Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Box

By Craig B. Harvey

When you think of a box, what comes to mind? I asked ten people this question: men and women; ages ranging from 16 to 55 year old; five prisoners and five non-prisoners. The most common answer given by prisoners was: cage, confinement, cell and property box. The most common answer given by non-prisoners was a cardboard box. I shared the same perspective as prisoners and non-prisoners until I began working in Stateville Correctional Center´s Personal Property Department.

The personal property building is located on a left turn at the intersecting above-ground tunnels at the infamous State and Madison.  Like its namesake streets in downtown Chicago, State and Madison divides North, South, East, and West within the institution. Still, today old-timers “boxed” in time can be heard orating folklore about how dangerous it was walking through the tunnels back in the 70´s through the 90´s. Surely the danger in a maximum security prison is always lurking around the corner.  However most of the loud mouths telling their tale are like journalist Brian Williams who, while present during battle, saw nothing but heard everything, embellishing their reports.  While veterans who battled and suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (P.T.S.D.), find solace in silence, grateful to have survived.

All incoming prisoners are required to visit personal property to receive their property boxes.  If a prisoner is transferred from another institution, officers at personal property will inventory his property to affirm or deny that all allowed property was received.  Prisoners transferring in that are on segregation status (segregation, or what prisoners and correctional officers (CO’s) refer to as “seg,” is where individuals who receive serious disciplinary infractions are housed, isolated from the general population) receive a small portion of their property.  Namely hygiene products, a few books, and legal paperwork.  Once released from seg, a prisoner is escorted to personal property to retrieve the remainder of his property.

Personal property is also where electronic items purchased from the institutional commissary are engraved with the prisoner´s name and I.D. number such as: T.V.s, book lamps, fans, and Walkman’s (that´s right, cassette players!).  The prisoner must sign and finger print a contract of receipt and approval.  He then receives copy and the carbon copy will be placed in his file.

The exterior of the building looks like the ruins of any metro area suffering from economic depression, which is familiar to majority of the prison population, who are natives of such economically depressed areas. The structure is one level, extending a little over one quarter of a mile north to south, or the length of two city blocks.

The building is broken off into sections. From north to south is: the soap industry, the gymnasium, the mechanics and maintenance shop, an abandoned power-house, clothing room, then finally, personal property.

When you arrive at personal property, there are bars on the outside windows are to prevent prisoners from escaping.  The pastel blue and white struggles to conceal the gray concrete, camouflaging the boxed doorbell to the left of the front entrance.  Like the building´s losing battle with time, and the lost souls housed in Stateville, their history is revealed from the inside out.

To gain entry, a set of glass doors and a padlocked gate must be unlocked.  As the doors open, imagine entering an abandoned Meineke Muffler (auto-mechanic franchise).  Immediately you hear, see and smell its industrious past.  Pipes clank and whistle, as steam escapes through a tiny hole.  The sounds enhance the ambience, adding to the building´s mystique.

The décor is simple: brown concrete floors, white walls with black base trim water pipes, electrical conduits, fluorescent lights, and gray institutional box fans supported by suspiciously weak chain links, all hang overhead.  The ceiling is dome shaped with vents ducts and smoke stained windows rising 20 to 25 ft. high.

From the doorway to the back wall is a massive foyer area stretching approximately 80 ft., nearly the length of a professional basketball court.  From left wall to the right wall is about 16 ft.  To acquire these measurements I used the elementary method of counting my size 8 foot steps from heel to toe.

About 20 steps in, there’s a regular wooden door with a wide red window.  To the left there´s another steel door with a fenced opening at the top and bottom.  The left door leads to the CO´s office, which is about the size of a high school classroom.  Inside are a couple of desks: one for each officer; filing cabinets where prisoners´ files are stored, such as electronic item contracts and inventory slips.  Also, paperwork is processed there for items that are being mailed out and inventory sheets for prisoners´ property.

The steel door across the hall secures a room about the size of a 2 car garage.  Inside are 11 school desks and a bench.  This room is where prisoners sit while they examine and rummage through their excess legal boxes.  Prisoners are allotted a minimum one hour each visit to property.

With the exception of prisoners in segregation, all prisoners are issued property boxes.  It´s gray and measures 3 ft. X 2 ft. and is one foot deep.  Prisoners are required to store all items purchased from commissary in this box, such as: clothing, hygiene products, food, etc…, except T.V.s, fans or radios.  For those with excess mail or legal documents, they have the option of being issued a smaller correspondence box.  Like the property box, it´s gray with a sliding lid, one foot deep, and 2 ft. X 1 ft.

Excess legal boxes come in the form of property of correspondence boxes, and cardboard boxes.  Due to cell compliance requirements, excess legal boxes are stored in personal property.  Cell compliance is a departmental rule that regulates what items are allowed outside a prisoner´s property box when he is not in his cell.  No curtains hanging in the cell, no laundry lines allowed, no pictures on the wall.  Each prisoner is allowed to have the following items outside of his property box at any given time: 1 bar of soap in soap dish, 1 toothbrush, 1 religious book, 1 T.V., 1 radio/Walkman, 1 fan, 1 mattress, 2 sheets, 1 pillow, 1 pillowcase, 1 towel, 1 lamp, 1 pair of shoes.  That´s it!  When cell compliance is enforced, items not in compliance are confiscated then stored in personal property.  The prisoner has the option to file a grievance, request that property be destroyed, or mailed home if the items aren´t considered contraband according departmental rules.

As we walk through the building, obstructing sections of the pathway are lid-less empty property and correspondence boxes.  To the common eye, the boxes are scattered.  However, the floor is marked so the boxes are in position to catch the water that leaks through the roof when it rains.  Passing a desk with two log books (one for incoming property and one for outgoing property) 66 steps in the main foyer breaks, turning right, extends another twice as long.  To the left is a cage that serves as a waiting area for prisoners when the first room is occupied.

On the back wall hanging overhead is a sports history lesson.  The smallest basketball shorts and jerseys I´ve ever seen in real life are on display.  The shorts remind me of the little shorts Isaiah Thomas played in.  To an 80’s baby, such as myself, who was a teenager in the 90s, the era of baggy fit clothes, it is comical to imagine so-called hardcore killers and robbers playing ball in shorts so petite with a team logo Stateville Bulldogs.  Although the sports equipment is safely stored in a personal property, the teams are now defunct and are only spoken of when some old timer with a limp; no athleticism, living vicariously through the youth observes a good play and recalls when he was able bodied young man.  That is before the heroin and day-to-day prison life began to double team and attack his organs.

Proceeding forward a few steps to the right is a table standing two and a half feet tall and six feet long with stacks of inventory slips.  The table sits against a five foot tall wall.  On the other side of this is about 400 square feet of area that contains a urinal, empty fan boxes, and empty digital flat screen T.V. boxes.  We commonly refer to this area as the alley.  At first glance these empty boxes seem to be useless seven foot wall of cardboard.  However, the boxes are used to protect the fans and T.V.’s, reducing the probability of damage during transfer.

When prisoners are transferred to different facilities, their property is loaded into a U-Haul type of truck.  While journeying, each bump in the road causes the items inside to flip, slide and collide, dancing to the cadence of destruction for hundreds of miles.

Across the hall, walking through a set of perforated steel doors is another massive room that has the real look and feel of a three, maybe four, car garage.  I can imagine four hydraulic car lifts with cars all waiting tune-ups.  Instead this room is filled with an assortment of property boxes, fuse boxes, and more pipes.  Pipes perforate the ceilings and walls at various angles some with yellow labels tagged: acetylene gas, and green labels tagged: oxygen.

The fuse boxes along the right wall are elevated no higher than six feet tall.  I´m 5´9 ½” and the boxes are mounted around that same height.  There are eight rusty gray fuse boxes big enough to fit Shaquille O´Neal´s Gucci loafers inside.  Next to those eight is one behemoth of a box from head to toe.  It´s my height and the width of the average doorway.  

A few feet ahead there´s a huge red compressor.  It resembles a gas pump minus the nozzles.  Next to it are three five feet tall oxygen tanks.  Behind those tanks are 12 more fuse boxes, not as big as the first eight, however, Michael Jordan could fit his personal Jumpmans inside.  Warnings to wear protective headgear hide beneath debris on the walls.

The property boxes stored in this room are those of guys in segregation.  A room so rich with history is now a box, a warehouse for prison misfits.  This room was once a classroom, part of a welding program.  Today we store seg boxes in here, and inventory the property inside those boxes.  Taking inventory on a person´s property tells a story – a unique story about what this person is, or who this person has grown into since being placed in prison.

For example: There was a guy on a seg-to-seg transfer and at first glance one might think the paperwork in his property was clutter and junk.  I noticed he saved over 50 Final Call newspapers and a lot of miscellaneous paperwork.  The papers scattered throughout his box were actually notes from lessons he studied.  Rough crafts of civil suits and criminal appeals.  Then neatly wrapped in a beautiful velvet rug with gold, burgundy, green, burnt orange and royal blue designs was a Holy Coran.  There were also a few more books in pristine condition.

I quickly learned this guy is a Muslim.  What appeared to be a box full of junk were his thoughts, his lessons, his passion, his treasure, and instruction on how to get closer to his God.  Therefore, I was compelled to pack it as such.  Every Final Call and chicken scratch-filled sheet of paper I handled with care.  Knowing that when it all arrived at the next institution, staff will probably toss it in the trash, because it will be impossible for him to get in cell compliance.  Nevertheless, everything was neatly packed into cardboard boxes.

Across the hall, the next room we journey into sits on the corner of the opening that leads to “the alley.”  The outer appearance is unique.  What looks to be a wall of tic tac toe squares are actually windows painted white.  This wall of windows is the exterior to what we call “the dead man´s room”.  Although it has a near panoramic view, I observed that while every other room was well lit, this one was always dark.  Entering the room gave e goose bumps.  It reminded me of an episode of Lisa Line´s “This is Life” on CNN, when she visited L.A. County Coroner´s Office.  The coroner´s office had a similar room that contains the deceased unclaimed property.

My third day on the job, I helped inventory a dead man´s property.  This experience gave me a reality check.  This man had several thick religious books, and composition notebooks filled with his thoughts.  Although I was curious to see what he wrote, I couldn´t bring myself to look inside because it felt like an invasion of his privacy.  I suppose my sensitivity concerning privacy is because in prison we have absolutely no privacy.  No matter where you are in a maximum security prison, a prisoner is never alone.  Even when no one is watching, someone is listening.

The dead man also had several paintings dedicated to his House of Yaveh religion.  This was his life´s work only to be placed in a cardboard box and stored in a room with over 100 painted windows hindering the sun´s attempt to shine on his memory.

The last stop on our journey, next door to the dead man´s room, is a room where all excess legal boxes are stored.  There is an assortment of boxes, cardboard boxes, property boxes, etc…, 1282 total.  Each box contains someone´s thoughts, hopes, and dreams of someday being released from this place.  The prisoner´s whose items are stored in these boxes, are “physically” alive yet their hopes and dreams are concealed in the same manner of a physically dead man.  Why?

Many of us incarcerated, physically or mentally, have hopes and dreams but we lack the proper knowledge of what it means.  Therefore, we don´t know how to hope and dream properly.  For example: I often hear people who claim they have hope, say, “I´m not trying to get my hopes up too high.”  This statement is contrary to the definition in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary Eleventh Edition: Hope – to cherish a desire with anticipation, to desire with expectation, to expect with confidence, trust.

The definition of hope instructs us to desire, anticipate, expect, be confident, and trust.  Sounds to me like the only way to hope is to have “high” hopes.  Anything less is not hope.  To hope is to trust. The etymology of trust² means to be faithful/true.  Therefore, our hope has to be rooted in truth.

In the same dictionary, dream means: Dream – an object seen in a dreamlike state: vision, something notable for its beauty, excellence, or enjoyable quality, a strong desired goal or purpose, something that satisfies a wish ideal.

The definition of dream instructs us to have vision of beauty, excellence, quality, a strongly desired goal, purpose or a wish.  To dream is to be ideal.  The etymology of ideal means idea/vision.  Therefore, to dream is to have a vision or strongly desired goal.

To have hopes and dreams means to have a true vision.  Our hopes and dreams aren´t manifesting because our way of thinking is too conventional, and conventional thinking of this world is not rooted in truth.

For example: the English language is very deceptive.  When you research the etymology of a word often it doesn´t have the same meaning.  Let´s see Merriam Webster´s definition of box: Box – a rigid typically rectangular container with or without a cover, an open cargo  container of a vehicle, coffin, the contents of a box esp. A measure, a quantity, a box or box-like container and its contents, predicament, fix, a cubicle building, the limitations of conventionality.

According to this definition, our journey through personal property provided several examples of different boxes such as: the architecture of the building, the enforcement of petty institutional rules, property boxes, etc….  The etymology of the word box comes from a late Latin word boxis, meaning tree.  Do you see the deceit? So when we talk about a box we could also mean being rooted into something like a tree.

Most of us have heard or used the expression “you know a tree by the fruit that it bears.”  In other words, you know a person by their works/deeds.  Ask yourself what type of fruit do I bear? Am I planting seeds of good or evil?

We also refer to our genealogy as a family tree, and when a child has similar characteristics of his or her parents, we say, “the apple doesn´t fall far from the tree.”  Within a family, traditions are passed down from generation to generation.  Whether or not those traditions are rooted in good or evil is reflected by the results of that tradition.  

Regardless of your religion, majority of you reading this know of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden eating from a forbidden tree bringing evil and death to a world of utopia.  Could it be the limitations of conventionality keeps us in a bad predicament or fix because we´re eating from the wrong tree?

The limitations of conventionality has the world thinking, hoping, and dreaming inside of a box.  Hopes and dreams should be without limits, especially when rooted in righteousness.  For those of you at home reading this, hope and dream beyond your environment, beyond what you see on T.V.  Create a vision rooted in truth far beyond your job or school.  Once again, the limitations of conventionality conditions us to go to school, get a job, get married, pay bills, have kids, retire, and die.  That´s life inside a box.

To all prisoners physically held captive against your will, get your hopes and dreams out of that box.  Think of creative ways to obtain your freedom.  Think outside the box.  Share your voice with the world.  If not, you´re no better than a dead man.  You´re a non-active memory.

In conclusion, I ask, when you think of a box, what comes to mind?

Craig B. Harvey R15853
Stateville Correctional Center
P.O. Box 112
Joliet, IL 60434

Who am I?  To the state of Illinois I’m a thug, killer, convict, simplified #R15853.  To my family and friends I’m a loving man.  I am human, and like all others, represent the world in which we inherited as a creative balance of positive and negative energy.  All my writings are a humanitarian effort to find and maintain that balance.  I’ve also written essays for Prison Neighborhood Arts Project (P-NAP).  They can be found at  

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