30 Days in the Hole

by Michael E. Patterson

After reading your August 8th issue on the Knox County Jail, I felt I should write. I was sentenced on June 3, 1997 to 60 days in the Knox County Jail for a DUI. This meant that with the day-for-day policy I would serve about 30 days. I was to do my time starting on July 7th at 6pm.

I came in on Monday, July 7th at 6pm and sat in the holding cell for two hours. The jail population changes daily so I guess that was why it took so long to get out of the holding cell, which is basically a room about 12 feet by ten feet with a cement bench running the length of each 12-foot side. There were three of us in it at 6pm, even after jailers knew I was coming in to serve my sentence since June 4th. The actual time from when I was given a uniform, my street clothes drawered, myself fingerprinted, photographed, paperworked and then led to a cell block was only about 20 minutes.

I spent the first three days on G-block and when I realized I had some serious personality conflicts with one of the four inmates I requested to be moved. Thank God there was an opening on D-block and I spent the remaining 27 days on D-block.

Meals were three times a day. Around 5:30-6am, 11:15-11:45am for lunch and around 5:30-6pm for supper. Good food, lean and hot. Some guards wore rubber gloves when serving, none wore hair nets. Did the staff have thorough knowledge of rules and regulations and was this practice sanitary? Unless another inmate was willing to barter for a portion of the meal, only one serving was served but I felt one was enough. The beverage was either milk, coffee, tea or Kool-Aid (although not ghetto Kool-Aid which, according to one inmate, was Kool-Aid he had as a kid that was actually Kool Aid with two inches of sugar at the bottom of the cup). However, due to theft or bartering, inmates leaving their cups when released, or commissary cracker boxes that were lined with foil from cigarette packs (about 10-12 oz.), an inmate could have more than one cup of beverage per meal. This depended on the guard on duty. (The guard served the meals.) Some guards filled two cups, some didn't. When the Department of Corrections officers were brought in to inspect when the new administrator started in July, extra cups were considered contraband. To the best of my knowledge, the policy was one cup per inmate. It seemed to me that the officers should have gone around after the meal with a pitcher and offered a second cup. Kool-Aid type mixes were offered through the commissary but, as I found out, water and commissary computer printouts of an inmate's money were to be a concern.

The commissary slip was filled out on Mondays and then the items were given to the inmates on Tuesdays. Personal hygiene items, stationery and foodstuff were available. A separate form was filled out for cigarette orders and any delay in bringing in cigarettes to the inmates raised the stress level in the cell block about 75 percent­­ nicotine-rage syndrome, I suppose. For some unknown reason (Rumor was that the staff was taking summer vacation and it affects the rotation and also that the computer was down) the whole deal of commissary orders was delayed and misunderstood during my 30 days.

A new Knox County Jail administrator was brought in sometime in July so, as with any new boss, the employees and their routines were affected. However, to the best of my knowledge, this is the schedule of certain things­­ every two or three days an inmate could get a clean pair of jail pants and/or shirt. On Mondays and Fridays, mops with bleach for the floors and Comet for the showers and toilets. Mondays and Fridays, clean towels were given and personal laundry (t-shirts, shorts, socks,etc.) were washed at the jail by the staff. On Wednesday, sheets that covered the mats were cleaned. I felt sheets and towels should be done more often. One guard said that the reason laundry was such a problem is that there is only one washer and dryer at the jail. Why not take the towels and sheets to a local laundromat and wash them? I've worked at local nursing homes where this was done and done successfully. Or add a part-time laundry aide.

Visiting days are Thursday from 8-11am and Sundays from 1-5pm. A phone is in each cell block with a minimum charge of $2.50 a call and $2.50 a minute. Bible study was offered on Thursday night at 7pm.

Everything in the jail that was wanted, such as going to Bible study, personal items, etc., had to be requested on a form made out by each inmate. The administrator looked at each request form every day and then informed the staff of his decision. I probably sent in 12 request forms and only received one back with a typewritten answer. The answers to the rest were relayed by the staff.

Overall I would say most extra things and perks were greatly influenced by the staff which was working that shift. Any inmate who was there over a week picked up on which staff member allowed certain perks, e.g., extra cups.

Each inmate is informed of his rights, duties and responsibilities with a four page typed sheet when he enters. Some are exact, such as no personal radios; some are not. How much you can yell at a guard, how much you can verbally abuse another inmate, intimidation, etc.

The article in the Zephyr states that the jail is properly staffed but I think that the guards are shorthanded and their frustration level is higher because the inmates demand so much and the guards (besides helping cook, delivering meals, delivering medicine, doing paperwork for arrivals and releases, transferring inmates and doing countless other things each eight hour shift) are expected to do too much.

All this on top of the fact that, however naive we are, there are inmates who are unpredictable and violent. Imagine you have a job dealing with customers and happen to be short help for a shift and then imagine that at any time on your shift a customer could physically assault you or another customer. Being a Knox County Jail employee is not a job I would want.

The main focus of the Zephyr article of course is the facility. In my cell I did not have running water for the last two weeks but the toilet did flush. A plumber was called in and did fix some of the problems but hot water was available in the shower only if another inmate flushed the toilet in the day room continuously as the other inmate showered. Out of the seven cells on D-block, three toilets had to be flushed within seconds of each other or the contents of one toilet would end up in another. In other words, if you wanted to use a toilet in your own cell you had to get at least one or two other inmates to oblige. Out of seven cells two had the windows welded shut and padlocked because of previous escape attempts. In G-block my cell had a window but it was covered with insulation. Six of the seven cells had vents and one cell had no vent and no windows.

Remember the temperatures this summer? A box fan was in the day room on the floor and if another inmate happened to have a fan from home it was plugged in but there is only one outlet and the television had to be plugged in.

There is a toilet in the day room and a shower. Out of eight sinks, six faucets, not counting mine since I had no running water for the last two weeks (after the plumber came), had to be rigged. The end of a ballpoint writing pen container had to be broken off and inserted into the faucet or the water pressure was not enough to form an arc, it just trickled down the sink about as fast as condensed water from an air conditioner. Ink pens are now restricted in the jail since the new administrator took over in mid July and lead pencils are available on commissary.

Water hot enough for commissary coffee or hot chocolate was a mystery. Some days some sinks had hot water, some days not. Ancient plumbing and hot water heater, I guess.

The shower curtain was a sheet that was made to cover the mats which were issued every Wednesday but the shower curtain in my block was changed once in 27 days. Actually, the cleanliness of each cell was left up to the inmate. The day room shower, toilet, sink table and floor area cleanliness was a result of cooperation between the inmates. I never once heard a guard tell an inmate to clean the shower, sink or the area. For all the guard knew, the inmates could have dumped the bucket of bleach water down the toilet every Monday and Friday. However, if an inmate spilled something and requested a mop, broom, etc., it was provided. Although I spent three days on G-block and really haven't experienced much jail time, I tend to think my particular core group of about five inmates for 27 days were adult about sanitation, except the shower curtain. The ages of inmates on D-block were 24, 29, 30, 33, 37 and 47.

Of course, in my opinion, the age of inmates is irrelevant because inmates are all overgrown kids at heart. But of course the issue of this letter is the facility itself, with concern also on the staff and their routine. Wouldn't the Chicago Bulls (inmates) practice better in the United Center (a new Knox County Jail) in front of their fans (citizens of Knox County) than in the old wooden Carver Center gym (the existing Knox County Jail)?

One TV was provided with basic cable available. Lights out at 10pm. No electrical outlets in cells, no personal radios, newspapers or magazines. Books were allowed. Mail addressed to the Knox County Jail was allowed, but opened. The day room table was like a picnic table but made of iron bolted to the floor. The paint was worn off and if your arms or elbows came in contact with it for too long your skin smelled like rust.

No lights are controlled by personal switches. There is one light in each cell controlled by the guard. The bright light is enough to read but too hot and glaring to sleep and the dim setting or off setting allowed for sleep but wasn't enough to read by. There are five similar lights in the day room. If left on bright from 5:15am to 10pm they are hot, especially in the summer. If on dim (which D-block always was by vote) it was cooler but not adequate to read by. Putting pieces of cardboard on the lights with toothpaste was overlooked until the new administrator came in mid-July and, since, has been cause for no TV for the extra day room, even if only one inmate does it.

The whole inside walls of the Knox County Jail needs a new paint job. Dull yellow, orange and brown are darkened further by nicotine stains, grime and sweat.

No air conditioning was available and the Zephyr article states that it has been recommended for eight years. Remember the temperatures this summer? My metabolism does not allow for much sweating but in the Knox County Jail I had a constant layer of sweat while sleeping on my mat in the day room, in my cell at night or just sitting at the day room table. If I was cleaning the shower, mopping the floor or scrubbing,it was more like a high school football practice in August.

The jail is too small, square feet wise and outdated in its design. The plumbing doesn't work; the lighting is inadequate; the cooling and heating system is bad and the staff members who have contact with the inmates are required to do too many tasks that can't possibly fit the job description of a correctional officer. All of the aforementioned shortcomings caused me to witness tension between inmates, between inmates and staff and between staff members.

Of course jail is jail. It's supposed to be punishment. However, what about the 21-year old who gets two weeks in the Knox County Jail? Some people say it will open his/her eyes and he/she won't commit another crime. What if the facility stinks? Literally. What if the young person is beaten, verbally abused, intimidated or just plain scared by another inmate who is himself "tweeked" by not only his sentence but highlighted by the facility's condition and its staff. I'm talking about an experienced inmate doing the harassment­­ not the drunk who's in the Knox County Jail for a day and a half­­ but rather the inmate bound for prison or the repeat offender who is doing six months for the third time in five years. This young person is in the same area as people who have longer sentences and more serious crimes.

Will that 21-year-old learn his lesson and become a more law-abiding citizen or will he become bitter, cynical, more like the experienced inmates or, in layman's terms, more "pissed off" at his situation and society because he feels more punishment was inflicted because of this harassment than fits his crime? You don't think a 21-year-old (male or female) picks up on his conditions, environment and in just two short weeks can be negatively changed? Ask yourself how a two-week exposure to certain stimuli can affect millions of 21-year-olds. "Show me the money"­­ "Guns-n-Roses"­­ "Gen-X."

With tensions high and raised even higher by overcrowding and inadequate facilities there has been one alleged beating death, the mysterious death of a young man two years ago, a suicide (on D-block) and an escape attempt (on D-block) in which a man broke both ankles. Does Henry C. Hill have the same percentage of problems per population count in the same time span?

Most experienced inmates will tell you that one year in the county jail (any county jail) is worse than two years in prison. Why? Newer prisons, weight rooms, gyms, libraries, choice of food, job training, VCRs, outside movements, visits, etc. In fact, I believe in Illinois you can't be sentenced to serve over one year in county jail. Sleep, play cards, watch TV, read, eat; that's county jail time. Anyhow that was my county jail time experience for one month.

Of course, jail is punishment. But by punishment do we cause more criminal behavior­­ criminal behavior that effects Knox County taxpayers and Knox County voters. These are the same citizens who are responsible for building a Knox County Jail­­ a new jail that will, in fact, house these criminals and will effect their behavior when these criminals get out of jail.

If a young inmate is released from the Knox County Jail and commits a more violent crime in Knox County because of the conditions there, who is to blame? Impossible? Well, if a person can go in a fit of rage and commit a crime in Knox County, fueled by drugs, greed, jealousy or whatever, what is so unbelievable in believing that two or three weeks of harassment, abuse, inhuman conditions­­ however self-deluded these thoughts are to the criminal­­ could further ignite an already jet-like youth?

By doing county time the offender's freedom is taken. The inmate is in a cell. The punishment is loss of freedom. If you're in the Knox County Jail you can't go to a bar, you can't go to Lake Storey, you can't go to the movies, you can't go to your job, you can't read what you want, you can't eat what you want, you can't talk to who you want to talk with, you can't breathe fresh air, etc. That is a fact of the punishment and it does make an inmate think. However, isn't the loss of freedom the main focus of the punishment?

Inmates in Henry C. Hill do time. Should the punishment of time spent without freedoms be enhanced (intentionally, unintentionally or undifferentially) by the condition of the place of their confinement? In the Knox County Jail, an inmate has no adequate running water, no adequate electrical options, no adequate heating and cooling, and the housing is overcrowded. It's overcrowded not by sudden surges in inmate population but because the existing square footage of space is simply not enough room for the inmates. An example of this overcrowdedness is that the cell block next to D-block has only four cells with four inmates with about the cell space in footage to have six cells. The square foot area of the day room in this cell block is the same as the seven inmate count in D-block.

The current jail was built with regards to expenses and with secondary considerations to structure and design. To install new features or add space on to any old area of the jail or try to permanently enhance the current Knox County Jail would not solve the jail's problems. The answer is to build a completely new building housing the Knox County Jail. Until the new building is complete the current Knox County Jail should be kept clean, kept staffed with enough personnel and have the same utility capacity as some of the rental property here in Galesburg.

But do we need to worry about the condition of a facility that houses criminals and whose occupants can't be there for over a year at a time anyway? I think we do. Not because some local construction company is going to get the contract to build it or some local supply company will provide the building materials, or because certain people will get their palms greased or because it will look good on Galesburg's resume for "All American City" or whatever, a new Knox County Jail should be built because it's good for the people of Knox County.

The current jail is over 21 years old. Think back since 1976. There's been an incredible increase in the amount of criminal behavior. From the everyday criminal activities on the street, the criminal activity that warrants coverage in the local press, to the bizarre and cold-blooded criminal activities that have occurred in Knox County­­ a common thread has been that whether before committing their crimes, during their trials for these crimes, during their sentencing for their crimes or before going to prison for these crimes, these criminals have passed through the Knox County Jail.

Should a jail that increases the criminal mindset of these criminals, by whatever means (i.e., type of facility, overcrowding, staff, lack of or too many policies and routines) in any way increase these criminals and their criminal activities to negatively effect society?

This article posted to Zephyr online August 15, 1997
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