You are reading a rare, detailed account of everyday life in Stateville Prison.

Click to read Paul's blog quoted on:
To contact Paul, please email: paulmodrowski@gmail.com
or write him at the address shown in the right column. He will get your message personally.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Ebola -- October 25, 2014

Once again, many inmates are sick with colds. It does not take long for the virus to spread exponentially in a crowded prison. Just a few people can go on to pass the airborne pathogen to the entire population of incarcerated men as well as many staff members. I have tried to take precautions to elude the germs and those who carry them, but with my cellmate already ill, I can only hope my immune system is strong enough to fight off the invaders. The situation reminds me of the Ebola epidemic raging in West Africa and threatening to spill over into the U.S. The White House administration has been slow and incompetent to respond to yet another international crisis. Rather than quickly suspending visas and mandating quarantine for citizens exposed to the scourge, the president lackadaisically addressed the matter with a plan which ironically encourages an open border policy. Although the hysteria is certainly overblown by the media and Americans are far more likely to become sick from other germs, this is little consolation to the relative few who will be afflicted with Ebola and die a quick and horrible death.

Earlier in the month I was surprised a memo by Stateville's medical director was posted. It encouraged people to follow a number of common sense tips to avoid becoming ill and passing their germs onto others. The IDOC has a record 50,000 prisoners and continues to pack men as well as women into the system. The crowded conditions increase the likelihood of outbreaks and the percentage of elderly inmates only exasperates the problem. Due to excessive sentencing statutes, people are serving more time and the median age has gone from mid-20 to almost 40. Despite this, lawmakers in Springfield are unwilling to reduce criminal penalties and the problems are passed on to prison administrators. The memo, however, was largely a fruitless effort because the best advice was for people to self quarantine. I highly doubted staff would stay home or convicts would stay in their cells and miss meals. At least flu vaccinations were being offered and when nurses did rounds asking men if they wanted one, I said, "Yes, and write my cellmate down for two."

Anthony was initially in denial about being sick. He tends to believe that if he does not think he is ill, he will not be. Furthermore, he does not want me to ridicule or blame him for exposing me to whatever pathogens he picks up. However, I can be very perceptive of a person's health particularly when in close proximity to them. While I may be oblivious occasionally to some matters like social dynamics, I notice minute changes and details many others will miss. Before my cellmate even showed any symptoms, I was aware he was sick. He claimed I was crazy that I could sense he was incubating germs and that it was noticeable in the air. Later when he sneezed I glared at him and said, "Ebola." I was jesting about the deadly virus but knew the sneeze was not innocuous.

The cold first affected his sinuses and then throat. By Sunday, he had black circles underneath his eyes and could barely talk. Other prisoners were also thankfully muted and as the Chicago Bears lost to the Miami Dolphins, there was not the usual shouting throughout the cell house. I was very busy and glad for the lack of disruptions. Occasionally, I would see what my cellmate was doing. He lay on his bunk watching television, took a nap, and sewed a couple of boxers. Prisoners have yet to receive any clothing this year and are forced to buy it at exorbitant prices or attempt to repair their old underwear or other garments. Last week, however, a guard did walk by asking men if they needed a jacket or blanket. Possibly, these will be passed out before winter.

A few days after I met with the Illinois Innocence Project, the penitentiary was taken off lockdown. The administration apparently saw no need for yet another SORT search or to collectively punish everyone for the actions of a few in the Roundhouse. Some inmates speculated also the administration was partly to blame because they permitted the lieutenant within the wall when his previous conduct reassigned him to the NRC (Northern Receiving Unit). The resumption of normal operations, however, had the adverse effect of allowing the continued spread of cold germs which was temporarily lessened while prisoners were confined to their cells. I intentionally kept myself on lockdown to limit my contact with people. Eventually, though, I realized my seclusion served little purpose with having a sick cellmate and I went out for dinner.

In the chow hall, I could not escape the presence of Anthony as he sat at the same table. He ate his chicken noodles without saying much. It seemed as if we were tied at the hip and I was amused but also a little annoyed thinking about a lieutenant who began to nickname us "M & M" after the chocolate candy and the first letter of our last names. With Mertz sick, I did not want to be stuck in the same bag or anywhere near him. Ironically, after I left the table I happened to bump into the lieutenant and he was asking where my other half was. I told him he did not want to approach my cellmate. Thanks in part to his idolized president, I mused he was stricken with Ebola. The lieutenant probably thought I blamed all the nation's problems on Barack Obama and asked if there was just anything positive I could say about him. I had to think long and hard about the question. I tended to believe he was the worst president in the history of the United States and I thought less of him than Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson, or Jimmy Carter. Finally, I said he was poised, articulate, and unwavering in his political ideology even if I found it repugnant.

Monday morning, I looked into my breakfast tray to find a cup of cereal and 3 small pancakes. In lieu of syrup, there were a couple of tablespoons of a substance I am told is Kefir and was donated to the prison in bulk. The vanilla colored liquid is unappealing to me and I refused to ruin my flapjacks using it. Instead, I spread oatmeal cookie crumbs over them and followed with some hot coffee. This was my substitute for syrup and made a tasty combination especially with peanut butter or nuts. My purported twin has noticed the way I prepare my pancakes and did the same later in the day as a snack. I regularly tell him I need to sue him for copyright infringement.

While I ate the bran cereal and improvised pancakes, I watched the news. After much criticism, the U.S. president announced he was taking the fight to West Africa. Just exactly how Ebola was going to be defeated was left up to the Pentagon. Officials created a plan to build 17 treatment centers which were in essence a series of tents. The tents will be used to isolate and help afflicted Africans survive the disease that has already claimed 5,000 lives. Military personnel under the charge of Major General Darryl Williams will not only build the mobile hospitals, but also give a full complement of medical aid. While several thousand troops are deployed to West Africa, only 30 people will be assigned to the U.S. in a rapid response medical team. The president and other liberals like to think of themselves as progressive and forward yet the lopsided use of manpower seemed backwards to me.

Most mornings I will exercise early. However, with my cellmate being ill, it may be wiser for me to wait until he leaves the cell. I did not want to be breathing heavily while he was spewing forth germs. Chow lines will take between a half hour to a full hour to be run and that was almost sufficient time for me to complete my routine. In the meantime I shaved and trimmed my hair by the cell bars. A variety of announcements were made over the cell house loudspeaker including a Jehovah Witness retreat. There are few Jehovah Witnesses in the penitentiary and it was odd to hear this religious service announced. Despite being ill, my cellmate joked by asking if I was attending. He knew that for a period of time during my childhood I studied with them and attended their Kingdom Hall. He also knew soon thereafter I became agnostic and have been ever since. Occasionally, I will quote passages from books by Friedrich Nietzsche including "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" where he mocks Christianity.

When my cellmate returned from the chow hall, I would not let him back inside. I had yet to finish working out and told him to go away. As he walked in the door, I gave him a knee to the stomach and pushed him back on the gallery. A guard who was standing nearby laughed at the exchange. He knew I was simply playing. He also volunteered to put my cellmate in the holding cage until I was finished, but I told him not to bother. Millions of airborne pathogens probably remained floating in the cell with or without him.

During the evening I stayed in the cell to watch NBR, an economics news program, and read a copy of Barron's. Last week, the stock market continued to fall and the Dow Jones even went to 15,855 before recovering. Investors were scared of slowing global growth, tensions with Russia, rising interest rates, and even an Ebola epidemic. Prices were frothy in September and people were probably wise to take profits then. However, now I saw opportunity in the energy sector which had been beaten down. Some stocks were down 40% and that was a bargain particularly for the long term investor. For example, Noble Energy, an offshore rigging company, was selling at $18 and had a sustainable 8% dividend. By 2020, I suspected the price would be over $40 and in the meantime investors would earn 32% on their capital.

Tuesday morning the news fleetingly changed to report on the fate of Oscar Pistorius. Pistorius became famous as the first man to compete in the Olympics without any legs. The "Blade Runner" did not win any medals but was still a champion in many people's eyes particularly in South Africa at least until he killed his beautiful girlfriend, Reeva Steemkamp. He claimed that it was an accident and he thought she was an intruder. I do not know if I believe him, but from my own experience with the criminal justice system, I knew he deserved the benefit of the doubt. The three judge panel seemed to agree and found him guilty only of culpable homicide which in the U.S., I believe, is akin to involuntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to 5 years in prison but will be eligible for home release in 10 months.

Tuesday was a pleasant autumn day and I went out to the small yard to lift weights. Even my cellmate could not resist going outside and I was surprised to see him have enough energy or breath to play basketball. He was definitely going to pay for that later and I did not believe for a moment his statement of "sweating it out". A person cannot sweat out a cold virus and the only thing he was managing to do was stress his body even further. Later, he would respond that I did squat presses despite having two crushed lumbar discs. However, I used a relatively light weight and took the precaution of using another prisoner's waist wrap.

Part of my weight lifting routine involved overturning a steel table so it was at a 70 degree angle and I could do preacher curls off it. This bothered some people including Bone who wanted to sit on one of its stools. After I finished my 6 sets I began looking for the sickly old biker. I found him lying on the ground and I could not stop myself from running over and pretending to give him a drop kick. Bone said it was just like me to kick a man when he was down. I told him when he is dead we were going to take his shoes, sweatshirt and pants. Horse retorted that he was not touching his pants, insinuating that in death he will crap in them. I really need some new clothes, however, and have no problem washing them. It is not as if he has Ebola.

Leaving the rectangular enclosed yard, I noticed an old black man being pushed in a wheel chair into the cell house. The unit had a number of elderly crippled men serving indefinite prison sentences. It was mostly due to the 1990s "get tough on crime" legislation. What made this prisoner different, however, was that he would be released on Thursday. I wondered what he was going to do. He cannot walk, has multiple health issues, and will require nursing care. No wonder when I passed by him he did not seem the least bit happy.

After taking a mid-afternoon nap, I made tea for my cellmate and me. From his bunk, he insisted I mix in a packet of artificial sweetener (the prison does not sell real sugar because inmates can make hooch and moonshine with it) and a couple of lemon cough drops. "Anything else?" I asked. Yes, he wanted me to pass him a roll of toilet paper so he could blow his nose. The tea apparently perked him up and he was happy to play the game show "Jeopardy" with him blurting out answers before I could. Afterwards he wrote a letter to the assignment officer asking if he could have his kitchen job back instead of a cell house help detail. He sought my help whereupon I told him that in his condition he could not be allowed to work with food. The entire prison would have Ebola in weeks.

At night, I had to yell downstairs to a guard because the nurse failed to stop by my cell. I may try to make do without the sleeping medication, but with the cold virus in the air and probably already in my system, I needed all the Z's I could get. The prior night guards awakened me at 2 a.m. because they miscounted repeatedly. They announced on the loudspeaker that all prisoners were to put their ID cards on the bars. I got out of bed and did this but later was awakened by another guard who did not see the cards. I pointed at them and he carried on after flashing a LED light at me. The nurse eventually did return, but after I had fallen asleep. She was apologetic unlike the guard and said she felt stupid for waking me to give me sleeping pills. I told her it was alright. My problem was not falling asleep but staying asleep.

The following morning while I was cleaning the floor and wiping off all common surfaces with disinfectant, Steve interrupted me. He had been let out of his cell for law library and was locked upstairs until the movement team was ready to escort lines. As I spoke to him, my cellmate looked up from his pillow. He looked terrible and Steve asked him if he wanted more aspirin. Anthony did and the pompous short man asked what he was going to do for him. My cellmate told me to "take care of that," but I replied, "Maybe we should take care of you." Continuing on I said, "You do realize that I have the cure for the common cold?" With dark circles under his eyes he looked at me with skepticism or suspicion as I delivered my punchline, "By killing the host, the parasitic virus is snuffed out."

Later in the day, I left Anthony in his misery to go on a visit. On the way to the front of the penitentiary, I heard there was a hold on all health care passes. The prison hospital was packed and unable to accept any more people. Many prisoners other than my cellmate were sick. The backlog of patients at Stateville is nothing new, however. Commonly, the holding cages are filled and prisoners are sent back. Just getting an appointment can take over a month.

For dinner I left my cell again and on the way out of the quarter unit acknowledged the lieutenant who was a big fan of the president by saying, "Lieutenant Ebola." It was actually a slip of the tongue and not meant as a joke. Ebola, Obama, and the lieutenant's name all sounded very similar. The officer could not help from laughing at my play on words even though it was done by accident. I was still musing about the incident as I entered the chow hall and confronted a large crowd of convicts who were coughing, sneezing, and blowing their runny noses. Some prisoners who had yet to succumb to the virus had pulled up their shirts over their noses. I was not certain a T-shirt could filter a virus and just tried to find the most space where I would not be shoulder to shoulder with sick men.

In the serving line, I went through nearly 10 trays before I found one without any food stuck on it. Then I wondered if it was what I did not see that was most dangerous. The tray washer at Stateville regularly fails to clean off the remnants of the last meal served. I complained to the Snowman who was working the line, however, he had an apathetic attitude. I suppose when a person works in a kitchen that has mice and roaches, uncooked and poorly handled food, as well as rotten and spoiled food, dirty trays were insignificant. As I sat down to eat my meal, I could only hope the water used had been hot enough to kill the germs on the tray.

For entertainment I watched the movie "Kindergarten Cop" before going to sleep. It is an amusing film where Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a kindergarten teacher. His partner became sick with food poisoning and he had to take her place. The muscle bound and brusque cop had trouble fitting into his undercover role. He was accustomed to dealing with hardened criminals, thugs, and various dregs of society and not little children. Eventually though, he is able to adjust and of course he gets the "bad guy" in the end.

My cellmate learned his lesson from playing penitentiary basketball on Tuesday and stayed inside the cell Thursday to rest up. I, on the other hand, went to the yard to finish my weight lifting regimen. There are some exercises which are just impossible to do on the small yard despite how much I improvise. While lifting weights I was occasionally joined by black convicts and I had the pleasure of their crude conversation. There was one prisoner though who impressed me by what he learned in a non-credited college course on politics and American history. The class taught by instructors from Northwestern University was one I wanted to take, but did not learn about until it was too late to sign up. Steve, who is in the class, told me I may like the subject matter but not the feminist radicals teaching it or their spin. He said he put a damper on their "girl power" in the first class when they asked if anyone knew when women gained the right to vote. Steve raised his hand and said, "1920, and they have never shut up since."

After yard, I bathed out of the sink and was glad the hot air blower was working. Last week, the boiler at the NRC finally began to send water over to Stateville and heat the pipes. Before then, it was very chilly in the cell house. The cold air may have even weakened the immune systems of elderly prisoners particularly those celled on the lower floor. The circular blower unit is almost directly across from my cell and while it was nice to have the heat sent in, I noticed it also sends in a lot of dust. I assume if it can blow dirt in, it can also blow in cold virus pathogens. There was no way I could avoid breathing them in or washing them off my body.

Yesterday, I was handed a stack of newspapers going back into the previous week. I was not surprised many of the articles focused on the Ebola epidemic. The headline for my most recent paper was "Ebola Hits New York" and I read about a doctor who had been treating afflicted Africans being allowed to meander around the U.S.'s most populous city until he tested positive for the disease at Bellevue Hospital. Mayor Bill de Blasso tried to reassure the public there was nothing to fear and people are not contagious until they develop a fever. In other articles I read stories also trying to counter the hysteria which pointed out influenza, measles, and norovirus were far more common and infectious. This was true but the mortality rate for them was not close to that of Ebola which killed almost 3 out of every 4 people. Fortunately, a few governors such as Chris Cristie were now mandating quarantines of all aid workers returning from West Africa. Despite liberals' cry that it will dissuade assistance, public officials' first priority was to protect Americans. It was a false premise that free Western nations could not keep out deadly epidemics. Throughout the 18th century, diseases of cholera, yellow fever, and small pox were stopped at the border by travel bans.

The U.S. President's unwillingness to restrict travel and sending troops to fight a plague but not engage in combat around the world are symptomatic of his liberal, international political ideology. He does not care about America, but creating a Marxist utopia. The military has been rescinded while enemies abroad proliferate and take advantage of power vacuums. The borders are not only open to deadly diseases but millions of illegal aliens with foreign allegiances if not hatred for their host country. A robust economy is weakened to fulfill a socialist agenda. People along with business are also oppressed for egalitarian purposes. Ebola was not the scariest thing the U.S. and other Western nations faced. It was the 5th column growing within.