20 February, 2010

On the Scarcity of Toilet Paper

[This post, as well as four others from The Pariah's Syntax, was selected by the editors of Meridian, a semi-annual literary journal from the University of Virginia, for publication in their twenty-seventh issue, in May 2011. The other posts to appear in that issue were "Halloween in the Hoosegow," "Only A Fleeting Thing," "In Memory of Monuments," and "Joe." But just because you can read them here doesn't mean that you shouldn't order a copy from Meridian's website, thereby supporting the kind of publication daring enough to print such writings as these.]
Sorry to obliterate those notions of a giant license-plate pressing operation, but about the only thing resembling a vocational opportunity here at Crossroads Correctional Center is the toilet paper factory. I can't be sure Missouri plates are still made by its prison inmates at all; though, I know the state does a thriving trade in sub-sweatshop-quality clothing. In a nifty circle of exploitative reciprocity many suspect is technically illegal, inmates are paid by a state-run (sort of) corporation to manufacture guard uniforms and clothes for inmates to purchase (irregular T-shirts, shorts, thin jackets, and so forth). But that's a topic for another time.

Right now, I am interested in this matter of toilet paper, to wit: my problem with the single-roll rule. Everyone here is issued one roll a week. In the very best circumstances, a person might get by fine with a roll of two-ply every seven days. What, however, is to happen if you catch a nasty cold that has you emptying your headspace of mucus every couple of minutes? Worse yet, what if you contract a foodborne pathogen or parasite the symptoms of which are best left undescribed, lest my gentle reader is currently indulging in a chocolate pudding cup or munching a microwave burrito? For instances of increased necessity such as these, a roll a week will hardly be sufficient.

Consequently, a black market in purloined and smuggled rolls has flourished. Workers from the abovementioned factory stuff whole rolls down the fronts of their pants and pray they're not detected in the end-of-day pat-downs. Inmates with janitorial jobs pull the cardboard tubes from the rolls' centers. They sneak the scrunched-up rolls back to their housing units in insulated plastic coffee mugs for customers who have prepaid. Adjusted to street value, based on the average monthly income of a Missouri prisoner without monetary assistance from the outside, this would be like your paying fifty-eight dollars for a roll of Scott Tissue in a back-alley deal. The TP racketeer can do pretty well for himself, particularly in weeks when the institution serves Salisbury steak. It isn't colloquially known as the "poo patty" for nothing.

Because half-rolls and irregularly-sized ones are regularly thrown out by the factory in large numbers, all this makes even less sense. Sure, inmates can buy the same state-issued tissue from the prison canteen, but only a few of us are actually able to afford to do so. Inmates using up their allotment before week's end are often refused any more, or are given just a small length to work with. The luckiest ones may score a whole new roll from a sympathetic guard. In some housing units, guards regularly give out entire rolls, but only after subjecting the requester's cell to a needlessly thorough search. Wouldn't want anybody getting away with a surplus.

"Nobody thinks about running out of toilet paper," a neighbor of mine once observed. And he has a point. "They buy them big packages of thirty rolls and keep 'em in their closets and grab 'em out whenever they need 'em. What would they think about having to ration out their stuff like this — have to go out, all humble, and be all: 'Yo, can a playa get some shit paper?' No sir, they wouldn't like that one bit."

05 February, 2010

The Skeptical Juror and the Trial of Byron Case Now Available

Over the years, several writers have expressed a professional interest in my case. Some thought it would serve as the basis for a dark novel, others were of the opinion that the events called for a strict reportage style, and still others wanted to twist the already grisly truths into some phantasmagoria of sensationalism. Until J. Bennett Allen contacted me through my then-attorney, no one's interest resulted in a published work. Now we have The Skeptical Juror and the Trial of Byron Case, a truly in-depth analysis of my experience with the judicial system. Not to mention an eye-opener.

The book's first section is a condensed version of the hundreds and hundreds of transcript pages from my trial. Mister Allen has taken great care to preserve the substance of what was said in the courtroom, while at the same time converting the witness statements into a more natural narrative structure. Afterwards, he takes the reader into the deliberation room with a fictional jury, where everything that was said and shown in trial is discussed and debated in lively detail. The approach presents an intriguing mental exercise in addition to making for a lively read. At the end of Part II, just as a juror would, the reader is asked to weigh the evidence and reach a verdict.

In the end, the outcome of the trial is revealed. This blog's existence ought to merit a spoiler alert for the book, I suppose, but even for those who know the story the book will be enlightening. It will also raise the ire of anybody with a belief in the sanctity of concepts like Justice and Liberty.

The Skeptical Juror is to be a series of books, each focused on a different case of someone for whom there is strong evidence to suggest wrongful conviction. If Mr. Allen's work on this book is any indication, many more incarcerated people can look forward to their cases finally getting the attentive treatment they've always deserved. With a little luck, it just might be a catalyst for the elusive freedom many have waited decades to have returned to them.

I urge you to pick up your copy of The Skeptical Juror and the Trial of Byron Case today.

04 February, 2010

Mr. Know-It-All

"Excuse me...." It was someone I'd never spoken to before, yet his approach was awkwardly familiar. He touched my shoulder to get my attention.

I turned, prepared to be chilly with this invader of personal space, but he put up his palms, as if in apology, and said, "I was just wondering who sang 'Wild Thing' — the original. They said you'd know."

Out of nowhere. You'd think a sign on my back glowed neon: ESOTERIC QUESTIONS FIELDED HERE. At some point or another I became a go-to guy for settling of trivia bets, solving of crossword puzzle clues, and unsticking stuck-on-the-tip-of-my-tongue things. It happens numerous times each day, occasionally too often for me to keep track. Granted, those in search of an answer are generally at least tangentially connected to my circle of daily associates, not utter strangers I don't even recognize by reputation.

Reputation is everything in prison. For better or for worse, mine is now cemented as a guru of random information. Yes, I know how many points there are on Kermit the Frog's collar. (Answer: eleven.) Yes, I know the name of that actress who played opposite Tom Cruise in Risky Business, as well as the year the movie came out — though, no, I've never seen the film. (Answers: Rebecca DeMornay; 1986.) Yes, I know the chemical formula of caffeine. (Answer: C8H10N4O2. Would you like me to draw the molecule for you too?) Not a whole lot of my knowledge is practically applicable in the real world. I would dump it if I could, clear some room in my cluttered brain for the type that might do some good. The guys with their inquiries, though, wouldn't want me any other way.

For the stranger with the music question, I didn't miss a beat. "That was the Troggs," I said.

"Of course," he said, making the head-slapping motion I see every day. "And that's with two gs, ain't it?"

"Mmm hmm."

"Okay. Hey, thanks a lot, there, brother," he said, then turned and walked away.

I tried resuming my prior conversation, but it was hopeless; my companion's curiosity had been piqued. He asked the obvious question: "What was that about?"

"Oh, just something I do."

"Answer questions?"


"Does that happen a lot, people coming up to you like that?"

"Pretty often."

"That's a hell of a service. You ought to start charging for that." And not for the first (or the last) time does the thought cross my mind.