Christmas day began for me with a bowl of bran flakes and a couple of peanut butter sandwiches. In the middle of the night, doughnuts were tossed on the cell table next to the bars by inmate workers for breakfast, but these were taken by the time I awakened. My cellmate knows I do not eat doughnuts and greedily swipes them when he returns from work. He can eat as many doughnuts as he wants in the kitchen, but apparently he has an insatiable appetite for the high sugar, trans fat treat. There is a reason I occasionally call him the Doughboy or Gomer Pile when I repeat excerpts from the movie “Full Metal Jacket” mimicking the drill sergeant who finds a jelly doughnut in the lock box of a pudgy man going through basic training. Anthony is not nearly as overweight, but I like to make fun of the former marine with two Grim Reaper tattoos.
There were normal operations on Christmas and my gallery as well as the one below were scheduled for morning gym. The “doughboy” was going to miss the recreational period and I woke him up at 8 a.m. If I had a bugle, I may have used it, but I simply pounded on the underside of his bunk. Anthony does not exercise throughout the week in the cell as I do. His only workouts are at the gym and large South yard where there are a few weights and benches. On the small yard, he will occasionally play basketball. Since he was assigned the midnight shift in the kitchen and as the weather has become cold, however, he does not bother going to the small yard.
Before prisoners from the gym were fed, we had to wait in the chow hall for nearly an hour as other galleries in our cell house went through the two serving lines first. It was a waste of time and I would have preferred to continue to work out in the gym. However, most other inmates seemed happy to play games of chess and cards, or socialize. At my table, prisoners spoke of the ridiculous cosmopolitan holiday decorations on the walls behind the feed counters. There was a “Feliz Navidad” banner for all the Mexicans at Stateville as well as a picture of a black Santa Claus. Christmas decor and pictures were also mixed along with Kwanzaa, a Swahili celebration which has been adopted by Muslim African-Americans. A happy Hanukkah and menorah was displayed, although there are probably fewer than ten Jews in the entire penitentiary and I doubt any of them are Semitic. Oddly, the hand drawn pictures of candles for Hanukkah and Kwanzaa looked like phalluses and when I pointed this out to the men around me, it got a great deal of laughter. They did look like penises and Big John said this was probably done intentionally because of all the homosexuals in prison. What I thought was most amusing was, however, a Barack Obama Santa Claus. For weeks before Christmas, Rush Limbaugh has been calling the president “Santa Claus” because of all the presents he gave out to various constituents of the Democratic electorate to win reelection.
After getting our food, we again were forced to wait in the chow hall before a line was run back to the cell house. The crowds and noise were annoying and I could not get back to my cage soon enough. I sat in silence with a frown the Grinch probably could appreciate. I listened to prisoners yelling and talking, including Wally griping about the tiny wedge of pumpkin pie. A Muslim walked by shouting he had been given pork and wanted to trade it for the dessert, and a short, overweight man at my table quickly exchanged with him. I could not believe how much food Steve smashed onto his tray. He was unable to close the lid and transferred some of the food to his cold tray. I said to Anthony, “Gluttonous,” and he mentioned how the man actually asked him if he was given leftovers during his shift in the kitchen he would buy them.
In the H.C.U. holding cage was a prisoner I know who goes by the nickname Wild Bill. Bill was my neighbor in a different cell house and although he is obnoxious and talkative, I get along with him or at least in small dosages. Bill, as always, was very social and talking my ear off. He wanted to know who I liked to win in the college football bowl games as well as the NFL playoffs. I told him I had not been paying as much attention to the sport as I used to, but I had a wager for Alabama to defeat Notre Dame by more than a touchdown, and as usual I was hoping the New England Patriots won the Superbowl. Wild Bill who is Irish wanted Notre Dame to win and thought the Denver Broncos would be victorious in the NFL. Bill knows I am quiet but apparently I was being even less talkative than usual and he asked what was wrong. I asked him if he got sick from eating the Christmas meal. He said no, and then I told him how all night and into the morning I had cramps, gas, and diarrhea. Even at that moment, I did not feel well and I was glad the bathroom was close by. He asked me why I did not tell the nurse I had just seen. I said there was no way I was going to tell a nice looking younger woman that, and regardless, she was a lab technician, not a doctor. Bill said he did not care if the nurse was gorgeous if he was sick, he would tell her. I believed him. Wild Bill had no restraint or compunction.
When I returned from the H.C.U., I again had to use the toilet. My cellmate was awake and from behind the privacy sheet, I asked him if he became ill. He said "no," and I told him how I was up much of the night. He told me he thought there was something wrong with me when he returned from work. Anthony went on to say the cell smelled like death, and I told him how I attempted to blow the stench out of the cell by turning on the fan. He said he noticed, along with the female guard who unlocked the cell door to let him in. I replied that he was fortunate he was not locked in the cell the entire night. Again I asked him if he did not get ill at all from the food, and he steadfastly said "not at all," but went on to say he has an iron stomach, and like a lion, can eat rotten flesh. Despite how Bill and "Anthony the Lion" did not get sick, when we went to the prison store many people spoke about getting diarrhea. Prisoners attempted to figure out if the food was rotten or contaminated and which food it was. My guess was the pork because my symptoms began almost immediately after eating it.
Anthony was called in to work the 2nd shift which has never occurred before. He told me afterwards that two units in the NRC were on quarantine. I asked him why prisoners were being kept isolated for food poisoning. He speculated the administration was just being cautious. A kitchen supervisor informed him a few hundred inmates at the Receiving Center were gravely ill with chills, fever, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Food was being made at Stateville and then trucked over to them. The norovirus was suspected but a virulent strain of the flu could not be ruled out. I thought speculation of the flu was moronic and it was obviously from the food served. Norovirus was a better guess because I knew it was typically spread by poor hygiene and food handling. I spoke to Steve later and he told me when he worked on cruise ships, they routinely had outbreaks of norovirus from food contamination. Coincidentally, I noticed on the television news two cruise ships were reported to have norovirus epidemics causing them to port on the coast of South America until passengers and crew recovered.
The kitchen at the NRC as well as at Stateville is filthy. Occasionally, I will see cockroaches on the feed counter and plastic trays are often not washed properly. Food from previous meals will be stuck on the trays and they are always dripping wet because they are not dried. Kitchen workers tell me what I do not see is even worse. In the back, mice run rampantly eating through food, defecating or urinating on it. Food is also not rotated correctly or left out of the freezer too long causing it to go bad. I noticed workers used gloves but they do not take them off and put new ones on after touching other things. I am told this is regularly done behind the scenes, and many surfaces let alone just their gloves become contaminated. It is no wonder most guards bring their own meals from home. If I did not have to, I would not eat the food here either.
Yesterday, I was sent to the University of Illinois for another MRI on my lower spine. When I returned, I was supposed to see the medical director. However, he was too busy seeing numerous Stateville inmates who were still sick from the Christmas meal. They looked very ill and looked at the floor silent unlike most other inmates who were talking to one another. For some reason, some men did not get ill at all, others became mildly ill for a short duration, and yet others became very sick for a couple of days. I never did get to see the doctor and my appointment was rescheduled. Back in my cell, I was just able to catch the 6:00 Chicago news report that Stateville had an outbreak of norovirus and part of the penitentiary was on quarantine. Although norovirus may have initially been suspected to be the cause of the epidemic, it was false.
From speaking to medical staff and prisoners who work in the kitchen, norovirus was not to blame. None of the stool samples taken and analyzed had the virus in it. The symptoms exhibited by men being treated were completely consistent with food poisoning. Kitchen workers told me how the meat had been left out to thaw in the prep room for days. The prep room is not kept cool enough to prevent meat from spoiling. Bacteria can grow on pork quicker than turkey and this probably explains why I and others became sick from it rather than the turkey. The holidays are a ridiculous facade in prison and it was ironic the one thing I looked forward to was spoiled. This year was literally a rotten Christmas.
UPDATE: April 1, 2013
I filed a grievance about the spoiled meat served on Christmas day which caused hundreds of inmates at the NRC and Stateville to become sick. The counselor responded she cannot verify if I actually became sick, and noted that she had not received any other grievances about the matter. Today, I finally received a response from the grievance officer. She claims the medical director who works in the state capital as an administrator has concluded the outbreak was due to stomach flu and not food poisoning. (Odd that the head doctor at Stateville told me otherwise.) I suspect the IDOC is attempting to deny any culpability.