23 August, 2011

On the Release of the West Memphis Three

"Are you sure?" I insisted. My neighbor Zach had just rushed to my cell door to relay what he'd seen on CNN. The West Memphis Three, jailed for eighteen years on dubious murder convictions, took an Alford plea and were being released. I abandoned the essay I was writing and hurriedly turned on my TV. Sure enough, there they were — Damien, Jessie, and Jason, dressed like human beings for the first time this century — giving a press conference.

"The one on the left looks a little like you," Zach said. I shushed him, not wanting to miss an instant. Though the networks would replay the clip for days, it never stopped appearing to me as surreal as a fever dream.

Zach had seen photos of me taken before prison. He knew about the media's fixation on my black clothes and eyeliner. He knew, also, that my friends and I used to talk about the West Memphis Three in the reverent tones typically used by the devout when speaking of martyrs. Onetime misfits in a small-minded trailer culture, the trio's persecution was as mythic as it was terrifying. If we teens who lived in an urban, allegedly enlightened environment (in the Midwest, I grant you) were yelled at and threatened on the street for dressing unusally, there was no doubt in our minds that black-clad youth in the American South had it many times worse. Of course we believed Damien, Jason, and Jessie were innocent. Arrest, trial, and conviction were simply legal extensions of the sort of bigotry my darkly dressed friends and I encountered all the time. It would have been difficult not to feel solidarity with those three strangers down in Arkansas, but I didn't hold much hope in their chances for release. Even as a naive teenager, my faith in the United States judicial system, and in people, was virtually nonexistent.

Then my two best friends died. Anastasia was murdered; Justin, her boyfriend, killed himself. Authorities suspected it was a murder-suicide. I knew the homicide investigation was going south when, in an interview, the lead investigator launched into the first of many inquiries into the couple's musical tastes, religious beliefs, and choice in clothing. One mutual friend suggested early on, "This case is going to turn into a witch hunt before it's closed."

And in a way, it did. I partly blame my wrongful murder conviction on the smear campaign that ensued. After my scorned ex took her lies to the authorities, years later, the jury was kept from hearing much of the sensational crap prosecutors wanted to introduce, but there was no shortage of effort on that front. Everything from my car's band-related bumper stickers to my offbeat sense of humor was dragged out, pre-trial. I even suggested during a recess that I detected disturbing echoes of the case of the West Memphis Three. My court-appointed attorney blinked at me from behind his thick glasses and asked, "Who?" He later obliged my worry after a great deal of cringe-worthy debate over the use at trial of the term goth, and I was at least granted a trial free of overt post-West Memphis Three, post-Columbine bias.

So there I sat, innocent yet imprisoned, watching footage of those I once pitied for unjustly living the slow death of the incarcerated. Cellphone snapshots of Damien and Jason's luxurious first night of freedom — Kobe burgers and a five-star hotel rooftop celebration — and of Jessie's family reunion swelled my heart as they stabbed it.

"Man," Zach said as we watched, "can you imagine?"

A happy photograph of Damien holding his wife, whom he married years ago, in prison, flashed across the screen. Before that day, they had scarcely before touched. I just stared. What an experience that all must be, scary and awesome and bigger than anything most people will probably ever know.

I finally mustered a reply: "Actually, I imagine it every single day."

18 August, 2011

The Pig

My father brought her home without warning one afternoon, to the shock of my mother. I remember being in the back seat of her brown Volkswagen Fox when we pulled into our suburban driveway, and hearing Mum mutter something under her breath. Then I saw her, standing beside my father, close to our back door, all naked and freckled and innocently smiling: the pig.

"She can live around the compost heap," my father explained. "I'll build a fence and we can just let her wallow around back there. She'll be happy."

We had a good-sized compost pile behind the garage — probably six feet by nine — into which we cast organic waste: watermelon rinds, coffee grounds, moldy bread. This stuff, any pig should be more than pleased to loll around in. No mention was made of city ordinances or what, in fact, had possessed my father to purchase for us a pink porcine pal. She was there, and that was all there was to it — at least to my naive seven-year-old mind.

True to his word, my father erected a long-overdue white picket fence on the site of our stinky waste pen, complete with a little gate. Behind the garage, the pig was shielded from our neighbors' view. Since she was such a silent swine, there was none of the oinking one would think (as my parents did) would alert passersby to the pig's almost certainly illegal presence.

Not that there were many passersby in our neighborhood. We didn't even have a sidewalk on our particular stretch of street. Pedestrians, on the rare occasions they appeared, were usually mail carriers or meter readers. Even though an elementary school lay right behind our backyard fence, school-age kids were virtually nonexistent. The only ones to be found lived around the corner — two rough-and-tumble boys who wore faded Aerosmith T-shirts and sported too-frequent black eyes. Not my cup of tea. I had a pig at home, thank you.

And it was always just "the pig." We never did give her a name. This should have been odd to me, given my predilection for naming every animal I came in contact with. Even my pet hermit crabs had names, taken from the Greek mythology, with which I was obsessed — Hercules and Sisyphus — and they were barely sentient. So why not also the pig? It couldn't have been that my parents had warned me against getting attached, because that would have immediately struck me as wrong. Perhaps I had a nascent, unconscious sense of what was going on, why we really kept a nameless pig.

It is a Kansas City tradition to organize a huge, festive parade downtown, on Saint Patrick's Day. That year, my parents, who owned and operated a chimney services company, entered us. The us in this instance included the pig. My parents donned the traditional top hats and tails they actually wore out on jobs, and I wore my pint-sized version of same, with a theatrical smear of soot on my cheek. The pig got a little green derby hat and green sequined collar, both adorned with shamrocks. As if the outfits weren't enough, my father rigged my Radio Flyer wagon with faux brick,  to look like a chimney on wheels. My parents took turns pulling this  ad hoc float in the parade while I crouched inside, popping up at intervals of every block or so, waving jauntily. The pig had it easier; all she had to do was smile and trot alongside the family on her thin green rope leash.

After meals, from time to time, I took a plate of leftovers behind the garage. The pig always seemed happy to see me, rushing over to the fence to wedge her moist snout between the fence pickets. For an animal reviled by many cultures for its uncleanliness, she stayed surprisingly spot-free. If we hadn't kept her in what amounted to a mud pit, even her trotters would've probably been pink. A meticulous, tidy child, I was impressed by this dignity. I found myself warming to her.

Then one morning, after my father had left for what I assumed was work, I went out to feed the pig the remnants of a cantaloupe I'd eaten for breakfast. I'd started spending time with her on these trips, talking quietly to her and scratching behind her floppy, fuzzy ears until she closed her eyes and made grunts like a series of relaxed sighs. But she was gone, her pen empty.

"We had to get rid of her," my mother told me when I ran into the house. My shock, I admit, had less to do with concern for the pig's well-being than with the astonished notion that she'd somehow managed to undo the gate latch, step out of her pen, and replace the bolt in her escape. I knew pigs were intelligent, but for a moment I worried we were dealing with Houdini on the Hoof.

Nothing much was said of the pig for the next couple of days. I was content staying silent on the whole thing, and my parents left no doubt they did not wish to discuss it. Eventually, though, the secret came out as all my family's revelations seemed to: over breakfast. I had the temerity to ask why the bacon that morning had come out of white paper wrapping, rather than the vacuum-sealed clear plastic I was used to.

"Well...," my mother began. Then my father took over.

"It's the pig," he said matter-of-factly. "This bacon came from the pig. We took her to the butcher the other day. This is just some of the good food the pig gave us."

While you, dear reader, probably saw this coming from a mile away, I was blind-sided. True, the pig and I never had the chance to get too attached. Ours were very different worlds, after all — hers, a squalid pen full of loam and old banana peels; mine, a spruce roomful of books and toys — yet the shock of eating the flesh of a creature who, days before, I'd been patting on the head and feeding old eggs was substantial. My eyes burned and my jaw tingled as I placed my strip of bacon back on the plate and stared at it. A minute earlier it had smelled and looked so good. But now....

The same thing happened when I learned, at four years old, what eggs really were. I knew they came from chickens, who laid them into fluffy straw nests and brooded over them with great care. I also knew that chickens hatched from eggs. Somehow, however, I never put Fact A and Fact B together until finding a smear of blood in one of my otherwise perfect, runny yolks as I dragged a buttery wedge of toast through them. For months thereafter I couldn't so much as look at an egg without gagging: unfertilized chicken ova! A sensitive boy, you might call me, but I got over that aversion with time. Sunny-side-up eggs are a hard habit to shake.

So too was it with the pig. A few weeks of childhood vegetarianism passed, resisting her greasy aromatics as they wafted daily around our table. Then my righteous indignation caved to my taste buds. The pig lived a good life, I reminded myself, and it was not without grateful joy that we would cut into her juicy chops, the flavorful roast, and savory sausages. One bite was all it took for me to rescind the prior remarks about my parents' savage ways. They were mine, too, in the end. Vegetarians, I decided, were missing out on a truly good thing.

02 August, 2011

This Blog Is Not a Pen-Pal Ad... Now Quit Asking!

Not a full year goes by without someone in authority, here at the prison, finding or intercepting some piece of paper that makes them think they've caught me red-handed in the subversive act of writing a blog. Each time this happens, I'm called into someone's office, passed a printout of some Pariah's Syntax posts, and accusingly asked, "What can you tell me about this?" Repeating that I am exercising my First Amendment right to write gets old.

Last week, the Crossroads Correctional Center mail room opened an envelope containing some poems I submitted to a literary journal. I've sent out submissions exactly like this for years. The cover letter that accompanied these poems, as does every cover letter I've ever sent with a manuscript,, mentioned this blog alongside the highlights of my publishing history. Never mind that I've received a hard copy through the mail of every Pariah's Syntax post ever written, or that I've been mailing out typewritten originals of them to be transcribed for four years now — suddenly the mail room staff is suspicious. My poetry submission was forwarded to the censorship committee to determine if this blog violates policy. Had anyone checked my file, they might've been saved the trouble.

The origin of this nonsense goes back to the summer of 2007, when the State of Missouri lost lawsuits against a number of women prisoners. The State had claimed these women were conducting business (which is against the law for prisoners in many states) by receiving money from male pen pals in exchange for photos and the occasional sexy letter. That the court ruled in the women's favor should be no surprise. If getting gifts from a paramour were deemed illegal, everyone currently in a relationship would have to line up for his or her day in court.

The State, however, got to flout the court's ruling by employing a tidy workaround. Then-Governor Matt Blunt (he of the R-rated movie ban) issued one of his infamous executive orders, this time prohibiting state prisoners from soliciting pen pals, particularly online. The logic of this was presumably that prisoners, having little or no opportunity to meet new friends on the outside, would no longer be able to so easily seek out "victims" (people) to "take advantage of" (correspond with). Blunt's order put Department of Corrections administrators on high alert for anything that could be liberally construed as a pen-pal ad. This included web pages and sites that existed to raise public awareness of prisoners' legal struggles.

I came under scrutiny when the Crossroads administration learned about the Free Byron Case site maintained by my friends and family. For several days, as the site was reviewed by the powers that be, the threat of a conduct violation loomed over my head. Ultimately, I was cleared of any wrongdoing and foolishly told to avoid any direct involvement with running that site — as if I could just use a computer in my cell to log into the host's FTP site and start posting updates. Granted, I did have a MySpace profile back then; The Pitch's Peter Rugg wrote an insipid little puff piece about it. Shortly thereafter, for kind-of-but-not-really going counter to a policy that didn't technically exist, I was issued a conduct violation and kicked out of Crossroads's Good Conduct Wing. It was not the first time I'd been found guilty under shaky accusations.
Blunt's executive order had been a stopgap measure. Departmental policy was soon officially amended to include a prohibition against placing ads for pen pals, even though identical attempts in other states have been challenged and ruled unconstitutional by those states' Supreme Courts. But who knows, the Supreme Court of Missouri may interpret the Constitution differently. This state has achieved wide renown for its backwardness.

In January of 2008, DOC's Constituent Services Representative sent me a letter that said posting my writings to the web would not violate Departmental policy, provided I do not try to solicit pen pals in the process. You would think official correspondence on the Department's letterhead — a copy of which remains in my file — would settle the issue. I certainly did, otherwise I wouldn't have sought approval. This latest inquisition, prompted by the "discovery" from my cover letter that my writing has an online presence, proves that the prison's bureaucracy lacks anything like a collective memory. It also speaks to the open hostility toward the idea that its captives' voices might slip beyond these walls and be heard.

01 August, 2011

Faded Finery and Frankenfeet: Entropy's Effects on the Prisoner's Wardrobe

When you first "come down" — that is, when you enter into the custody of the Missouri Department of Corrections — you're issued three pairs of elastic-waist gray pants, three short-sleeved gray shirts, three white tees, four pairs of whitish socks, five pairs of white boxers, a pair of black brogans, a brown coat, and a fluorescent orange stocking cap. The pants used to have fancy accoutrements like pockets and zipper flies; the gray shirts used to button up and have handy breast pockets; the hats used to be a muted blue. The issue used to be larger, too, including more clothes and a belt. If you wanted more — anything colorful or warm or, I don't know, hip — you had to mail order it through a catalog. Lots of inmates used to do so.

Then came Missouri Vocational Enterprises. MVE uses prisoner labor, paid substantially below minimum wage, to manufacture all kinds of important things for the Department, from cleaning supplies and toilet paper to office furniture and, yes, clothing. When the DOC awarded MVE the contract to be the exclusive provider of clothing to its canteens, inmates were suddenly barred from ordering personal hoodies, socks, jogging shorts, and so forth from any outside vendor. The era of Dickies, Nike, and Hanes came to an end. MVE, with their cheap material and weak stitching, has since been the only show in town. Where its profits go is a closely guarded secret, as is how the enterprise evades federal wage laws.

The old personal clothing was grandfathered, so no one's FUBU or Kansas City Chiefs gear got confiscated, but it has been many years since MVE got that lucrative contract. Not even well-made clothes hold together forever. So you see them all over the prison: tattered Jordan tees, once-red football jerseys gone high pink, puffy coats disgorging white tufts of fill at the elbows. The wearers are as proud of these rags as could be, even though some cling by only a few threads to their bodies. They strut around the yard, cocks of the walk, just pleased to be wearing something that isn't state-issued gray — a touch of individuality, even at the cost of looking like a hobo.

I arrived here before the MVE monopoly, and could have been one of the guys boasting a colorful wardrobe. I wasn't planning on being imprisoned long, though; getting comfortable was the last thing on my mind. Anyway, I like battleship gray. Then, in autumn of 2003, I broke down and ordered a charcoal-colored sweatshirt through the mail. Winters here get blustery. That sweatshirt was stolen a few months later, which I chose to regard as an object lesson in the ultimate pointlessness of acquisition (Fight Club's Tyler Durden would be proud). I did not replace it. I did, however, later buy an MVE fleece jacket that, at seventeen bucks, is hardly an extravagance. Everything else I wear is still state-issued — why spend money on more than what I need? Besides, the available clothing is nothing like what I wore before prison. Wearing tank tops or shorts now would make me less comfortable, not more.

But even I am guilty of going to the preservationist extremes my fellow prisoners employ, where certain items are concerned. One of my thick rubber shower shoes snapped off my foot mid-stride last week, en route back to my cell with a damp towel over my shoulder. I broke into a limp, sliding the broken left sandal along the walk as efficiently as I could, avoiding flesh-to-concrete contact like a practiced germophobe. Then there was a choice to be made. Either I could replace them with a pair of the flimsy new foam-and-rubber flip-flops sold now on the canteen, or I could sacrifice a perfectly serviceable needle and a length of thread from my sewing kit to stitch together my outmoded, cloven footwear.

The needle bent and blunted. I stabbed a finger bloodily. When the job was done, erratic black stitching zigzagged the shoe's top like the handiwork of a drunken frontier surgeon. But it held, so I've still got my shower shoes. I suppose such efforts are no different from someone else awkwardly patching a holey shirt he's had since 1994, even if that shirt's little more than a collar with a meager web of fiber that links tenuously to sleeves. We cling to what we can.