How can I communicate what it is like to get arrested when you have one four month old daughter and a second daughter on the way, and then be sentenced to a term of life without the possibility of parole after your first felony conviction, by way of a theory of accountability, for a crime you didn’t commit? How can I depict what it feels like now to have two daughters who are twelve and thirteen years old whom I haven’t held in over nine years because I’m confined in a supermax prison for my sole legitimate disciplinary infraction? A prison which Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Tamms Year Ten all condemn because they consider the conditions here as amounting to torture. The English language lacks adequate terminology for such an endeavor.
The first time I ever wrote anything really was shortly after I arrived at Tamms (the supermax prison where I’m currently confined). I wrote an essay. I had never written an essay before, not even in school as far as I can remember. Yet desperate for money, I tried my hand at it. There was an essay contest being put on by a death row inmate and a good Samaritan. The theme was Who Am I?” I learned of the contest from another prisoner who yelled out the details from down the gaNery. I had to send it in that night in order to make the deadline. I simply wrote down the first thing that came to mind. Surprisingly I won first place and fifty bucks, even more than the ten dollars promised to every entrant. More than anything though, it inspired me to learn how to write better. In prison good writing skills are essential for just about everything — keeping in contact with your family (especially here in Tamms where they still won’t allow us to make phone calls); presenting your appeals in concise, coherent arguments to the courts; advocating for change; filing grievances; etc.
In that first essay I briefly touched upon what it is like in prison. I wrote:
“Most people’s conceptions of being locked up are completely wrong. It’s not the physical things that you’re without that make it so hard to be incarcerated for life. It’s the fact that you’re helpless to take care of your family when they’re sick, to raise your children, to help in their times of struggle, and to give back to your community. Instead you’re a burden, a charity case, someone to pity. It strips you of your self-esteem and your self-respect. That is what breaks a man, not the absence of good food, alcohol, sex, or any of the other inconsequential thing we may often wish we had to temporarily give us pleasure.”
I still find all of that true. Yet, after being confined and isolated for the past 9 years in a supermax prison, I’ve also come to realize that the little things add up too. There are a million little stressors and injustices that prisoners must endure on a daily basis that can also break a man. These are what I will try to describe with this diary. Each one may seem minor, but the cumulative effect of them all is what drives so many here insane. I’m not sure how accurate the word “insane” is, but it definitely causes a variety of mental illnesses. A recent report by the John Howard Association claims that 95% of inmates in Tamms suffer from a diagnosable psychiatric problem. Up to a point I wonder if this figure is just rhetoric or propaganda put out by the administration to further slander and stigmatize us in the eyes of the public, similar to how they call us the “worst of the worst”. I can hear them now, “not only are they the worst of the worst, but they’re all crazy sociopaths!” At the same time it disturbingly seems plausible to me that so many here are mentally ill. Numerous studies have shown that as little as three months in solitary confinement can cause deterioration in one’s mental health. I wonder what the past nine years here have done to me? What psychiatric problem have they surreptitiously diagnosed me with?
March 15, 2011 4:30 a.m.
When I went to see the nurse she informed me that the doctor will not treat hernias until it becomes strangulated and is a life and death situation. I was scheduled to see the doctor, “Dr. Death”, nevertheless. We call him Dr. Death because of his complete lack of compassion for prisoners and his priority of saving his employer money over the lives or health of his patients. When I saw Dr. Death he told me “You’re alright. It’s reducible”. I asked him “Shouldn’t I get it repaired?” He responded, “Yeah, but we’re not going to do it. You can get it repaired when you get Out.” I told him that I’m never getting out, as I have a life without parole sentence. He responded, “Oh, then you’ll die with it.” I then asked him, “What about the pain?” He said, “You’re tough, you can handle it.”
I’m only working on about three hours sleep right now. Two guys on the wing “bugged up” last night, and were screaming and kicking on the door all night. If you’ve ever heard anyone slam steel against steel, you can imagine how loud and nerve-racking five continuous hours of that deafening noise sixty times per minute in close quarters would be. We say someone has “bugged up” when they lose it and start disturbing the wing. We call the guys who are more mentally disturbed “bugs”. I’m not sure why. Maybe it is a reference to pests, or people bugging others or something? Who knows?
The prison vernacular is a hodgepodge of English, Spanish, and Ebonics, filled with innuendos, euphemisms, slang, etc. I’ve been in prison for over a decade and half the time I still don’t know what people are saying. What’s worse is that my language skills are deteriorating to the point where sometimes my family can’t understand what I’m saying or I no longer pronounce words correctly and don’t even notice. Years ago on a visit my mother snapped at me saying “It’s police (pa-lës) not p0 lice!” (pa lés). I don’t even know when I stopped saying it correctly and never realized I was mispronouncirig it. Others have heard me talk on the wing without seeing ne and have said they thought I was Latino because I have a Spanish accent. When did that happen? Do I really? I canl’t tell if I do.
March 18, 2011 6:00a.m.
My daughters always bug me to grow out my hair. I currently have it shaved bald, and use a disposable razor to shave my head in the shower. If I were to grow it out I would have to pay what we call the “hair tax”. It’s a $4 charge anytime you change your appearance because they have to give you a new ID card. That’s the new thing nowadays. Budget crisis? Just make prisoners and their families pay for everything; soap, ID’s, visits, etc. Anyway I’m not giving them fifty bucks just so I can grow my hair out for the next year.
More importantly though, I would then be dependent on the barber to cut my hair and that entails way too much risk for my taste. I used to go out to the barber, but the last time I went I came back with two deep cuts that were dripping blood. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the inmate in the next cell yelled over to me and confessed to being positive for Hepatitis C and that the barber had just cut his hair and drawn blood as well. I asked the correctional officer if he had seen the barber clean the clippers after my neighbor’s haircut and he said no. I also noticed shavings of foreign hair much thicker and blacker than mine on my head and shoulders.
So I asked for a Hepatitis test and was denied one. Then I filed a grievance and Dr. Death called me out to see him and tried to convince me that it is not possible to contract Hepatitis that way. Which is laughable because when we come into prison they tell us not to share electric razors, nail clippers, etc. because that’s how Hepatitis is commonly transmitted. I continued to argue with him until finally he agreed to test me for Hepatitis C only. I said fine (it was better than nothing and that is what my neighbor had). Luckily it came back negative. A year earlier I had finally gotten an HIV test after asking for nearly a decade. That too came back negative. I’m trying to keep it that way. Therefore, just to be on the safe side, I no longer go to the barber. In general population one must also worry about contracting both diseases through fighting. Fights in prison get extremely bloody.
Those aren’t the only ways diseases get passed around in here either. They are supposed to screen kitchen workers and not allow inmates (from the nearby minimum security prison) who have either disease to work in the kitchen, but they still do. A number of years ago we were supposed to have chili for dinner but the trays were empty. We started asking what was going on, and the guards were really mad and told us that one of the kitchen workers had Hepatitis and bled in the chili. They never would have told us, but since the guards often eat the same meals as we do they were mad that this infected guy had been preparing all of our food for month without us knowing. Who knows how many people he may have infected. We all asked for Hepatitis tests then too, but were all denied.
I’ve seen studies that conclude that somewhere between 30% – 40% of prisoners in the U.S. has Hepatitis. The prisons and private health care companies are always fighting against testing inmates for it and never want to treat the people that they know have it. Most of these people will be getting out someday, and will pose an enormous public safety risk if they are unaware that they have Hepatitis. Prisons act as giant incubators for Hepatitis, MRSA, etc., and even HIV rates are much higher in prison than free society.
March 19, 2011 5:40 a.m.
Usually it’s quiet at this time of the morning. That’s why I choose to write this diary around this same time each day. Today though Yip and Yap (two “bugs” on the wing) are screaming at each other. This on top of the background noise of door kicking and howls of the mentally ill on some other wing. I imagine it will be another busy day for the guards. All the noise is usually a harbinger of inmates flooding or trashing the galleries, if not inmates tearing toilets off the walls or throwing feces at each other, and/or staff. Did you know that guys are being sentenced to an extra five years sometimes for throwing feces at guards? That means if they serve those extra five years in Tamms the taxpayers are paying $450,000.00 to punish a guy for slinging urine or excrement at a guard.
It’s never completely quiet on the wing unless a power outage occurs. There’s a constant and loud white noise here at Tamms. It’s the giant fan that struggles to circulate air in an otherwise hermetically sealed environment. You get used to it but only after some months. After a year or so there would be times that it would just really drive me crazy though. Then after about two years it ceased to ever bother me. It adds to the difficulty in communicating with others on the wing though.
Actually it also has its positive aspects as well. On the rare occasion that the power goes off it gets so quiet in here that you can hear every inmate urinating, farting, snoring, etc. Not pleasant! It’s also a warning that someone is going to be maced. Whenever the guards are about to mace someone they kick it on high which is extremely loud, to the point where you can’t even hear the guy in the next cell yelling to you.
Whenever they mace someone on the pod it spreads to every wing. So even if it’s on the other side of the pod you’re going to be coughing too. If you’re on the same wing as someone who gets maced you too feel the full effects, because you’re in a sealed cement box of ten cells sharing the same air. The administrative directive concerning the use of chemical agents states that staff is supposed to move everyone not being maced off the wing before macing someone, but they never comply with that directive. (Too much of a hassle, and after all, why bother when macing 8 or 10 prisoners is more fun than macing just one).
March 20, 2011 11:30 a.m.
Well I got about an hour and a half of sleep after breakfast this morning before these idiots started screaming at each other at about a quarter past six. They are still at it, uninterrupted, except for the six minutes it took them to scarf down their lunch. What kind of sick cosmic joke determined that it’s usually the most ignorant people who are capable of yelling the loudest? I could barely make out anything that was being said on the television this morning because Yip and Yap’s squall was overpowering the sound emitting from my earphones. I finally gave up and now have the radio blaring in my head to try to drown them Out.
If I yell for five minutes I lose my voice. How can someone yell for 5, 10, or even 12 hours at full volume without losing their voice? It boggles my mind. Worse it gives me a headache just listening to it, grates on my nerves, and I can do nothing to make it stop or escape from the onslaught to my hearing.
Yesterday a couple of guys were having a conversation on the wing about going to Mars or something and they were talking about muscle deterioration from lack of use in space. Then hours later there was a conversation about guys not being able to hold their bladders and bowels on the yard. (The “yard” here is really just a cement box with solid concrete walls about 20 feet high. It’s about the size of a one car garage with no washroom, and half of the roof covered with chain link fence and the other half with corrugated steel where birds nest in the grooves. The birds shower the yard with nesting material and feces.) Anyway, it got me thinking, and I started to wonder if, statistically speaking, more people in supermaxes or long- term solitary confinement develop problems holding their bladders and bowels than those in the free word. Thankfully I don’t have problems, but is seems very common.
A lot of guys are scared to go to the yard because they can never get back in to use the bathroom fast enough. I’ve seen a number of guys down here that have defecated or urinated on the yard because they could no longer hold it. So that had me wondering if the muscles responsible for controlling our bladders and bowels are atrophying due to lack of use. I’ve been no further than four feet away from a toilet for over 9 years other than the handful of times per year I go to the yard or on a visit, or when I’m in the shower (there’s a bathroom in the law library).
Is it a case of use’em or lose’em like when astronaut’s muscles atrophy while in space? Who knows? It wouldn’t surprise me though. Pretty soon we’ll all be old men in diapers. Someone should do a study on it. I suggested to my lawyer before that they should also do a study on the effects of solitary confinement on guys hearing, eyesight, etc. It seems everyone down here needs glasses after a year or two.
March 21, 2011 5:00 p.m.
I tried to send a card to my stepmother but it was just given back to me because I have insufficient funds to pay for the postage.
Last Friday I received a letter from my mother telling me that while one of my stepmother’s brothers was in the hospital getting open-heart surgery, her other brother died of a heart-attack. I guess she had to call my sister to pick up my father. My father is mentally disabled and someone has to be with him at all times. He had a stroke/heart attack over a decade ago and now can’t remember anything past a couple of minutes ago. So he couldn’t handle being in the hospital all that lime and was driving my stepmother nuts. I’m completely useless in any type of situation like this. All I can do is send a card offering my condolences. Even then, only if or when I have the funds to do so. I can’t call her, go help out with my father, help her with anything concerning the funeral, etc. I’m completely impotent to be of any assistance to anyone. That is what breaks you. It’s not just that American society views anyone who is in prison (or who is even simply charged with a crime) as evil, stupid, and worthless. It’s that, with a life without parole sentence you’re daily reminded of just how impotent you are and always will be if you don’t get out. You’re forced to view every family tragedy as a spectator, but with all the emotions of being personally effected which are compounded because you also know you can’t do anything for your family. You can’t take care of them when they’re sick, help them when they need a hand, or even attend a funeral. Being in a supermax with no phone calls also means you learn of the deaths of family and friends weeks after the fact in a letter. Letters you reread over and over hoping that you somehow misread it the first half dozen times. It also means that your family has to watch you suffer as you are denied medical care so the state can save money or some company can increase their profit margin. It means that when you die your family will have to fight to get your body and if there was foul play involved in your death they will have to deal with a cover up to try and learn the truth about what happened inside a closed environment that the public has almost no access to. Not to mention that the local and state police and prison guards are often related to one another, and taking anyone who may be responsible for your loved one’s death to court means going to court in a town where the majority of the jury pool has relatives or friends working in the prison.
March 24, 2011
My neighbor just received his GED. He was an alcoholic at age 12, sentenced to 48 years in prison for a crime committed at 18. He had a seventh grade education until last week. When he received his GED he was stunned. He told the wing that he never thought he was intelligent enough to be able to accomplish something like that. Now he’s looking to figure out a way to take a paralegal course to help guys with their legal cases, and he’s thinking of going to college in the future. The prison administration has been in his way the entire time. They refused to provide GED testing for years. They only began to do so because we fought for it for so long and so hard that our supporters demanded it as one of the reforms to Tamms. The administration still does not encourage education, but instead discourages it by prohibiting anyone in disciplinary segregation or Level 1 from enrolling. They offer nothing after a GED. Us prisoners are the ones who encouraged my neighbor to enroll and I tutored him. The teachers wouldn’t spend the time. He taught himself mostly. The first A he received on an essay amazed him. He had never known how good it feels 10 accomplish something and receive praise.
I’ve never heard of bigger myths than the three following American aphorisms:
1) “Everybody deserves a second chance” (Really? Then how is it that thousands of people are being sentenced to either death or life without parole or its numerical equivalent for first time offenses, many of which were committed as children?):
2) “The land of the free”. (Really? Then why are we the nation with the highest incarceration rates, with only five percent of the world’s population but twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners?); and
3) The term “Criminal Justice System”. (if it is so concerned with justice why are there so many innocent people sitting on death row or in prison? Why does the court system routinely deny prisoners justice by refusing to hear a case or an issue because an uneducated prisoner or incompetent lawyer failed to navigate the most complicated procedural mazes you can imagine? Why are prosecutors vociferously seeking convictions to advance their careers when they have evidence that the defendant is innocent? Why do courts and legislators around the country still prevent defendants from obtaining DNA testing of the evidence to try and clear their name, and refuse to disclose all the evidence or pass open-discovery laws? How is this a jj system when it denies the wrongly accused the only evidence that can free them?).
It’s heart-rending to see so many lives thrown away — guilty and innocent. For every one like my neighbor there are ten who never get to have that feeling of accomplishment, and will continue to feel useless, worthless, and incompetent until they die.
March 25, 2011 5:00 a.m.
We (Tamms inmates) got some encouraging news. Well sort of. They finally gave us our pin numbers and phone lists, and claim that we will be able to make phone calls beginning next month. Of course they’ve been promising us these phone calls for two years now. (Before that they always told us we would never get phone calls because Tamms was for punishment not privileges. They used to use the excuse that it would be a security threat to provide us with phone calls, yet convicted terrorists in the federal prison ADX in Colorado get phone calls, as do inmates in other supermaxes around the nation; so it’s obviously no security threat.) In December they said we’d get them in January. in January and February they said March, now it’s April. We’ll see. It would be nice to hear my daughters’ voices every month. We only get two 10-15 minutes phone calls each month though.
March 26, 20112:35 p.m.
Once again guys on the wing (Yip and Yap) are kicking the steel doors and screaming at the top of their lungs. It’s driving me nuts as usual. All I want to do is hell “shut the &!$* up!”.
Yet I don’t because if I do I’ll just become one more screaming, jabbering idiot and sooner or later pass the point of no return to a state of complete psychological meltdown like so many others down here. It’s impossible to read case-law or concentrate on anything with all this racket. So I’ll work on things that don’t take a lot of deep thought or concentration and listen to the radio loud enough to try and drown Out the cacophony (which never works). Hopefully they will wear themselves out in a few hours and I can get back to the rest of my to-do list. We’ll see.
Well they started up again. Here’s hoping that they don’t have more than an hour and 45 more minutes worth of screaming left in them. Stargate Universe comes on at 12:30 a.m. At least they aren’t kicking the doors. I’m constantly amazed how a sentence with 20 words can consist of only three words that aren’t obscenities and can still convey a thought (or at least an outlandish accusation). It’s an art-form I’m glad I haven’t perfected. Of course listening to it for years on end is a disease to one’s own vocabulary. Till tomorrow.
March 27. 2011 9:10 a.m.
It’s Sunday morning. Once again Yip and Yap are screaming at each other. I have my earphones in with the radio blaring, destroying my hearing. I’m trying to drown out the noise. Unfortunately people have their cell lights on so it makes the radio real staticky (I have no idea how to spelt that word. “Staticky” is probably wrong but “staticy” seems wrong as well. Is that even a proper word? I can’t recall ever seeing it in print).
My writer’s block is gone. The music and yelling are making it difficult to compose my thoughts, but I’d like to expound on why I have such a hard time coping with being incarcerated with a life-without-parole sentence and confined in a supermax prison with the plethora of restrictions solitary confinement entails, for years and years on end.
What makes prison so hard is having ambition, dreams, goals, and wanting to do right and accomplish positive things. Prison is conducive to none of these. It’s so much easier to not care about life, not learn, not grow intellectually, not mature. It’s easier to just hate-hate life, hate people, hate yourself. Striving to do something with your life, especially under these conditions make every day that much harder. It’s always easiest to destroy or ignore. Hardest to care and build up yourself, other people, society, etc. It’s easier for people to give up – on themselves, their children, others. It’s why society finds it so easy to automatically demonize and write off anyone convicted or even charged with a crime without even knowing for certain whether he or she is guilty, or the circumstances surrounding the incident. All they need to know is that he or she is a “suspect” or a prisoner, or arrested for X crime, etc. It’s much harder to look into the situation before making a judgment; harder to have compa5sion; harder to deal with the societal ills or root causes of crime. It’s so much easier to be smug and sanctimonious. Easier to be deliberately indifferent to what is happening in your community until it adversely effects you and then just scream for revenge, rather than to try to understand how things came about. I know, that’s how I used to be in my youth. Selfish, indifferent, not a care in the world.
That’s also the easiest way to do a prison bit. It’s safest to only look out for yourself. It’s easiest to not care about your family and their struggles. it’s easiest to sit around arid read urban novels and watch the idiot box all day, not doing the hard work to try to accomplish anything with your life. Not fighting for your rights or the rights of others, not sticking up for or lending a hand to anyone.
I can’t live like that. I want to make a difference and accomplish as much as I possibly can with the remaining grains of sand which plummet all to quickly in my inner hour glass.
I want to be a good father to my two beautiful daughters. I can’t do that from in here — no matter how much I try. A prerequisite to being a good father is being there for your child. I can’t be there for them, so I fight with every once in me to change that. Oh how easy it would be to not write them every week when they don’t write me for months. How much heartache and stress it would save me not to constantly worry about how their health, grades, and lives are, and how my being here is affecting them or how it will impact their lives in the long run. How easy it would be to give up on all my avenues of appeal and collateral attacks on my conviction and sentence and just quit on life, becoming a bunk potato for the next five decades.
It would be so easy to harden my heart and not worry about how my family is doing, not care about the thousands of problems facing our communities and country. It would be so easy to not study all these issues, not write proposals, articles, reports, etc. Not stress about how I am so impotent to make a difference from in here. It would be so easy to cease trying to understand others point of view, to show compassion, or to forgive those who have done me wrong. It would be so easy to repay every wrong done to me with an equal or greater wrong. it would be so easy (and save me so many headaches and hours of my days) to be deliberately indifferent to anyone else’s struggles, arid refuse to help them in any way.
It would have been so easy to remain that selfish, crass, ass that I was in my youth.
Instead I choose the struggle. I fight. No longer with my fists or over pride. Instead I fight to rescue my life from being a complete waste. I care nothing about the “next life”. I do nothing out of fear of any God. I couldn’t tell you if any God exists. I’ve never seen an ounce of proof that one does exist, let alone that he intercedes in our lives. I believe in neither heaven nor hell. I worry about this life and making the most of what time I have here.
Why don’t I worry about the “next life” or if there’s a God? Because I believe one thing that most religions seem to reject. That if there is a God, and I’m living my life trying to help others — be a good parent, friend, neighbor, and citizen solely because I choose to care about others, then He or She will be much more satisfied that I am living right for the sake of living right than if I did it out of fear of God or was trying to rack up points, treasures, virgins, etc. in heaven. If God requires me to care only that I believe some story which requires me to suspend logic or common sense to believe it, or that I must bow to Him or Her out of fear or self- interest, then I’m not interested in the next life or stroking God’s ego.
I don’t know how I went off on a religious tangent. Oh well. As I was saying though — when you have any ambition, dreams, goals, worry about your family, etc. it all makes living in prison all the more difficult because accomplishing anything or being there for anyone is a thousand times more difficult. You’re isolated in a cocoon of cement, steel, and insanity, where your resources are negligible and the whole of society is against you.
All I want is to make the most of my life and not waste another single grain of my sand. It’s hard though when I’m constantly being persuaded that all society wants is for me to die so that the state can save some money and open up a bed for another they’ve deemed worthless. I see it in the denial of my rights, the denial of adequate medical care, in the illogical, unjust, and factually erroneous decisions handed down by court after court. I see it where every portrayal of a prisoner on television is of a sadistic, homosexual rapist or baby killer. I see it where education for prisoners is seen as a waste of resources even when every study ever conducted shows it saves more money than it costs, so eliminating educational programs is counter- productive not only to balancing the budget but also to the safety of society.
Yet it is done over and over. Why? Because it’s so much easier to hate prisoners and be deliberately indifferent to both the facts and the toll on humanity, than it is to care about another human being and try to understand him or her. Understand that an 18-year-old kid with a third grade education whose only family was a gang — which he or she would do anything they could to please because it was the only love they ever received — and who had already been an alcoholic and drug addict for a third of his or her life, may not make great decisions as a kid. That kid doesn’t need a 50 year prison sentence. That kid needs our help; needs it long before they commit a crime; needs it even when they are incarcerated; needs treatment, education, hope for a better future. What he or she doesn’t need is to be constantly told that they are evil, worthless, despised, and not worth anyone’s care, consideration, or assistance.
I’ve met so many guys in here that have only ever felt pride in doing things that are self- destructive, or detrimental to others. I’ve met too many teenagers with natural life sentences or fifty or five-hundred year sentences. That is what disgusts me. Everyone makes mistakes. What is scary is when society collectively and deliberately throws away so many of its young people, and then justifies its actions with knowingly false rhetoric, playing on people’s fears or desires for revenge, or desire to feel superior to someone else. Or even worse, as part of an industry — passing harsher and harsher laws to feed the private prison industry or to satisfy unions worried about job security.
March 28, 2011 6:14 a.m.
I’m really getting started late today. I just got out of bed about fifteen minutes ago and only got about five hours of sleep. Five interrupted hours of sleep though as Yip and Yap were sporadically going at it all night. These guys drive me nuts but I get along with both of them and try to understand that not only are they clearly mentally ill, but also that a lot of what they do are clear symptoms of what is commonly referred to as “SHU Syndrome” (Secure Housing Unit Syndrome) and what we call Tamms Syndrome.
What cracks me up is that they are completely oblivious as to how much they disturb the rest of the wing. They were screaming at each other in the middle of the night and in the wee hours of the morning and thirty seconds after they stop one of them calmly calls me as if nothing has been going on, and asks me to spell a word for him — at five in the morning1 when I know at least two other guys are trying to sleep.
Most days I feel like “information”, you know, when you call “411”? Or nowadays I guess it’s more like “Ask Jeeves”. Instead I’m like “Cell Seven how may I help you?”. All day every day guys are calling up here asking me to help them with stuff, or to ask me questions, or to look something up, etc. Some days I just have to tell everyone to stay off my door. Otherwise I’ll never be able to finish what I need to finish.
One guy — Yip, one of the screamers — I have to intentionally be rude to for him to leave me alone. If I don’t he will try and start a thousand conversations just so he can have something to do. He can’t read past like a first grade level. The only genre that holds his attention long enough to even make him try to read are books about Street life or erotic novels. He has so little knowledge about nearly every subject imaginable that the majority of his questions are completely illogical and even when they are coherent enough for you to understand them you need to explain a hundred other things first. The whole time though he’s not really interested in the conversation. He just wants to hear someone talk. Whenever the conversation starts winding down he’ll ask another question which usually has no connection to what you were talking about, or just as often evidences that he didn’t listen to anything you just said.
Why does he do it? Because he’s in his cell with no TV, no radio, uneducated, and can’t read or write to pass the time. So his choice is usually to try and get someone to talk to him or scream at Yap his nemesis. He is so desperate to talk to anyone that he drives the guards crazy hitting the emergency intercom button, stops the guards every time they come on the wing every half hour to make rounds (to make sure no one escaped or that no one else has killed themselves) and every time he sees anyone come on the pod he screams at the top of his lungs, all to try to get them to come talk to him. Why they put him in cell #1 (the only cell that can see everything that happens out in the main area of the pod) is beyond me. They hate him screaming for people yet put him in the only cell that gives him a view to even know that someone has entered the pod. He knows every employee in the institution and nearly every mundane detail of their personal lives. The car they drive, which of their family members work for the IDOC, who they’re dating, married to, etc.
March 29, 2011 6:43 a.m.
I really detest prison culture. It’s just a huge dichotomy with not a single positive aspect to it. Life in prison is plagued by the tough guy mentality. One must never look weak, soft, sensitive, compassionate, etc. Which is ironic because this same rule has created a culture where everyone swears they are tough but in reality they are comically hyper-sensitive to anything that may even theoretically imply that one is sensitive or insecure. If you tell someone to stop being so sensitive, most will take it as disrespect and want to physically hurt you. No one will realize that they are being overly sensitive about being called sensitive.
Some guys are so obsessed with not being seen as weak, soft, etc. that they see slights or innuendo in every word. So many guys in prison are extremely insecure, but at every chance they will profess otherwise even while constantly proving their insecurities. I’ve heard guys take issue with the word “buddy” (I’m assuming they were illiterate and don’t understand that that word has no connection to the work “butt”), the term “your guy”, “my boy”, or “my man”, all of which just a decade ago were synonyms for “homie” or “good friend”, but now are frequently thought of as innuendo, insinuating that they refer to a male lover.
Guys are scared to admit they enjoy any TV show or movie that is in any way considered soft. I always laugh when I catch guys reading romance novels, watching soap operas, chick flicks, etc. and then they swear up and down that they weren’t. If you like it, you like it. Stop being worried about what others would think tough guy. It shows how contradictory prison culture is. Everyone is desperate to prove how tough, confident, etc. they are, but in reality those same efforts to do so always belie their insecurities or fears about their own image.
When I first came to prison I was like that too, probably to a lot lesser extent, but still, I was in survival mode. Now, I couldn’t care less what anyone else thinks. I’m done wasting energy on conformity with prison culture. All it does is perpetuate the problems that have plagued prisons for decades. It also contributes to so many guys being released illiterate, unreformed, and unprepared for reentry into society. It’s disturbing to see so many kids coming in who not only haven’t experienced much of anything in life, but are now terrified of being themselves, or of being seen studying, or enjoying any book, movie, etc. that they even suspect could be viewed as “soft”, “square”, girlie”, or “nerdy”. So many guys are not only too ashamed to admit they’re illiterate but scared to admit it because it makes them vulnerable, giving other inmates an additional barb in an argument.
I take a lot of ribbing for my likes. I like Star War books, and never hear the end of it since I both read them constantly and I never hide nor deny it. Me and another guy used to watch the show The Gilmore girls. The show hasn’t been on in years. I still hear about it. Whenever a Hallmark movie comes on TV, someone will inevitably yell “Joe one of your soft ass movies is coming on”. I have very eclectic tastes. The books and shows that I enjoy cover a wide range — espionage, fantasy, comedies, dramas, sci-fi, etc. (I don’t like any of the crime shows, CSI’s, Law & Order, etc. They all just perpetuate the “tough-on-crime” rhetoric, revenge mentality, and the myth that our justice system is concerned with justice). No matter, how varied my interests are though, it all comes down to “Joe be watch in that soft shit”. I find it both amusing and sad. It’s sad that millions of us have to live in a culture where personal opinions, taste, etc. are so repressed and where so many succumb to their fears or insecurities and end up not experiencing or enjoying the multitude of things life has to offer. It is also sad that this culture, along with the discouragement of the administration and society, is a major hindrance to any chance at rehabilitation. (Yip and Yap just started yelling again. They yell at each other simultaneously. You would think they would realize that just as they can’t hear the other, nor are they being heard. Obviously they don’t.)
March 30, 2011 6:03 a.m.
Yesterday I was talking to someone through the window on another pod. Since we are so isolated and compartmentalized from one another we communicate through the two strips of four-inch wide, dirty window that sit in the wall about eight feet above the floor of our cells. In order to see out of them you have to stack either your property boxes, if you have any, or all of your bedding — folded up mattress, blankets, and pillow — and stand on it. The shorter you are the more difficult it is. Since the windows do not open, the only way to communicate is through sign language. The administration some years back prohibited sign language instruction books to try and hinder communication. That was a futile undertaking. The first guys down here weren’t about to wait until everyone could order the same books so they began developing their own sign language system. Or actually systems. Since there’s so little movement and each wing can only see a couple other wings a number of sign languages were developed autonomously. Therefore each inmate knows a few different systems, and can easily adapt to a new one in the beginning when speaking to someone new.
Anyway, the guy I was speaking to out of the window was telling me how they refuse to provide him surgery for his hemorrhoids and how embarrassing and degrading going to see Dr. Death was. (Yes I was surprised he was telling me this as it was only the second time I have talked to him. Of course a week or two ago I just told you all about my hernia, so go figure.) First, they come and shake/strip him down then handcuff and shackle him in boxers and a tshirt and take him Out to a little medical station. It’s located on the pod and is completely open to viewing by anyone entering the pod. The door, a huge sliding glass door similar to a patio door, is left open and he is asked all types of embarrassing questions by the nurse and Dr. Death, like how much it itches, burns, how his stool is, etc. All while he is held on either side by two guards who were not only cracking homosexual jokes at his expense, but who will also inevitably tell their coworkers and other inmates about his medical condition.
As if that weren’t bad enough, there was also a female Lieutenant present in the room watching as well. So he had quite an audience when he had to bend over the gurney, with 2 guards holding him down while Dr. Death pulled down his boxers and used two fingers to examine his rectum. While that was happening more jokes were being cracked and two other people passed by looking into the medical station. All so he could get some ointment to stop the itching. In other prisons they just sell it on commissary. Here the only way to get it is to constantly be degraded every time you need another seven day supply.
I can completely understand how he felt. When I first came down here I had been assaulted by a number of staff while in handcuffs in another prison. At the other prison I was placed in the health care unit for 24 hours of close observation, due to multiple head wounds, then transferred down here. Upon arrival I was placed on suicide watch for no legitimate reason, but rather to keep me even more isolated, to embarrass me and further punish me. Even the mental health staff said I was not suicidal and should not be on suicide watch. They were given a direct order to keep me on suicide watch nevertheless.
They also recommended I be given property so that I could write my family. Instead I was denied all property, any shower, etc. for four days. I was given a greasy inch-thick, green foam mattress, and a paper see-through jumpsuit with the entire front torn off of it. I was placed in a square furniture-less room with a cement floor the texture of sandpaper. There was a toilet but nothing else — no bunk, no desk, nothing. The two florescent lights were left on twenty-four hours per day. Dozens of times per day (every 10 minutes) guards, mental health staff, and administration officials would come and stare at me through a 5 x 3 foot window. If I was required to speak with them, I would have to approach the window covering my privates with my hands. I was denied underwear, socks, soap, deodorant , shower, pen, paper, reading material, etc. for four days in a bare room with a toilet. You would think that people can’t just arbitrarily treat you like this, but in prison it’s all too common. The administration’s justification for treating me like this? They said I needed to be on suicide watch because I have a life-without-parole sentence and was written a disciplinary ticket. Now, let’s forget for a second that this would also justify treating thousands of other inmates as suicidal and that by that same reasoning I could be subjected to the same treatment every time I am written a disciplinary ticket. This “diagnosis” was made by an administration official who had no training to qualify him as capable of making that decision and was completely contradictory to the judgments of those who were actually qualified to make that decision.
When I went to court over this degrading treatment, that part of the case was dismissed beforehand because, ever since the passage of the PLRA (Prison Litigation Reform Act), prisoners can’t sue if they can’t prove a serious physical injury. While I could sue for the assault while handcuffed, I couldn’t sue for the four days of humiliation. So, for instance, all the terrible photos everyone saw in the media about how prisoners in Abu Ghraib were humiliated, they could do that to prisoners in the U.S. and we would have no recourse whatsoever, because humiliation, debasement, mental and emotional suffering is not actionable. Why? Because everyone hates prisoners, so laws like the PLRA can sail through with little opposition. We (prisoners) can’t even garner the same public sympathy from Americans that our enemies garner. The week after the uproar over the Abu Ghraib photos were released a video was released showing American prisoners in a facility here (in America) being made to slither naked on the floor with attack dogs snipping and barking at them, all while officers screamed at them and videotaped them wriggle from the day room to their cells. There was little outrage evident as it quickly disappeared from the news.
I always find it really ironic and hypocritical that society always expects prisoners not only to rehabilitate themselves and follow the rules and laws, both when they are in prison and after they are released, yet guards and administration officials, constantly break the rules and laws with little to no accountability. What’s that maxim? Something about a society is judged by how it treats it’s least powerful citizens?
April 1, 2011 5:15 a.m.
Last night I was reading an article in the Nation magazine (April 11, 2011). It was titled “How Wall Street Crooks Get Out Of Jail Free” and written by William Greider. It had the following quote:
“At the end of the day, “Senator Kaufman warned, “this is a test of whether we have one justice system in this country or two. If we do not treat a Wall Street firm that defrauded investors of millions of dollars the same way we treat someone who stole $500 from a cash register, then how can we expect our citizens to have any faith in the rule of law?”
Too true. Too true. We can’t. Ask any poor person in America if they believe the same laws apply to the rich. Think of it this way. Wall Street bankers not only were doing things they knew were illegal and unethical and cost people not only their homes, retirement savings, etc. and destroyed people’s lives, but they faced absolutely no repercussions for their actions. Instead they were awarded with millions of dollars in bonuses and continue to be to this day. (Also they were often stealing and are being awarded with money they don’t really need to survive compared to many a petty thief who may be stealing to feed him or herself due to being unable to find work).
Now if it were your home, or car, or retirement that was lost and you punched that banker in the nose you would be immediately taken to Jail, quite possibly serve time in prison (up to 5 years in Illinois if the sentence wasn’t enhanced), and you’d be reduced to a second class citizen for the rest of your life as a felon. That is our “justice” system. Destroy hundreds of thousands of families’ saving, etc — get rewarded with millions. Hit someone and you’re thrown in the clink and a leper for life. Anyway it’s a good article.
April 2. 2011 6:15 a.m.
I just realized that I’m nearly out of paper. Let’s see what’s one other example of what it feels like to be incarcerated that I haven’t touched upon … I guess I’ll briefly explain about women. For homosexual male prisoners I guess it’s fortuitous that they have no desire for women. For heterosexual male prisoners, the absence of women increasingly gnaws at our essence more and more each day as the years pile up.
It’s not the absence of sex that weighs so heavily, although that certainly weighs on us as well. Of course most heterosexual men have a primal urge to have sex and procreate that is as old as humanity itself. It is something that is encoded in our being. No, there is something even more devastating. After having experienced a woman’s companionship and the anxiety of a new relationship with a woman and the joy it brings, you don’t want to believe you will never experience them again. It’s difficult to come to terms with the fact that I may never get to fall in love again. Never meet, love, and live a lifetime with a “better half” or “soul mate”. Not havingtouched, smelled, or had the companionship of a woman for well over a decade are all so soul- decaying that I can’t adequately describe the toll they take on me.
I dream not about having sex, but rather the sweet mundane moments shared with the mother of my children that I hadn’t realized had been recorded in my brain. The most vivid recurring dream I have is of her getting out of the shower with a plush maroon towel wrapped around her petite frame from the swell of her breast to the thick of her thigh. Residual heat form the shower pulses out of her every pour. Her hair is wet, curly, and long. As she steps out of the bathroom I kiss her warm, moist lips and then smell the hollow of her clavicle while I enfold her into me. Her smell can only be described as immaculate euphoria. She is unblemished by any tattoo, makeup, or hair product residue. That’s the entire dream, just holding her. Yet, other than when I’ve held my daughters as babies I know of no other moment that gave me such a feeling of peace, joy, and pure love, as I felt at that moment, and I get to relive that feeling every time I have that dream. It is the only time I have ever had such a feeling in prison, and every time I have that dream I always worry that I’ll never again have a similar experience and am terrified that I’ll cease having that dream.
I don’t know how well I’ve been able to convey what it is like living out a life-without- parole sentence in prison. Reading over what I’ve written doesn’t seem to be worthy of anyone’s time. It actually seems like a pretty boring read. I suppose part of it is because I am the one who wrote it and lives this monotonous existence.
In sum, I guess prison life is an amalgamation of various feelings of impotency. I’m impotent to assist my family. I’m impotent to raise my daughters. I’m impotent to contribute to society in any significant way. I’m impotent to accomplish any of my life’s goals, or anything meaningful. I’m impotent. Not incompetent, just impotent.
In an essay that I wrote last year entitled “The Meaning of ‘Life”, I wrote the following:
“Rarely am I asked what it’s like to serve a life-without parole sentence. Arguing for a death sentence for my first felony conviction, the State’s Attorney implored the judge not to allow me to spend the rest of my life on a virtual “vacation” in prison. I can unequivocally state that it is rio vacation. A life-without-parole sentence means a million things, because, as its name suggests, it encompasses a person’s entire remaining life. It means being reduced to a second-class citizen in the eyes of most people. It means decades of discrimination from the courts and public. “Prisoner”, “inmate”, or “convict” each have a strictly pejorative use in the media or pop culture. Those terms become the sole defining characteristic of a man’s entire character. It means that courts will turn a blind eye to any act of injustice against you unless it causes “atypical and significant hardships.”
A free man may find protection in the courts from emotional and mental harm, but a prisoner can only find protection from “atypical and significant” physical harm, and that’s dependent on finding an objective and unbiased judge and enough citizens who can set aside their personal biases against prisoners to fill a jury box and render a fair verdict — a nearly impossible feat. So when you’re stripped naked and left in a concrete box with nothing but a toilet for four days without cause, as a prisoner you have no recourse in the courts. When you’re beaten to a bloody mess while handcuffed, as a prisoner you’re more likely to encounter a jury that will conclude you deserved what you got, regardless of the circumstances. It means that after being “spared” the death penalty and receiving a life-without- parole sentence, you lack all the procedural safeguards against a wrongful conviction that a death sentence would have entailed, solely because you were found undeserving of immediate death. How ironic it is that the worse you are deemed to be, the better your chance of proving your innocence and regaining your freedom. It means a lifetime of censorship, where you’re told what books and magazines you can read, what movies you can watch, even what hairstyles you can sport, and where every letter coming in and going out is subject to inspection. It means a complete lack of privacy forever, and a complete indifference to your physical and mental health, until someone fears being sued.
It means a constant, heightened risk of catching a deadly disease. You’re captive in an environment where staff infections run rampant, where people still die from tuberculosis, where the population has twice the rate of HIV infection compared to non- prisoners, and where up to forty percent are infected with hepatitis. An environment where there’s nowhere to run from many of these diseases because you’re forced to use communal toilets and showers.
It means three meals a day of the poorest quality food that the least amount of money can buy without killing the inmate population.
It’s a daily existence where trust is non-existent and compassion is not allowed. Not only is compassion viewed as a sign of weakness in the prison milieu, but it is, ironically, actively discouraged by the prison administration. If your neighbor is destitute and you want to assist him by giving him soap, paper, or even a snack to supplement the meager meals, you can only do so at risk of being written a disciplinary ticket for “trading and trafficking”.
It’s a never-ending pressure cooker where the stress and anxiety compound daily as you constantly have to watch your back. Soldiers returning from Iraq understand this. It’s a major factor in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The constant fear for your safety and the need for 24-7 situational awareness frays at your nerves. Now imagine not a 12-month tour but a life-time deployment.
It means constantly being told that you aren’t worth rehabilitation and thus are ineligible for nearly every educational or vocational program. Your life sentence disqualifies you from any state or federal grants to pursue an education and even the Inmate Scholarship Fund (founded by a prisoner) has no qualms about telling you that you’re ineligible for a scholarship because you’re never going to get out and contribute to society.
It means convincing yourself daily that your life has value even when the rest of the world tells you you’re worthless. It’s a lifetime spent wondering what your true potential really is, and yearning for the chance to find out.
It means decades of living with double standards, where any guard can call you every profanity ever invented without fear of punishment, but. where if you utter a single one in response, or anything that even resembles insolence, you’ll be written a disciplinary ticket, lose privileges, such as phone calls and commissary, and be subjected to a month of disciplinary segregation.
It means the state constitution is irrelevant where lifers are concerned. Article 1, Section 11 of the Illinois Constitution state: “All penalties shall be determined both according to the seriousness of the offense and with the objective of restoring the offender to useful citizenship”, but the courts have decided that politics, revenge, and hatred of “criminals” trump the constitution, and have thus rendered the above section essentially meaningless by their refusal to rule life-without-parole sentences unconstitutional, even if it is the defendant’s first felony conviction on a theory of accountability, as in my case. This puts the lie to the American maxim that everyone deserves a second chance.
It means that you’re especially vulnerable to incomprehensible punishments, such as a lifetime of disciplinary segregation. I was given indeterminate disciplinary segregation after being found guilty of my sole disciplinary infraction. That was 8 years ago, yet here I remain. I’ve been told (on more than one occasion) that I will never be allowed out of indeterminate disciplinary segregation. So I will continue to endure conditions for the rest of my life which are known to cause mental illness after just 3 month. it means I will never taste another Hostess cake. Nor play softball or any group activity ever again. More importantly, it means that I will never have physical contact with another human being for the rest of my life, including my 11 and 12 year-old daughters.
It means being incapable of taking care of you grandparents and parents as they reach their final years.
It means missing out on every important event in your children’s lives; unable to raise them; impotent to protect them or assist them in any meaningful way. It means they’ll grow up resenting you for the thousands of times they needed you and you weren’t there.
A life-without-parole sentence means constant contemplation of a wasted life. A continual despair as to your inability to accomplish anything significant with your remaining years. A life spent watching as each of your family members and friends slowly drift away from you leaving you in a vacuum, devoid of any enduring relationships.
It’s a persistent dashing of hopes as appeal after appeal is arbitrarily denied. It is a permanent experiment in self-delusion as you strive to convince yourself that there is still hope.
It’s a compounding of second upon second, minute upon minute, hour upon hour, of wasted existence, and decade upon decade of mental and emotional torture culminating in a final sentence of death by incarceration. These though, are simply futile attempts to describe the indescribable. It’s like trying to describe a broken heart or communicate what it feels like to mourn the death of your soul mate. The words to convey the pain do not exist. When you’re serving a life-without-parole sentence it’s as if you’re experiencing the broken heart of knowing you’ll never love or be loved again in any normal sense of the word, while simultaneously mourning the death of the man you could have and should have been.
The only difference is that you never recover, and can move on from neither the heart break nor the death because the pain is renewed each morning you wake up to realize that you’re still here, sentenced to life-without-parole. It’s a fresh day of utter despair, lived over and over for an entire lifetime.”
The above essay and this diary, are as close as I can come to convey what it is like to live in a supermax prison with a natural life sentence. I’m in a sea of madness during an eternal perfect storm of despair and heartache for the duration of my breaths; constantly conscious of the fact that nearly the entire country despises me without knowing anything about me other than I am a prisoner. I’ve survived thirteen years so far. Just forty or fifty more to go.