The Ploy

“C’mon man! Come over here. I’ll beat your ass!! Come step in this shower room and we can handle this right now.”

Rigger’s face and bald head was red with rage. His eyes seemed suitably wild, and his words certainly carried plenty of threat. To the uninitiated it appeared that he was ready to rumble, that violence was forthcoming.  To me he was terrified and desperate.

Behind the Curtain

Reality was much different than the facade that Rigger would have everyone believe. The man he was threatening, a guy named Whitey, was actually a good friend of his. They’d known each other for years both in and out of prison as they were both repeat offenders several times over. They’d had an argument and falling out less than an hour previous.

Rigger had been crushing pills. Whatever random painkiller, mood stabilizer, muscle relaxer, or anything at all that he could get his hands on. He’d take his surreptitiously procured medications and hide in the bathroom. There would be a lot of tapping and banging as the drugs were crushed down into a suitably fine powder. Then it was all piled together and snorted as an ill-advised cocktail of miscellaneous prescription medications that Rigger didn’t have any prescriptions for. Even if he had, I don’t believe “nasally” is how a medical professional would recommend the pills being taken.

Overdose

Rigger had only been back from the hospital a day or two. He had overdosed on the cockamamie concoction that he’d been snorting. Whitey and I had both witnessed him seizing, shaking, and foaming at the mouth. Rigger was able to lie and convince everyone, even the treating nurses and physicians, that it was a seizure. Whitey knew better, and when he saw that Rigger was back to his old lunatic tricks, he told him in unvarnished language just how much of an absolute idiotic moron he was.

Intervention

There was yelling and cursing in abundance as Whitey performed his one man impromptu intervention. Rigger sat silent like a chastened child through much of it. There wasn’t anything he could say to defend his actions. Whitey’s tactics may have been deserving of criticism, but his anger and frustration was coming from a place of concern and affection for his friend. Unfortunately, most inmates feel the need to maintain the facade of machismo lest they be perceived as somehow weak, or less than, so Rigger could only take so much before he had to balk at Whitey’s words.

Confrontation

“You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about! I had a seizure. This stuff doesn’t have anything to do with that.”

“Really?” Whitey responded with a tone which conveyed that he couldn’t believe Rigger would lie so effortlessly to his face. “Do you think I’m that stupid? Do you? Huh? How long we know each other bro? Hmm? You know I know what the hell you’re doing. That shit’s gotta stop.”

“Who the hell do you think you are anyway? I do what I want.”

“I thought I was your Road Dog.”

“Oh that’s just bullshit you tell people. You don’t give a damn about me. We met over a state tray bro. It don’t mean shit.”

“What!? I had you over to my place last time we were out there together. You’re the one who’s on bullshit, and you know it.”

“Well what’s it to you? What are you going to do about it?”

“I’m trying to get you to get your head out of your ass!”

“No you’re acting like a bitch, telling me what to do.”

The B Word

One of the most confounding things I experienced during my years of incarceration was the evolution of the usage of that particular B word. When I started doing my time it was the ultimate of insults. Calling a guy that derogatory designation was akin to a literal slap in the face, an affront which could not be allowed to go unanswered. I can’t even begin to put a number to the amount of times I saw minor disagreements or disputes escalate into violence due to the arrival of that particular word on the scene. It used to have a malevolent kind of magic to it.

The last couple years of my incarceration, as a newer, younger generation of convicts were beginning to predominate the prison population, I was appalled when I first heard the word slip so effortlessly from their young lips. The first time it happened I tensed and started looking for the quickest avenue of retreat to ensure that I was a safe distance removed while the melee ensued. Instead the two kids (that’s how I saw them, and that proves I’m old) just laughed and exchanged the most egregious of insults a dozen times between one another. The B word now, to them, is like saying “dude” or “bro”.

Whitey and Rigger are not of this new generation. Rigger didn’t technically call Whitey a bitch, he just said he was behaving in the manner of one. It’s a fine line that Whitey didn’t respect or recognize as significant. In his mind he’d just received a metaphorical slap to the face and would have to respond accordingly.

Backed Down

“WHAT THE FUCK DID YOU SAY!!!?”

Whitey exploded like a mini neutron bomb. He was maybe 5’ 5” and that’s probably being generous. To look at him he didn’t appear physically imposing, but he had a terrible temper. I’d seen the results of this before when he and his cellie had once started swinging on each other because Whitey felt the other guy was spending too much time on the toilet.

Well-adjusted, Whitey isn’t.

When he got wound up he was similar to a raccoon that has been backed against a wall. A small but driven whirlwind of violence, not to be underestimated. Whitey lunged toward Rigger, coming within a quarter inch of physical contact. Even though he had to crane his neck upwards to look Rigger in the face, Whitey still managed to be intimidating. The genuine, undiluted rage helped a lot.

Rigger looked instantly cowed, realizing he had crossed a line and was in a scenario that almost certainly had to end with violence. Whitey snarled and yelled too fast to keep up with his profanity and insults. Rigger backed down physically and psychologically. It had the appearance of a literal shrinking. Myself and another inmate got between the two of them. I had to restrain Whitey and it was like trying to contain a sac of ferrets squirming with lithe muscles. Whitey challenged/invited Rigger to meet him in the shower room where there were fewer prying eyes and they could fight to settle their disagreement. He made sure to drop the B word about a dozen times so that Rigger would know that he’d been insulted to the fullest. The inference being that if Rigger were to not show up for the fight, then his status as a bitch would be cemented.

Juvenile schoolyard games abound behind prison walls.

The Ploy

I got Whitey extricated from the situation for his own good. Even managed to calm him down. Close to an hour had passed. We were sitting in the dayroom, just being nonviolent, passively watching a table of guys play cards, when Rigger walked to the middle of the dayroom. He took his shirt off, mustered his imitation ire, and issued the ultimatum for Whitey to meet him for a fight in the shower room.

This entire maneuver was a calculated one. Rigger had used the intervening time to go and pack all his belongings so that when he went to Segregation his possessions would follow him as opposed to being ransacked by all the greedy, sticky-fingered inmates who could get close to them. And a few officers with especially loose scruples. By stepping into the dayroom and removing his shirt there was a good chance he’d be taken away to SEG. Issuing a threat of violence to another inmate in full view of the C/O made his trip there an inevitability. The whole thing was a ploy, an attempt to save face and look tough, when in reality, if he had really wanted to fight the time would’ve been when Whitey was in his face.

Rigger didn’t want to fight. I can’t blame him.

I grabbed Whitey by the arm and he about bit my head off, but I held him in check. The usually taciturn C/O became suddenly indignant and animated. Rigger was carted off as he hollered threats and curses that were completely hollow. The unenlightened inmates thought Whitey had avoided a fight. Those like myself who were more experienced knew just how cowardly and laughable Rigger’s display had been.

 

 

 

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The Joke

My understanding of the process was that it was a rubber stamp formality. The whole thing just a big show put on by the prison administration to give the appearance that they were actually doing something important and substantial. These impressions had been forged from conversations with dozens of inmates over the years who were nearing their release date. I readily admit that my ideas had also been heavily informed by own cynicism. I now know that it was even a bigger joke than I could’ve ever imagined.

NOT Parole

MSR. Mandatory Supervised Release. This is not parole. Judges, attorneys, employees of and representatives for the Department of Corrections, even prison inmates—everyone uses the terms as interchangeable. It isn’t accurate or appropriate. There hasn’t been a formal parole system in this state since 1977.

Parole

Anyone who has ever seen the film Shawshank Redemption, or about a thousand other pop-culture examples, has a basic understanding of the formal parole system. The convict goes before a panel of individuals, The Parole Review Board, and states their case as to why they are a good candidate to be released on parole. This hearing only happens after they have served a certain portion of their sentence. If the individual is deemed unfit or not ready for parole then he remains in prison for a period until he gets another chance before the board. If the person is released, it’s a type of conditional discharge, meaning that there will be certain conditions or rules he must abide by. Things like not leaving the state, not breaking the law, securing a proper residence and job, reporting to a parole officer, submitting to random drug tests. This parole system allowed for some latitude and provided an avenue through which an inmate could, ostensibly, prove his ability and willingness to make positive changes in his or her life and mindset. These positive changes could then serve as reasons for releasing an inmate on parole.

Current Reality

Mandatory Supervised Release is a whole different animal. MSR is another type of conditional discharge so the actual restrictions or rules put in place for the individual once he or she is released from the penitentiary are essentially the same as under the parole system. The big and undeniable difference is what occurs prior to the inmate’s release. MSR requires that each inmate to serve the entirety of the term to which their judge sentenced them. This is then followed by what is essentially a second sentence, a set period of years required to be served on the conditional release of MSR. With the lack of rehabilitative programs and the rise of truth in sentencing laws, for many, there is no avenue by which an inmate can demonstrate that they are rehabilitated, nor is there incentive to do so. Let me explain.

Prison Math

In this scenario there are four hypothetical offenders who are all given a ten-year sentence. One is sentenced at 50 percent, one at 75, one at 85, and the last is to be served at 100 percent. These percentages are mandated by the type and severity of the crime for which a person is incarcerated. The person sentenced at ten years at fifty percent would serve a five-year prison term, but would be eligible to earn reductions for involvement in educational and rehabilitative programs. The remaining three must serve seven and a half, eight and half, and ten years respectively. Beyond the rare occasion of a legal technicality or loophole, there’s no way they will serve one single day less than these percentages. A person serving a sentence at 75 or 85 percent could be made to serve up to the entire ten years if he or she were to do something extreme like assaulting a staff member, possessing a weapon or drugs, trying to escape.

The Real Truth In Sentencing

As long as the inmate only breaks the minor rules they can stay in trouble their entire time behind prison walls, thereby demonstrating their inability or unwillingness to abide by the constraints of authority, and still be released after serving the mandated percentage of their sentence. On the reverse, an inmate could stay out of trouble, spending his or her time earning every single certificate or degree, taking all available classes to change their felonious ways of thinking, and perhaps even learn a skill or trade they can use in the future to secure gainful employment.

None of it matters.

The quality of life for these hypothetical inmates would be drastically different, but their behavior, whether good or bad, wouldn’t alter their release date or the number of years they’d have to abide by the restrictions that the conditional release known as MSR will put on them. Therefore, the onus for seeking out a rehabilitative activity or mindset falls squarely on the inmate. These men and women are expected to change their entire way of thinking and being with little to no encouragement or opportunity. Furthermore, for even for those who want to take advantage access to school is denied or delayed for years because class space is very limited and priority is given to those inmates who are eligible to earn good time credit off their sentence. I had managed to earn enough college credits for an Associate’s Degree in General Studies. I also took a number of other classes and received certificates of excellence. These mattered to me, but when I went before the Prisoner Review Board, I found out just how little goodwill all my hard work had engendered in them.

Prisoner Review Board

Since the instituting of MSR, the Parole Review Board became largely obsolete. It was rebranded as the Prisoner Review Board and their function became mostly ornamental. The decision-making process removed the human element and turned it into a mathematical equation. Both rehabilitative behavior and minor disciplinary issues during my incarceration were inconsequential. I had committed a violent crime, so certain specific restrictions would be placed on me as conditions of my release. X + Y = Z. I knew all of this as I sat and waited for my name to be called, yet adrenalized nerves still jangled within me as I rehearsed in my head the statement I had prepared about what I’d done with my time in prison and how I changed as proof of my rehabilitation. I was determined to say my piece, whether or not it had any effect.

The Joke

As I walked toward the officer who had called my name I glanced at the clock high on the wall and saw that the minute hand was suspended between 9:55 and 9:56. I was directed to a seat across the table from an elderly man whose surprisingly smooth brown skin reminded me of a highly polished and much loved piece of antique furniture. Without looking up he asked my name then shuffled through the papers in front of him to locate mine. He was tiny, frail. If he had stood up I doubt he would’ve achieved a height much past five feet. An unadorned cane leaned against the table next to him, which he would’ve had to use if he were to stand. His head was large, round, gleaming bald and seemed out of proportion to the rest of his body. He was slouching carefully in the chair as if his spine would no longer hold his torso upright. The button up shirt he wore seemed to billow around him, and small round spectacles finished the ensemble. The overall impression was of an old, wizened cartoon turtle.

Reading from the report, he asked me to confirm certain facts. My name, my crime, my sentence. He never looked up from the piece of paper as he addressed me. He never asked if I’d done anything positive or worthwhile with my time. He did ask if I’d ever been to segregation, which is the standard punishment for moderate to serious rule breakers. I explained that I had, but that all charges had been expunged. It was the opening for which I’d been waiting. I segued into the violations of my freedom of speech when the warden discovered I’d been writing essays which chronicled instances that occurred inside his prison and having them posted on this website. The other PRB member at the table to my left was waiting for her next appointment. She overheard my claims and turned to look, reacting with wide-eyed shock. The turtle man in front of me didn’t react at all. I shamelessly plugged this website, but from there the words withered on my tongue. I felt like I was calling into a chasm and nothing was returned, not even my own echo. All that I had prepared to say seemed mute, entirely pointless. His demeanor was obviously uncaring, bored, dismissive.

He read to me the specific conditions I’d have to adhere to during my three years of MSR, all of which were based on the circumstances of my crime. The intervening sixteen years of incarceration, and my behavior during that time, had no bearing whatsoever. He had me sign the report at the bottom, told me I’d receive a copy of it in the mail, and I was dismissed. During the entirety of my time with him he had never once raised his head to look me in the eye. As I left, I checked the clock—10:00 on the nose. The whole ordeal hadn’t taken more than four minutes.

A Waste

They could’ve simply mailed the report and skipped the face to face since nothing I said or did had any effect. However, doing it this way they could claim I had a hearing with the Prisoner Review Board and make it sound like something with gravitas rather than what it was; nothing but window dressing to provide a pretense that there is a thoughtful and measured consideration of each individual about to reenter society, when in fact there is no such consideration. It was a joke and an absolute waste of time, money, and resources. All symptoms of a broken system in much need of reform.

Dear Governor

The legal statute which governs the Department of Corrections states that the Department’s objective, in part, is “restoring the offender to useful citizenship.” The mission statement at the bottom of all official memorandums from the Department reads: “To serve justice . . . and increase public safety by promoting positive change in offender behavior, operating successful reentry programs and reducing victimization.” I just spent over sixteen years incarcerated and can testify from firsthand experience that the Department of Corrections is falling woefully short of these stated purposes.

Warehousing

The most recent statistics available to me puts the entire inmate population of the state at 43,075. The prison I was just released from, after my final seven years of imprisonment there, had a population of 2,300 inmates. Nearly a full two thirds of those were just sitting around being warehoused without a job or access to rehabilitative programs like college level courses or vocational training. The waiting list for school to earn one’s GED or high school equivalency is a minimum of six months. Even those who want to gain an education and potentially earn some time off their sentence by taking advantage of these programs are often unable to because there simply are not enough programs available. So the warehouses remain filled past capacity, and men have no avenue by which to better themselves or improve their condition,

The simple fact is that the vast majority of individuals sentenced to a prison term will be going home someday, and without proper programs and resources available to promote and assist in positive change, then it is nearly impossible for positive change to occur. The same mindset yields the same results. This is a danger to the individual and society at large, as well as a failure of both.

Legal mandate requires that inmates be provided access to not only a law library with legal materials to assist them in researching and preparing their appeals, but also a general library with reading materials including current newspapers and periodicals so that they can both educate and entertain themselves. The general library doesn’t always happen. During my entire tenure in the Department of Corrections the library facilities were only available for just under four years. This consisted of one long stretch of nearly two years with a few shorter sporadic stints making the remainder. When a request or complaint was made the answer was always there was a lack of staff to run the library. The Department’s inability, or outright refusal, to properly staff their prisons isn’t a valid excuse to not abide by the law. This isn’t the only law that DOC doesn’t bother to follow.

Unlawful

In January 2018 a sweeping landmark law went into effect in the state which gave the Director of Prisons discretion to credit up to six months “good time” to an offender’s sentence. This was done in conjunction with a revamped statute specifically concerning the earning of “good time”, or time off of one’s sentence, through participation in rehabilitative programs such as school or a fulltime substance abuse program. The discretionary portion seems to be designed as a catch-all for those who do not fit exact criteria but who have an exemplary disciplinary record.

For instance, since the law wasn’t written to be applied retroactively, no classes or degrees earned before January 1st 2018 could be directly applied for the earned good time, however, with the Director’s discretion, these could be considered. This discretionary portion appeared to be an avenue through which overcrowding could be reduced thereby alleviating taxpayers burden. A new list of inmates who are eligible for this good time is sent out to the prisons each month, yet every individual is summarily denied. The labor union which represents Department of Corrections employees has a contract which requires that the number of DOC staff is commensurate with the number of prison inmates.

Simply put, this would mean that if the good time was credited as designed there could be a reduction in the overall prison population by potentially several thousands over the course of approximately one year’s time. While alleviating taxpayer’s burden as intended, this would also likely necessitate a reduction in the number of DOC employees. Essentially these same union members who are tasked with deciding who is to be awarded good time could potentially be amongst those who are laid off from their job if good time is properly awarded to eligible inmates. It is no wonder then that, as of the date of this posting, not a single day of discretionary good time has been awarded anywhere in the state. Withholding this good time is not in accordance with the intent of the statute, nor does doing so promote positive change in offender behavior or serve to restore offenders to useful citizenship.

August 20, 2015 a law went into effect that required the Department of Corrections to provide an avenue by which an offender can complete and file the appropriate paperwork for Medicaid and/or health insurance forty-five days to the inmate’s scheduled release date. The legislature seemed to pass this part of the statute into law in conjunction with a study which detailed how having access to proper medical care and mental health care tended to reduce recidivism. Anything that can be done to help give a newly released individual a higher chance for success in their reentry into society would surely be a good thing and a step toward restoring the offender to useful citizenship. In the months leading to my release I wrote numerous letters and requests to various counselors and DOC officials, including the Director of Prisons, and was summarily ignored by all but one of them. The response I did receive was that the Department of Corrections doesn’t do that and never has.

Where’s the accountability?

For nearly four years, according to the law of the land, this has been required of the Department of Corrections, yet they DON’T do it. When the DOC is allowed to govern itself and its employees with zero accountability or outside oversight it can do whatever it wants. Rather than reducing victimization, this tends to turn inmates into victims.

Unsanitary

The prison I was just released from has buildings that were erected long before John F. Kennedy ever took his fateful car ride in Texas. Spending money on upkeep is low on the Department’s priority list. In one housing unit several inmates banded together to complain about the black mold growing in the ceiling. They attributed their respiratory issues to the black mold. Their complaints went largely ignored or brushed aside until the health and sanitation coordinator, a lieutenant, finally addressed them directly. This lieutenant told them that if they had an issue, they could file an official complaint or grievance but if they did that they would simply be moved to another building, or even an entirely different penitentiary. The lieutenant knew what he was doing. By saying this he was using these men’s own fears against them. Fear of dislocation, fear of the unknown. These men had lived in the same building, even the same cell, for many years. Some for over a decade. They had grown accustomed to it so that in all practical senses it was their home. Their vocal complaints quieted to sour mumblings. As of this posting the black mold contamination has never been dealt with.

Unprofessional

Another lieutenant accused me and the men around me of throwing food wrappers on the ground. She said if we didn’t stop, she would withhold our food from us. She often threatens to deny us our recreation time and says she’ll come tear our cells apart. Instead of having the clothing room issue the proper items, this lieutenant makes her rounds through cellhouses collecting “donations” for inmates housed in the mental health portion of the facility. If people don’t give her shoes or clothes—items that they purchased from commissary with their own money—this lieutenant fabricates excuses to confiscate these items. Threats and intimidations are what this lieutenant routinely traffics in, though she isn’t the only one. It is widely known among inmate and staff alike that she is a bully. The tickets for infractions of the rules that she writes against inmates are often thrown out or reduced to a simple verbal warning by the hearing committee because they are so petty or have no merit. Men have been taken to segregation by her only to be let out after a day or two because her claims against them were baseless. This harassment and abuse of authority doesn’t tend to restore an offender to useful citizenship or promote positive change in offender behavior. Instead it reinforces mistrust and animosity toward authority figures.

Despite her consummate unprofessionalism and continual lies, this lieutenant isn’t reprimanded nor is her behavior discouraged by her peers or supervisors. Men are fearful of filing any grievance against her because these grievances are almost always summarily dismissed. The DOC employee hearing the complaint is a subordinate of this lieutenant, so all a grievance does is put the lieutenant on notice that the inmate is complaining about her. At that point, retaliation on the part of the lieutenant is guaranteed. Rather that invite more attention and undue punishment from the lieutenant, men remain silent. There is zero accountability. Without some kind of oversight there is no restraint. However, as I said, she isn’t the only one who acts with impunity regarding inmate’s well-being and basic rights.

Unpunished

The contents of this website and a book of essays largely culled from this website was called into question. An ambitious counselor (he plainly let it be known that he intends to do whatever it takes to be warden when the current one retires) reported the book and website to the warden. This warden then claimed I wasn’t allowed to write a book without his prior approval and permission, and he wanted me to stop having my work posted on this website because he said: “It cast certain officers and staff in a negative light.” I was placed in Segregation for my words.

The lieutenant from Internal Affairs who interviewed me made it clear he was only following the warden’s orders. He charged me with a number of infractions of the rules, none of which applied to what I’d done with the book or had been doing through a proxy for six years on this website. (In case there’s any confusion—I have zero computer or Internet access.) The lieutenant who headed the committee tasked with investigating and adjudicating the claims against me performed no measured or impartial investigation. At one point he told me that he was just waiting to see what the warden wanted to do with me. I was found guilty of all charges. Several disciplinary measures were levied against me, the most serious one being that I’d be transferred to a different prison. Without oversight this injustice would have been the final word on the subject for me.

Thankfully my family brought attention to my situation. An individual from the governor’s office became involved as well as representatives of DOC administration. Their investigation of the matter yielded different results. The day after I was found guilty and sentenced by the warden and his cronies to be sent away, a new disposition was entered. Per DOC Administration direction all accusations, charges, findings, the entire report concerning the incident was to be expunged.

Logic would indicate that if I were guilty of any offenses of which I was accused—all serious infractions—then the report wouldn’t be expunged. I maintain that the four individuals I mentioned all lied and colluded to ensure that I was found guilty at the behest of the warden. There was never a proper investigation. Officially, I escaped penalty in this instance.

However, further falsehoods were levied against my writing and I was punished for being in possession of a copy of Candy & Blood, the book that I wrote. I was also refused reinstatement to my job assignment in the Law Library and barred from being hired to perform even the most menial of tasks for the remainder of my prison term despite my exemplary work record. I contacted numerous people with my story and supporting documentation. This included the Director of Prisons, several State Senators and Representatives, numerous prisoner rights groups and civil rights organizations including the ACLU. I received no response. No one cared. With no outside oversight to hold the Department and its employees accountable all manner of injustice becomes allowed—not only allowed but expected. The notion that prison inmates are all degenerates who are getting what they deserve, opens the door to not only allow but also justify all manner of illegalities on the part of the Department of Corrections.

Unconstitutional

At last count there are approximately 4000 inmates across the state who are being held in prison post their scheduled release dates. They have served the sentence ordered by the judge, and they’re not be kept as punishment for something they did while incarcerated. They’re not even being denied their freedom because of the crime for which they were imprisoned, though the vast majority of them are sex offenders, or have a sex offense somewhere in their prior criminal history. No, these men and women are being kept in prison for the most heinous offense of all: The crime of being poor. Since they have no financial resources to afford a place to stay, and have no family left who are alive and/or willing and able to help, they remain in custody. The Department of Corrections has a policy in place that they don’t find placement for these individuals. Some have spent as many as eight years past the time to which the judge sentenced them. This policy has had the effect of making the Department into its own judge, jury and executioner. This policy has recently been found by the State Supreme Court to unconstitutional. As of yet the Department of Corrections hasn’t changed its policy or released anyone.

Dear Governor

Governor, if you feel that the mission statement that I quoted at the beginning is still reflective of the intent of the Department of Corrections, then I urge you to take action. I have outlined here merely a handful of incidents or scenarios which are indicative of how the Department of Corrections treats those in their custody. This is to say nothing of the numerous claims by inmates alleging medical malfeasance and deliberate indifference to patient care, or the donations of food items to the prison from businesses in the community which are being misappropriated or stolen by Prison Staff. OR, the fact that the current system of Mandatory Supervised Release (MSR) is faulty by design and leaves no avenue for incentivizing rehabilitation or dozens of other issues I could’ve raised.

Dear Governor, PLEASE provide some oversight. PLEASE take a closer look.

Please Help

Dear Readers, I pray that all this doesn’t fall on deaf ears. If any of the issues that I’ve raised have resonated with you, or if you feel prison reform is an important and valid issue that should be addressed, I humbly request that you forward this to:

https://www2.illinois.gov/sites/gov/contactus/Pages/default.aspx

OR

www.facebook.com/govpritzker

So the governor will know that I am not just some lone voice crying out in the darkness.

These specific issues that I’ve raised tend to have a universal quality to them as abuse of authority and injustice behind prison walls isn’t unique to me or my particular state.

Maybe the governor of your state should read this too.

Reactions

“Am I in it?”

This was by far the predominant response from correctional officers after they found out about my book and website containing tales of my prison experiences. I had been thrown in Segregation and accused of several things including making prison staff look bad. After I’d been released from Seg and all charges were expunged I still expected to be vilified and targeted at every turn for my writings. Instead it seemed that many COs were genuinely curious while others curiosity had ulterior motives.

Query

The first time I saw CO Medet after my visit to Seg, he sidled up to me in the chow hall and asked his question in a confidential tone. His specific concern was whether I had chronicled the yelling match that had very nearly turned physical between him and CO Ralyon. I assured him that I had ever written about it. Two COs only screaming back and forth but almost boxing may have made for a good story, however it was the psychology behind the confrontation which I found more interesting.

Vitriol

CO Ralyon displayed his prejudice and racism like badges of honor. He freely and often slurred an inmate’s race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, and sexual orientation. On one such occasion CO Ralyon verbally abused two transgender inmates. His language went far past merely unprofessional. It was filled with obvious disgust and ugly hate. No human being should have to be subjected to such undiluted vitriol. The two aggrieved inmates reported Ralyon.

Justified

The disagreement between Ralyon and Medet arouse largely Medet told the truth about the incident. He refused to lie on an official report in order to protect CO Ralyon. Obviously, the image of two officers nearly throwing punches is not great optics. However, the fact that a Neanderthal racist bigot like Ralyon is an employee of the Department of Corrections should shame the powers-that-be to no end. CO Medet was not only justified in feeling outrage over Ralyon’s behavior, but should feel a sense of pride in doing what was right even if it meant bucking the system and going against a fellow officer.

I told CO Medet that I’d never written anything about this incident. I suppose I can’t say that anymore.

A Despicable Side Note

Numerous lawsuits have been brought against CO Ralyon for his discrimination and harassment. In other circumstances his actions would be characterized as hate crimes. In this case a representative of the Attorney General of the state negotiated agreements to resolve lawsuits by paying several thousands of dollars to the complainants. CO Ralyon was placed in a different job assignment before eventually being promoted to a position where he works one-on-one with inmates to assist them in extremely personal and sensitive matters. Specifically he will have to interact with some of the same inmates who are actively suing him.  Grievances have already been submitted. I predict further lawsuits to come.

Some Others

Several COs, after asking their questions, were upfront about having checked out my writing, and were largely complimentary about the content and my talent. Officer Sum is one of the most easygoing, funny, fair, and cool COs I’ve ever come across. He told me not to write anything about him until after he retires. I told him I’d never seen him do anything to be worried or of which to be ashamed. CO Sum he wasn’t concerned about that, but rather he didn’t want it getting out how smooth and relatable a person he is—there was comedy in his retort, but truth as well.

Different Perspectives

CO Westin asked if I had written about him, and when I answered in the negative he followed with this: “Well, what do you write about? Nothing happens around here.” I’ve battled a similar sentiment both from without and within myself. I grinned slimly, knowingly, and tried to explain what I’ve written about as well as my general endeavor to provide an unvarnished glimpse into everyday prison life. His response left me both insulted and flabbergasted. “How can you write about being in prison when you’re not really in prison?”

When I stared at him, mouth agape, utterly dumbfounded, he explained himself. Apparently, to his mind, since I reside in the minimum-security portion of the prison and am not constantly locked behind a steel door, I’m not really in prison. CO Westin went on to declare that his job is basically that of a glorified babysitter and nothing much ever happens to make my life difficult, so therefore, I’m not really in prison. His comment that “nothing much ever happens” was a reference to fights and outbursts of violence. This provided me valuable insights into the inner workings of a Correctional Officers mind.

As calmly as possible I explained to CO Westin that, while I was afforded a certain degree of movement outside my cell, I’m still in prison since I can’t leave the building at will, and certainly cannot walk off the prison grounds at any time. He reluctantly agreed that was true, as if I had somehow caught him in a technicality. CO Westin seemed to have romanticized the idea of violence and confinement as how prison is meant to be. I didn’t bother wasting my breath on CO Westin by telling him that I had served nearly a decade of that constant confinement and abrupt violence, and that I didn’t believe for a second that officers like Westin would’ve lasted very long before becoming victims of the violence. I’m not advocating this, but his attitude would’ve made it an inevitability.

Best For Last

When I informed CO Lodes that I hadn’t written about him, he told me that I had changed his life forever. In a good way. It caught me off guard. His explanation of this rather provocative statement came swiftly and unsolicited. I had seen Officer Lodes in probably a year or more, and it felt like he had been just waiting anxiously to see me so he could tell me.

At one time I’d been heavily involved in practicing a ketogenic diet. It’s next to impossible with prison food and takes an enormous amount of willpower to maintain this high protein, high fat, low carb regiment. However when I stuck to it, I felt better and was losing weight. I confess I became something of an annoying proselyte of this dietary lifestyle, and it was in this capacity that I talked to CO Lodes. I loaned him my book which described in short no-nonsense chapters the whole science and history behind the keto life. Not long after that CO Lodes was moved to a different post within the prison, and as usual every few months or so, and I moved on with life—didn’t give it any more thought.

What CO Lodes later confessed was that after I had been the one to open his eyes, he became obsessed with the ketogenic lifestyle. He availed himself of the numerous resources, recipes, and communities that he found online, and immersed himself in the keto way. It became a huge part of his life, and he became an avid advocate. When his mother began experiencing health issues, he counseled her in changing her diet to ketogenic.

One of the primary effects of the ketogenic diet is a more stabilized blood sugar level absent the unhealthy spikes. Thankfully this helped his mother, and CO Lodes attributed her improved health to me because I turned him on to the ketogenic diet. I was quite literally rendered speechless by his effusive gratitude to me.

Overall

In hindsight my fears of retribution were largely unfounded. Most officers who admitted to having visited and read some of the content of this website tell me that they didn’t see anything wrong with it. Many nodded in agreement and had a good laugh over what they were reading. They said I captured prison life pretty well.

It seems that Correctional Officers are surprisingly more well read than I imagined. I suppose I will continue giving them something to read.

The Coyote Whisperer

After the incident, my other two cellies and I compared our experiences and perceptions of what was happening to the fourth man in our cell. It sounded like an attack—like he was fighting for his life.

Old Man

When John and Paul penned “When I’m Sixty-Four” I doubt they were pondering the possibility of coming to prison for the first time at that advanced age. That is how Baldalmero (pronunciation: Ball-dull-meh-row) arrived in my cell; old and entirely ignorant of the ins and outs of prison. It was eye-opening for myself and for the other two men in the cell who, between the three of us, had over fifty years of prison time accumulated.

Learning Curve

All the quirks and inconveniences of prison and communal living that we three had taken for granted for years had to be taught and explained to the elderly Mexican whose English was functional, but only barely. It was occasionally frustrating because sometimes the answer to Baldalmero’s question “Why do we it like that?” was an unsatisfying “Because that’s how we do it.” It made me second guess myself as to why do we do it like that? I was often left unsettled too because speaking to him was akin to dealing with a child, and I was rigorously raised to respect my elders, so it didn’t feel right.

Odd Normal

Baldalmero had night-terrors. He had moaned and spoken in rapid, indecipherable Spanish more than a few times while he slumbered. A couple of those times there had been a bit of thrashing and rolling around, but it usually quickly passed. My other cellies had seen it all before over the years and accepted it with a collective shrug of our shoulders. The morning after one particularly boisterous nocturnal calamity I asked Baldalmero about his incidences.

He managed to relate that, yes, he knows he does it and these episodes have been happening for many years. He has accepted them as normal, just something that happens every so often. Baldalmero described it as having a nightmare that he was fighting to wake up from. When it happened, his wife of almost fifty years would calmly call out his name and he would quiet.

A Promise

We had been living together for a few months and he had been teaching me some Spanish to add to the smidgeon that I’d already picked up over the years. He took pains to correct my copious mispronunciations and I grew to appreciate the musical quality of the language. I believe he had grown to trust me. He asked me to please call out to him the next time he was having one of his episodes. I promised that I would. It was only a day later when that promise was tested.

Rude Awakening

“Emilio! Emilio!”

I was shocked from sleep, my heart pumping hard in my chest, quaking up to my throat. I coughed against the feeling, sure it was a physical obstruction choking me. The sensation passed, but words rushed from Baldalmero in panic. I couldn’t understand anything but the name “Emilio!” who he called out to several more times. Just as swiftly as it had begun, Baldalmero quieted with a couple huffing snores and it appeared to be over. I rolled to face away from him, glad that I didn’t have to jump into action, and dropped right back to the edge of consciousness. The whole thing hadn’t been longer than fifteen seconds.

Attack

It felt like I had fallen into a long, deep, restful sleep only to be jolted awake once more. The reality was that the second attack came within seconds of the first. Baldalmero was screaming. No words, just sounds of terror and agony. My eyes snapped open and I rolled toward him a jackhammer once more banging against my breastplate. I was disoriented, feet and fists fighting against twisted sheets, but I stopped a moment when I saw Baldalmero engaged in his own comical combat. His bed was four feet away from mine. He was ion the top bunk laying on his back with his arms flailing at his unseen for while his legs were kicking high like a horizontal Rockette. It would have hilarious if he hadn’t been screaming for his life, and if he wasn’t about to drop five and a half feet to the concrete floor.

Intercession

With a mighty effort I freed myself from my bunk and stumbled to him, still lethargic, confused, and drunk on slumber. Standing next to his bunk, my face level with his, I saw Baldalmero was in pain, deep in the throes of some life or death struggle. I reached out to help or comfort, but pulled my hand back as if too close to a flame, worried that I might cause some harm by shocking him awake. I finally remembered my promise.

Even in my muddled mental state, I knew a meekly whispered “Baldalmero” wouldn’t do anything to cut through whatever horrors had hold of his body and mind. I drew myself to my full height and puffed out my chest, tilted my chin up to him and gathered a lungful to fuel my words. I didn’t scream. I spoke loudly, clearly, with authority. For some reason I used the deepest baritone I could muster, and spoke with a thick Spanish accent. My other two cellies lay in their bunks in states of confusion and unease. They later poked fun at my altered voice and compared it to a soccer announcer. The whole scene was so surreal, and the voice happened without planning or premeditation.

“BALDALMERO. BALDALMERO.”

My voice reverberated through the small room and resonated against my eardrums inside and out. Baldalmero quieted and calmed instantly. There were a couple hushed whimpers as he rolled onto his side away from me and slipped quickly into deep breaths indicative of sleep. I collapsed on my bunk, exhausted but wide awake and wired. I spent the next forty minutes praising the Lord and praying against whatever darkness was oppressing us.

Light of Day

With sunlight shining cheery through the window it took some of the fright out of Baldalmero’s tale. In his dream he was camping at night in an open desert with his brother Emilio. They could hear a coyote snarling and growling in the distance just beyond the firelight’s reach. Emilio ran out to chase it away and never returned. When Baldalmero had really started to thrash, kick, and holler it was because the coyote was biting at his feet, trying to pull him into the night. My voice chased it away. Suddenly Baldalmero and Emilio were safe, walking together on a beautiful sunny day along the road to their boyhood home. Baldalmero said he had felt happy, at peace.

After an extended moment of pause he told me that Emilio had died in a car accident a long time ago. He said it had been good to see Emilio again. Baldalmero smiled wide and with a playfulness in his eyes that was tinged with melancholy he thanked me for chasing away the coyote so he could see his brother again.

This Year

Time is relative.

It’s malleable like taffy or cotton candy. Stretched out or squashed down, it has a different texture for each individual. Thank God it continues to pass regardless of perception. Prison is all about time.

The Count

Days are meted out in increments of movement. Whether that moving is for school, yard, gym, a shower, or a meal it marks a passage of time. In Segregation movement can be a shuffle to the chuckhole to receive a tray of food, or a CO moving past to perform a scheduled inmate count. Days become weeks, months and years, but even those are counted differently.

Methods

Some guys measure from events and distractions. Jumping from one holiday to another, or one sports season to the next. With preseason football all the way through the Super Bowl a solid six months is gone. More if you factor in the draft. Basketball seems endless; once the finals are over it’s practically preseason again, but guys live for it to make their time pass more seamlessly. Birthdays and anniversaries carry their own heartache, but must be faced. The movie cliché of a guy marking off each day with an X on the calendar is about as common as a Yeti in Times Square. Once he’s down to three or four month it does sometimes happen, but beyond that it is an act of sadomasochism in which guys don’t generally engage.

Myself, I was arrested on the 23rd of the month. It’s not a deliberate or conscious effort, but I end up counting 23s. Each month that day never manages to sneak past without me taking notice that another month has drained the sands of time from my allotted hourglass. For the in-between times I try to stay focused. I work.

Taming Time

I’m up early—4:00 or 4:30. On the rare occasions that I sleep much past that I lurch up in a tiny panic, keenly aware that time is lose forever. In those precious minutes I could’ve been writing, reading, praying, worshiping, or merely enjoying my existence in the dark and quiet of the morning before prison awakes to ruin the calm illusion. I plan and make to-do lists to ensure that letters are written in a timely manner, writing projects stay on schedule, and reading books isn’t neglected. Exercise, job, TV, shower; everything allotted its right time and place. I don’t fall to pieces when things happen to alter my schedule, but I hate the feeling of wasted time. Perhaps, in this context, the term “wasted” is relative too.

In The Dark

My mornings are my favorite time.

No matter how many people may be around me, I’m all alone in the dark. I pray, communing with the Creator of the universe. There’s much wondering, questioning, seeking, wrestling—all pressing on through faith, trust, and hope. Hope can hurt, but hope fixes us. One helluva a smart fella taught me that one.

In the darkness and solitude my thoughts range back and forth through time. They dwell on mistakes or regrets, but more so on triumphs and better times. I fantasize and wonder what life will look like when I’m released. No flying Jetson cars, not yet, but so much has changed in the world and with me since that first 23. Now that day which I wasn’t always sure would come is within sight.

Facing Reality

It’s incredibly surreal, and that will probably only increase as my release date comes closer. I don’t know precisely what is in store for me. I focus on the day and the goals set before me. Perhaps that’s the best measure of time; seeing what is right in front of us. Each morning I continue to sit in the dark and press forward, pondering the truth which seems unreal, too wondrous to be true: I go home this year.

Orangutan Dance

I called him Luigi because his bushy moustache and swarthy complexion put me in mind of his namesake from Super Mario Brothers. Not precisely culturally sensitive, but political correctness tends to die at the prison gates. During this particular incident, Luigi looked exactly like an orangutan.

Animal Planet

Arms straight in the air over his head waving side to side with the movement of his body. He wandered a few feet to his left, turned and retraced his steps. I’d seen orangutans perform the same dance on Animal Planet. I couldn’t remember if the pose was a show of dominance or the beginnings of a mating ritual. Either way, I couldn’t figure why Luigi was doing it in the middle of the chow hall.

Bizarrely Hilarious

Not knowing what preceded his graceless ballet, I had no context in which to put it. To me it looked hilariously bizarre, and I wasn’t the only one. The assembled security staff were all silent, dumbfounded, but many people, including myself, were laughing in varying degrees of hysteria. That didn’t last long.

Nasty Reality

Luigi’s upper body suddenly vibrated with an immense shudder as frothy white vomit oozed onto his chin. It sat there in a moment of pause before gaining the required force of momentum to achieve projectile status. Liquid and solid expelled violently. It was no longer very funny.

No Help

The orangutan dance had been his attempt to breath. Luigi brought his arms down, holding his hands to his throat in a universally understood gesture indicating that he was choking. Sergeant Schroeder was closest to the distressed inmate. He backed away quickly. Luigi took a desperate step toward Lieutenant Jarvis who cussed voluminously before stepping back and saying he wouldn’t touch him. The two officers next to Lieutenant Jarvis also retreated as calls of “Help him!” came from a dozen directions. By all appearances those in authority intended to just let Luigi choke to death. None of them even had the presence of mind to key their radio and call out the code for a medical emergency.

Rescue

An inmate stood up near Luigi, looking supremely unsure of himself, but knowing that someone had to do something. He cocked his arm back and was about to start beating on the choking man’s back when Frank bellowed “Don’t touch him” from two tables away.

In another lifetime, over two decades previous, Frank had been a firefighter trained to access and treat those in respiratory distress. His response time was perhaps a bit delayed, but he walked up and unceremoniously pushed the would-be Good Samaritan out of his way. Frank assumed the easily recognized position to perform the Heimlich. He moved with a certainty and assurance that was comforting, calming. Lieutenant Jarvis let out a half-hearted “No, don’t.” Sergeant Schroeder mumbled “Hey, you can’t do that.” Neither of them called for professional medical assistance. Frank said something to Luigi before taking a breath and commencing his rescue maneuver.

Unrecognizable

The gentleman whose namesake is arguably the most recognizable lifesaving move ever devised may not have been able to identify what was happening to Luigi. Or rather, what Frank was doing to him. I’ve passed the appropriate course for CPR certification twice in my life, but still wasn’t entirely sure what I was seeing.

Not Funny

Luigi was bent at a forty-five angle that was creeping toward ninety degrees. This required Frank to lean forward as he tried to wrap his arms around Luigi. The ensuing application of sudden upward pressure on the abdomen administrated by Frank featured an alarming amount of pelvic thrusting. It gave the entire attempt to save Luigi the appearance of an act of sodomy. This similarity would often be recounted for extremely dark comic effect and rightly so. It looked uproariously absurd—it looked like Frank was trying rape Luigi back to life. However, in the severity of the moment, and to the eternal credit of all us hardcore convicts, no one laughed.

Unobstructed

After much bumping and grinding Frank managed to get Luigi into the more traditional upright position. With one last satisfying thrust a hunk of unchewed material expelled itself in a slimy mess at the feet of the ineffectual security staff. Luigi coughed, bent over, hands on his knees, and drooled out whatever remained of the obstruction. A general roar of surprise, approval and congratulations rose before falling just as swiftly. Large numbers of inmates organized for one cause is discouraged. It can be met with sever repercussions, and for that reason most guys have been conditioned not to engage in such displays. Where just seconds before we had all been united in rooting for Luigi and Frank’s unorthodox love affair, all onlookers had returned their attention to the table and tray right in front of them.

No Healthcare

Luigi should have gone to healthcare. This would have required Lieutenant Jarvis to call healthcare, explain in brief what happened, and tell them to expect him. A van could’ve been sent to pick Luigi up, or he could have walked. Sending him to healthcare would’ve meant writing an official Incident Report documenting what occurred. Luigi was told to sit down and drink some water.

Hero Treatment

Frank’s actions constituted such a rarified degree of selfless heroism that he was eligible for months to be subtracted from his sentence. In order for that to happen, an official Incident Report would be necessary. Frank would also need a recommendation from a staff member. Neither Lieutenant Jarvis, Sergeant Schroeder nor any other security staff member present was going to write an Incident Report documenting their inability to act, and then, recommend Frank for a special sentence reduction. Frank was circumspectly told to return to his seat.