Photo by Khashayar Kouchpeydeh on Unsplash

In my cell house at Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet, Illinois, I was awakened by another prisoner who woke up early and noticed that the water, including the toilets, had been shut off — a sure sign that a shakedown was coming.

It’s a level one shakedown, which means officers will converge upon us to search for contraband like knives, homemade wine, drugs and phones. Because of the pandemic, there will only be around 175 Stateville officers, as opposed to officers from various agencies statewide which could mean up to 400 officers from the 30-plus facilities around Illinois.

Usually, we would all be woken up around 6:45 a.m. to find all the water turned off. Normally there are four units — B, C, D and E — 290 men per unit included in the shakedown. Today, only two units would be turned upside-down: B Unit, where I reside, and D Unit.

Two men dressed in black riot gear with bullet-proof vests and oak sticks came tapping their mace cans at our doors.

“Inmates,” one of them hollered, “On the floor! Get to the back of your cell and face the wall!” This is when you are required to strip down, butt-ass-naked to the familiar tune of the officers’ commands.

“Open your mouth. Move your tongue. Stick your fingers in. Lift your nuts. Turn around. Spread your cheeks. Squat. Cough.”

You are not allowed to wear underwear or socks. Just your shirt, pants and shower shoes, regardless of the weather. Then, you’ll be cuffed from behind and told to face the back of the cell while your cellie goes through the same humiliating routine, unchanged for the past two decades.

There are 29 cells in a gallery, but not one door will open until all inmates have been stripped, searched and cuffed. When they open, we are marched to a central location like the gym or the chapel and made to stand along the wall for at least three hours. There are no bathroom breaks despite being awakened to dry toilets and no running water to wash up.

A lucky few will be randomly plucked from the line for drug screening. A dirty test would land you swiftly in segregation for six months, no exceptions. Right now, those unlucky souls would be sent for immediate transfer, without their property.

All of this takes place in silence, and there is no talking. The hulking masked officers swing sticks that strike those who are shuffling around or those that show restlessness. Any feedback will get you removed from the line and taken to administrative segregation.

These used to be done several times a year. No matter how many times we experience it, it’s something no one ever gets used to. When you return to your cell, you might find it completely ransacked, depending on the officer who came through. Your property and that belonging to your cellie will all be piled together on the floor like garbage. Your food opened, and containers taken away along with anything else the officers felt you should not have. It doesn’t matter if it is an item you purchased from the facility’s commissary or received in an approved package.

The extent of the damage depends on the initial reason for the shakedown. If an officer was assaulted, get ready. If an officer was assaulted in your cell house, you may find your TV smashed and your cassette player thrown off the gallery. It could take hours to clean up the mess and inventory your belongings to determine what had been taken or destroyed.

As a jailhouse lawyer and one who is considered an agitator, I’m always prepared for a tsunami of a prison shakedown.

Afterward, you have the option of filing a complaint with the courts. If you win, you’ll be given money to replace your property from the Inmate Benefit Fund. Neither the state or the employees who caused the damage pay directly for it. This headache is yet another thing you’re expected to get used to, but probably never will.

 
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.

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Kenneth M. Key

Kenneth M. Key is a writer and contributing artist incarcerated at Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois. He was born and raised in South Shore, on Chicago’s Southwest Side. He says he loved to draw as a kid, and he hopes to generate change as an artist, writer, and occasional poet while he is incarcerated.