Eight Days in Prison

By on Jan 13, 2019 in Essays

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Concert for Change poster with bright colors

This is just an experiment. Let’s be clear about that right up front. I don’t want you thinking this is going to be a regular thing. This is a one-time-only day-by-day account of my life (such as it is) in an Illinois prison, over the next few days. Maybe a couple of weeks. I’m not sure yet.

I should give you a background about myself. I was born on March 23, 1969, right before the Summer of Love. My name at birth was Nicky Joe Elliot. That’s what was on my original birth certificate. I know what you’re thinking: a totes legit name for a convict. It didn’t stick, though. Mom divorced Pop, remarried, and then — around the time I was five or so — allowed me to be adopted by my step-father. It was decided that not only would my last name be changed, but my first and middle name, too. I became Nicholas Joseph Chittick. Much less cool, but I wasn’t consulted in the decision. I have oft wondered whether my true destiny of fame and riches was unable to find me, because I lived most of my life under an assumed identity.

I’m locked up for murder. Nothing especially interesting: it was a drug deal gone bad that happened on Christmas night 1998. I was arrested on January 5, 1999. Been behind bars ever since. No need to go into details, but I will admit that I’m the reason the deal went south. I wanted crack but didn’t have any money. What I did have was access to a gun, an abundant intake of alcohol, and a great deal of pent-up holiday frustration. I confessed and pleaded guilty. No sense in denying it is how I saw it; they had me red-handed.

So why am I writing this? And just what is this, exactly? I guess technically it’s a journal. Not a diary. The word diary has too feminine connotations for me. Chronicle is a good, strong word. The Prison Chronicles. Well… whatever this is, the main question is why? A couple of reasons. One, I was egged on by the popularity of such reality shows as “60 Days In,” “Behind Bars: Rookie Year,” “Locked Up,” “Locked Up Abroad,” “The System” — the list goes on and on. There seems to be a fascination within our culture of life behind bars. Probably nothing new. They made plenty of black-and-white prison movies in the 1930s. Anyway, along the lines of incarceration curiosity, I figured I might provide a unique perspective. I’m a minority, after all… a white guy in prison. That’s the first reason.

The second is that I’m at a crossroads in my life. There’s a lot going on. I stand at the precipice of many changes. This is an anomaly in my experience. Here (not here in this prison specifically, but here, in prison in general… any prison) clocks tick differently. Long spans of time — years, decades — slip by almost without notice, much the same way ships on the ocean can travel great distances — thousands of miles — without seeming to go anywhere. The other day a C.O. (correctional officer) said to me, “Chittick, you’ll probably never leave this joint. You’ve got it made here.”

I replied, “Yeah, but you could ship me anywhere and, in three or four years, I’d have it made there, too.”

He couldn’t believe the casual way I’d said three or four years. To him, this was an excruciating length of time. To us (those who’ve endured long-term incarceration), we tend to view years the same way a free person might look at a couple of weeks. That’s the difference. So when I saw a lot is happening at once — and it is —  that’s a big deal to me. I guess I feel a certain need to document it.

It’s Sunday night, September 11, 2016. The anniversary of 9-11. Hard to believe it’s already been fifteen years. I was in Menard in 2001, a maximum-security hellhole in southern Illinois. I’ve earned my way into a medium-security facility now. It’s not Shangri-La, but it’s tolerable.

If you’re hoping for stories of the ultra-violent American prison system, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. It happens, no question, but not on the daily basis that popular culture would have you believe. Certainly not in a level-three facility like this.

The joint softball league championship series started today. Yes, we have a softball league. Basketball and soccer leagues, too. Anyway, I’m one of the umpires for the softball league. We went out to the field at 7:30 a.m., but it was a swamp. We’ve had a lot of rain lately. Our LTS (Leisure Time Services) Supervisor got us some rakes, shovels, brooms, and a wheelbarrow. We got to work pushing the excess water off the infield with brooms, slogging through the slop, then transferred sand from the volleyball pit via wheelbarrow and just pretty much bullied Mother Nature into giving us a dry field. It worked. By noon we were able to start game one of a seven-game series between Housing Unit One and Housing Unit Four. My team was in the semifinals last week, but we got beat by Housing Unit Four. They swept us three games straight in a five-game series. Losing sucks. I always cringe when I hear someone say, “C’mon, we’re just playing for fun.” Know what’s fun? Winning. Anyway, I live in Housing Unit Three. I’ve been here for five years, but they’re about to move me to Housing Unit Two. That’s one of the upcoming changes I was telling you about.

Housing Unit One won two in a row today. I umpired second base for game two. My homie (I won’t use any names, but I can tell you he’s the drummer for the prison band; I’m the guitar player) umpired second base for game one and only had to make a couple easy calls the entire time. I step onto the field for game two, and it was one close call after another at second base. I’m secretly rooting for Housing Unit Four to win, even though they’re the ones who beat my team, because Housing Unit One wins this thing every year. Even so, I called the calls as I saw them, even though guys were arguing with me, yelling at me. It’s not easy. You’ve got to be solid when you’re an umpire, even if you’re wrong. Especially if you’re wrong. I looked over at my homie (the drummer) after one particular dust-up (I called a guy out on a slide, but it was very close… he might’ve been safe) and he was laughing like a maniac, the jerk. You can always count on your friends to give you a hard time.

Coming in after the games I saw Blinky. Blinky is a rabbit. The grounds are full of ‘em. He’s got one eye and a big scar down his back. I and a few others call him Blinky, but he’s got a lot of different names. Pirate. Thug. Chief. More I don’t know. I didn’t see it happen, but a couple guys did, and the story spread like wildfire. Blinky got scooped up by a hawk one day. So he’s a good ten of fifteen feet in the air, on his way to certain death, when he starts kicking his legs like crazy at the hawk. He freed himself at a price: the hawk’s talons tore out one of his eyes and sliced up his back, but he hit the ground running and made it to safety. Now he shows up out on the walk, begging food like all the rabbits. I don’t have anything to give him, but I wish I had. All the convicts love Blinky. He’s a survivor.

They’re having a concert tomorrow in the gym, classical music from some outside people. The prison band has our own concert coming up Wednesday. Ours is “The Concert for Change.” It’s all original material, each song a chapter in a story. Our group is a mixture of different musicians from different musical backgrounds, of different ages, ethnicities and cultures. The music we wrote for this concert reflects that diversity.

It’s getting late. I have to be at work early tomorrow, at 8 a.m. I’m the clerk in the counselor’s offices, a.k.a. Clinical Services. I’ve held down that job assignment for going on three years now, but that’s about to change, too. I told you, I’m at a crossroads. A storm of changes lies on my horizon.

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Nicholas Chittick is a writer and musician who lives in Danville, Illinois, where he now teaches music theory. He plans to relocate in 2027. Maybe sooner, with a little luck. You can find more of his work at PrisonsFoundation.org.