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Ep 7: What Isn't Here

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An illustration of an empty prison cell

Keara McGraw for WBEZ

My cell is notable for what is not there rather than what is.

I don’t have a glass mirror. I have not seen a true reflection of myself in five years. The plastic mirrors sold in prison are small, 5 x 4 inches, and distort and cloud one’s appearance. I normally cut my own hair, but every few years I go to the prison’s barber shop. On this last occasion in the shop’s glass mirror, I noticed for the first time some gray hair and a few deep wrinkles around my eyes.     

My cell is without privacy. My cell happens to be located by the door that leads into the cell house, and so at a wood desk just outside, a guard there can see everything I do. So when I use the toilet or wash up, I take a sheet from my bed and use it as a curtain. I tuck one end under my mattress on the top bunk, and tie the other end to a hook I’ve pasted to the wall. Even though this curtain is technically against prison rules, I take the chance. Most guards who sit outside my cell are women, and I’m sure they don’t care to see me naked, so they allow the make-shift curtain.             

My cell is without furniture. I have neither a table nor a chair. When you first arrive in prison, you’re given two hard plastic boxes in which you can store your belongings. One is called a legal box. You are only allowed to place papers and books in it. The other box is much larger. In there I store food I’ve purchased at the commissary— along with my clothes cosmetics and my art supplies. I use the smaller box as a stool. The large box I use as a table. I place my plastic mirror on it while shaving. I play chess with my cellmate on it. I also use it to place my typewriter and T.V.

My cell is without any kitchen appliances. I don’t have a stove or a hot plate or a microwave, yet much of the food sold in the commissary—refried beans, rice, instant oatmeal, and ramen noodles—requires hot water. To heat water, I make what’s called a prison stinger. The prison used to sell factory-made stingers, but some inmates in anger would throw hot water on guards. The prison discontinued selling them years ago. My homemade device consists of two metal paper clips, an extension cord, and a plastic drink pitcher. I place a paperclip in each hole of the extension cord and stick the ends of the clips in the pitcher. Within ten minutes, the water boils heating the water in the plastic bag. I also don’t have a refrigerator. To keep things cold, like pop or a carton of milk, I place the items in the cool water of the toilet bowl. Needless to say, you to need to wash the can or carton really good before drinking. It took me 15 years to finally succumb and begin using this refrigeration method.

My cell is without air conditioning. In the summer months, it becomes like an oven. The temperature outside will be 95 degrees, but in my cell the temperature is 105. I only know this because a thermometer hangs next to my cell door. To stay cool, you move as little as possible and parade around in your underwear.     

The walls of my cell are without color. Along with the rest of the prison, they’re painted a pale gray. We can’t place family pictures or artwork on the walls.             

My cell is without space. I constantly bump into my cellmate. I’ve gotten into a few fights because of  it. Once I accidentally kicked my cellmate in his head while getting off the top bunk. He became enraged and pulled me off my bed. We fought like dogs. There’s not enough space for both of us to walk around at the same time. I must lie in my bed until he is finished washing up, and he must do the same. The length of my cell is 9 feet long. I know this because I walk it 50 times a day to stay in shape.

My cell is without quiet. All day inmates yell, guards shout orders, guard radios blast. Inmates play music on small stereos or their televisions to full volume. This goes on all night as well. On occasion, I plug my ears with toilet paper so I can sleep. Basketball season is particularly hard because inmates up and down the gallery are cheering on their teams on T.V. 

My cell is without a window. I can’t see a sunrise or a sunset or a star or the moon.

My cell is without a criminal. I’m now 61. The young ruffian who came into this cell ready to take on the world died a long time ago.

Written Inside is a podcast about life inside a maximum-security prison cell. Adapted from essays written at Stateville Correctional Center near Chicago, these intimate stories speak to the everyday experience of being incarcerated. William Jones' story was voiced by Chicago actor Cedric Young. Created by journalist Alex Kotlowitz and produced by WBEZ Chicago's Colin McNulty.

This project is made possible in part by generous support from The Field Foundation of Illinois


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