By: Joseph Dole II, Contributing Writer
Due to the media’s distortion of prison life and the people incarcerated there, most of society envisions Illinois “max joints” to be a milieu of nonstop rape and murder. Admittedly, there is a lot of fighting among inmates, but there’s little raping or killing between inmates. That is not to say that death in prison is nonexistent either.
Death in prison is quite common. The majority of inmates who die in prison die from (1) medical neglect, (2) staff brutality or (3) committing suicide.
The first category, medical neglect, is usually covered up by both the IDOC [Illinois Department of Corrections] and the private Wexford medical care company whose business model relies on increasing profit margins by decreasing the quantity and quality of “care” provided to its captive clients.
Only the rare lawsuit filed by a prisoner’s family will bring truth to light. Unfortunately, the public is almost universally indifferent to the plight of criminals – which means deaths are easily forgotten.
The rarity of these lawsuits ensures that Wexford views them as inconveniences. There is no disincentive to discourage the conduct. Wexford deliberately hires staff that has little regard to the Hippocratic oath, and quickly lets go of those with strong moral or ethical consciences. With a staff indifferent to inmates’ health, and compliant in denying adequate care to thousands, Wexford saves millions of dollars each year, increasing their profit margins by the same.
Wexford also sees bribes and kickbacks as a way to ensure that it keeps its contract with the IDOC. According to the Chicago Tribune, the ex-director of the IDOC, Donald Snyder, pled guilty to accepting a $30,000 cash kickback from a Wexford lobbyist.
Most inmates are either completely or functionally illiterate (19% and 40%, respectively1) making it almost impossible for them to navigate the procedural maze of filing a lawsuit to obtain relief when adequate care is denied, which means their conditions worsen instead of getting treated. The Prison Litigation Reform Act has effectively barred most prisoners from finding relief by adding procedural hurdles and discouraging lawyers from taking on prison-related litigation.
While confined in isolation in the supermax prison at Tamms, a fellow inmate was on the yard (a concrete box the size of a garage) experiencing chest pains and hitting the emergency button by the door. He was completely ignored for 45 minutes until his dead body was dragged out and shipped to the hospital to be pronounced dead. (Tamms had a policy of never pronouncing an inmate dead so that they could continue to falsely claim that no one had ever died or committed suicide at the facility.)
When I arrived at Stateville years later, I was informed by a mutual friend that a similar incident occurred here too. This time it was a childhood friend of mine, Jimmy, who died shortly before I arrived. He repeatedly put in to see the doctor for his chest pains. His requests were repeatedly ignored and then when finally called to the Health Care Unit, he was sent away with aspirin and a roll of the eyes. He was later found dead in his bunk.
The second category, being murdered by staff usually overlaps with the first category. Inmates are routinely assaulted by staff while in handcuffs, in retaliation for assaulting staff. Combine this with an indifferent medical staff, and preventable deaths become stuffed body bags. You also have instances like the inmate who was left in the Menard Health Care Unit in a cell without any clothes, blanket, etc. – in the winter. He froze to death. He was in HCU because he had been thrown down the stairs by staff while his hands were cuffed behind his back.
The last category, suicide, is by far the most prevalent. I have personally seen many people attempt suicide, and have seen quite a few succeed. While in Cook County jail, I witnessed more than a few dead bodies dragged off.
Once, while in disciplinary segregation in Division Ten, I was walking to my cell to lock up, and saw my neighbor rolling up dried spinach to smoke. I had never spoken to him, as he always kept to himself. Seeing this reinforced my opinion he was a bug. A couple of hours later when the guard came to make his count, he stopped at my neighbor’s cell, yelled, “oh shit” and ran out. At first, I laughed because I thought he was overreacting to the spinach smoking. After all, many guards would routinely drink alcohol and smoke weed with inmates while at work. I knew I was wrong when I saw the guard run back with an extended pocketknife in one hand and keys in the other.
My neighbor had hung himself from his light with a noose fashioned from bed sheets. The guard jumped up and cut him down as the medical staff arrived. I could hear them unsuccessfully performing CPR. And I could hear the guard telling the medical staff to help him and act like the prisoner was still alive.
No stretcher was brought on the wing. Instead, in “Weekend at Bernie’s” fashion, they propped him up and walked him off with the poor guy’s feet dragging a trail of piss to the door.
It wasn’t too long ago that an inmate here came back from a visit with his fiancée, during which he’d told her he didn’t want to put her through a life with him. He got back to C-House, yelled out a quick farewell and jumped from the fifth floor to his death. Sadly, as I write this, C-House is back on lockdown. Rumor has it that someone else tried to kill himself.
Two of the most impressive suicides, and (I say impressive in the sense that I never thought anyone could have the fortitude to calmly choke to death without struggling) made me rethink my definition of will power.
While I was in Cook County Jail, an inmate simply laid belly down on his bunk and fashioned a noose to hang a few inches from his mattress. He then slipped his head through, laid his hands on his back, and calmly choked to death.
A friend at Tamms similarly tied a plastic USPS envelope over his head, and lay down to die with his hands lying on his chest. He was completely without oxygen for over 6 hours and appeared dead. His body was shipped to the hospital where they performed CPR and brought him back to life. While his memory has declined, he can speak normally, which amazed me when I spoke to him at Pontiac.
Death in Illinois “max joints” is rarely the result of murder by another inmate. Frequently, it is the result of neglect or despair, both of which can be prevented with prison reform. As prison condition deteriorate, sentencing laws become more punitive, and “criminals” are increasingly ostracized from society, prisoners have less to live for and corrections companies are increasingly getting away with murder.
Joseph Dole is serving a LIFE sentence in Illinois for the kidnapping and murder of two rival gang members.
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Joseph Dole #K84446
Stateville Correctional Center
PO Box 112
Joliet, IL 60434