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Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Wall -- November 15, 2014

High walls surround the maximum security penitentiaries of Illinois. They can be seen from almost everywhere on the prison grounds and even from many cells including my own. Most other facilities have a double fence perimeter with razor wire. The latter is probably more effective in preventing escapes, however, it does not have the same  psychological effect. A wall isolates prisoners from the outside world by not allowing them to see out or for that matter for anyone to see in. Convicts are banished to a void amongst themselves and are to be forgotten, never seen, or heard from again. Unlike a fence, a wall also seems much more permanent. It reminds the men condemned inside their transgressions are irredeemable and whatever life they had before is gone. Even for the innocent, the wall has a crushing oppressive affect. They as well as the guilty share the same grim fate. It may be years, decades, or a century, but the wall will always be there until their death.

Sunday morning I awakened as I have for over 21 years in the confines of a cell. Despite how much time I have been incarcerated, it is always a shock to go from a world of dreams where I am a free teenager with an entire life ahead of me to an old man captive in a maximum security prison. I look at the dreary mottled gray walls of my cell to the bars where I hope to see something more but am stymied. Beyond the bars of my cell are the bars of the gallery and then the cell house walls. Looking out the opaque windows, I see yet more bars and beyond them is cyclone fencing topped with razor wire. In the distance are the looming walls of the penitentiary which prevent me from seeing anything further except for the tops of a few tall trees.

On the cell table are 4 Styrofoam trays stacked on top of each other. I opened the lid of one of them and discovered why there were extras. For breakfast prisoners were served farina, bread, and the most distasteful gravy. I took the bread out to make a couple of peanut butter sandwiches to eat while I watched the news. Most of the news continued to cover the elections from the week before and what would be forthcoming. However, there were also reports from Germany where people were celebrating the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Where the wall once stood separating East from West Berlin, thousands of balloons were released to float up into the sky. The collapse of the Soviet Union was a great triumph for the West, however, I think people have become complacent. To remember the pervasive oppression and horrors of the communist state, I thought it would be better if they had left the wall in place. Then every day Berliners could wake up as I did contemptuous of a wall which created so much maleficence.

On the cell house loudspeaker a guard exclaimed, "Good morning Green Bay Packer Fans!" before announcing the day's activities. I assumed she was being sarcastic to the small contingent of prisoners who would be cheering against the Bears later in the day. It was a rotten morning like most are in the penitentiary and in fact the only thing I looked forward to was the Packers trouncing the Bears on Sunday night football. I had no loyalty to the local Chicago team and since free agency began, I do not know how other people continue to have a fervent support for any team year after year if personnel changes. I liked the Packers due to players such as Aaron Rodgers, Jordy Nelson, Clay Mathews and others who I tended to like personally and had exceptional talent.

For dinner I left the confines of my cell to go to the chow hall. Prisoners were being served "tacos" but it was nothing similar to what most readers will conceptualize. A scoop of boiled turkey-soy, 2 stale corn shells, corn, and a little iceberg lettuce was placed on my tray. In the serving line, Snowman asked me if the IIP filed a DNA request yet. I was a little surprised because I had never told him about the lawyer's visit. Word travels fast in the penitentiary so I thought before telling him that I do not think anything will be filed in the courts for some time. Then it will probably take a couple of years or longer to get the results if testing is even allowed. Snowman responded that it took him 2 years from the time the Innocence Project at the University of Chicago filed his appeal to the time he was rejected. Cook County courts were much slower and I have heard of incarcerated men waiting up to a decade for a final adjudication of a collateral appeal. On the way back to the cell house, I looked at the vast concrete wall which encircles Stateville.

During a visit the week before, Cynthia gave me her phone number which I memorized to submit a request to be allowed to call her. As I suspected, she had quickly lost interest in writing. Very few people write letters anymore. It is email, texting, FB, or phone. I disliked talking on the phone, however, I knew women did and it was my only way to reach out to her. In the cell bars I placed a letter to her which mentioned she will need to pay the prison collect call service provider upfront and it may be a couple of weeks before her number is entered into the system. Behind these maximum security walls it is difficult to maintain connections with people. Being able to call her may keep her in touch for a few more months.

Monday morning the noise in the cell house came to a roar early. There was a relatively great amount of movement for men in a high security facility. Prisoners on the upper galleries were permitted to go to the commissary building. As always, they yelled to each other about exchanging goods, paying debts, or asking for handouts. Personal property lines were run allowing men to get legal papers out of storage. Some prisoners have 10 or more boxes of discovery, transcripts, and appeals which they could not possibly fit into the 2 boxes they may have in their cells. In addition, there was law library after lunch as well as several "B of I" lines. The B of I is short for the Bureau of Identification Office where prisoners are photographed. I asked a guard if I would be having my ID renewed and was told there was already too much going on. Possibly, tomorrow, but all inmates who had yet to have an annual update were going this week provided the penitentiary did not go on lockdown.

With my headphones on I read until the time of my health care pass in the afternoon. In the holding cages of the H.C.U., it was not much quieter. I intended to go to the back window and stare at the little patch of lawn which separates a hallway from the prison hospital. There was not much to see because 50 yards down was a long perpendicular building and above and beyond it the front of the penitentiary which has 35 foot walls extending away from the structure in both directions. A prisoner I knew 2 decades ago from the Cook County Jail stopped me from gazing out. Frankenstein seemed to believe we were compatriots of some sort because of the media publicity I received years ago as a mass murderer. No, I was framed for the Palatine Massacre and had nothing in common with the crazy serial killer except we were both Caucasian with ancestors from Poland.

Another white convict sitting next to Frankenstein upon hearing I was quartered in C House began a conversation with me. The man wanted me to send a message to a prisoner on a gallery above mine. I asked him what it was but all he would say was to tell Moon his nephew was in the Roundhouse and he needed to get in touch with him. There were a number of black prisoners who had family members in prison, but this man was white and Moon did not seem old enough to be his uncle. Eventually he was to explain they were just in the same gang. Gang members will sometimes refer to themselves as family. It was not to be deceptive, but because their real family had long ago ceased to be a part of their lives. The gang was their family, especially within the confines of the wall.

After my doctor appointment, I was sent back to my unit and spent time on the gallery waiting for a guard to open my cell door. I noticed a prisoner working on a fan. He was trying to repair it, but said the motor was shot. My fan was working well, but had a shattered plastic exterior and I asked him if I could have it. He said, "Sure," and went on to explain how it was my cellmate who had given him the fan in the first place. Anthony had found it in the garbage and thought he may be able to repair it. Inside the cell, I gutted my fan and put the parts into the new one. The cracked shell and dead motor were discarded.

Guards on the 2nd shift were still trying to persuade my cellmate to work from 4 to 10 p.m. Anthony was a reliable worker the guards trusted and got along with. The dilemma for him, however, was he did not want to miss his TV shows at night which were his escape from the ugly realities of prison. In a compromise he told them he would work both shifts if they would allow him to lock up early and only on a temporary basis until they found someone else. Joe Miller had been assigned to work the 2nd shift, however, he was a repugnant convict staff did not like or trust. Prisoners also did not like Miller and it was for reasons other than him torturing and killing a number of women in his truck trailer. Regardless, "Whips and Chains" was a crippled old man now and would not be able to do the assignment.

After Anthony was let out of the cell, I did all the things I could not do earlier waiting to be called for the B of I and then at the H.C.U. I exercised, bathed, and cleaned the cell. Then, due to the poor meal served for dinner, I made a substitute meal. The hot water pipes in the building were scalding hot and I gave my cellmate a package of shredded beef to place on it as well as a bottle of water. The water I used to make instant refried beans and brown rice to go into the burritos I was making. After rolling them up, I placed them in a potato chip bag to also put on the pipe. The bag has a slight tin interior which singes the flour tortillas. I told Anthony I will regularly make burritos if he works the 2nd shift, but he only worked that one evening. There is not much for cell house workers to do on the 2nd shift and guards can go short staffed.

Tuesday I was repeatedly told to get ready for the B of I and then to never mind. I know many people who read this blog look at my IDOC mugshot to see what I look like. Thus, I spent time in front of the mirror posing for the photo. I did not want to look happy and smile like my cellmate nor did I want to look miserable. I tried to strike a middle ground. Then I combed my hair, parting it on the side, and then just letting it fall down naturally to cover my receding hairline. Eventually, I became fed up trying to look nice and waiting. I exercised and did the common things I usually do in the cell. When my cellmate finished working he told me the delay in ID updates was due to Moon blasting another prisoner who goes by the name Missouri. Both of them were at Gate 5 near the B of I office. After the incident, guards began taking only small groups of prisoners and were taking extra security precautions. I told Anthony sarcastically that Moon will now be able to talk with his "nephew" in the Roundhouse.

During the evening news, reporters were talking about the Asian summit the president of the U.S. was attending along with other national leaders in China. The media made a big deal about Vladimir Putin putting a jacket around the Chinese premier's wife. They also spent time talking about Barack Obama chewing Nicorette gum. I thought this was absurd and there were many more important issues to be discussed. China and Russia were both projecting increased power. Russian tanks were rolling into Ukraine and China was demanding extensive rights in international waters. They had just acquired their first aircraft carrier and had the audacity to showcase their new stealth bomber which was obviously built on stolen technology from the U.S.

After the news segment, I took off my headphones to find out what a prisoner on my gallery wanted. He was shouting my name. Finally, I went to the cell bars and said, "Speak. Who calls?" The man told me a few packs of Ramen Noodles were thrown in front of my cell and he wanted me to pass them down. There was nothing there, however, and I told him so. A cell house help worker or some other prisoner had just tossed them up on the gallery from the lower floor. I did not know what to tell him and said maybe the child abductor next door to me abducted his noodles. Upon hearing this he began to shout his name demanding his stuff. John ignored him but his cellmate claimed he did not take them.

With my breakfast Wednesday, I watched the 7 a.m. news. A large mass of Arctic air was moving into the upper Midwest. Along with the front was a snow storm that was already blanketing Minnesota. I thought about the foolish notion of man-made global warming and the president's non-binding deal with China to reduce carbon emissions. It was a ridiculous agreement not only because there is no evidence to demonstrate a correlation with industrial carbon dioxide emissions and a warmer planet, but because Barack Obama was stifling economic growth in the U.S. while China would never up hold its end of the bargain. China emits far more carbon emissions as well as other real pollutants. The pact with China was a farce solely to make the environmentalists in the U.S. happy and supportive of the Democratic Party.

Finally, guards let me out and several other prisoners to be escorted to the B of I. On the way there, gusts of wind tossed my hair. I went into the bathroom to wet it down but that was all I was doing to look nice. I hated posing for pictures. Waiting outside the office, Shaky commented about the small group and I told him about Moon knocking out Missouri. As I told the story, I looked at the child molester and made insinuations he could be blasted next. He went to the front right next to the door as if it provided him with protection. When I went in for my photo I was annoyed by not only John but all the low lives in the penitentiary. All the practicing the previous day for posing for a new mug shot went out the window.

Later in the morning I went on a visit only to be more annoyed by the badgering of my mother. She wanted me to quickly approve the draft petition sent to me by my lawyer. The draft was not even completed and had numerous other problems. My parents had pressured me to listen to my trial attorney who failed to contest the interrogating officer's testimony. Then they proceeded to hire various attorneys on appeal who I did not like or approve of. This time my appeal was being done my way. I was submitting all the issues I had and was going to support the petition with every affidavit I could possibly procure. Never again was a lawyer going to burn me with incompetence or not playing all my cards.

Back in my cell, Anthony wanted to see my photo ID. He said, "Damn, you look angry, almost as if you are glaring at the camera." I am angry. I have spent over 21 years incarcerated in the worst maximum security facilities despite not having the least bit of involvement in the murder I was convicted of. I did not even know my roommate killed the man until months later when he was arrested and it was on television news. I had evidence my car was 50 miles away from the crime scene and yet the witnesses were not called to testify. Appeal after appeal has been denied or dismissed and I am still struggling to get my case in the courts. The photo expressed exactly how I feel as well as my age. I looked every bit 40 or older and the loss of half my life made me angrier. A post conviction appeal will take 5 to 10 years and that is after I find a good private investigator/ attorney to file it.

In the evening I was handed a stack of old newspapers for my cellmate and I. Anthony even had several magazines to go with his News-Gazettes. I was not about to read all the newsprint nor did I think I could in a few hours before I became too tired and had to call it a day. I chose to read just the edition of Barron's. the USA Today was a liberal rag and its articles would only upset me. To shut out the cellhouse noise, I put on my headphones and listened to the cassette tape "The Wall" by Pink Floyd. The band was popular amongst stoners when I was in high school. I assume they smoked dope or did LSD to the psychedelic music, but I just used it to relax and ignored most of the lyrics. The Wall, however, has an interesting blend of subject matters from WWII to the post war British Fascists as well as a person who has a great amount of emotions bottled up within himself. That was me wanting to break out beyond the wall.

The following morning I went through the USA Today papers. There was an article written by Oren Dorell. He wrote about the feelings of Germans towards supporting Ukraine against a Russian invasion. The people he interviewed were at Lindenstasse 54, a museum dedicated to victims of political violence. It was formerly a jail in East Germany where the secret police of the communist state, STAZI, tortured and held political activists. Despite many Germans suffering under the Soviet Union, few were eager to help Ukrainians. They felt resentment that no one came to their aid when the Iron Curtain fell over them. The U.S. should have sent forces straight through Berlin all the way into Russia to topple the Marxist government, but cowardly political leaders prevailed. Unfortunately, cowardly political leaders still prevail to the detriment of the U.S. and its allies. The only wall Barack Obama seeks to prevent rising is on America's southern border.

After WWII, the Soviet Union seized half of Europe. Millions of people were slaughtered or sent to gulags never to be seen again. Those spared lived under the heavy oppression of communist rule. The regime spread its system of government around the world even off the coast of the U.S. in Cuba. The Soviets seemed invincible until the 1980's when Ronald Reagan used every means possible short of nuclear war to undermine "the evil empire". Eventually, the communist state began to crumble and on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall came down. Jubilant crowds took part in demolishing the wall into rubble and not long thereafter the USSR ceased to exist. It was a monumental achievement and I was glad when a small piece of the wall was given to me as a souvenir. The ugly chip of concrete held more value to me than if it were a semi-precious stone. It represented the defeat of America's arch nemesis and an ideology I abhorred. It also represented liberty. I do not know what came of the chip of concrete over my 21 years of incarceration, however, with a looming prison wall to stare at every day, I will never forget its symbolism.