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.

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Byron does not have Internet access. Pariahblog.com posts are sent from his cell by way of a secure service especially for prisoners' use. We do read him your comments, however, and he enjoys hearing your thoughts very much.