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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Mission Impossible -- July 11, 2009

As an inmate at a maximum-security prison, and without access to various tools and other resources, I have learned to improvise a lot to improve the quality of my life. I sometimes call these more difficult improvisations "mission impossibles" because of their doubtful success. This week, I took on a number of these missions.

Prisoners are allowed small, 3-speed, clear plastic fans. I have one, and it vibrated off my shelf, and fell onto the concrete floor. One of the plastic blades cracked off. My mission, if I chose to accept it, was to repair my fan.

I took off the front cover, and forced the blade from the axle. Looking at the broken blade, I thought this was an easy problem to fix, if only I had some super glue. However, we do not have access to any type of glue. There were two routes I could take, neither of which were very promising: I could tape the blade back on, or melt the blade back on.

I decided to begin with the taping idea because if that failed, I could always go on to the melting option. Prisoners do not have access to tape, however, I pealed off the clear tape used on our mail to seal envelopes that have been opened and inspected in the mail room. I carefully, and slowly removed the tape from several envelopes. I then meticulously secured the two pieces of the fan blade together. I thought I did a very good job, and it was time to test its integrity.

I turned my fan on to the lowest speed, and watched with anticipation. The fan worked perfectly, but I wondered if it could withstand a higher speed, so I turned the dial again. The blade spun around as if there was nothing wrong with it. At that moment, I thought I should not test my luck. Here is a fan blade, held together by used Scotch tape, and I should just be happy. However, I was not, and I had to see if it would survive full speed. Not long after turning the dial, the blade broke apart and made a loud noise.

After pealing off all the torn tape, I began to attempt to melt the pieces together. Matches are now contraband in Illinois' prisons since smoking was outlawed. I had to create fire another way. I untied two wires on my fan, and then struck them together like flint. Sparks came off the wires, and I held a wound paper stick with a cotton swab fixed to the end. The cotton swab had been taken off a Q-tip that had some petroleum jelly on it. Whenever I do this, I feel a bit like Bear Grills in the survivor show "Men vs. Wild", but it works, and soon I had fire. I put a plastic spoon into the fire, which melted, and I dribbled it onto the fan blade. I coated the break with this melted plastic, being careful not to burn myself or get the fan blade too hot. The melted plastic quickly dried. The blade did not look pretty, but it if worked, that is all that matters. Again, the blade stayed together until I put the fan on high speed. It then broke violently. I surveyed the damage. I could not melt it back together again. Mission Impossible #1 ends as a failure. However, I learned of a man whose fan died, and I convinced him to give me one of his blades.

A few years ago, the Orange Crush team, a special tactical squad equipped with shields, batons, tear gas, and dressed in soldier boots, knife proof vests, helmets, and wearing bright orange jump suits, tore through Stateville like a tornado. They tossed inmates' cells, looking for contraband. In their reckless search of my cell, my radio was thrown on the floor and broken. A speaker was dislodged and shorted out. The radio also had a crack across the top, and the door for the batteries was also damaged. Later when I turned my radio on, I discovered that not only was the right speaker dead, but reception was almost gone. This week, I became determined to repair my radio--mission #2.

The radio is made of clear plastic, and thus I can see inside it. However, the radio is fitted with security screws to prevent inmates from opening them up. To get at the wiring, and the board, I had to pry out a speaker cover. I then broke off a couple of pieces of plastic to pull out my broken speaker. I discovered that one of the small wires leading to and around the tweeter was shredded. I tried various ways to repair the wire, but it was not possible.

I found someone with an extra speaker the following day. He owed me a favor, and gave it to me for free. Cutting the wires to the old speaker, and then stripping them, I tied the ends tightly around the solder of the new speakers. I finally had two working speakers, and was about to close it back up, but I figured I should also try to repair the antennae wire. Something was wrong with it, and it was not that I live behind concrete walls and bars that prevented me from getting reception. Using a paperclip as a hook, I pulled out the internal wire leading to the antenna. I determined there was a short in it, and pulled out another wire that goes to the batteries, which were not needed because prisons no longer sell large batteries. I used this wire to replace the antennae wire. Unfortunately, in the process of tying this wire onto the board solder and the screw of the antennae, I pulled out another wire. This wire was a power wire, and needed to be soldered and could not be tied. Lacking solder, I used my all-purpose Scotch tape to tape it on the board. Trying to do all this from the speaker hole, and a smaller hole in the back was very tedious, time consuming, and difficult. It was tantamount to building a sail boat inside a glass bottle. However, I finally finished, and everything was working until a slight bump dislodged my precarious repair job.

I was very frustrated. After many hours of work over a period of days, the radio was broken again. Indeed, it did not work at all now. The prison does not allow you to send out your radio for repair, and they no longer sell radios in maximum security prisons. This mission was apparently too difficult for me. I turned to a man who had graduated from electronic school before coming to prison. He was able to open up the radio, and had solder to reconnect all the wires. He fixed all of this, and even repaired the volume knob, which had been shorting out. I sent him some Tuna fish and postage in gratitude.

I was disappointed in myself for failing two missions in a row. However, I redeemed myself by making rice crispy treats without having any marshmallows or a hot pot. With my own recipe of boiled pancake syrup, poured on top of rice crispy cereal, a touch of oatmeal, peanut butter, and peanuts, I was able to make a decent replica. The treats were not as crunchy as they should have been. They came out more like granola bars, but for my first try ever to make a desert, I thought it was a success.

The following day, I made watch bands for my cellie and I out of a couple of prison baseball caps that had velcro strips. Our watch bands had long ago broken and because the prison does not sell new ones, we had resorted to taping our watches to our bunk posts. However, with some borrowed items, the thread and velcro taken out of the baseball caps, and a skillfully bent paper clip, we now have professional looking watch bands.

In prison with a natural life sentence, life is very meaningless and devoid of purpose. However, when I am able to complete difficult tasks and be creative, I feel productive and have a sense of accomplishment. Many of my so called "mission impossibles" are probably trivial problems that most people would not take any pride in solving outside these walls. However, on the inside, there is a totally different perspective.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Independence Day -- July 4, 2009


As I write this entry, I can hear the rumble of firecrackers in the distance. In years past, I could also see hazy fireworks displays through the dirty prison cell house windows. This year, however, there is nothing to see, and it is raining. That is just as well. I find the celebration of our country's freedom quite ironic from within these prison walls. In fact, even if I were not in this oppressive prison, I would find this celebration of freedom to be ironic.

At one time, Americans did have reasons to rejoice. America was once the greatest free nation on Earth. The colonists had broke away from the yoke of oppressive British rule which treated them as subjects, and overtaxed their trade. The sovereign United States grew in size to encompass the vast land from "sea to shining sea". Despite this massive growth, rugged individualism and freedom prevailed, and government stayed minimal and mostly out of the affairs of men. A robust culture, with strong values, emerged in the new world from the nations of Europe. Up until the late 20th century, taxes were minute, laws were kept to a minimum, crime was low, and the incarceration rate was a trifling. There was a death penalty as well as corporal punishment, but sentencing statutes were short terms. Americans could truly boast and be proud that their nation was the "land of the free, and home of the brave". Today, 233 years after colonists declared independence, this country is radically different.

My mother, who is an accountant, has figured out that after paying federal, state, and local taxes, including real estate taxes and an assortment of sales taxes, nearly half of her and my father's income goes to the government. I imagine what those who participated in the Boston Tea Party would think of that. Incredibly, there continues to be a push to raise taxes further at all levels of government. Even in prison, inmates are not immune from the government's growing appetite for revenue. Legislation in Illinois allows the state to seize money and assets of prisoners to pay for their own incarceration. Lawsuit monies won by inmates for such things as the denial of medical care, being assaulted by guards, or unsafe and unsanitary living conditions, are also seized. Our prison commissary prices are jacked up 25% to go into IDOC coffers, and prison workers' paltry earnings are also cut into. It is a twisted system that makes prisoners pay for their own punishment, and the expenses of the prison industrial complex.

In the last 25 years, the prison population has grown almost exponentially. A year ago, I read that the U.S. had over 1% of its population in prison. This statistic failed to include those in jails, on home monitoring, in a work release program, or on parole or court supervision. I reason if these people were included, the percentage would be 5%. That means one out of every twenty Americans has had his or her liberty curtailed in some fashion! I sometimes joke that soon half the population will be locked up, and the other half will be staff to guard them, but it is no joking matter. America has more people incarcerated than Red China, the former Soviet Union, or any government in the history of mankind.

People are being ticketed, arrested, and convicted for laws and crimes that at one time did not exist, or the common law forbade. For example, the felony-murder law, or murder by a theory of accountability. Any time a person engages in a felony with another, and a person is killed in the course of that felony, automatically everyone involved in the felony is guilty of murder even if they did not commit the murder, had no intent for a murder to occur, or any knowledge that one was going to occur. There is a case where a man drove a friend to the end of a city alley, and the friend got out of the car and walked half a block away. Then he mugged a person who happened to be a Chicago cop. The cop shot the mugger dead, and incredibly, the man who drove him was charged and convicted of 1st degree murder.

I can also relate the story of a teenager who allegedly lent his car to a friend who used it to take a person to a secluded location where he killed him. The teenager was convicted of murder, and given a natural life sentence without any possibility of parole, despite the fact that the actual perpetrator was acquitted and went home a free man. Yes, this adolescent was once me. I, and countless other people across the U.S., are in prison because of laws such as these that never existed a few decades ago.

Not only are more laws being added, but sentences are being increased. For example, the crime of murder in Illinois once was an indeterminate sentence where even a life sentence would be eligible for parole in 12 years. This sentencing scheme was done away with for predetermined sentences ranging from 20 to 40 years. With good behavior, an offender only had to do half of his sentence. In the late 1980's, the sentencing range was increased to 60 years, and numerous aggravating factors were added that permitted even longer sentences, including natural life without parole. Around the turn of the century, a bill called "Truth in Sentencing" was passed which mandated all convicted murderers to do 100% of their time. Hence, we now have thousands of people in the IDOC that will never be free. Readers may not by sympathetic to murderers, but sentencing laws have increased across the board.

As a child, I read the book "1984" by George Orwell. At the time, I thought of it as a book of fantasy, but over the years, I have come to believe it was, in part, a prophetic vision of our future. The all invasive and oppressive Big Brother is here, and not just in the confines of Stateville. Even outside these walls, I have learned of cameras going up everywhere to watch citizens. Government also tracks your spending, your Internet movements, and eavesdrops on phone calls. President Obama wants not only nationalized health care, but a massive data base of everyone's medical records. The police, and your elected legislators, tell you what you can and cannot do, and the mass media heavily affects what you think. I wonder if someday in the future, if I am ever released, I will only be going from one prison to another. Perhaps it will be like a transfer to minimum security.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Barney Rubble -- July 1, 2009

Other than grade school and GED classes, the only program Stateville has is a barber shop school. Prisoners can sign up on a waiting list to be taught how to cut hair, and gain a certificate after completing the program. The program typically takes almost three years to finish due to numerous lockdowns, days when school is not run, or the teachers' days off. Stateville has about 1,500 general population inmates and many have signed up for this program. However, due to the number and slow turnover rate, they usually wait over five years to begin.

My cellie completed this program, and has had his certificate since 2004, however, he continues to attend classes as a worker. A few students are retained by the teacher to assist with teaching how to cut more difficult types of hair. The barber shop school is not only a school, but the prison's barber shop. All general population prisoners get their hair cut at the school by students, or with the help of certified barber shop workers. Consequently, not too many stylish haircuts are to be seen here. Bald heads and very short, one length hair cuts are most common. A few black prisoners wear corn rows, or go to the barber shop mostly just to have their hair lined.

The barber shop is supposed to be run once a week in the cell houses. One gallery at a time is usually taken, but sometimes only half a gallery is able to get hair cuts. There are five galleries per cell house, and if we were never to go on lockdown and if the barber shop was run every week, prisoners would have an opportunity to get a hair cut once every month and a half. However, this is rarely the case, and I have yet to have an opportunity to go this year. Instead, I've been trimming my own hair with my beard trimmer. Over the years, I have gained a little skill, but I thought this week I would ask my cellie to cut it.

I asked him to keep most of the length, and just taper and even out my hair. I described what I wanted, and even pointed out a couple of people on TV that had similar hair cuts. My cellie told me it would be no problem. He has been cutting hair for many years, and has had his certificate from the barber shop for five. Thus, I felt confident that he would do a good job, even though he had no scizzors and had to use a cheap pair of beard trimmers instead.

After my cellie was done, I had him pass me a prison mirror, which is just a small clear plastic rectangle with reflective backing. To my surprise, my cellie had given me a haircut similar to the Flintstone's Barney Rubble character. It was very short on the sides and back, but the top was over three inches long. If I had spiked it, it could have been a Mohawk. I said, "What did you do? I wanted my hair tapered. I didn't want a Barney Rubble!" He defended his work, but told me that if I wanted he could take the top down some more. I told him to get to work.

Even after my cellie went over my hair again, I was still not happy. There was a sharp difference in the length of my hair from the top to the sides and back. I had enough of his barber skills, and began to clean up the cell. Hair was everywhere, despite the fact that I had worn a sheet about myself. The next morning, I took out my trimmers and began cutting my hair. My cellie told me that I was messing up his work, and taking a hatchet to my hair. But I needed to taper my hair so it blended together. Now, instead of the "Barney Rubble," I have what is called a "fade." It is much shorter than I wanted, but you rarely ever get what you want in prison.