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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Mundane -- August 16, 2014

Life in prison is often eschewed by television and movies. To entertain audiences they portray a riveting tale or emphasize the extreme. However, the truth is much less dramatic. Generally, men incarcerated in maximum security prisons have an unexciting and monotonous existence. They deal with the austere and oppressive conditions of their confinement day after day. It is a slow grind which eventually crushes all men into dust. During my 21 years of incarceration, I have experienced much turmoil, brutality, and mayhem. However, my life is predominately mundane.

Almost every morning I will exercise for one hour.  I conduct my workout in the small   3 by 6 foot space in the front of the cell. My routine is a mix of high intensity calisthenic exercises. Occasionally people walking by will inquire what I specifically do or if I am following a workout program such as that popularized on television infomercials such as P90X. No, I do not have any ordered system. In fact, at Stateville where yard and weights are limited, I intentionally seek to mix up my exercises. From the most bizarre improvisations to the most common calisthenics or cardio exercises, there is little I have not done. The only thing which remains consistent is the time and pace. It is always 1 hour and there are no rest periods.

After working out, I will bathe out of the sink. If my cellmate is awake, he will go to the bars and watch television, occasionally on both my TV and his. Bathing in the cell is time consuming and never enjoyable. For privacy I will hang a bed sheet up which will go from the wall to the upper bunk and across it forming a square in the corner. I use a piece of cardboard to stop the water from draining. The sink basin takes a long time to fill, not because it is deep but because the warm water dribbles slowly into it. After soaping up, I will again repeat this process to have fresh water to rinse with. Almost always, I leave a mess of water and soap on the floor. I keep a large rag to soak up the water and when finished to clean with. My "shower curtain" needs to be dried and a fan blows air on it as I wipe off or scrub the floor, walls, sink, and toilet.

If I wash any clothes, it will be after I bathe. With the toilet scrubbed and disinfected, I empty it of cold water and slowly empty bowl after bowl of hot or warm water into it. The floor rag is rolled up and shoved into the toilet to prevent any of this water from exiting. Prisoners are permitted to purchase liquid laundry detergent and I will pour a little of this into the commode before tossing in some clothes. There is laundry service at Stateville, however, bags are only picked up once a week. During a lockdown, they may not be picked up at all. The shorts I work out in need to be cleaned every other day or they begin to stink. I also must do my prison blues by hand unless I want to wear deeply wrinkled clothing.

Rinsing clothes in the toilet is relatively easy. I simply flush the water to get new fresh water. In between flushes, I spin or dunk clothes until all the soap is removed. Then I wring them out by hand to be dried by my fan. There are rules against using lines and thus I will typically drape the clothes over a property box lid. Oftentimes, I will wrap clothes around a fan so air flows through them. Drying clothes in humid weather can take many hours if not overnight. Since I have a bad back, agitating clothes while bent over the toilet for an hour or longer can leave me in more pain than my workouts. I hate washing clothes by hand in the cell, but it is something that must be done regularly.

If I have completed my workout and washed any clothes that needed it, I may go to lunch. The food served in prison is commonly the same week after week. It is also commonly distasteful. Some prisoners tell me they are just going out for the walk which I interpret to mean to get out of their cells and possibly socialize with someone other than their cellmates. Personally, I hate "the walk".  A large group of noisy men are assembled into two lines. This may take 5 to 10 minutes or longer. Then, the two lines walk about 100 feet only to stop and wait until a guard is content with the formation. At the end of the concrete path surrounded on both sides with high cyclone fencing topped in razor wire, prisoners are again ordered to stop until given the green light. One line will proceed followed by the other to the front of the chow hall. Yet again, prisoners must wait to enter the building and even inside there is a gate leading into the feeding circle. Returning to the cell house is often the same slow and annoying procedure. There are times I will spend an hour going to and from the chow hall, but with only 5 minutes to eat.

On one occasion this week, I kicked Trigger in the stomach while bored and waiting in line. I did not give him a spinning back kick that sent him flying into the fence or any other object. It was just a tap which I simply meant to convey hello. Despite this, the prisoner became very upset with me and said he just washed his blue shirt. Trigger has wild mood swings and sometimes I think he may have intermittent explosive disorder. He can be very playful and goofy sometimes and then other times it seems like he is about to go into a rage over the most trivial matter. His seesawing nature, though, breaks the zombie-like walk back and forth from the chow hall.

I attempt to avoid the chow hall as much as possible. I often do not like the walk, the food, the crowds, etc. Instead, I will make snacks or meals in the cell. After 21 years of eating prison food, I am not too particular as long as it is healthy. An easy meal to make is a tuna or sardine sandwich. I just tear off the top of a package, drain, and put the fish on bread. If I have no bread, I will use an uncooked Ramen noodle as if it were a cracker. On Sunday, prisoners were given miniature potatoes again and I used those to put my sardines into. I am becoming tired of eating fish so regularly, but it is one of the cheapest and most nutritious foods sold at the prison store.

On occasion, I will break up the monotony of food served at the penitentiary or the food I make for myself with something unique. However, cooking and preparing more exotic meals is difficult. First, I am not able to go to a grocery store and the food I have access to is limited. Secondly, I do not have a stove, grill, or a microwave. Cooking is mostly done by boiling water using various different improvised methods and instant foods. Because the process is laborious, I will also make enough for my cellmate. It only takes a little extra work to cook for him also. This week, I made a favorite of his, beef burritos, to eat while watching the classic movie "Jaws".  If Anthony thought my food was free, he was mistaken. A few times while watching the film I would say, "Man-shark!" in reference to a Saturday Night Live skit and his conviction for killing an unsuspecting woman in her apartment.

The DVD system at the prison is broken or not being used. There is a rumor that Stateville will soon get movies from Netflix rather than rent them from a store. I am told places like Blockbuster have gone out of business and similar stores that rent videos are almost extinct. Jaws and other movies prisoners at Stateville watch are currently restricted to the ones played on broadcast TV or the 13 satellite stations such as TBS, Spike, and TNT. They regularly play the same films that are many years old. Despite this, at night when tired I will watch a good movie even if I have seen it numerous times before.

Prisoners in maximum security will spend vast amounts of time watching television. In the cell, it is their main preoccupation. Contrarily, I watch very little and instead read. On Monday, I received my weekly Barron's newspaper and that was the subject of my attention most of the evening. Russia retaliated last week to the meager economic sanctions imposed on it with their own. All food imports from the West are banned. Considering Russia only receives about 7% of their food from the U.S., it has little significance. It does account for $15 billion yearly of sales from Europe, but this also will not greatly damage their economy. European countries have much greater problems with their economies than a food export ban. Hopefully, the West is willing to accept whatever Russian sanctions are imposed on them and give military aid to Ukraine before it is too late.

Even before my arrest, I had a strong interest in politics. However, trapped in a cell for long periods of time has given me more time to study and keep up with world affairs. This week the focus of news has been the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, a town just outside of St. Louis. The black mobs believe a white police officer maliciously shot to death a black 18-year-old. I do not know if there is any truth to the matter or if race was at all a factor. Oftentimes, black provocateurs stir up unrest and the liberal media is more than happy to oblige them with pervasive coverage. What I will note, however, that is an issue, is the militarization of local police agencies. Police officers are now armed with weapons, vehicles and other equipment from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. They no longer just have a revolver and possibly a bullet proof vest but helicopters, machine guns, grenades, and assault vehicles. According to news I read or listened to, the Defense Department has given police agencies across the country billions of dollars in military equipment including 600 MRAPs. Why local police need mine resistant armored protected trucks is beyond me. Police have now become soldiers and hopefully if anything comes out of the controversy in Ferguson, it is that the American public realizes the country has become a militarized police state far removed from the free republic it once was.

Midweek the penitentiary was placed on lockdown. Lockdowns are so frequent in maximum security that commonly the only reason why I inquire about them is to inform the readers of this blog. Half the time I do not care. It is a regular part of life here. Initially the people returning from the kitchen and school could not provide me with any answers other than to mention that two people were arrested trying to smuggle drugs into the prison over the last week on visits. However, later in the day, staff would mention it was unrelated and the Roundhouse was being searched by SORT. Internal Affairs also was conducting interviews of various men throughout the institution. Ten prisoners from C House were taken away for questioning. All of them were brought back to their cells after a few hours, but a couple of days later two Hispanics were taken to Seg for investigation. The build up of SORT and I.A. has been an oppressive and harassing development in prison. However, having said this, it seems that the administration is using them less sweepingly.

My father was planning to visit me on the day SORT ransacked the Roundhouse. In lieu of talking with him, I wrote him a 4 page letter. Writing letters is another common activity of mine. This year, I have written well over 200. The majority goes to blog handlers and consists of posts and replies to comments and emails. However, I also write family, lawyers, private investigators, and others. A pen pal I had thought became bored of corresponding over the years, sent me a letter which finally reached me this week. After writing my father, I also wrote him back a reply. Unlike people outside these walls who communicate with phones, texts, emails or Facebook, my communication is limited mostly to snail mail.

The two day lockdown gave me a little extra time to do a few things I had been delaying. The first of these was fixing my watch. Just the week prior I had purchased a new time piece. Immediately I noticed the pins which keep the bands in were too small and fall out. Thus, I made my own pins with a paper clip. I also exchanged the clear plastic band with a cloth band I had made myself. Security at the level 1 and 2 penitentiaries in Illinois is ridiculous. Does the administration really believe I will hide something dangerous in my watch or under the band? Soon there will come a time when they will want prisoners to wear sheer or see-through clothing, although for the last several years it does not seem like they want to provide any clothing at all.

My T-shirts, socks and underwear have not been replaced by the clothing room in a long time and are falling apart. During the week I became fed up with the holes in my socks and sewed a few. Unfortunately, the elastic in them has been lost to such an extent they fall to my ankles, but at least my toes do not stick out any more. While I sewed my socks, I noticed my cellmate was sewing a pair of boxers. Apparently, the old underwear tore on the inseam when he played basketball. Commissary does sell underclothes, but like most everything they sell, the prices are exorbitant. Two boxer shorts in my cellmate's size cost $15.23. A T-shirt (XXL) is $13.75 and these are not quality clothes or with any color. They are made of thin material and are always white.

Once a week I shave using an electric razor and periodically I will trim my hair. The guards will usually pass out disposable razors on Saturdays, however, I rarely use them. They are dull and so tiny that I can barely hold them. There is also a barbershop at Stateville, but it is a school where prisoners learn how to cut hair. Needless to say, they are not very good particularly with cutting Caucasian's hair. Instead, I will use a pair of beard trimmers and cut my own despite the difficulty of doing so. This week, I spent a few hours trying to perfect my hair. Accidentally, I cut off a little too much on one side and for symmetry I had to bring it all down shorter. When I finished, my cellmate said I looked like Ivan Drago, a character played by Dolph Lungren in the movie Rocky 4. It was not exactly the look I was going for, but imitating a scene where he faces off against Sylvester Stallone, I said, "I must break you."

Generally, I will become tired in the early afternoon and will take a nap. Even if I am confined to the cell, I keep busy and the continuous aggravations of prison add up. Furthermore, a nap will not only give me renewed energy, but break up a monotonous grim existence. On Thursday, however, I was awakened by my cellmate taking a shit a few feet away from me and the yelling of prisoners. Black convicts typically do not follow baseball, but they are big fans of Jackie Robinson West Little League team. The team of all black kids is from an inner city neighborhood where a number of men at Stateville lived in or near before their arrest. They played Lynnwood, Washington and the game was broadcast on ESPN. Jackie Robinson West won by "slaughter rule," 12 to 2 in the 5th inning. The liberal media so intent on promoting the success of minority groups had it on all news stations later in the day, including the world news.

Unable to sleep, I got up from my bunk and thought of something productive to do with my time. I had been putting off cleaning and fixing my fan until there were cooler temperatures and I did not need it to dry wet clothes. The fan was very dirty with dust, blanket and hair fuzz which continually drifts into the cell sometimes like tumbleweeds. There are 5 floors and approximately 300 prisoners in this quarter unit of the big house and the airborne dirt from all these people will turn a fan black over a summer. Fortunately, I have an older model without security screws which is easy to disassemble and clean all the dirt out. This fan has been through a lot and the plastic is cracked in many places. After cleaning it, I considered gluing pieces back together again but I knew the adhesive I could procure would not hold long. Instead, I just fixed the problem of it pivoting too easily by wedging a couple of cardboard squares in between the moving parts.

On Friday the prison was taken off lockdown, however, as I write this post it is back on. Purportedly there is not enough staff to run normal operations safely. This news is difficult to believe considering how much manpower has increased over the years. In fact, just recently 150 new guards were hired. Never during my time in the IDOC have there been more guards, SORT, or members of Internal Affairs. Despite this, just before the 7 o'clock shift, I heard the radio dispatcher asking over 50 correctional officers to stay and eventually many were mandated. The prison system needlessly pays millions of dollars in unneeded overtime yearly, all the while incarcerated men spend vastly more time in their cells than they did before the turn of the century.

This post was probably one of the least interesting. However, it was done intentionally. There are many weeks that go by which are boring and lackluster. Life in a maximum security prison is oppressive and often dull. Without freedom there is little joy, excitement, or purpose. This blog is not the movies or a sensationalized television production. It is my reality that is often filled with the mundane.