All cultures have their own particular concept of “limbo,” purgatory, or some other form of antechamber to paradise. The word “limbo” itself comes from the Latin limbus, meaning an “edge or boundary.” Used as proper nouns, Limbus describes the edge of Hell, and Limbo is a place for the souls of unbaptized infants and patriarchs who died before the coming of Christ, to wait for Christ to be born and pardon them. Once pardoned, they are in effect “saved” and become de facto Christians, and are finally granted access to eternal paradise. But the Messiah doesn’t seem to come around very often, so they sit around like millions of undocumented immigrants, waiting for the next mass amnesty.

Purgatory, by comparison, is like the express line at the US-Mexican Border, the one for people with spotless backgrounds, or diplomatic cover. It’s the waiting room for the already-saved, a kind of hazmat decontamination unit that scrubs off the last few sins and moral entanglements of the true believers, before they can cross the border into freedom and eternal, unencumbered bliss. What all of these places have in common is the theme of detention. Prison is all of these things constrained within the temporal, corporeal plane. The lives of inmates exist in stasis until that time when they 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 interrupta. 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 you are lucky to reemerge, you 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, know where you are or what happened to you. Those few people are your 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 thousands of municipal, county, 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 the 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. The American public’s pervasive lack of political involvement seems to keep them from storming anything except a Wal-Mart during Christmas shopping season. Plus, since American prisons are so far away from everything else, the proverbial angry mob would have to endure a six-hour bus trip ahead of time before they could commence stormin’.

But 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. At its core, the war on drugs is nothing more than the criminalization of lifestyle. In many regards, it is also a war on religious freedom, and on consciousness itself.

The punishment for defying the system and exerting these inherent freedoms (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?  When in limbo, one invariably has an entirely new understanding of time.

I would spend 13 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-sterile, hyper-industrialized detention facility. It was “only” 13 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, and stuff you into that 6 x 10 cement hole, 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.

Thirteen 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 the parents of a lost child, or someone 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 soon and so forth—is its own particularly menacing brand of torment.

The Warehouse

The Stateville Northern Reception and Classification Center (NRC) is a shining example of 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 13 million people of Illinois live. This means that the bulk of the inmates in the entire Illinois Department of Corrections (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 smallest possible amount of resources, with the barest minimum of interaction, assistance, or interference—an automated process predicated on a 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 30 large of taxpayer money on one guy to keep him in a cage for a while, you are left with a lot of lingering 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 utilizes a central observation tower—a hub—that 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, the 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 applied to the general public’s life, on the streets and in shops and subways, etc.

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 is one of three distinct prisons in the Joliet area. 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 the 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 hangar 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 to 2,800, twice the size of the old processing center, and the population turns over every 10 to 21 days, creating an almost perfect annual balance of 40,000 in and 40,000 out. Within the complex are eight cell-blocks (A through R), each three levels high, which house inmates. Each block has a small door that leads outside to a narrow concrete pen resembling a dog kennel or the outside holding pens at Guantánamo Bay.

Since it is only a transitional facility, inmates are generally not held at the NRC for longer

than 20 to 30 days unless they are sent back from another facility to serve out special

“segregation” time, such as solitary 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 as Charles Shaw of Chicago, Illinois.

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

IDOC has eight levels of security classification.

Level 1 – Maximum Security

Level 2 – High Medium Security

Level 3 – Secure Medium Security

Level 4 – Medium Security

Level 5 – High Minimum Security

Level 6 – Minimum Security

Level 7 – Low Minimum Security

Level 8 – Transitional Security

Although I didn’t know it at the time, or what it meant in con- text, I was eventually designated Level 6—Minimum Security.

Throughout the intake process I found myself next to a tall, bald, middle-aged black dude with a thin silver mustache named Willie Frazier. All the way back at five o’clock in the morning, in the shipping pen at County, he sat on a bench across from me next to a Puerto Rican guy named Luis smoking Newports. He gave me a “short” off of his cigarette. He and Luis were fuckin’ around a lot and seemed unfazed by the fact that we were about to be shipped to the joint.

Now in the processing line, Willie kept telling me that Luis knew one of the NRC counselors and that we should ask to be sent to “East Moline.” I didn’t know what that meant.

“Don’t ask for treatment,” he told me, “they only got one place, Sheridan, and there ain’t never no room there, goddammit. They say you gotta wait six weeks for Sheridan, minimum. Six weeks here, in this muthafucka? Uh uh, ain’t happenin’. Luis said ask for East Moline, says that’s the best place to go in the whole damn system.”

When the time came to speak to the counselor, she asked me whether I wanted to go to the drug treatment program at Sheridan, which had been open for only a year, but which the State was already touting as the “largest fully dedicated state drug prison and community crime reduction program in the nation.” You can see just how proud of themselves they are by looking at the sobering (pun intended) press release from the opening of the center in 2004:

In addition to aggressively working to address crime and recidivism throughout all state communities, the reopening of Sheridan Correctional Center will restore more than 400 jobs in the surrounding region of LaSalle County.

“For too long, our state has led the nation in drug crime. Today, we begin our efforts to lead the nation for drug crime prevention,” said Gov. Blagojevich. “The Sheridan project is about public safety. Illinois faces the highest recidivism rate in state history. Statistics show that more than half of the nearly 34,000 parolees on the street today will be re-incarcerated within only three years after their release from prison. We know that drug use is a significant contributing factor in recidivism, and we owe it to our communities to take on this challenge.”

According to the Department of Corrections, statistics show that approximately 60 percent of all male arrestees statewide and approximately 82 percent of all male arrestees in Chicago test positive for at least one illegal drug. In addition, nearly 25 percent of all state prison inmates are currently serving time for drug offenses, with an untold number of others who are in prison for property offenses, violent offenses or other crimes committed as a result of drug involvement.

Let’s put all this backslapping by our former governor-turned-inmate Rod Blagojevich into perspective. The State freely admits that a significant (and most likely understated) percentage of the roughly 46,000 IDOC inmates are incarcerated for drug-related offenses, and yet out of a $1.3 billion budget, twenty-eight prisons, six work farms (labor camps), and two boot camps, it has taken them thirty- four years since the launch of the War on Drugs to build one—one, as in uno—dedicated treatment facility that can treat a maximum of 900 out of (conservatively) 11,250 drug-related inmates. This means that only 9% of those with acknowledged drug problems can receive treatment, a paltry 2% of the total prison population.

At the end of the Intake process I still had no idea where I was going to be sent. I was told nothing except to get back in line. I asked Willie if he requested East Moline, and he said, “Now why would I tell you to go on and ask for somethin’ and not ask for the same shit myself?” Then he smiled and shrugged his shoulders again and mumbled something about Luis “hooking it up” for him. Somehow, I had a hard time going with him on that one.

After Intake we sat in a caged bullpen for at least another hour or two until they made an announcement that we were about to be taken to the cellblocks. Willie and I ended up paired as cell-mates, and we fell into line together. It was a bit of a pleasant surprise, and a bit weird. I didn’t know him from a hole in the wall (although, we were certainly about to be stuffed into one) and yet, we already had this perplexing connection.

They marched us along a fathomless corridor of shiny polished concrete with cellblock entrances along the left side stretching to what seemed like the horizon. Fatigue, stress, and fear of the unknown all conspired to spin out my perceptions as we shuffled along single file, stopping at a cellblock, depositing a few inmates, and moving on. The line grew smaller and smaller.

Then, it was our turn as about six or eight of us were ushered into one of the anonymous cellblocks. Willie and I were bundled into a cell on Level 2. The entire cell was molded concrete except for some stainless steel on the bunks, (single) stool, sink, and toilet. The cell was sealed behind a magnetic steel door—no bars— and a shatterproof glass window. It was lit by one fluorescent light that we could not control. There was a feed slot below the window. We turned around, and the door slammed shut behind us, and Willie and I looked at each other.

“Man, this ain’t the honeymoon suite,” he said, clowning. “I’m sorry, dear, they must have messed up the reservations.”

I laughed, kind of.

“Well, all right then, if it’s gonna be like that we might as well just go to sleep.”

I let go a long protracted sigh.

“Yeah,” I mumbled. “Sleep.”

I crawled up onto the top bunk, laid my head down on my rolled-up blanket, and was asleep before I could finish exhaling. I don’t know what time it was when I woke up, but the lights were on in our cell and it was daylight outside. I could see faint shards of sunlight spilling in diffusely from a single window along the outside wall of the cellblock. Above my head was a vent that was pumping in cold air, and it was freezing inside the cell. I jumped down from the top bunk and shuffled to the toilet. Willie was still asleep with his blanket wrapped around his head.

After I had finished I moved over to the cell door and looked out the window. It was eerily quiet and still. I sat down on the concrete desk jutting from the cell wall and put my forehead against the glass window. I had nowhere to go. I had nothing to do. I was in a cold and barren environment, and it felt as if gravity was pulling me into the floor. I was still so exhausted. And I was sick. I had picked up the jailhouse hack in County and now, because of the cold, it was coming on full force. I coughed so hard my head was pounding and my teeth were chattering in my mouth. I crawled back up into bed, wrapped myself inside my blanket, and went back to sleep.

 

* Taken from Chapter Two – “Hotel Hell” *

 

__________________________________

CHARLES SHAW is an award-winning journalist and editor, author of the critically-acclaimed memoir, Exile Nation: Drugs, Prisons, Politics & Spirituality (2012, Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press), and Director of the documentary, The Exile Nation Project: An Oral History of the War on Drugs & The American Criminal Justice System. Charles serves as Editor for the openDemocracy Drug & Criminal Justice Policy Forum and the Dictionary of Ethical Politics, both collaborative projects of Resurgence, openDemocracy, and the Tedworth Charitable Trust. Charles’ work has appeared in Alternet, Alternative Press Review, Conscious Choice, Common Ground, Grist, Guardian UK, Huffington Post, In These Times, Newtopia, The New York Times, openDemocracy, Planetizen, Punk Planet, Reality Sandwich, San Diego Uptown News, Scoop, Shift, Truthout, The Witness, YES!, and Znet. He was a Contributing Author to the 2008 Shift Report from the Institute for Noetic Sciences, and in Planetizen’s Contemporary Debates in Urban Planning (2007, Island Press). In 2009 he was recognized by the San Diego Press Club for excellence in journalism.

Email Charles: cshaw [at] exilenation [dot] org

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TNB Nonfiction features some of the web's best essays, excerpts of up-and-coming books, self-interviews, profiles, and humor from a wide range of authors. Past and future writers include Emily Rapp, Mira Bartók, Nick Flynn and Melissa Febos, among many others.  Our editorial team includes:  SETH FISCHER is the Nonfiction Editor. His work has appeared in Guernica, Joyland, Best Sex Writing, and elsewhere, and he was the first Sunday editor at The Rumpus. His nonfiction was selected as notable in The Best American Essays, and he has been awarded fellowships by Jentel, the Ucross Foundation, Lambda Literary, and elsewhere. He is also a developmental editor of nonfiction and fiction, and he teaches at Antioch University Los Angeles, UCLA-Extension, and Writing Workshops Los Angeles.

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