Saturday, April 7, 2012

How I Became an All Expense Paid Guest of Uncle Sam—Cook County Jail

Note—Another installment in my on-going series of stories about my Draft Resistance during the Vietnam War, trial, and imprisonment.  The series has its first run in The Third City blog.  This one appeared in two parts.

Moments after I entered the Federal Building to report for incarceration on my Draft resistance conviction I was made rudely aware of the difference between being held for arraignment and being an official prisoner.  Gone was any semblance of politeness or acknowledgement of me as an individual.  The processing was brisk.  There was no reluctance to lay hands on me although I was totally compliant.  I was finger printed and mug shot once again.  But this time my new Bureau of Prisons identification number was attached.  I was told to memorize that number.  From that point forward that was how I would be known.  I would not be referred to or called in any official capacity by my name.  I must instantly answer to my number.

Some folks never forget that number.  I have trouble remembering my phone number and it took the better part of my first 50 years just to master my Social Security number by heart.  So I have long since forgotten the long string of digits.  But, believe me, I was keenly aware of them then.

I was also subjected to The Dance for the first time.  That’s the strip search procedure used every time a prisoner is moved from one secure area to another, between or inside institutions.  Anyone who has been inside the joint knows the drill.  Strip naked.  Raise your right arm over your head.  Raise your left arm over your head.  Run your fingers through your hair.  With feet apart raise you scrotum.  Turn around.  Place your hands on the wall. Raise you right foot and show the bottom of your foot. Raise your left foot and show the bottom of your foot.  Lean over, grab your butt cheeks and spread them.  Be prepared, at the discretion of the guard, to have your anus probed by a gloved hand.

After initial processing I was placed in a cell with three or four other men to await transfer to Cook County Jail where we were to be held until Federal Marshalls could transport us to our prison assignments.  It was a two or three hour wait.

When a vehicle and Marshalls were ready we were removed from the cell and shackled—hands together in front of us, at the ankles so no more than a shuffling movement could be made, chained around our waists and linked together.  Down in a cramped elevator to the basement garage where a panel van awaited.  Unchained from each other, we took hard seats and chains from our waists were bolted to the floor.  We were instructed not to talk.  We didn’t.

The van disgorged us in the bowels of Cook County Jail, where uniformed County guards signed for us.  Frankly the next couple of hours were a blur.  I remember being lead through a maze of hallways, frequently stopping to pass locked gates.  The place had a loud, continuous din of noise—the banging of doors, buzzers, shouted orders, the hum and roar of fans and ventilation equipment, assorted yells and cries as we passed tiers of cells.

We were processed once again.  Again finger printed and photographed.  Stripped and searched.  We were issued Cook County uniforms, in those days two olive green jump suits, two sets of well used underwear, two pair of black socks, and thick soled black boots. 

My little gaggle of Federal prisoners and I were still in a group, destined for the same tier.  I can no longer remember the tier designation.  It was on the 2nd or 3rd floor.  Cell blocks radiated out from a common core.  Inmate tiers were designated by direction and floor, 2W, 3N, etc.  Our particular destination was reserved for those on or awaiting serious felony charges, prisoners brought up from downstate institutions for appeals or to testify in court proceedings, and Federals like ourselves.  This, I was later told, was elite company far from the puking drunks, detoxing junkies, gang bangers and petty criminals being held for lack of bond or the poor saps who were serving out their sentences in jail.

We were injected, one by one, into the day room of the tier through a secure portal.  We each carried a rough wool blanket and a single sad pillow.  The portal was to one side of the glassed in guard station wich protruded into the day room.  Ordinarily guards did not enter the tier unless there was trouble or inmates were locked down.  

The day room itself was large and crowded.  Behind an open area were three or four rows of tables with attached benches.  Men sat at the tables playing cards or dominos, reading and talking.  Many sat or sprawled on the bare concrete staring at small black and white TV mounted high in one corner.  The rear of the day room opened up on a corridor lined on both sides with two-bunk cells.  The perimeter of the entire tier was surrounded by bars and a walk way.  One side of each cell was visible through the bars from that hall, which was lit 24 hours a day.  At the end of the hall was a large open latrine with rows of toilets, sinks and open showers.

Our arrival caused something of a stir.  We were greeted and peppered with questions.  I was easily the youngest man that I could see.  When they found out that I was up on a Draft rap there was a ripple of guffaws.  Turns out it was not a prestige crime.  I could hear some muffled jokes about “fresh meat.”  Not reassuring.

When the crowd thinned a bit, a Black guy in his mid-thirties approached me.  He was wearing the standard jump suit, but the collars were long, pendulous ending in a blunt arch more than half way down the chest.  He was, he informed me with no sense of braggadocio, the Boss of the tier.  It turned out ranking gang members could obtain special uniforms and various other goodies and favors.  He had a “relationship” with several of the guards—he kept order on the tier and he got certain, ahem, luxuries in return and for a modest price.  He told me he would look out after me and to let him know if I had problems with any of the cons.  I appreciated the help, but had the suspicion that he would want something from me, sooner or later.

I was informed that because of overcrowding that there were no available bunks in the cells.  I would have to sleep on the floor of the day room.  Since I thought I would only be there a day or two, I thought nothing of it and stashed my bed roll off to one side.  I found an empty spot on a table bench and settled it to staring blankly at whatever was on the TV.

I had missed lunch and had no stomach for breakfast.  Despite my stomach continuing to do nervous flips, I was getting hungry.  

Around 5 o’clock dinner arrived.  Metal pans and cups were handed out.  The pan was filled with a large ladle full of some kind of bean slop.  There were a couple of slices of dry white bread evidently baked from sawdust.  A foul black concoction alleged to be coffee or a small carton of milk were our choice of beverage. 

I stared into the bowl.  It appeared that some sort of red worms were swimming among the beans.  “Them’s pig tails!” I was informed.  Turned out that pig tails and beans were the most common dinner, alternating with Ox tails and beans and on rare occasions a slab of gristly meat deep fried and advertised as “chicken fried steak.”  There was no salt.  The beans smelled and tasted like crap.  I passed that first night.

But hunger eventually gets to you and after a few days I was wolfing the stuff down, spitting out the bones with the best of them.  

Breakfast was a glop of powdered eggs or an oatmeal gruel with the saw dust bread pre-toasted but cold.  Lunch, unvaryingly was the same plain bologna on dry white bread famously handed out in police station lock-ups.  Those who had money in the commissary could supplement their diet with chips, candy bars, and brownies.

The diet and the tension ganged up on me.  Usually as regular as a twice a day milk train, I couldn’t produce a crap for a week, which I assure you made me very uncomfortable.

A week you say, wasn’t I supposed to be on my way to the big house before that?  I began to wonder the same thing until one of the other Federal prisoners got word from his lawyer that we were stuck in Cook County Jail because all of the Federal Marshalls needed to move us had been sent to Wounded Knee to shoot Indians.  American Indian Movement leaders including Dennis Banks and Russell Means were holed up in a standoff with authorities in the village of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.  As long as both sides continued taking pot shots at each other, I was stuck in Cook County.

The days stretched into weeks.  I continued to sleep, fitfully on the floor usually under a table to provide some shield from the 24 hour a day light in the day room.

Because I was assumed to be headed rapidly to the prison in Sandstone, Minnesota, my friends lost track of me and my commissary money provided to me as a class war prisoner by the IWW General Defense Committee was sent up there.  Without any money on deposit at Cook County, I could not access the commissary for smokes, or any of the little luxuries including writing implements, paper, envelopes, stamps, toiletries, smokes, or snacks.  The lack of cigarettes made me a double beggar because cigarettes packs were the currency between cons.

After a few days I got word to the fellow workers and received my first visit.  We spoke through a thick window.  It was good to see them.  And good to have them put some money in my commissary, which I rapidly spent on Pall Malls, writing equipment, and magazines to pass the time.  About a week later my girlfriend Cecelia took an afternoon off work to come. Our meeting was awkward.  Neither of us knew what to say.  I never saw anyone else in my time there, although my commissary account got refreshed.

Every morning we were all wakened.  We had half an hour to piss, shower and shave.  I had been warned about the showers and tried to avoid them by washing in the basin, but was told by guards that I must shower at least twice a week.  I tried to keep my butt to the wall and never, ever, bend over.

To shave we were allowed the use of the then new disposable razor.  Used to the metal heft of a Gillette Safety Razor, it felt weightless in my hand.  The blades were bad and maneuvering it over the unfamiliar territory of my chin, which had been adorned for years with a goatee, meant that I was bleeding for breakfast most mornings.

I passed the time in the day room mostly watching daytime television.  A punishment then as now.  Since I didn’t gamble, the card and domino games were out.  After I finally got some commissary money, I had something to read and I began writing the epic letters that prisoners with a lot of time on their hands are known for.  And not just to friends.

One day I caught Helen Reddy on some morning show.  She sang a couple of songs.  I was impressed and wrote her a heartfelt four page handwritten fan letter, something I had never done in my life.  I forgot that my hen scratch printing was virtually illegible and that my unassisted spelling made me seem to be at best semi-literate.  I never heard back from Helen.  But later I realized that fan mail like that from jail tends to give stars the creeps.

One day the tier was surprised by the delivery of several cartons of brand new Penthouse magazines—enough for everyone.  Let me tell you the guys were excited.  You could by girlie mags in the commissary, but most didn’t have enough in their accounts to buy them.  The magazines came courtesy of the tier’s most famous resident.

Silas Jayne was always described in the press as a “horseman.”  He ran an upscale riding stable and a business peddling broken down nags as expensive show horses to the teen age daughters of wealthy men.  He also had a habit of seducing and/or assaulting those same girls and blackmailing their fathers.  Some of the girls had turned up missing.  He also had a long running feud with his brother George who was in the same business.  There had been fatalities on both sides.  But Silas, who made pals of cops, escaped arrest, even after he was suspected of the sniper killing of an Indiana cop investigating the disappearance of three girls.  What finally got him arrested was the similar shooting of his brother George.  He was in Cook County awaiting trial.

For all of his tough guy swagger, Silas was deathly afraid of the other inmates, especially the Black ones.  He paid our tier Boss plenty for protection.  But he never left the safety of his cell.  A little rat faced toady who was his cell mate would bring him his food.  This was in violation of the jail rules, but the guards were also well paid to ignore it.  I only glimpsed Jayne through the bars of his cell on my way to the latrine and showers.  

Jayne’s hot shot lawyer was somehow also involved with Penthouse’s Bob Guccione.  Thus the gifts.
Jayne was later acquitted of the murder.  He was arrested again for the barn arson of a rival that killed dozens of horses but died before that case came to trial.  Years later he was tied to the disappearance of candy heiress Helen Brock who apparently was going to the authorities with evidence of some of his horse frauds. 

We had a couple of other murderers who had made headlines, but no one matched Jayne for star power.
About three weeks in, the tier Boss invited me to visit his cell.  Not for the first time.  But this time he had something to offer I could hardly refuse—hooch.  That’s a sort of home brew alcohol.  This batch was made up by his friends in the kitchen, made from fermented fruit pulp, honey and a little yeast.  Closer to a mead than a wine or beer.  It stunk and tasted, well, like you would expect.  The Boss had a couple of quarts of the stuff in milk jugs smuggled to him by obliging guards. 

It was mid afternoon and the cells were mostly empty.  We shared a few swigs of hooch.  He offered me some downers, but I never did like pills.  He said if I wanted, he could even get some grass.  I couldn’t imagine how that would work with the smell wafting everywhere.  But the Boss had everyone in his hip pocket, so I supposed nothing was impossible.  As we grew mellower, he began to come on to me.  I was expecting that.  I kept a close eye on the open cell door.  He explained how he could protect me, even in the Federal joint.  He had friends everywhere.  He extolled the virtues of becoming his bitch.

I thanked him but declined.  “I just can’t do it,” I told him.  “No, I didn’t think you would, but it was worth the pitch.”  We shared another swig or two and he let me go without laying a hand on me.  He never invited me back, but he did make clear later in the day room where tongues were wagging that I was a “stand up dude, so lay the fuck off.”  And they did.

The Wounded Knee siege was finally broken on May 5, 1973.  The Federal inmates got word that Marshalls would again be available to transport us in a couple of more days.  I was still sleeping on the floor under a table.  I had been in Cook County for just over a month.

Next:  Sandstone.

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