Thursday, October 26, 2017

Hallow’s Eve

By Chris Dankovich

Coming to prison at a young age, holidays still have a bit of that magic quality; that can almost feel sickening when you know it’s lost. Having what you never had a chance to grow out of ripped from you – while still connected to your being – sometimes hurts to the point where you despise what you once loved. Just as often, a holiday, even a once-beloved one, disappears; camouflaged by the environment, until it’s simply just a day like all the rest. After the day is almost completely over, you realize what day it actually is, and that it once would have meant something to you – like the birthdays of past lovers – but no more.

Sometimes the day is what you make it, or how it’s made for you. What made Christmas special when I was a child was the way my grandmother started decorating her house almost two months in advance, the way she smiled and wore Christmas sweaters and talked about the beauty of the lights… the way she hated the snow because of how it made the roads and her sidewalk, but how she longed for it anyway. It was the joy when everyone got together that day, the one time I felt loved and couldn’t deny it.

Despite me abandoning my family, they stayed there for me. I’ve never spent a birthday alone; never a Christmas in 13-years without a visit within a week of it. I have nothing but gratitude for that, but still, especially at first, those holidays (and for me in particular, my birthdays) were incredibly hard.

I had some bad birthdays growing up, the worst of which was when I was beaten badly enough to wind up in the hospital the night before my birthday, by someone who was supposed to my love me. I went through a depressed phase, where I lamented that I had been born. But getting me through the suffering, the self-pity, and everything negative, was one thing: it was one-week until Halloween…

I loved Halloween. The smell in the air of Fall, the leaves crunching beneath my feet as I ran across lawns I would’ve normally been yelled at for, the artistry, and (as I had weighed the same at nine-years-old as I had when I was locked-up at 15…) the candy. But more than anything, I loved the anticipation, which was all my birthday was… feeling just like my grandmother had felt before Christmas. I saw the decorations go up, the thought put into costumes and dances, the little smirks people gave…

Barring the fact that my life seemed over, and that I had let down everyone I cared about, my first birthday locked-up, when I turned 16, felt like a day that had come to life just to mock the rest of them. While certainly much of that was from the trajectory in life that I had put myself on earlier that year, a not-to-be-overlooked-part of it was that, in one-week, for the first time in my life, nothing was going to happen. My birthday, separated from its tether, now just floated in the sea of days.

The year I turned 17, I held out a bit more hope. With the initial shock of prison over (though, by no means, the whole feeling of it), I was determined to try something as Halloween approached. I bought ten bags of candy on commissary, and let the word be known that any of the youth (ages 13 through 21) locked-up with me who came to my door wearing anything to commemorate the day would get food; with the best improvised costume getting $10 worth of items. I made my hair blue with Kool-Aid and painted two sets of eyes below and above mine, like I had seen Jack Sparrow do in the Pirates of the Caribbean movie I saw a commercial for and anticipated seeing in two-years when it reached television.

Finally, our cell doors broke open for unit time. I walked out to show everyone and award whoever came with anything on as well, and… “What the Hell?! Get back in your fucking room and TAKE THAT SHIT OFF!”

The worst officer, making his rounds at exactly that moment, saw me. His eyes were more wide open, glaring at me for the audacity of drawing those eyes on my face, than the eyes I’d drawn were open on my own face. I had dealt with him before, and knew it was useless to argue. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Mouse, dragging a paper ball-and-chain, and Bulldog, with half a pen glued to one temple and the other half to his other side, quickly run back into their cells before the officer could see. I, for my part, had my door slammed shut by said-officer. No costumes for me. No rec for me either.

Two more years went by before I could try anything again. The maximum-security nature of the children’s prison is not conducive to much individuality or celebrations of any kind. At 19, after a series of riots in the youth section prodded me to request a transfer, I was transferred to the adult, medium-security side of Thumb Correctional. But that year, I decided against doing anything for Halloween; my choice for the first time. 

My first adult cell-mate was a serial killer, who had killed a bunch of people with an axe on Halloween night. Now, the fact that he had committed some horrible crimes on that given day didn’t specifically concern me… he had been locked-up for 16-years – 16 Halloweens without incident. But his nature, in general – the fact that he would obsessively-compulsively clean the room floor-to-ceiling every single day, along with hours after I had got a tattoo in the room and cleaned up afterwards, his wide-eyed statement that he “can smell the blood”, coupled with the Halloween trigger – made me decide against pressing the issue. Sixteen-years without incident, and I didn’t feel like tempting a break in that streak.

I couldn’t drink for my 21st birthday… couldn’t smoke, couldn’t drive. But I had a plan, a simple one, but a plan that was just as important to me. All I needed was a roll of toilet paper.

Halloween night, my bunkie thought I had lost it. I stepped on the end of the roll of toilet paper, like a mistake coming out of a public bathroom, but then I started winding it around my leg. I cuffed my pants, got to around my knee, and did the complicated task of switching to the other leg as he looked on in bewilderment. To him, Halloween meant nothing… he didn’t even realize that it was today. “What the fuck are you doing?!”, he asked. Me, half-covered in toilet paper, looked back at him like he was crazy. “Well, what does it look like I’m doing?”

He didn’t respond, but the way he stared at me, with one eyebrow half-raised until I was done, suggested he was very curious as to the answer. And, by the time I was done, leaving only my eyes exposed, and raising my arms with an “Ugggghhh”, I had him laughing so hard that our neighbors knocked on the wall in protest. And they were the first ones at their doors when count-time cleared and we were allowed back out. Turning my door handle (medium-security prisons in Michigan have keys to their cells), I grabbed my mesh laundry bag and stepped out with my hands extended, grumbling as the Mummy.

Nearly the entire unit came out as word and laughter got around about Dank doing something crazy. As I walked down the hallway, tottering side-to-side with my arms extended holding my laundry bag, other inmates came out of their cells and quickly ran back in, returning with ramen noodles and candy, toothbrushes and (suspiciously) some tacks. I stumbled by, cell-to-cell, excused from looking in (a big no-no in prison, looking into other peoples’ cells) because of how ridiculous I looked. Normally having to ask permission to go to the upper-level of the unit, the officer, cracking up at me, just waved me to go up before I could even ask.

That day, I got about $12 worth of goods from the people who “sponsored” my costume; most of whom were old-timers, who applauded, saying they had never seen anyone do anything for Halloween in prison before. Others were laughing about the “jackpot” I had hit, seeing my bag full of commissary goods. And I knew, at that moment, I had to do it again next year, upping my game…

By the next Halloween, I had taken up painting. Taking my new modicum of skill with this, I stepped-out of my room wearing a sweatshirt that had turned to rags, my face and arms painted in the decaying flesh tones of The Walking Dead (also the best show on TV). Trying to score, a couple of guys who had seen me last year went around saying they were dressed as convicts for Halloween… but slick comments were no match for creativity. That year, I pulled in almost $20 worth of stuff, which, not needing it, I gave to a few of the poor guys in the unit who had nothing of their own. I wasn’t doing it for the money… with people now actually telling me they were betting on what I was going to do next year, it had become something of a minor sport to me. And one that I enjoyed, it gave my birthday some meaning again, as the lead-up to the most artistic holiday of the year. I had to one-up it. 

My birthday the following year, my new bunkie (who had just moved to the unit), looked at me like I was crazy (though I was used to this by now), as I constructed a papier-mâché flat-top skull cap, which I painted green with black feathered brushstrokes. I twisted some toilet paper, and painted it metallic silver. Then I spent about 20-minutes ripping the arms off a bunch of staples that they used to staple our mail back shut after searching it.

Halloween night, I put on the skull cap and got to work painting my face with a greenish pallor, with a few purplish splotches. Holding one of our small plastic mirrors, I put a red slash across my forehead, and I blended the black of the hat into my hair. Then I got out the glue, and glued the metallic “bolts” onto each side of my neck, and the 30 individual staples without arms across the red swatch on my forehead. As count-time ended, I took my laundry bag and assumed the same extended-arms trot and groan that seems common to characters of the undead, and I went out.

Everyone had been waiting. People had actually taken bets. The officer allowed a few guys to come over from the other connected unit (provided they bring something). Trudging along, door-to-door, I collected donations to our unit’s poor as Frankenstein… but with glasses. I soon took on the name “Dankenstein”. 

Though I never asked, merely shuffling by, nearly every one of the hundred or so people in the unit donated something to that laundry bag, which I turned around and gave to the guys who had nothing of their own. Officers from other units, working on the other side of the prison, came to see it. Five-years later, I still get comments about it.

Since then, the prison has changed around a lot, security has tightened and, with more cameras installed, I was informed that anything covering our faces could now be considered “constructing a disguise”. So, the past few Halloweens have calmed back down; boring, but my spirit is still revived from the few years I did get to do something. And some of the birthdays in-between have been special on their own.

This year, I’m thinking about reviving the Mummy, albeit after he’s unraveled a bit and has his face exposed. That way, instead of potentially saying I’m up to something illicit and coming to get me, the worst they can do is think that I’m out of my damn mind…

Oh well, out of my mind, but with a bag full of food and candy.

Chris Dankovich 595904
Thumb Correctional Facility
3225 John Conley Drive
Lapeer, MI 48446

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Prison Life

By LC Gatewood

Prison is a complex and demanding environment that can take a toll on a person’s mental, spiritual and physical wellbeing. The loss of freedoms, the abilitiesto move around as we please, will affect anyone who is incarcerated. There may be differing degrees of effect from one person to the next, but nonetheless there will be an effect. 

Prison is a world within a world, one that has as many layers as individuals. The word prison can bring many different thoughts to mind. Secure, dangerous, violent, school of the hard knocks, a deserving punishment . . . to name a few. But prison is much more than any of those concepts. For most of us, it is home and a way of living.

I spent a little over a year in the Illinois Youth Department of Correction (I.Y.D.OC.) from the age of 14 through 15. I spent five years in the Mississippi Department of Correction from the age of 16 through 21.  Since I was charged as an adult, I went straight to an adult prison (one considered among the most dangerous in the United States). I am now on my 19th year in the Illinois Department of Correction, a sentence I began at 22 years of age. I am now 40. So, in all, I have way more prison experience than I would like to have, but since I live here, I need every bit of it.

The freedom to go when and where we please exists no more for the incarcerated person. It’s mostly the same for those in solitary confinement as it is for those assigned to work although those who work may feel a very small sense of freedom. I have spent time in confinement and held prison jobs and in both instances my ability to go when and where I pleased was not under my control. 

As secure environments, most prisons operate under the gun, meaning that armed correctional officers (c/o’s) monitor all inmate movement. There is also constant monitoring by mounted cameras, and round-the-clock visual checks by walking officers. Everyone in prison is being watched -- even the officers, by the inmates. Whenever an officer begins his count, someone watching out from their cell will yell “keys,” informing everyone within hearing distance that a c/o is walking through. (“Keys” is a term referring to c/o’s because of the loud noises their keys make as they walk.) If someone is behaving illegally in his cell, he would be warned to stop because a c/o is coming through. Another call will go out when keys have left the gallery. It is not a foolproof system. Sometimes no one is watching out. C/o’s have many times walked up on a cell to find some kind of infraction happening. Even though some give out a warning call whenever they see a c/o walking the gallery, each inmate is responsible for his own “security”. If someone gets caught doing something, he cannot blame anyone but himself. Each person is responsible for his own “eyes on the gallery.” I know a guy who went to segregation because he was getting tattooed by his cellmate when a c/o walked up on their cell. On another occasion a guy went to segregation when he failed to check if the gallery was clear before testing his homemade wine. He was caught in the act by an officer making his rounds. But much goes unnoticed because of the surveillance inmates do for one another or themselves.

Even with tight security, prison is still a very dangerous place. Especially maximum security prison, where violence erupts without warning whether a spur of the moment conflict or a well thought out plot. I found myself in the middle of many incidents twenty-two years ago in M.D.O.C., considered to be one of the worst prisons ever. 

I met a guy, H.D. who I became very tight with because of all we shared. We were both from Illinois, and serving time in Mississippi, both still teenagers (when the incident occurred, I was 18 years of age), and we shared the same gang affiliation. One morning, I went on a trip to Jackson, Mississippi to one of their biggest hospitals in the state to have some test run on my heart. Several hours later, I was back on the prison grounds but before returning to my unit I had to first go to the prison hospital. Upon entering the holding tank, I noticed someone from my housing unit name R.J. I’d known him for a couple of years. He was much older than me, in his mid-50’s. We shared ties to the same gang. I went to greet him and noticed he wasn’t his usual self. He was reluctant to engage in the casual conversation I was trying to hold with him, sitting in the corner as if he wanted to be left alone. I noticed he had some scrapes and bruises across his face, but I didn’t think too much of it. Very quietly he told me that he and others had been attacked by rivals during the morning roll out for work. He told me that H.D. was attacked when another housing unit merged together for work, which resulted in a brawl between the two groups. A guy in a different housing unit had been waiting for the opportunity to cross paths with H.D.. The guy’s brother had been killed and H.D. was in for it. There’s an unwritten rule in prison that whatever happens in the outside world should stay in the outside world. It makes perfect sense – there are already enough situations to be navigated in prison, so why bring in more. However, that was not a rule he had any desire to follow when it came to the killing of his brother. 

I was in the prison hospital’s hold tank along with R.J. and several others there because of the morning incident. Several prison ambulances took off from the hospital heading to the unit where the brawl had taken place. That unit has 12 buildings, two of which had been involved in the morning clash. The ambulances’ departure signaled further conflict taking place. There was quiet in the holding tank between the two rivals.  Everyone knew something major was happening, given the need for several ambulances. 

Because of my trip off the prison grounds, I hadn’t been at the earlier incident. Tension in the holding tank would only increase with the arrivals of those in the ambulances. It was looking like I was about to experience my battle for the day. Several guys belonging to the rival group emerged from the returning ambulances, some walking and some on stretchers, all of them suffering from some physical trauma which caused much excitement among their comrades who were in the holding tank looking out the window. 

When I got back from my trip, lines in the holding tank had already been drawn between the two rival groups.  Everyone knew what had gone down earlier -- I was the only one who didn’t know, until I was made aware of it by R.J.. So, there I was, along with four others (R.J. didn’t want any more hand to hand combat for the day, so he stayed in the corner pretty much with his head down. He would have made six of us but we would have still been outnumbered 2-1.) I never held it against him for not standing shoulder to shoulder with us; he had done that earlier and another beating would have been just too much for him to suffer. We didn’t need a fortuneteller to know our chances. The odds were against us. The holding tank became a little more crowded. New arrivals were coming in after the treatment of their wounds, all of the opposition. They gathered with their own, those who had already been at the hospital for unrelated matters and from other units, units yet to hear about the two incidents. The new arrivals told their comrades how they’d gotten ambushed in the chow hall during lunch. They were all seated and eating, they said, when they were attacked with homemade knives, fists, feet and anything that wasn’t nailed down. (After the morning scuffle, word was sent to another building informing the guys affiliated with H.D. and R.J. about how they’d gotten sneak-attacked while going out for work.  Those who received the message plotted retaliation for what happened that morning. The result was the assault in the how hall.

After recalling the incident, there was a call to action by some of them to go after the four of us rivals. Anticipating an attack at any moment, I was very alert, but the attack never came. It was thwarted by one of their own when he spoke up and said that until they had done an investigation nothing would be done. That decision saved me and the others a great deal of misfortune. Later on that day many people I knew throughout several units wouldn’t be as fortunate. 

Months went by, altercations erupting now and then because of what had taken place that day. The one seeking revenge for his dead brother kicked off a series of events that left many hurt, some not even knowing why they were fighting. If you could ask them why they were fighting, their answers may sound like this: “ brothers of mine were attacked early in the morning” or another would say “a surprise attack in the chow hall left a lot of my brothers seriously injured.” Statements like those would continue to be said because one conflict will lead to another one.

It is vital to be alert at all times and aware of one’s immediate surroundings. If an inmate is not cognizant of such, he can easily find himself in the middle of something he wants no part of. A situation that can cause him physical harm or administrative punishment for simply being at the wrong place at the wrong time and not being aware of it. I almost had to learn the hard way in the hospital’s holding tank. Now, many years later, I can see without looking when something is about to go down and I just move clear out the way. I’m no longer affiliated with any group and haven’t been in many years, so I have to monitor my actions more closely than maybe others. I’ve found that some who are affiliated with gangs tend to be more reckless in their actions because they have backing as opposed to those who have to be their own “security”.

It has been said that no man is an island. That statement couldn’t be any truer than it is in prison.  In some instances, it’s a matter of survival to interact with others. There’s strength and safety in numbers. That’s why some join gangs in prison and those who were already hooked up before coming in tend to remain in for the same reason. 

Many years ago, early in my prison sentence at I.D.O.C., I made the decision to cut ties with the street gang I belonged to because the spiritual journey that I had begun to travel was in conflict with gang life. It wasn’t an easy decision. I would pretty much be on my own with no one to aid and assist me if there was ever a situation. My cellmate at the time also wanted to step away from his affiliation because he was discouraged with it. He hated the fact that every time something jumped off between his gang and another he had to get involved. He was looking for ways to better himself while in prison, and constantly being involved in altercations with others was not the way to achieve that goal. He commended me for making the decision to step away and actually following through with it, something he also wanted to do but didn’t. He told me he didn’t want to be in prison by himself, without any support, in case he ever had a problem. Strength and safety in numbers is a real thing in prison and a big reason why people join and stay in gangs.

Besides safety, inmates interact for their social well-being. Humans are social by nature and being social doesn’t stop just because a person has been given a prison number. Long periods of isolation can breed depression, an antisocial attitude, or just a bad state of mind. Not all interaction is beneficial -- there are some people to just avoid. Interactions between inmates will go on as long as there are prisons, choosing when and when not to can be very critical.

For the vast majority of the population, the connection between the outside and inside world still exists; it may be with family, or with a friend, a church, a lawyer, or some kind of organization, by mail, phone or visitation. Whether all of the above or only one means with one person, it helps the prisoner to push forward in his environment. To be cut off from any and all outside communication can have a detrimental effect on a person’s mental and emotional stability. I’ve found myself at my lowest when I feel all alone in the world. Getting up to face another crazy day in prison without any outside support has often made me not want to get up to see it. I’ve gone years without hearing a single word from any family members. It felt like I’ve never existed out there. Their presence in my life would make my time here bearable. 

In 2016, I received my first visit in over 16 years from my cousin Danielle. The happiness a visit gives is indescribable, but especially for those who don’t know if they will ever see the streets again. An unexpected letter, a brief phone call, or even a surprise visit, from those on the outside can go a long way. Besides the recent arrival of some family members in my life, I’ve also been blessed with the blossoming of a wonderful friendship. She is the inspiration and reason this article has been put together; without her it would have never happened. These types of connections with the outside world help prisoners thrive in a place that is anything but nourishing. The inmate that doesn’t have any outside support from family or friends tends to be among those who are very problematic, whether with other inmates, staff, or even towards self. I’ve been there. It was a bad emotional experience, a struggle that I was constantly battling with on the inside. Because of a long prison sentence, and the absence of family, hopelessness was front and center. I never wanted to give in to it but it was a constant struggle. I pushed forward not succumbing to the thought that I had nothing to lose.

When thinking of prison, one may picture each inmate being supplied with everything he would need: food, water, clothing, shelter, health care, etc. That is true, or at least it should be. But there are needs the government doesn’t have the ability to meet, ones just as vital as those provided. We need peace of mind -- without it a person is subject to act on any thought whether it’s reasonable or not. I’ve seen up close how a deteriorating mind can be very harmful to others as well as to the individual who is suffering from it. 

Several years ago I knew someone who didn’t have peace of mind. Troubled by his own thoughts, he would cause harm to another. While on the yard at the weight pile he struck a guy in the head with a dumbbell, which resulted in a serious head injury. An unprovoked attack, one that was only reasonable in his mind. He had been in a group of guys hanging out together talking and laughing while lifting weights, and in his own head, they were laughing at him and plotting to get him. But because they were not in fact plotting on him or even laughing at him and so they paid him no mind when he approached, something they would soon learn to never do again. 

He struck one of them in the head with a weight. After the initial shock, every one of them except the guy with the busted head charged after the attacker. They began to beat him down for what he’d done. His actions were the result of not being grounded in reality because he lacked peace of mind which caused another harm as well as himself. To be able to gather ones thoughts and be free of worry or anxiety is very much needed. Not having that will be harmful for that individual person and possibly for those around him.

The approach of freedom, the hope of freedom, the ongoing pursuit of freedom are all major factors that will keep an inmate from sinking into a vast well of despair. Whether an inmate has been incarcerated for 20 days or 20 years, the promise or hope of being free will prevent the concrete walls from closing in on him. In ten months, I will have served 19 years with 31 years remaining on my sentence. In all reality, that’s not much to look forward to. I’ll be 72 years of age in 31 years. Yet I have a hope that I’ll be released much sooner than that and that hope pushes me forward to fight through another day in prison. Just last year, a friend of mine who I had gone to elementary school with was released from prison after serving 18 years for a crime he didn’t commit. A federal court ordered his release and the state attorney declined to retry him. I was around him early in our sentences and he’d gotten a hopeful attitude about his situation way back then even though he had a 55-year prison sentence for a crime he hadn’t committed. That attitude wouldn’t allow him to give up the fight. A man who has lost all hope is truly a dangerous man, not only to himself but to those around him. For some of the incarcerated, freedom is a very distant memory but a dream that is so very fresh. The dream of freedom will push them forward in an environment that can easily bring a stop to all hoping. When all is stripped, taken, or demanded of an inmate, it’s the thought, the hope, the prayer, the belief, the realization, that freedom is reachable or even nearing that will continue to get him through the prison life. 

LC Gatewood K74709
Menard Correctional Center
P.O. Box 1000
Menard, IL 62259

I'm LC Gatewood. I was born in Mississippi and raised in Champaign, Illinois. 
I have been incarcerated several times 
and I'm on my 19th year of a 50 year prison sentence.  

Friday, October 13, 2017

Yard Time With The Animals

By Joseph Dole

“Animals.” For people in prison, that single word can evoke powerful emotions. As an adjective it is often used to dehumanize us. The vast majority of people in society will assume you are referring to “criminals” when you talk about the “animals” in prisons. It is often society’s favored derogatory term to employ against us. Rarely are we considered people anymore.
The word “animals” can also spark all types of positive memories and countless conversations in here. The childhood pets, horseback riding, visiting a farm. Those who haven’t been to prison may be surprised to learn that there are often actual animals in here as well. Sometimes we encounter them in the cell houses, but more often than not it’s while we are on the “yard.”
For some, the encounters can be frightening. For others it is pure joy. For everyone though, it seems to help connect us to the rest of the planet in the face of society trying to erase us from it.
When I think of “yards,” I no longer conjure up images of manicured lawns with sprinklers being annoyed by happy children. Now I think of two things, concrete and animals. This may seem incongruous, but let me explain. The majority of my “yard time” over the past 16 years has been spent in a concrete box. Nevertheless, most of my interactions with wildlife during those years have occurred on the yards of various Illinois maximum- and supermaximum – security prisons. 

- Menard -

After processing into the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) at the Joliet Correctional Center (which was shuttered shortly thereafter and had a starring role in the TV show “Prison Break”), I began my perpetual prison bit at Menard Correctional Center (Menard). At that time (2000-2002), I was housed in East House, and we received recreation, or “rec,” three times per week. We were allowed access to the gym once and a large yard twice. Each rec lasted about two to three hours, and the yard could accommodate hundreds of men.

All things considered, Menard’s yard wasn’t bad. It had a quarter-mile track encircling a field of grass sufficient for both volleyball and softball games. Once in a while, we would even play mini soccer. There were also basketball and handball courts, which I never used. The weight pile was your usual rusted affair, which I used a lot in any type of weather.

There’s a common misconception that people who lift weights in prison do so to bulk up and appear more intimidating. While this may be true for a few, I believe most guys do it for the same reason that I do – to relieve stress, maintain my health, and quickly burn a lot of calories, which we over-consume by stress-eating junk food from the commissary.

That entire yard in Menard abuts a rock bluff due to the fact that the prison basically sits in an old rock quarry looking out on the Mississippi River. From the surrounding woods, deer would occasionally emerge to look down on us. I mean this literally, but often I would wonder if they were joining society and it were true figuratively as well. Seeing the deer always reminded me of wandering the woods as a kid with my grandfather. Whenever we would see deer, he would mentally mark the spot intending to set up a blind for when deer season came around.

What I enjoyed most about the yard in Menard was that in the summer I could always find myself a pet. Garter snakes, frogs, and turtles would often break into the prison grounds. Cats and raccoons roamed the grounds as well, but you could hardly hide one in your cell. At night, I could look out the window and see more than a dozen raccoons hanging out on the roof of the storage building, planning their assault on the chowhall dumpsters.

Once I smuggled a baby turtle the size of a quarter back to my cell. Its shell was so dark green it was nearly black. Its legs were mottled yellow and black with soft needle-point claws. I built a small aquarium out of Styrofoam trays and cellophane. Against the rules, I know, but with more than two natural-life sentences to serve for something I didn’t do, the only way you could have gotten me to follow most rules would have been to pay me. When guards would walk the gallery I would push the aquarium out of sight under the bunk. During shakedowns I’d cuff the turtle in my hand as I was handcuffed. Confused guards would destroy the empty aquarium and I’d have to build another. 

Everyone who saw my little turtle coveted it. My neighbors would often ask me to let them play with it for the day, and everyone would bring back anything they thought it might like to eat.

For an entire month, the gallery worker nagged me incessantly to give it to him. By the time I gave in, it had grown to the size of a silver dollar. I was sad to see it go, but I figured I could still see it daily as I went to chow. I knew it was safer with him. The guards would be less likely to take it from their worker.

I don’t know what ever happened to my little turtle. (Hopefully it didn’t end up as turtle stew). Nor have I seen another one thereafter. Soon after giving up custody of it, I was transferred to Tamms Supermax Prison (Tamms) where I wouldn’t touch a blade of grass for my entire stay.

- Tamms -

I spent the next decade of my life at Tamms (2002-2012), which would later be rechristened Tamms Correctional Center as a public relations stunt. Tamms’ “yards” were a misnomer if ever there was one. Like every cell, every yard was an isolation chamber. No more than a single person was locked in each at a time. The yards each consisted of a concrete slab for a floor the size of a tight-fit one-car garage. More solid concrete slabs, each about fifteen feet tall and eight inches thick made up the walls. The roof was one-half corrugated steel and one-half chain-link fencing.

The only fixtures were a flood light, a video camera, and a solid red steel door with an emergency call button. The latter, if pressed, was habitually ignored by the guards. If answered, it was usually to inform the occupant that he would be written a disciplinary ticket if he pressed it again. There was no access to water or a washroom, and pretty much nothing to do other than calisthenics.

Fortunately, like Menard and so many other prisons isolated from society, Tamms was surrounded by woods and wildlife. This would sometimes be a source of entertainment for us. Out of the dirt-fogged slices of a cell window, we would often see hawks, turkey-buzzards, deer, skunks, raccoons, and other wildlife.

After about a year of isolation, I began to feel remorseful about keeping my little turtle captive in Menard. As a child, I always had lots of pets. Some store-bought, but most snatched from the wild and caged out of childish love. I guess I was sort of conditioned to believe that being human gave me the right to cage other living beings. Maybe we all are, and that’s why we call people who commit crimes “animals” – it makes it easier for use to cage them.

After a decade of isolation, I don’t think I could ever put any living being in a cage again. Society likes to portray “prisoners” or “criminals”; as all starting out as deranged little children torturing animals. This is just one of many ways they dehumanize us to try and sooth the collective conscience over treating millions of people so inhumanely.

The reality is that most people in here have never intentionally harmed an animal (nonhuman animal that is). I know I haven’t. I’ve always loved animals.

Often, when it rained, tree frogs would scale the wet cement walls to gain access to the Tamms yards. As soon as the sun dried the walls though, the frogs would find themselves imprisoned like us. Their repeated fruitless attempts to scale the wall, only to fall back down, depressingly reminded me of my repeated fruitless efforts to regain my own freedom though the courts.

The frogs were fun to play with, however. At first, they would try to hop away. After holding them for a few minutes, they would get used to me and seemingly lose their fear. Once that happened, I would sit them on my shoulder while I speed-walked laps around the yard. It would amuse me to see them placidly sitting atop my shoulder, bobbing up and down to the rhythm of my gait.

Before leaving the yard, I would gently loft them up so that they could grasp the chain-link half of the roof and escape. I’d often wonder whether they understood that I helped them get out. Were they grateful? Or were they ticked that I didn’t help them sooner?

Besides frogs, small birds would also come into the yards. They would nest in the hollows created where the corrugated steel lay atop the concrete walls, and inside the steel boxes housing the security cameras. Other than exchanging trills and whistles, we rarely got to interact with them. Listening to their chirps and getting them to respond was one of our few connections to the free world. Seeing them fly away made us yearn to do the same.

On the other hand, while we enjoyed their music, their feces tormented us. The yards were their litter boxes. It was like being locked in a pigeon coop, making the name “bird cage” apt. Designed and built for “jailbirds,” the yards were overrun by real birds. Guards refused to clean them and we were denied the implements and cleaning supplies to do so. Walls and floors were often covered in excrement, making leaning against a wall nearly impossible. Walking or running required scrubbing the soles of your shoes upon re-entering your cell. I used to have to smuggle sheets of paper to the yard to place on the ground so that I could do push-ups.

One of my best experiences at Tamms (“best” definitely being a relative term here as the place was pure psychological torture) involved those birds though. It occurred one spring morning when I was the first person on the yard.  I walked out and noticed something dart up towards the chain-link roof. It was one of the mother birds flying to safety. She zipped through the chain-link and landed on top of the far wall. Once there, she began to scream bloody murder at me. I couldn’t figure out what her problem was, as they usually just flew away. Frowning, I turned back to watch through the little plexiglass window in the door as the guards deadbolted it. When I turned to begin my 500 laps, I stumbled upon three fledglings huddled in one of the corners.

I slowly approached the fat downy little brown balls and they scattered. One tried to take flight, but only managed to rise a mere three feet. It bee-lined into the opposite corner. We’ll call it Birdie #1. The second birdie, Birdie #2, took flighty little hops out of my reach. Birdie #3 simply waddled around in drunken little circles like a dying dreidel.

I picked up Birdie #3 and to my surprise, it didn’t struggle to escape. I opened my hand, but it didn’t jump away. It just looked at me, seemingly confident that I, one of society’s alleged boogeymen, would never hurt it. I slowly placed it on my shoulder. Throughout this process, the pitch and intensity of mama’s squalls continued to rise.

After placing Birdie #3 on my shoulder, I walked over to try and pick up Birdie #1, who seemed the strongest of the three. Birdie #1 was definitely not cooperative. This forced me to set Birdie #3 down in order to give chase.

When I finally caught Birdie #1, it struggled fiercely and joined mama in making a racket. Trying to calm it down, I cooed at it and carried it under the corrugated steel into the shade. From there, I tossed it up diagonally towards mama and the chain-link. It flapped for all it was worth, but didn’t make it more than eight feet up before coming to a hard-kissing-hover against the wall and slid to the ground. We repeated this dance a few more times. Finally, Birdie #1 began to gain something – strength, confidence, desperation, who knows? – allowing it to reach the chain-link. After a few bumbling attempts, it finally succeeded in squeezing through a hole mid-flight. Exhausted, it cautiously hopped across the chain-link to mama’s side.

Birdie #2 took a while longer. I first had to keep tossing it straight up in the air to get it used to flapping its wings. Then I repeated the same process I had used with Birdie #1 until it too was free of both the yard and its giant intruder.

I returned to Birdie #3, replaced it to its perch on my shoulder, and took a few laps around the yard. I’ll admit that I was very reluctant to help it escape. I was having a lot of fun and didn’t want it to end. I really wanted to bring it back to my cell to see if it would make friends with my pet mouse. (Several months earlier, a half-starved baby mouse slowly wandered into my cell. It didn’t even try to run, it just nuzzled under my leg as I sat cross-legged on the floor by my door. After building it a home with an old sliding Q-Tip box, I spent several days nursing it back to health. I surmised that its mother probably got caught in a glue trap and the babies finally wandered out of the den in search of food. Months later it would still return to the Q-Tip box every couple of nights or so). Unfortunately, my conscience would no longer allow me to cage another living being, not to mention the incessant guilt trip mama was currently laying on me, so I wasn’t going to incarcerate Birdie #3 with me.

I was starting to worry though. My yard time was quickly evaporating and Birdie #3 was much weaker than its siblings. I knew that if I couldn’t help it escape soon, there was a good chance that a mentally ill inmate or guard would come out there after me and kill it. Birdie #3 would not be the first or even the second bird a guard at Tamms stomped on while checking the yards.

So, with mixed emotions, I put Birdie #3 into my open palm and started jogging laps, letting it spread its wings and flap them. After that I began dropping it from greater heights until it was hovering more than plummeting. With increasing trepidation and urgency, I started tossing it.

It was never as strong as the others. There was never a circuit flown around the yard. Nor did it ever stay aloft for long, even with what I imagined was familial encouragement. This one was taking too long. “Clank.” I heard the deadbolt being thrown on the door. I hadn’t even heard the guards come into the wing.

I now had just a few seconds to help Birdie #3 escape as the guards remotely opened the yard door ordering me back to my cell. Frantically, I tossed Birdie #3 straight at the chain-link trying to gently catch it each time it fell back down. I heard the lock – “pop, pop, pop” – and kept tossing. Three tosses, four, the damn bird would not squeeze through. “Dole, exit the yard!” I kept throwing. “Dole, this is a direct order, if you don’t return to your cell immediately, you will be written a disciplinary ticket for disobeying a direct order!”

I ignored him, and kept trying. Finally, I tossed it up just right and Birdie #3 couldn’t help but to sail through the chain-link to freedom. Exiting the yard I smiled. The lieutenant and major stood at the plexiglass door to the wing yelling, “We were just about to order the Tac Team to suit up, smart ass!”

That day was an aberration though. Most of my time spent on the various little concrete “yards” of Tamms were uneventful. No animals or birds to entertain me, I would run in depressing little circles packing down the bird feces, never able to gain much speed before having to turn another corner every two to five strides. Running on cement in cardboard-soled shoes was hell on my ankles, knees, and lower back.

The worst days were when a guard, either intentionally or inadvertently, would leave the floodlight on all night. I’d go out the next day to find myself accosted by hundreds of insects. Occasionally, I would encounter an interesting moth the size of my hand with bright orange and yellow velvety fur. This happened only a handful of times over a decade, but they were fascinating. I was always amazed that they fit through the chain-link, and will never forget how soft they were.

Those were the only interesting insects though. Mostly it was pure torture. Hundreds of mosquitoes, spiders, millipedes, you name it. A couple of times I went out to find myself trapped with a hundred or more locusts, all screeching some high-pitched mating call. It was like being locked in a pen of squealing pigs being slaughtered for an hour or more.

- Pontiac -

When I finally escaped the torture of isolation in Tamms, I was transferred to Pontiac Correctional Center (Pontiac). I was housed on the old Death Row to go through the “step-down program” (2012) [1].   The yards were a complete culture shock.

For the initial 3-month phase of the program, we had to go to yard in the same cages used by people who were both mentally ill and classified as high security. The “yards” consisted of about 20 individual cages sitting atop a cement slab. Each cage measured about eight feet by fifteen feet. They were constructed of rust-red, pencil-thick, steel rods woven into an immobile mesh that left two-inch square openings throughout. Although you could see through the walls, these yards were much more confining than the cement tombs in Tamms. The roof was just eight feet above the ground and made of the same mesh. These boxes are commonly referred to as “dog runs” in prison parlance. 

Though they possessed a pull-up bar, a novelty after Tamms, I was immediately advised by both staff and inmates, to not touch any part of the boxes with my bare skin. When I asked why, I was informed that there were a lot of “shit-slingers” who occupied the dog runs in the morning prior to us. Other guys promptly smuggled a pair of gloves to me.

My first trip to the yard verified these claims. The crevices were filled with dried excrement. Empty ziplock cocoa and coffee bags encrusted with it were crammed under the frames by the ground. Plastic bags that still held the remnants of bodily-fluid cocktails hung from the razor wire around the perimeter.

Instead of just cleaning my shoes after yard, I would come back to the cell and wash every article of clothing with contraband bleach. I would also scrub my entire body as if I were a surgeon with OCD.

A few months later, I graduated to the larger yards while in Phase 2. These were six larger yards located about twenty meters away from the dog runs. They felt like they were in an entirely different universe. Each was basically the size of half of a basketball court. Two even had basketball rims. Another had a weight bench and curl bar. All were just slabs of concrete surrounded by chain-link fence topped with razor wire. Nevertheless, they felt incredibly spacious after the bird cages and dog runs. 

Once, when I first arrived at Pontiac, I was being escorted to the cell house, clanking along in shackles, a waist chain, and handcuffs encased in a black, steel padlocked box. Nonetheless, despite the noise, a large rabbit jumped out of the hedges along the path, and passed right between my legs brushing the shackles.  It wasn’t even startled. It didn’t jet off down the sidewalk out of fear like you’d expect. Instead, it just hopped along a foot ahead of us keeping pace with us for a good dozen steps before disappearing back into the hedge.

The yards for the second phase of the program were as close to petting zoos as I think I’ll ever experience in prison. While the wildlife avoided the dog runs like the plague, a mere stone’s throw away I could hand-feed ducks, rabbits, and even squirrels right through the fence.

Once, while I was on the yard located at the end of North House running laps, an incredibly fat squirrel sat atop a horizontal pole that ran behind the fence in the shade of the building. It watched me run around and around. I had forgotten to bring food to feed the animals, but I had a few pieces of hard lemonade candy. When I finally tired, I walked over to the squirrel and pulled a couple out of my pocket. The first, I unwrapped and popped in my mouth. It watched transfixed and became visibly excited. I offered it one through the fence. It attempted to grab it, but couldn’t quite reach, so it hopped down, squeezed under the fence, and nonchalantly sat on my foot. Smiling I slowly bent down and handed it one, thinking it would then scurry away with its treat. Instead, it just sat there on my foot and chipped away at the candy while staring up at me. I couldn’t believe it. I grew up around squirrels and had never seen one so docile. Two days later, I saw the same squirrel sitting on a guard’s knee eating elephant peanuts out of his hand.

- Stateville -

I left Pontiac a month or so later and arrived at Stateville Correctional Center (Stateville) (2012-Present). Here the “rec” schedule for the “quarter units”  is insane. There are two little yards with small grass patches and basketball courts; a gym with decrepit, mostly inoperable, weight machines held together with twisted garbage bags and bed sheets; and a large yard called the “South Yard” with a meager, rusty weight pile, telephones with cords too short to allow people to sit or stand, and a quarter-mile track encircling a patch of grass large enough to play soccer on. We rotate among each yard/gym once every two weeks.

Stateville has neither ducks, nor rabbits, nor squirrels. There are no frogs or turtles. It does have at least one fox roaming the grounds though, and dozens, if not hundreds, of groundhogs. We feed the groundhogs daily when they aren’t hibernating, which makes them incredibly fat. They know the pulse of the prison. They’ll often ignore us as we walk to chow, but upon exiting, they will line up along the walks waiting for handouts. The administration constantly tries to eradicate them but is never completely successful. Most of us hope they never are, as they constitute our only pets.

My first time on the yard at Stateville was also my first time being on any yard with another human being in more than a decade. I was excited to finally play soccer again. Softball would have been more fun, but all of the equipment was now considered contraband and had been confiscated. Unfortunately, soccer was out of the question as well because we were relegated to a small yard. So I spent the time feeding the groundhogs through the fence.

When I finally made it to the South Yard a month later, I cobbled together a couple of teams to play some quick pick-up games of soccer on the lumpiest field imaginable. Running full speed while looking up field can easily mean a broken ankle when the ground drops out from beneath you. I took many painful, smiling tumbles that day.

Resting on a hill afterwards, an old-timer described how the yard was years ago. Hundreds, instead of dozens, of guys would be out there at once. He said there used to be a Lifers’ Shack [2] where they sold pizzas, sodas, ice cream, and more. In its absence we now have to smuggle food and drinks out to the yards.

I asked him why the field is so uneven. He told me it used to be flat, but then one day a backhoe showed up while the prison was on lockdown and started digging up the field. Rumors started to spread that a swimming pool was being put in. It was short-lived though, once everyone saw the news reports. The backhoe was brought in to dig up the remains of a dead body. An inmate who was long-believed to have escaped in the 1980s had actually been murdered, butchered, and buried piecemeal out there. In the 1990s, another inmate finally spilled the beans. They never bothered to smooth out the field again.

When the old-timer left, I sat alone on a hill and began eating some cookies and granola bars with peanut butter. A groundhog popped out of a hole by my feet and startled the hell out of me. I don’t know if it had heard the wrappers or smelled the food, but it clearly wanted in on my picnic. Not wanting to be rude, I gave it a granola bar. It delicately held it in its front paws and stood up like a Meerkat to eat it. When it finished, I gave it a packet of squeeze peanut butter, and watched as it chewed off the top and ate it like a Push-Pop. I quickly ran out of food, which did not please my picnic companion. It began climbing on my lap looking for more. All I could think to do to get it off my lap was to offer it some water from my bottle. I lured it as far away as I could by holding the bottle at arm’s length. When it got off my lap for a drink, I stood up and walked off sacrificing my water bottle so I could escape 

Some guys here are scared of the groundhogs. They are mostly guys from the inner city who view most animals as giant rats. The administration is terrified of the possible lawsuits if someone gets bit and sues. For most part though, both the inmates and guards enjoy having them here. 

It’s nice to be around other living beings that aren’t constantly trying to demonize us. 

Unlike society, the animals in here are not instinctually terrified of anyone labeled a “prisoner” or “criminal.” They’ve been confined with thousands of us for years on end without being harmed. The animals are actually capable of judging us by who we are now to determine if we pose a threat. I find it ironic that the actual animals in here, which are defenseless against us, are able to make those individualized judgements, but “humanity,” which distinguishes itself from the animal kingdom by our ability to reason, cannot (or at least won’t).

We, “prisoners,” are often called “animals” to dehumanize us and further ostracize us from society. 
Whenever we complain about inhumane treatment, the arbitrary reply is always, “well, if you didn’t act like animals, we wouldn’t treat you like animals,” a statement which misunderstands both incarcerated people and animals and how society treats both. 

Maybe it is society that should start acting more like the animals in here: They should start making individualized assessments of who we are now and stop painting us all with a broad stigmatizing brush. Maybe then society will finally stop treating us inhumanely and stop keeping hundreds of thousands of people incarcerated for life, long past the time they cease posing any threat to society, practices which are both unjust and incompatible with keeping society safe and returning people to useful citizenship.

[1] In Stateville there is a giant cell house that was divided into four. These are now known as the “quarter units” – B House, C-House, D-House, and E-House

[2] Lifers Groups are now banned as an unauthorized organization, and with them went the Lifers’ Shacks.

Joseph Dole K84446
Stateville Correctional Center
P.O. Box 112
Joliet, Il 60434
Born in Saginaw, Michigan, Joseph Dole moved to Illinois when he was 8 years old.  In 2000, at the age of 22, Mr. Dole was wrongly convicted of a gang-related double-murder and sentenced to life-in-prison. He continues to fight that conviction. Since incarcerated, Mr. Dole has authored two books, A Costly American Hatred and Control Units and Supermaxes: A National Security Threat. In addition, his essays have appeared in numerous anthologies as well as Truthout, The Journal of Ethical Urban Living, and The Columbia Journal, where he tied for first-place in the winter 2017 writing contest. Check out more of his work on his Facebook page or contact him directly at the address above.