Friday, January 11, 2008

The Cage

Written for my "Feature Story" assignment for English 103

As I drive down South Main in Galesburg, past the car dealership and the tombstone makers, I see a billboard that scares me. No, it’s not an ad informing me that if I cook meth, policemen with guns will come. Nor is it telling me that I need the oversized hamburger emblazoned on the front. Actually, it’s something honestly scarier for me than the idea of my drug-based livelihood getting shut down or getting a coronary from imbibing delicious beef and cheese. It’s a warning that I am in an understaffed prison area. This sign that looms over quiet Galesburg is not just something to heed along with the “don’t pick up hitchhiker” signs that come with a prison. It is something to consider. The shadow it casts on the little town is both dark and long, stretching all the way from Gary’s Sandwich Shop across the street all the way to Springfield.

In Galesburg you will find the Henry Hill Correctional Facility, which is a nice way of saying Hill Prison. Located just inside the city limits, this state facility has brought a lot to Galesburg, but problems are brewing in its brick walls. Indeed, the fire beneath the stew can be found in our own state government. I wanted to take a good look at the problems of our prison system, to observe the receptacle into which our society pours its refuse and how it treats those who daily deal with the thrown away and the locked up. Have no misconceptions. This is not a story about Tom Hanks or Billy Bob Thornton dealing with caged criminals. Nor is reality what you’ve seen of Tim Robbins and Burt Lancaster and their defiance to the system. No, this is real men and women who are really, actually, caged with the criminals.

Enter Lloyd Sichling. Lloyd has been a correctional officer (that’s “guard” in English) at Hill for several years and has been in the employ of the Illinois Department of Corrections in general for eleven. Before that, he served on the Flossmore Police Department for a decade. His is a member of AFSCME, the state employees’ union. Lloyd is also a husband and has two sons, one in college and the other in high school. I wanted an inside look at the DOC and decided that the best way to really discover what is wrong with the prison system is to ask one in its employ. So, I gave Lloyd a call.

Now to understand how Lloyd would act toward my questions, you have to understand a little about him. You see, when he puts on his uniform, his face changes. It doesn’t get hard or mean. It doesn’t get smug, either. When Lloyd dons the dark blue fatigues of an officer, he becomes almost aloof. He is there to do his job. And this is a job that he doesn’t talk about at home. If, and that is if, he does, it is only an amusing anecdote from one of the prisoner’s letters or another CO. So when I ask him about the prison, I get a response that deals with how the state runs the institution. I’m lucky. That’s exactly what I want.

Now I want to remind you that this is a man who makes sure that murderers, rapists, and other bogeymen of our communities are safely locked away. He and his fellow officers protect us. And this is what this one had to say.

“Hi,” says the voice. His cell phone, the one that rings with the theme song from Star Trek: The Next Generation, has identified the caller as me, an assurance that lends his voice an air of familiarity. After a little chit chat, I get down to brass tacks. I tell him that I want to know about the prison system, specifically being a CO.

What he told me doesn’t seem like the words that should be used by someone who is holding those keys. He told me that, as an officer, you have a feeling of being replaceable. He told me that nothing is a sure thing and that, even though he feels that the state recognizes good workers, much of whether or not you have a job is in the politics of the warden. Moreover, he says that you “feel dispensable.” I never had any idea. Now, this didn’t seem right to me, and I told him so. I told him that it didn’t make sense. “Well,” he assured me, “if you’re an officer the union will have a job for you. If you’re in a commanding position, though, you have no union.”

This floored me. I knew that the IDOC is run in a paramilitary fashion, so an officer can move up and become a major or lieutenant. I also knew that Lloyd always registered in the same political party as the governor at the time. But the idea that politics affected commanding officers was mind-blowing. “Yup. If you’re a ranking officer, you can expect to be worked hard and let go.” I was astonished to find out that the people who make policy are in such a position. It made sense now that they felt, as Officer Sichling put it, “apathetic.” They didn’t necessarily have a job that would last.

He told me all this and I was appreciative. Certainly this was important stuff; the idea that people were treated so crassly in our prison system was appalling. But it also wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. So I asked my next question: “What about the current administration?” Without a beat, I heard, “Oh. You mean the Blagojevich Regime?”

I gave the affirmation and asked for specifics. I got enough of that material (which is oh-so dangerous to politicians) to choke a camel. And just so you know, that material is truth. Although if you were thinking I meant accountability to voters, morals, or a system of checks and balances that actually works, well, that’s just silly. Those don’t exist anymore.

Anyway, my interviewee then launched into his laundry list of problems supported or instigated by the current administration, the first of which being the closing of several correctional facilities across the state. Lloyd, being a fair man, was sure to point out to me that Blago didn’t set up the closings, but they were performed under his administration. These closings present several problems to the IDOC and the state a large. Firstly, as would make sense, the misplaced prisoners from these closed facilities have to go somewhere, seeing as how even our system cannot let all those criminals free at once. We have to pretend they were rehabilitated more cautiously. So all of these inmates are then sent to other sites which are ill-equipped to deal with the influx. Secondly, a prison is very good for a local economy. That’s why Galesburg allowed one to open up in their backyard. Isn’t it odd, then, that any prisons would be closed when Illinois has a 4.4% unemployment rate and when laid off officers are just waiting to work?

Now, these things happen. There have been budget cuts across the board. But this isn’t when it got bad. No, according to Lloyd, it started to get bad when the rank of captain was done away with. Officers at that rank were either promoted or demoted. This blocks the line of ascension for those under them (which would be a violation of their work contract). It was also this act that destroyed the ranking officer’s union. All of that was, to be sure, pretty crappy, but not as bad as what happened.

This was the event that harkened in the use of efficiency analysts. Lloyd, again in the spirit of fairness, told me that this wasn’t an absolutely bad thing. “There was this guy,” he told me, “that just walked around. I had no idea what he did. He was probably a brother of the warden’s or something. Either way, he was out.” It did make sense on a constrained budget to cut such paper-pushing positions. It doesn’t make sense to cut more. The efficiency “experts” incited massive cuts to the workforce of the IDOC. The expectation was that fewer officers would do more labor. “Sadly, it worked for a while,” Lloyd said with a little laugh. The laugh left and I heard, “a while.”

To put this in perspective, I’ll tell you a story that Officer Sichling told me. Two of his fellow officers were watching the lunchroom of 200 plus inmates. Reread that if you have to. Now read my assurance that you read it correctly: You read that right. One officer per 100 prisoners! Now I’ll continue with the story.

This is not uncommon in the understaffed system. It gets hairier when a disgruntled inmate decides he doesn’t like his meal. A prisoner of just such a temperament walked up to one of the officers and complained about his food. When the officer’s answer was not to his liking, the prisoner punched the officer in the face, knocking him out cold and sending him straight to the floor, where a pool of blood from the back of the officer’s head would momentarily begin to pool. The other officer went for his mace. The mace, frighteningly, did not leave the belt. The prisoner then went to attack the other guard, and did so. Fortunately, the guard was not rendered unconscious by the blow, and he sent the inmate straight into the nearest wall.

Consider that. I mean really think about it. Governor Blagojevich has made our prison system one where our jailers don’t lock up incarcerates; they are locked in with them. If that second officer had been knocked out, think about what could have happened. They could have been killed, their weapons taken, and somewhere around 200 criminals would have free reign in that facility. That could happen to any officer, even my father, Lloyd Sichling.

I thanked my dad for his time and his help with this story. We talked a little while longer about the usual things we talk about: upcoming happenings in the Star Wars Universe, his hunting season and all things related to it, my goings on (which is pretty much just looking forward to the upcoming happenings in the Star Wars Universe). I hung up the phone and thought about what my dad had told me, what it really meant, and how to put it in a story to let people know and care.

Blagojevich, on the other hand, already knows and doesn’t care. In fact, the union, made up of men and women who are prison guards, supported him. He then turned his back on them. I wonder what else he could do as governor. I think that maybe these things should be considered in the voting booth this month. I think that Blagojevich has no business being in charge of our state. I think that if he keeps this up, it will kill my dad. Think about it.

No comments: