19 April, 2012


Rumors I heard in the first two hours of my waking today concerned the introduction of a bill to ban tobacco products in all Missouri prisons, and a plan by the administration of this particular facility to increase the occupancy of its segregation unit by fifty percent. By lunchtime I was hearing blow-by-blow accounts of fights that took place yesterday… from someone who hadn’t witnessed them. The fact that the substance and spirit of these juicy tidbits are in doubt does not alter my point: when it comes to gossip, bored old ladies at kaffeeklatsches cannot compete with prisoners. 

I have heard variants of the smoke-free rumor ever since I came into the custody of the Department of Corrections. In 2004 and 2005, when I had a job in the prison’s visiting room, taking photos of inmates with their loved ones, the guards I worked around were all dedicated smokers and were arguably more worried about a supposed executive order banning tobacco than the prisoners. Word of the Governor’s alleged anti-smoking stance was apparently making the rounds on some online corrections-officer discussion board. None of the guards questioned its veracity, even as the proposed date slipped further and further into the future — first September, then November, then July. Among the prisoners was talk of how best to weather the storm. Several spoke of buying up as much tobacco as the canteen would sell them, hiding it until the smokers’ supplies ran out, then selling their stock at extortionist prices to live penitentiary fabulous on the profits. All that anxiety and daydreaming went up in smoke when it became evident no ban was forthcoming. 

Another popular recurring bit of buzz involves a repeal of Missouri’s eighty-five percent rule — the one that deems the perpetrators of certain crimes ineligible for parole until they’ve served eighty-five percent of their sentence. Every couple of years, word crosses the yards of prisons across the state, like a roaring plains fire, that the rule is history. It never is, but hope springs eternal. 

It’s these canards born of wishful thinking that evidence the greatest staying power. Each time the repeal of Ol’ Eighty-Five is on the prison population’s lips, it clings there for a month or more, until everyone finally convinces themselves it’s bunk. However, the negative rumors are far, far more rampant. Word that the administration is plotting to further limit recreation periods, that the canteen will soon do away with a certain much-enjoyed item, that an institution-wide shakedown by the “goon squad” is scheduled for one of the days ahead — the doomsayings are popular. 

Not terribly long ago, I read a magazine piece by a prisoner who described himself falling for a rumor about his state eighty sixing its version of Missouri’s eighty-five percent rule. After hearing this bruited around for a couple of days, he excitedly phoned home to tell his family he’d be out sooner than anticipated. He walked the yard for almost a week, thinking of all those years he’d gotten back. Then his lawyer cleared things up. Several of the attorney’s clients had asked him about the fictitious reform over the years, but it remained as untrue as ever. The disappointed prisoner wrote that he blamed the tenacity of hope — that the imprisoned wanted so badly to believe in a brighter future that they were willing to impart credibility on any cock-and-bull story told them, as long as it sounded promising. Call me cynical, but I see it as a matter of boredom, not hope. In the absence of much real drama or excitement, the overactive minds invent their own, either to watch others squirm or for the thrill of telling a lie. 

Of course, rumors good and bad occasionally turn out to be true. In these rare instances, I can’t keep from wondering whether the buzz had been based on accurate information from the start, or if people in positions of influence caught wind of it and thought, Hey, that’s not a bad idea. Maybe if a source accepted as credible were to implement a rumor that the prison’s gossip is meticulously monitored by the Powers That Be, and that certain otherwise false rumors are made reality just to keep everyone nervous and guessing — a kind of meta-rumor, if you will, with an ironic twist — then the tenor of all the rumors would turn positive. Some might even come true, like self-fulfilling prophesies. 

Changing the world for the better, through judicious application of happy little lies: it sounds like a high-concept family film. I nominate Jack Black to star. 

Incidentally, I just heard they’re going to start giving laptops and free Wi-Fi to all Missouri’s well-behaved prisoners. Also catered meals from Spago. Pass it on.


  1. Greetings Byron - it is amazing to me that you are able to blog from prison. I was totally unaware that this was even an option. Anyway, I ran across your case doing research as I am currently going to law school to attain my JD so I can go to work for the Innocence Project to help free people like yourself. I came to this passion in life because, like you, I was falsely accused of a crime by my ex-husband, whose Uncle has been a detective for that dept for 20 yrs. I was held without bond and told they would release me on probation if I would plead guilty. Because I was innocent and have a BS in Criminal Justice and was working as a case manager at a Juvenile Prison at the time, I refused to sign a plea. I stayed in jail over 10 months fighting my case with an inadequate Public Defender - I denied 4 pleas that could've released me on probation when the state finally threatened to take my kids if I stayed in jail to go to trial. I was forced into a plea and am now on 8 yrs probation and a convicted felon. I feel like I am out but will never be free. I can't find a job and can not even rent a place to live. My life has been destroyed by these lies which is why I am getting my JD so I can work with the Innocence Project. I just wanted to wish you luck and let you know you are in my prayers. You can email me at abqshell@yahoo.com and find me on Facebook by Michelle Reed Crawford. I hope to hear from you soon.


  2. Witty as always. Thank you for the chuckles & I will pass the word on about the laptops & catered meals!


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.