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Inside the Illinois Prison Known as "Hotel Hell"

Posted: 01/08/10 05:05 PM ET

The following is excerpted from Exile Nation: Drugs, Prisons, Politics & Spirituality, the explosive new book by Charles Shaw, appearing weekly throughout 2010 on Reality Sandwich. The first excerpt focused on the Cook County Jail in Chicago. This excerpt from Chapter Two begins inside the Illinois Department of Corrections, in a place known as "Hotel Hell."

Limbo Time

All cultures have their own particular concept of "limbo." The word itself comes from the Latin limbus, meaning an "edge or boundary." It is popularly understood to be "a place where souls go," like the Catholic "purgatory," to purify after death, where temporal punishment is applied to those who are not free from venial sins, or those who have not properly repented all their lives transgressions.

But life and death--just like freedom and security--can be defined, and redefined, in many ways.

Prison is purgatory. The lives of inmates exist in stasis until that time when they are deemed to have "paid their debt to society" and are released back into the world. There is absolutely nothing you can do about the outside world, or about the life you may have been living, while you are incarcerated.

Everything that you are doing in life stops in its tracks. Vita interruptus. Your rent and bills stop being paid, your mail stops being picked up, your phone is never answered, your email is never downloaded, your refrigerator is never cleaned out, your dog is never walked or fed. Forget about your dreams and ambitions, your plans and goals, because those get put on hold too. If they are lucky to reemerge, they are forever altered by the reality of a conviction record.

Nine times out of ten, no one but your family and closest friends, if you have them, knows where you are or what happened to you. Those few people are your literal lifelines to the outside world, and generally are the only people to do anything for you. You find out very quickly whom you can trust, and who will really be there for you. Many inmates find themselves with no one.

Prisons are situated on the fringes of civilization, isolated from most population centers and the general public, hidden away from sight in a gulag network of hundreds of state and federal facilities stretching across the land. Americans not only want to feel that their communities are safe, they really don't want to have to trouble themselves with thinking about the consequences of locking up millions of people, or the abuses, in all forms, that might be taking place under a system of prohibition funded by fear, apathy and taxes. In America, it is simply a matter of out of sight, out of mind.

Because of that, and because of the isolation of the prison experience, the full understanding of what it is like to be forcibly dislocated from society becomes, for many inmates, the key struggle, and in the end, key transformative experience of their lives. Jazz musicians talk about "sustained intensity." Prison life is a frantic Coltrane riff that produces no sound and sucks the life right out of you. It's a negative-sum game for which there is no recuperative period. No...Sleep...'til...Parole!

The lack of popular noise produced over our national prison system, and the underlying reasons for the apparent apathy of the public, will keep Americans from ever having a Bastille moment, which was the storming of a Paris prison that sparked the French Revolution. Aside from the American public's pervasive lack of political involvement, which seems to keep them from storming anything except a Wal-Mart these days, there is also the inconvenient fact that American prisons are so far away from everything that the proverbial angry mob would have to endure a six-hour bus trip ahead of time. And what angry mob wants to break out prisoners of "moral crimes?" Prisoners of the drug war aren't seen by the Mainstream as political prisoners, as victims of tyranny like those held in the Bastille by Louis XVI, even though that's precisely what they are.

There are reasons for this, and most are attributable to race and class. Until this deeply embedded filter is removed, the drug war will not be seen for what it is, the criminalization of lifestyle, no different from laws against "sodomy," which most will agree are ridiculous and intrusive on personal liberty in the extreme. In many regards, the drug war is also a war on religious freedom, and on consciousness itself.

The punishment for defying the system and exerting these inherent freedoms (you know, the ones endowed by our Creator and all) is first disability, then disenfranchisement, then imprisonment, and finally, internal exile. Limbo time everybody, how low can you go? We can lower this bar right down to where you began, think you can slide under this? It's a kind of a dualistic, multi-dimensional, go nowhere and everywhere, mad funhouse, hold the fun. And what really makes limbo, limbo, is that it will invariably give you an entirely new understanding of time.

I would spend thirteen days in isolation at the Stateville Northern Reception and Classification center in Joliet, Illinois, before being sent on to my prison facility to serve out the remainder of my sentence. Thirteen endless days in a brand new, state-of-the-art, hyper-industrialized detention facility. It was "only" thirteen days, I can tell myself now, four years later. But while it was happening, it was a form of torture that leaves an indelible scar on a person's soul. That is why they call Stateville, "Hotel Hell."

It is a cold and sterilized form of detention, a little taste of a Supermax prison for everyone. Once they process you in, put you in that big powder blue jumpsuit and those slipper-shoes, stuff you into that 6 x 10 cement hole, and slide that automated steel door shut, you don't come out again. You are on 24-hour-a-day lockdown, with your cellmate if you have one, and nothing else. Nothing to read, nothing to see, nothing to do but wait, wait, wait. And once the waiting begins, things start to go all sorts of ways inside your mind.

13 days was interminable while on lockdown, yet right now I think over the last 13 days of my life and can't remember half of it. Most people wouldn't think twice about doing anything for two weeks, until it's put into the proper context. The Cuban Missile Crisis lasted 13 days. Ask anyone who lived through it to tell you what a hellish eternity it was teetering, if only briefly, on the edge of nuclear annihilation. Ask anyone on day seven of a two-week master cleanse fast how they feel, or two new lovers separated for two weeks, or someone who is waiting two weeks for test results that will tell them whether they live or die.

Likewise, two weeks spent in the cold and dark--half-starved, without anything to occupy your mind, contemplating your past, your life, your crimes literal and spiritual, missing people you love, pondering your future as a convict, stressing about which penitentiary you will be sent to and what you will have to face once you get there, and so on and so forth--is its own particularly menacing brand of torment.

The Warehouse

The Stateville Northern Reception and Classification Center (NRC) illustrates the future of "factory corrections." The NRC serves as the major adult male intake and processing center for the northern portion of Illinois which, incidentally, contains the Chicago metropolitan area where 10 million out of the 12.5 million people of Illinois live. This means that the bulk of the inmates in the entire IDOC system are processed through Stateville.

Conceptually, there is little that differentiates these sorts of hyper-industrialized prisons from factory hog farms or dairies, including, for some, the execution at the end of the line. Both are meant to house the largest possible number of living creatures in the smallest possible space, using the least possible amount of resources, with the barest minimum of interaction, assistance, or interference, an automated process predicated on the complete and total lack of compassion for the "livestock."

But whereas hogs trade for around $50 a head, prisoners garner $30,000 to $90,000 a head. More than likely, this accounts for the slightly better living conditions in the human prisons, and the fact that prisoners have not yet ended up as food. And although people can eat a big pork roast and some baby back ribs, shell out the $21.95 and feel satisfied with the transaction, when you blow thirty large of taxpayer money on one guy to keep him in a cage for a while, you are left with widespread social resentment, and rather intense motivation to find inventive ways to recoup the cost.

The NRC was constructed next door to the old Stateville Maximum Security Correctional Center of Natural Born Killers fame. Opened in 1925, the old Stateville is famous for having a Panopticon, a type of "roundhouse" prison designed by British philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Conceived in the late eighteenth century, the Panopticon design utilizes a central observation tower--a "hub"--that, just like a bicycle wheel, is surrounded by a multilevel "rim" of prison cells. From the central tower, guards use a series of strategically placed mirrors that permit them to look into every cell. The uniqueness of the Panopticon is that it allows security to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) the prisoners at once, without the prisoners being able to tell if they are being watched. Over time, mirrors evolved into video surveillance cameras, and the observation tower became the security booth. The Panopticon was remarkably successful in creating a self-policing environment, so much so it was taken out of the prisons and applied to the public sector.

Bentham said the Panopticon conveyed "a sentiment of an invisible omniscience." The constantly perceived presence of this "all seeing eye" was considered a revolution in maintaining order, in that inmates (or citizens) were more apt to police themselves if they both consciously and unconsciously believed they were always being watched or recorded. The genius of the Panopticon was the ease and stealth with which it stole into the collective consciousness and set up permanent residence as a means of "fighting crime" and "protecting ourselves." The evil it bore as today's "surveillance state," where our every move is at least passively and often actively monitored and logged, is generally accepted as "the way things are," finding little resistance from any quarter.

The multi-facility Stateville complex isn't the only prison in Joliet, Illinois, either. Before the new NRC was completed in 2004, Illinois prisoners were processed under gruesome conditions at the now decommissioned Joliet Prison on the Joliet River. Predating Old Stateville by almost 75 years, this ancient, miserable, toxic structure was built in the 1850s and expanded upon until the 1990s. When it opened it was the largest prison in the country, and the design became a model for American prisons of its time. It was officially closed in 2004, and following the closing served for two years as the set for the ridiculous Fox television series Prison Break, which would debut while I was locked up, and was viewed religiously by inmates.

The new processing center is one of the largest prison facilities in the nation. Carrying on the proud tradition of Illinois penal design, the NRC has become the hot new model for other states seeking to modernize their correctional systems. The structure is immense, resembling an airplane hanger surrounded by razor wire. At 460,000 square feet it is half the size of the Mall of America. It has a capacity range of 2,200-2800, twice the size of the old processing center, and the population turns over every 10-21 days, creating an almost perfect annual balance of 40,000 in and 40,000 out. Within the complex are roughly 18 cellblocks (A-R) which house inmates, each three levels high. Each block has a small door that leads outside to a narrow concrete pen resembling a dog kennel or the outside holding pens at Guantanamo.

Since it is only a transitional facility, inmates are generally not held at the NRC for longer than 20-30 days, unless they are sent back from another facility to serve out special "segregation" time, such as punitive or protective custody. In its simplest terms, the NRC is the place where you are officially turned into a commodity and put to some use in the prison economy. You become an inventory number, a line-item on a balance sheet. You are poked and prodded and stuck and drawn, photographed and printed and tagged and labeled. Whatever needs to be done to make sure you are healthy, free of disease, and ready to work.

It is here, at the NRC, that your real world identity is officially stripped from you, and you are given a new one.

Bound and shackled, I shuffled in Charles Shaw of Chicago, Illinois.

Still bound and shackled, I would shuffle out "R45067," ready for a couple weeks of cold storage while I awaited shipment to my particular plantation.

Continue reading Chapter Two here.

 

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