I would call as soon as I was able.

Since I had the telephone in my cell already, I decided to call my sister who I have not spoken to in months. I received the same recording. Possibly, my sister had mistaken the call for a telemarketer or was outside. For some reason, since Securus took over the collect call service for the IDOC, the person called is shown a number similar to that used by people trying to sell one product or another. I have been incarcerated over two decades before caller ID and telemarketers became pervasive. I am told they are rather annoying and many people do not answer their phone if they know it is a sales pitch. Thus, I called again and again. Then I tried calling my parents. There was no difference and I continued to get the same recording. Somewhat upset, I pounded on the wall to get my neighbor's attention. When Gavin did not answer, I yelled to his cellmate, "Hey, pedophile! Pass this phone to Psycho." The child molester was either asleep, playing opossum or ignoring me. Psycho is in a cell near the stairs where there is a lot of traffic and he simply asked a passerby to get the phone from me.

During the evening, mail was passed out to prisoners and I received a few letters. At least I still receive mail service I thought as I opened the first envelope. Inside I was amused to read an Internet article by Gwendolyn Knapp at nola@eater.com about an Italian restaurant in Louisiana. Actually, the amusing part were the comments where my former friend Brian Palasz was mentioned and disparaged. One comment claimed the restaurant was taken over by Brian when his partner Leonardo fled. As the sole owner, he then ran the business into the ground while running an illegal gambling operation. My friend always loved Italian food, extortion, and gambling. Some things never change.

The highest demand for the telephones in the cell house is at night and I was not surprised to hear Shaky yelling to our self-appointed phone manager that he wanted it. Shaky is always running his mouth. He has no TV and he will continually occupy his time by conversing with various prisoners or playing games of chess with them. He is extremely annoying and the only time he seems to be quiet is when he is asleep or talking with someone on the telephone. In any event, Shaky seemed to be going through withdrawals and yelled louder and louder. "Triple O.G.! Send me the phone!" Triple O.G. is prison speak for a super old gangster. Well, the black convict who has been incarcerated for over 3 decades was in no mood to deal with the hyper babble-mouth and told him he was shut down for the night. After some objection, Shaky quit yelling.

I almost never yell from my cell and save whatever conversation I may have until I am with that person. For a little while I spoke with Bone and Horse on the yard Tuesday morning after completing my workout. We sat on one of the rusted steel tables put on the concrete walk leading to two basketball courts. From them I learned D House was off lockdown but B House was continued to be punished because of how they greeted the warden the previous week. The two quarter units were on lockdown due to various suspicions Internal Affairs had mainly derived from a snitch. One of the things purportedly said was that there were bullets inside the penitentiary and Horse rolled around two AA batteries in his hand with their wrappers off making them almost appear to be bullet casings. Some incarcerated men speculated that guards must have lost a few casings from their rifles while in a gun tower or on the cat walk.

When the Rec period ended, I had some fun with a guard on the movement team. Instead of coming onto the yard as he usually does, he stood just outside the gate. I asked him why and then if he was scared. He jested it was because the administration thinks he can only be assaulted within the perimeter of the yard and he was safe just a step outside of it. This new policy began two weeks ago and is due to another staff assault in Menard where prisoners allegedly used a ruse to lure a guard or guards onto a yard before attacking them with milk baskets. Later when I was returning from the chow hall, I saw a prison worker carrying a tray cart with a milk crate on top. The same guard happened to be nearby and I yelled, "Watch out! Milk crate!" He just laughed at that one.

After taking a mid afternoon nap, I made myself a cup of hot coffee to go along with some waffles and peanut butter. The snack was to tide me over until dinner, but also to eat while watching the World Cup Soccer semifinals. I had not watched any of the games because the sport of soccer generally bores me. However, this game was anything but boring. Within the first 30 minutes, Germany had scored 5 times. Three of them occurred almost consecutively. I was hoping Germany would go on to shut out Brazil, however, in the second half they scored once. The final score was 7 to 1 and the people of the host nation began rioting in the streets. Brazilian police even had to be called in to attempt to quell the mayhem.

Oddly, a Hispanic prisoner who lives a couple of cells down from me was cheering excitedly for team Germany during the game. Most Mexicans had quickly lost interest in the World Cup Soccer games after their country was defeated in the preliminaries. However, Vargas has a twisted love affair with Germany and their women as well. He brags to numerous prisoners that before his arrest he had a German wife or girlfriend. What he fails to mention though is that he killed her. Often I will notice the pervert stalking fair complected Caucasian women who work at the penitentiary. He is a little weasel and I have little concern he will assault female staff, but none-the-less, I loathe the convict. After the game, a cell house worker on the ground floor tossed up some instant coffee in front of my cell and told me to pass it to Vargas. Loudly, I said, "I'm not passing shit for him!" and left the coffee sitting on the gallery. My cellmate, however, reached out of the bars and gave the bag to Hooch who then gave it to the man. Convicts often feel an obligation to assist one another because they may need a favor in the future. I do not share the universal reciprocity and generally only speak to a few prisoners.

Steve also purportedly killed his wife. However, he is not a pervert and the motives in his case are very different. Furthermore, he is an educated man from the northwest Chicago suburbs. At dinner I spoke with him regarding my concerns that the Illinois Innocence Project may not want to represent me and my inability to contact them. The last I heard from the university was a few months ago. Steve confided in me that the IIP had rejected his case. I inquired how long it took them to make their decision and what was the reason given. He said after submitting the questionnaire, it was about six months. Their stated reason was simply that they already had too many cases. I hope that my case was distinguished from his and all the others.

Wednesday morning, a cell house worker brought me a birthday card. This was the third birthday card during the week I had been asked to sign. Many prisoners do not receive any mail from friends or family. If fellow convicts did not make birthday cards with messages, they would never get one. This birthday card had a mean looking pit bull wearing a studded black leather collar on the cover and was for a prisoner who goes by the name Little Man. Before signing, I read some of the commentary. One person wrote, "You are an old fart, but a good shit," and then went on to say how he hoped Little Man would not be flushed any time in the near future.

I skipped lunch to again try calling the private investigator while the noise level in the cell house was lower. Once again, I received the same recording, "Hold while we attempt to gain acceptance information" and then "Your call was disconnected." I tried another office number of his but the result was the same. When my cellmate returned from the chow hall, he said other prisoners were having the same problem getting through to people, even those they had no trouble reaching the previous week. There was a message printed on a TV station a month earlier that said Securus wanted to bill people directly if their current phone service provider did not forward the money to them. Furthermore, I knew the policy for most people with cell phones was that they pay upfront. However, I was calling land lines and previously there was never a problem with billing.

Later I went on a visit with an escort from a guard who serves on the SORT as well as movement team. He was in the unit with another SORT member searching cells. They confiscated a radio as well as a bag of miscellaneous other items including a photo album. I assume the radio did not belong to the prisoner and the photo album had pictures of people throwing up gang signs, but I did not ask the guard. A prisoner walking with us was talking incessantly. A small bee hive had been removed by a maintenance crew and this got him very excited. Honey bees are very docile, but he thought they were an immense danger.

The visiting room was very crowded and it made conversation difficult. I almost had to shout for my mother to hear me. She, my father, and sister were aware I had tried calling them. However, every time they pressed a button to address the issue of "account information" they were disconnected. She went on the Securus website to see what the problem may be. Securus clearly stated people did not have to set up a direct account with them if their current phone service was billing for them. My family had AT&T and the collect calls I made to them in the past were always listed on their monthly bill. Despite this, she also called a customer service number. She was never able to get a real person on the line but an automated voice said she did not have to prepay or have a separate bill sent to her house.

Thursday, prisoners in the quarter unit again had Rec. Generally, I avoid the small yards because there is little to do. A short pathway leads to two concrete basketball courts. To preoccupy men, a couple of tables, one bench, and two barbells were added. Mostly, I did calisthenics which I could have done in my cell. For a cardio workout, I thereafter ran sprints on one of the courts not being used. I felt like I was in a human dog run running back and forth. Eventually, I quit and pursued my real purpose for coming to the prison yard.

None of the small group of inmates I acquainted with had any information about the phone system. They either had long ago lost contact with friends or family or were having the same problems as I was. Instead of getting any useful information, I listened to Bone tease Trigger if he "got any money" from a female guard he went with on a court writ. Trigger had been transferred out from a different penitentiary because he was suspected of having an affair with a woman who worked there and now he gets plenty of jokes. Despite how Bone was just kidding, Trigger abruptly became upset. He denied even being the least bit flirtatious and claimed the guard was a "mud shark" with two black children.

Friday morning, I was determined to get through to someone on the telephone. Fat Jimmy had recently been given a cell house help job and while he was mopping the floor I told him to bring down the handset. Once again when I called my parents and sister I received the same recording before being disconnected. It did not look good for getting in touch with the PI, but I took out the notes I made earlier and made the call. Surprisingly, I finally was connected, however, just for 10 seconds. A recording then told me that was my free sample call and if I wanted to talk longer, the person I called had to set up an account with them. This made me furious. Because the cell house was so loud, I had only had enough time to confirm it was the P.I. who answered. Furthermore, from what I gathered during the week from prisoners, Securus was demanding people prepay $25. A 30-minute call costs $3.50 but to open an account they wanted 7 times this amount and they also will not let the inmate set it up. How am I going to reach out to lawyers or investigators if this company forces them to prepay a minimum of $25?

Later in the day I spoke with Steve in the chow hall. He told me if the investigator I was attempting to call did not set up an account, he knew someone else I could contact. Big John had given him the name of a man who not only investigated cases but had a law license. The person had come to visit him at the penitentiary and seemed like an ideal investigator to have working on my case. I asked him why he did not then hire him himself. Steve said he wanted a $15,000 retainer. Well, even if I had full trust in the man, I did not have that kind of money to front.

Communications at a maximum security prison in Illinois are very restricted. Information and messages are largely passed through the penitentiary by word of mouth. To reach people outside these walls, prisoners are dependent on the phone or letter writing. Letters, however, have become an almost obsolete mode of communication in modern society. Snail mail has been replaced by emails, texting, or the use of cell phones. Phone calls in prison are considered a privilege that can be taken away at any time. Regardless, IDOC's phone system, Securus, has effectively shut down many prisoners' phone access, at least temporarily. Disrupted phone service will likely strain relationships with friends and family if they still exist. For me and possibly others, the ability to secure a P.I. will become an even greater task. Increasingly, I find myself alone in a cell with only pen and paper to reach out to the world.