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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Four Visits -- October 4, 2014

Visits are extraordinarily restrictive at maximum security penitentiaries. At Stateville, prisoners must submit information about prospective people who may come to see them including their race, age, relationship, and address. If an unapproved visitor arrives, they will be turned away. Visitors are subject to a thorough frisk and are not permitted to bring anything with them other than identification and debit cards. During visits, prisoners must remain seated and no contact is allowed except upon greeting and departure. Visits are limited to 5 a month and each cannot exceed 2 hours. Visits are only one hour on weekends and holidays as well as during lockdowns if they are not cancelled altogether. Due to the 3 week lockdown last month, my opportunity to see friends or family was limited, however, I made this up in quick succession with four visits within a week's time.

On the 24th of September, the penitentiary was taken off lockdown after repeated searches by the tactical unit. After a large contingent of Orange Crush had raided an adjacent cell house, I was not expecting normal operations the following day. However, in the morning, a guard announced barbershop, library, and all details were to get ready to leave. A couple of hours later, chow lines were run and I went out along with most of the prisoners in the unit who were pent up from being confined to their cells. I sat with Hooch, Fat Jimmy, and the ailing biker, Bone. Bone has lost so much weight that he was not only being given Boost drinks but extra portions at meals. He gave me one of his turkey-soy burgers and I made a double of my sandwich. Kitchen workers also gave men a small bag of cheese puffs and I offered them to him, however, he declined and I tossed the bag towards Fat Jimmy who rarely ever declines food.

On the walk back to the cell house, I noticed the hyper lieutenant pacing around outside looking for someone. Eventually, he pointed at me as if I was in big trouble. I had natural life without a chance for parole, however, and was mostly amused by his gesture. I dodged behind another man pretending he could not see me. There were a lot of convicts in the lines returning from chow and maybe I could just blend in with the herd. After a moment of play, I walked over to him to see what he had to say. As expected, he told me I had a visitor.

I knew my father was going to visit because he must reserve a side room in advance and I am sent a memo. Side room visits are only for attorneys meeting with clients or incarcerated men in protective custody. However, the administration will also make accommodations for those who are severely disabled. My father has lost most of his hearing and in the crowded general population visiting room he is for all practical purposes deaf. Even with hearing aids or if I were to shout, he could not make out a word I would say other than by reading my lips. Worse still is his crumbling spine and severe degenerative arthritis. He can barely move about despite taking strong pain medications and the steel rods screwed into his spine have only exasperated his problems.

After being strip searched, I walked over to gate 2 to give the staff my identification card. There are five gates which lead into the penitentiary, although two are not used because they are redundant. Gates 3 and 4 are left open and unmanned. In between them sits a large wooden chair that looks like a throne a medieval king may have sat on. Possibly, half a century ago, the warden once sat on it to have his shoes shined. While the chair and two gates go unattended, there is plenty of security at the entrance of the penitentiary and I am leery of even approaching gate 2 alone, less some guard would think that I may make a bold escape attempt out the front door. For that reason, I asked the officer in the strip search room to escort me before I greeted my father who was waiting in a room off to the side of the hallway.

My father resembles the actor Jack Nicholson in both appearance and demeanor, although not as ostentatious or charming. He has never been a flashy person and for most of his life he was very serious and stern. During my childhood, he was a difficult man to get along with and as a teenager I often avoided him. We rarely spoke and usually when we did it was in anger. Like most old men, he has mellowed with age. It is unfortunate that he has fallen apart so greatly physically, I thought as I gave him a slight embrace. If I squeezed him too hard or patted him on the back with too much force, I worried I may break something.

I sat down at a table with my father across from me. He told me I was sitting in the wrong spot and pointed to a piece of paper that was taped to the wall. Written on the paper was "Inmates Sit Here" and it had an arrow pointing down. My father said I had to sit directly underneath the sign. He was being sarcastic and regularly we will mock the ridiculous security precautions taken at Stateville. Later my father asked a sergeant why a simple clock could not be put in the room. Not long ago all visitors have been prohibited from wearing watches and he did not know what time it was. The sergeant said a clock could be dangerous and also added that was why the room was so empty and austere. Everything was scrutinized at a maximum security prison as a possible hazard and I told my father about how all the plastic milk baskets were removed earlier in the year until someone realized how there was no way to store or move the milk in any practical fashion.

One of my father's favorite topics of conversation is complaining about my mother. The woman, I am told, is not only forgetful and a clutter bug but nags him almost ceaselessly. I had to readily agree her increasing senility was annoying. Because her memory is poor, conversations are repeated and occasionally I wonder what information she is retaining. The clutter would bother me immensely and I told my father just to throw it out. That is what I will do to cellmates' property if they refuse to put it away or order it. As for the nagging, some of it I assume was well deserved but he can simply turn off his hearing aid. Furthermore, he has a large sprawling house and can come and go when he wants to. Contrarily, I am trapped in the confines of my cell of this prison and cannot get away from people who regularly bother me. My father tells me he is putting off another spinal surgery to go to his second residence in South Carolina and although I am concerned about my parents' abilities to live alone, it may be best for them to spend some time apart.

The log cabin home is spacious and I was told that I am welcome to stay there when released. Both my parents live in a fantasy world where they think I will be coming home. I did not bother to tell him how unlikely this was, however, I did jest that the last time we lived under the same roof it was far from ideal. Of course, that was over two decades ago and our relationship is much better now. Ironic that it was not until I was condemned to a lifetime in prison that we learned how much in common we had.

A couple of interests my father and I share are history and politics. In fact, despite his career in real estate, he has a major in history and a minor in political science. During our visit we spoke about both subjects and later in the day I watched news regarding the president's latest response to ISIS or what he calls ISIL. Barack Obama was insisting on an international coalition which included Arab states. He also again reiterated that the U.S. would not put any boots on the ground. A saying my father often told me as a child was "if you want something done right, you do it yourself" and this seemed very applicable in the crumbling states of Iraq and Syria. On CNN, however, the coverage of air strikes on Mobil Oil refineries tried to show the president's plan was succeeding.

I could not watch the biased news station's reporting for long. It was almost like a propaganda wing of the White House. After turning off my television, I wrote a 5-page letter to a woman I had gone to school with in junior high. Since I had not seen or heard from her in a few weeks, I thought she may appreciate it if I wrote in greater length. Short and shallow correspondence is not appealing to me, although I wonder if this is the new reality with texting, email, and tweets. I also wondered if my efforts to maintain ties with her were in vain. These prison walls create a barrier that is very difficult to overcome.

At 6 a.m. the following day I was awakened early by loud convicts. They were let out of their cells for the law library but then locked on the gallery when a distress call went out over the radio. Later, I learned cellmates in a different quarter unit were fighting. The situation was contained to one cell in one cell house and yet all the operations in the penitentiary were temporarily suspended. This hold on movement was over by the first shift and I went out to the yard. Soon after returning, though, the prison was placed on a low level lockdown. The lockdown prevented inmates in C House from attending evening yard and many were displeased. The warden had a memo posted on the cable system alerting that all night yards were over at the end of the month.

Although the penitentiary was on lockdown Friday as well, the administration was allowing 1 hour visits. Close to noon my name was announced over the cell house loudspeaker and I quickly changed into my state blues. My rush was unnecessary because a guard did not come to let me out of my cell and handcuff me for some time. All prisoner movement on lockdowns requires handcuffs despite what the reason may be. In this case, I was later told by a lieutenant that it was a "system's failure" which I assumed meant the guards' new radios were not working properly.

When I walked down the steps into the general population visiting room I was pleased to see Cindy sitting at a table waiting for me. It was unfortunate we would only be able to talk for an hour but on the positive side since everyone was being kicked out early, there were fewer people there. It was a marked contrast to the first time we met when every table was filled and there were over 100 people talking over each other. After a brief embrace I asked her how long she had been waiting. She did not say but mentioned that a guard had given her a hard time about a bracelet she was wearing. The bracelet had two tiny interlocking handcuffs which I thought was cute. Apparently so did another guard and he asked her if she had the key. There was no key and he then said, "I guess you're going to have to keep them on."

Cynthia had some complicated questions for me which were difficult to answer in such a short period of time. Regularly, I would look at the clock on the wall to see how much time we had left (the G.P. visiting room has a clock on the wall). One of her questions was if I felt sorry for the victim. I knew people expected prisoners, particularly those convicted of murder, to go on and on about their deep sadness if not shed a tear or two. However, the truth was much more nuanced for me. First, because I was not the least bit culpable or even aware of the murder, I did not have any feelings of regret. In fact, the longer I spent in prison the more bitterness and anger I had. Second, I did not know the victim well and what I did know I did not like. I remember the prosecutor confronted a witness at trial about his prior grand jury testimony where he testified that I had told him I did not like the man that much.  Although this was true, it was a far cry from wanting him to die or being indifferent about his death. I know some people will watch the news and have great amounts of empathy for those they have never met. However, I usually do not think about it.

Her second deep question was "Why was your co-defendant acquitted of the murder yet you were convicted of being accountable for his actions?" This is a question I get asked a lot and it cannot be answered in a sound bite. Our trials, while held simultaneously, were separate. There were two juries and they did not hear all the same evidence. For example, Robert Faraci's jury did not hear the testimony of his wife, Rose Faraci, when she talked about him coming home with his clothes soaked in blood the night in question and he asked her to burn them while he showered.  Or how they later conspired to frame me and Brian. Furthermore, my jury was unaware that Faraci was acquitted when they decided days later to find me accountable based on the testimony of the detective who interrogated me. My attorney was an expert at civil and corporate law but lacked experience representing clients accused of criminal wrongdoing. He was also arrogant and did not concern himself much with jury selection despite how heavily biased people were against me due to the enormous negative media exposure I had. My co-defendant's attorneys, contrarily, knew trials could be won or lost with jury selection and were able to win an important challenge preventing the prosecutor from eliminating favorable jurors. Finally, the befuddling results of our trials were also due to the state's attorneys office overzealous desire to have a scapegoat for the then unsolved Palatine Massacre. More money and resources were used to convict me than John Wayne Gacy, while there was little concern about the Fawcett murder and convicting Robert Faraci. Robert was the bird in the hand, while I was the bird in the bush. Considering the politics involved, they were more than willing to accept losing one for the chance to get the other.

Our visit seemed to go by very quickly. There was no way I could explain all the details of my case in an hour and I told her if she wanted she could come back before the month was over. I still had one visit left for September. On the way out of the visiting room, I was astonished to hear a prisoner talk glowingly of my current appellate lawyer who I was seeking to replace. For over 5 years I have been waiting for Jennifer Blagg to put together a post conviction petition and I had lost all faith in her competency. I assume the prisoner had just recently hired her and mistakenly took her initial enthusiasm and very personable style for results.

Returning from my visit, I discovered a new mattress on my bunk. Apparently, while I was gone, a couple of crates of them were brought in and passed out to prisoners who had submitted requests over a year ago. Imitating a scene from the movie "Law Abiding Citizen" I told my cellmate that the prosecutor finally caved in to my demand for a SertaPedic mattress. While laying on it comfortably, I said, "Don't get any ideas. This is a single." Anthony had heard enough of my jokes from the film about injustice and revenge. He responded that I should enjoy it while it lasts. He was given one a few months ago and already it was flat. By Christmas, I will probably be feeling the steel underneath, but for now it has been very comfortable.

Sunday evening I was concerned Cynthia would be turned away at the front gates of the penitentiary. The prison after being taken off lockdown was back on and various rumors were flying. According to an inmate returning from the Health Care Unit, a man committed suicide in the Roundhouse. However, I then heard there was yet another fight between cellmates where one used a shank to stab his opponent. Finally, a guard commented that there was a staff assault. According to him, a lieutenant in B House was struck. Possibly, all of the stories or none of them were true, however, the next day I was pleased there were normal operations and 2 hour visits were being allowed.

On my visit with Cynthia, she wanted to continue to talk about my case. Why did it say in a newspaper article that we spoke to a newspaper-magazine store owner in Florida about guns? Why did they insinuate I was connected to a group of criminals? How did I meet these men? I answered all these questions and then emphasized I had absolutely no involvement in the Fawcett murder. I was not even aware he was killed when I left with the Faraci's to Clearwater, Florida. I did not want to spend another visit trying to address every aspect of the underlying circumstances of the murder, my prosecution, conviction, etc. Instead, I said I will just send her my Petition for Executive Clemency which is 50 pages long and has even more exhibits. The Illinois Innocence Project had just returned my copy so I will put it in the mail for her to read.

The main reason why I like seeing Cindy is to talk about our years in junior high school and to be flirtatious. Other than my mother or sister, no woman has come to see me in years. I knew she had a crush on me in school and it may be 25 years too late, but I wanted to try to make up for it. When she mentioned finally finding some more photos of herself to send me, I inquired if they were naked. She complained that in a letter I said she was fat and asked why would I want to see her naked. I was about to say sarcastically that maybe I like chubby girls, but instead told her she could lose the excess weight if she wanted to. This is always a sensitive subject with women and I got an earful of excuses including how it was genetic. This led me to playfully guess what her background was. Finally she gave me a hint: it was where people went to get laid (leid). I was baffled by her play on words and she then told me she was part Hawaiian. When I told her I thought she may be an eighth or quarter Eskimo she laughed. She also seemed amused when I asked if that meant she could hula dance.

I remained flirtatious throughout most of our visit. Sometimes I was serious and other times joking. The combination along with my flat humor threw her off balance. She probably still does not know what to think. Despite how she may be confused, other people watching us were not. As soon as she left, a guard asked me if she was my girlfriend. I answered simply by saying Cindy was a girl I knew in junior high. The guard then went on to say she married her high school boyfriend. Later in the week Snowman also asked me if she was my girlfriend. Apparently, he was in the visiting room on Monday or the previous Friday. My cellmate has never even seen me interact with Cynthia, but he will joke whenever I write her not to forget to say "I love you".

On the first of October, I had another set of 5 visits and my mother came to see me. She has been the most faithful person to stay connected all these years. I will guesstimate she has visited more than 800 times at various maximum security penitentiaries that I have been at over the last two decades. She also will write regularly and this week she finally was able to set up an account with the Dept. of Correction's collect call phone company. As I suspected, Securus Technologies is forcing people to give their credit card information or to pay in advance. They will no longer allow another phone company to bill for them. I assume there is some advantage for them, although the costs after taxes remains the same (about $4 for a 30 minute local call).

My mother and I visited for two hours and then I had to go straight to the Health Care Unit. Initially, the guard was not going to let me in. There was a hold on all health care passes due to the holding cages being so jammed full. However, when he saw my pass was to see a psychiatric doctor, he let me in the door. Mental health care passes are now mandatory and guards cannot refuse them or at least they are told not to.

When I saw the psychologist I must have looked troubled or distant. She asked what was wrong. I told her I was just exhausted. In the last week, I had 4 visits and had in fact just came from one. The constant barrage of noise and people in the penitentiary is very draining. If I want to be engaging on visits I must push myself to the limits of my ability to be social. With Cynthia, I was drinking large cups of coffee before I met her so I would be more communicative. After all visits, I crash for an hour or longer. Having a son with autism, the doctor seemed to understand and ended our appointment briefly so I could get back to the cell house before I was stuck in the crowded Health Care Unit's holding cages. There is no movement between shifts and I may have been tormented for a couple of hours unless I just tipped over into sleep or my own little universe. I am glad to have had 4 visits in such a short period of time, but it was taxing.