Hellish Prisons: Where Millions in the U.S. Reside

Hellish Prisons:  Where Millions in the U.S. Reside
by Sue Basko
I am posting this on this blog as an example of a way that you can protest by many means -- including by writing to let others know what is happening.  I have chosen to protest the corporate prison system by giving voice to one man trapped inside it.  

Two and a half years ago, I started a blog for Paul Modrowski, a prisoner in Stateville Prison, just south of Chicago.  It is called  Paul Modrowski: On The Inside.  Paul has a life-without-parole term.  He has been in prison since he was 18 and he is now 36.  He was convicted of murder under Illinois’ accountability law for lending his car to a man named Rob Faraci,  who was accused of murdering a man named Dean Fawcett.   Rob Faraci was acquitted, but Paul Modrowski was still held accountable for lending the car.   Paul did not lend his car to anyone that day.  The FBI searched Paul’s car and found not a trace of evidence in it.

 Paul is innocent of any crime, and any fair-minded person looking at all the evidence would say the same.   The U.S. criminal system is nearly incapable of righting a wrong, and on the rare occasions when it does, wastes decades doing so.   

Paul Modrowski has autism.  That makes it much more difficult for him to be in a noisy, crowded prison with no privacy.  He is interested in investments and works on stock reports.   He has also become a legal expert sought after by other prisoners.

Over 2 years ago, I got the idea that Paul might like to write a blog about his life in prison or about whatever topic he might want to write about.  I asked his mother to ask him, and he said yes.  I set up the blog with a design I thought would be easy to read and reflect the enclosed feeling of his confinement.  Paul has no computer access and has never seen the internet.  His only writing equipment is paper and a little pencil that he has to sharpen with his fingernails.  Paul writes his blog entries and mails them out to be typed in. 

Paul controls his own blog.  It is barely edited other than for spelling and sentence structure. Paul’s writing has improved so much while writing this blog that now there is barely any editing of any sort needed.  I wanted to give Paul voice.   This is Paul saying whatever it is he wants to say to people. The blog is Paul’s one domain of power and empowerment.  He is dedicated to cranking out his blog entries.   His posts have become longer and better as the months go by. 

For those of us working on the blog, it is a true commitment of time and dedication.   Those typing in the entries have a big job, as the posts become longer and longer.  They must decipher the pencil marks with arrows pointing to newly inserted parts.  I am often up at 3 a.m., editing, searching for an apt photo, or adding the entries to the Table of Contents.  Paul’s mother, Linda, is one of those who types in the blog entries.  She works long hours at this because she is so supportive of her son.  The others on the team are also very dedicated. 

 The U.S. incarcerates the highest rate of people in the world.  Over a lifetime, a huge percentage of our population spends some time in jail or prison.  Whole towns depend on the local prison for jobs.  Some prisons are privatized, turning huge profits for corporate owners.   In prisons that are not privatized, many of the services are awarded to the lowest bidder.  In the U.S., warehousing people in prison is a huge moneymaking racket.  Considering this, you’d think the conditions would be better.   The prison where Paul is held is a dungeon with non-working plumbing, overrun with cockroaches, inhabited by madmen and killers.

Paul’s blog is a monumental literary work.  He uses meticulous detail to bring you in to the prison.  He tells about everyone’s habits and oddities, for better or worse.  He spares no one, not even himself.  He shows himself  as he truly is; he is not playing for audience approval.  And yet he wins that for his honesty and dry wit.  He is a man with autism who has been locked into the deepest hole of hell for many long years, for no excusable reason.  

Paul’s blog is an astonishing inside look into a U.S prison today. I’d like to share some excerpts with you:

 When I stopped at a red light at the intersection of Archer and Cicero (two busy streets in southwest Chicago), my car was surrounded by numerous gun-wielding task force police and FBI agents. They shouted at us to get our "fucking hands up in the air." We complied. As police moved in closer, there was another shout to get out of the car. At that point, I realized my car was in drive, and I had to reach down to shift into park. Noticing red laser dots from every angle over my body and Michael's, I made the decision to leave the car in drive.

Sparrows are resourceful and smarter than one would expect. When thirsty, they will go to a leaking faucet. They turn upside down or hover like a Hummingbird to get a drink. They also will fly through a couple of doors at night to get into the prison shower. Their nests are elaborately made from garbage they find laying about: string, wires, pieces of cloth, broom straws. A scavenging bird finding no food will sometimes beg at the cell bars. I have turned to see a bird on my bars, chirping at me as if he were demanding food. I will always oblige such a courageous bird with a treat. Even when the birds do not beg, I will occasionally throw small pieces of bread, cookie crumbs, or their favorite, doughnuts, on the gallery, to the annoyance of the workers who must clean it up, or end up cleaning the bird droppings.

During my teen years, my father and I did not get along well, and our relationship was distant. Since my arrest though, this has changed. He is no longer the authoritarian, stern parent, and I am no longer the youth wanting to break free and be independent. We are on equal footing now, as adults, and I have noticed even from prison, that we share a lot in common. We have many similar interests, opinions, and values. Our personalities are also alike in many ways. I get along well with my father now, and it was good to talk to him, one on one. I wish we could have had a better relationship before my arrest, and I am saddened by all the years that have went by that we could not share time together. My father is now 64, and on the way back to my cell I was troubled with the thought that I will probably never have a real friendship with him. If you happen to read this post Dad, Happy Fathers Day.

Processed turkey-soy consists of turkey scraps ground together with soy meal into a kibble that resembles dry dog food. It comes in huge bags and is dumped into large kettles to be boiled and made into many of our meals. It is used to make spaghetti, stew, Sloppy Joes, breakfast gravy, tacos, and almost anything you can think of.

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.

I begin by scrubbing out the toilet with soap and disinfectant. Removing all the water, I place a garbage bag in it. I pour some detergent in the bag and slowly fill it up with hot water from the sink. I begin washing my clothes as I fill the toilet. When it is filled, I pull out the bag and place it in the sink. I take the first article of clothing and rinse it out in the toilet, adding new water by flushing. This is a much more efficient system than using the sink, and I can clean my laundry in less than a fifth of the time. Other prisoners also use this time saving system.

Every quarter, I go into an obsessive mode as quarterly reports are released by the government and by corporations. For the last week, I have been doing very little but trying to absorb every tidbit of information, chart it, and make sense of it. The prison went on lockdown earlier in the week due to an incident in the Round House, and this has given me the opportunity to sit at my desk for hours with only having the maddening loud noises of the cell house, and my cellmate for distractions. And my cellmate was nice enough to put me on "no talk" for part of Thursday and Friday. He was mad at me for putting his things away and organizing his property box. Usually, I am indifferent to his sloppy, disordered box, but when I went to put his property away, I could not stop myself from dumping the contents of the entire box on the floor, and refilling it in an orderly fashion. We had an argument where he called me a "bug" and a "cell dictator." I will not deny it. I am probably a little of both. I am terribly bothered by clutter, lack of space, and disorganization. In any event, he is talking to me again, and with much pent-up socialization, I knew he could not last giving me the silent treatment.

All I ordered was a pair of gym shoes and two pens. I write so much that I am continuously going through pens. Because there is a limit of two on pens, I am often using pencil. This journal entry, like most of my others, is written in pencil. And I see that I am going to have to find some more pencils because I only have one now that is longer than two inches. Apparently, the size of shoe my cellmate and I wear is out of stock, and commissary workers were too lazy to fill an order for just two pens -- because I did not get a bag.

I am angered by the Illinois Dept. of Corrections making a profit from my incarceration. Illinois prisons are allowed to overcharge prisoners 25% on all commissary purchases. On top of this, Stateville has been breaking the law to make even more money by adding 3% to the prices before adding the 25% allowed by legislation. An audit was recently done showing Stateville's commissary earning $2.3 million in 2008, $500,000 dollars more than permitted. Stateville has responded by saying they believed they could add costs for commissary staff, utilities, and warehouse space before adding the 25%. However, the 25% is supposed to include these expenses. Stateville has also been caught not using competitive bidding, and giving contracts to friends and family of prison administrators.

Earlier this week, the nutcase had a "friend" to duet with. An older Mexican several cells down from me lost his sanity, and began to rant from his cell bars. His ramblings were not as vulgar, but were wilder and made less sense. My cell mate thought it was amusing that the cell house had two people who "flew over the cuckoo's nest," and were yelling nonsense together. Although both of them lost it, they did not talk to each other or to anyone. Rather they rambled in discord, oblivious to the world. While conducting his errands, a cell house worker stopped at the raving old Mexican's cell. He informed us that the man three cells down was at his bars with bloodshot, wild eyes, pacing aggressively while he spoke.

B.J. was at the county jail for a long time, as the state convicted him of rape after rape. He was still going to court when I was sent to the penitentiary. I never saw him again until a few years ago when he was on TV news. After 15 years, B.J. was finally exonerated. DNA evidence collected from the rape victims did not match his, and when the court ordered a new trial, the state's attorney chose not to retry him. B.J. was fortunate to ever be released--he had already lost all his appeals. If not for a new DNA law that allows prisoners to retest evidence, B.J. would have died in prison as an old man. I almost did not recognize him when I saw him on TV. He was no longer the childish teen with pimples. He was in his mid-30's, and I could tell, although he was free, there was sadness and bitterness in his heart.

Groundhogs have lived on Stateville grounds for many years. However, it seems this summer there is an extraordinary number of them. On a sunny day walking to the chow hall, I may see 30 of them. They are semi-domesticated and many will walk up to you without fear. Earlier this week, I was standing in line and one stood on his hind legs and put his front paws on my leg, beseeching me for some food. I told him I did not have any, but he seemed to not believe me. Somewhere this human has a tasty morsel hidden away, I imagined him thinking.

After a half hour into the search, some of the guards began to make jokes. I heard one say to another, "Is pornography legal material?" Another voice asked to no one in particular, "Do these inmates know what they are allowed to bring to the library?" He was now looking at the porn magazine and said, "I think this is contraband. I may have to take this." The major shouted that the prisoners know what we can and cannot bring to the law library. A guard then said, "I don't know. This centerfold could be an exhibit to an appeal." Another guard then told the other they will never get done if they continue to search porn magazines.

Chow was not passed out until late. As I suspected, it was an easy to prepare and distasteful meal. Two slices of mystery meat imitation bologna, two slices of bread, and a small portion of lettuce. For a snack, we were given a packaged rectangular cake, the same snack we have been served for months. I peeled the meat off my tray and threw it out of my cell into the darkness. I hoped to hit the gun tower but it was so dark there was no way to know where it went. I was not the only one to throw their food, trays, or other garbage out of their cells. As guards moved about in the darkness with flashlights, I could see all the trash on the ground floor. I could also see, on occasion, or hear objects being thrown from the upper floors. The inmates of F house were not happy, and their discontent grew.

Roaches, I have noticed, have a strong sense of smell. They also like peanut butter and will take risk in order to get at it. I only had a little bit of peanut butter left, and no one, let alone these nasty bugs, was going to take it from me. A roach crawled up the wall and I crushed him with a left elbow. Then two more came up the wall. I had poured milk into my cereal and had to be careful not to spill it. I kept an eye on them and slowly positioned myself to slap both of them with my hand. Now I had to wash my hands before eating, and I was hesitant to leave my food out. I closed the containers and fit my peanut butter sandwich into the zip lock bag before going to the sink. When I began to dry my hands, I noticed a roach crawling down my towel that was hanging over a bunk rail. It too, also apparently wanted to get my food. I smashed it between my hands so not to get its guts on my towel, and had to again wash my hands. I sat down to enjoy my meal and watch the TV news.

According to rumor, if potato chip bags were taped to the wall upright, the roaches would crawl in, but could not get back out. The smell of the grease lured the bugs into the bags. They ate their fill of potato chip crumbs, and then when they tried to climb upward, the grease and smooth surface inside the bag caused them to slip and fall back to the bottom. I told my cellmate to carefully open the bags of chips, and give them back to me when he was done.

There were a few areas the cockroaches seemed to congregate. It was in those places that I taped my traps to the wall. I felt like Bear Grills in the show "Man vs. Wild" when he set traps in the wilderness to catch prey. Bear Grills used dead fall, snare, and various other traps, but I never saw him use the potato chip bag trap. I wonder if the former British Special Ops and survivalist would be impressed, and I waited in anticipation.

Thunderstorms are great to watch from the window. I love to see the lightning and hear the thunder, as well as see the rain coming down. With the window open, it can almost feel as if you are outside. Wind will whip through the cell, and extreme thunder can cause reverberations, not only through the cell house but the air as well.