13 April, 2022

After the Courtroom, the Storage Room

The rain is light but steady as a sergeant escorts me across the loading area behind the intake building. I'm pushing a canvas-sided laundry cart, the kind used by housekeeping staff deep in the bowels of hotels, where no guest ever sees. Sarge, at least, has a hat. Water beads on my bare scalp and trickles down my cheeks.

We pass behind dumpsters and storage sheds. He's telling me that today's his day to work 7-House, but he got a call to run this brief errand. Another guard is filling in while he's away from the post, he says. It's good for her, he says. A little rain never hurt anyone, he says. "Anyone," in this case, meaning "us," meaning "him." The benevolent lies we tell ourselves to get though the day.

He unlocks the back door to the prison's TCU, where ERDCC houses its would-be suicides, people recuperating from surgeries, and those at death's door. If hospitals seem dreary, the dim halls and scuffed linoleum floors of the TCU makes them look downright cheerful, bringing to mind the afterlife's teal waiting room in Beetlejuice. So why the hell am I here?

I have to pore over my legal files tomorrow. Since they're too copious and sensitive to keep in my cell, the property room at one institution or another has stored them in a reasonably secure location since 2002. As long as I give one week's advance notice, I can request to access them anytime I need.

At first the documents were just in a fat accordion folder. It was small enough, I could tuck it away in my footlocker, away from prying eyes. Nothing's ever truly private in prison, but we cling to the vestiges of personal space where they appear. Filled with photographs, letters, and personal records, my footlocker is like a vault that I'd like to think no one visits.

Guards searching my cell over the years have likely skimmed through bits and pieces of what I keep at hand. I think reading the particulars of prisoners' cases bores them. Cellmates, on the other hand, are often bored. More than a few probably constructed for themselves a decent outline of how I came to prison.

The sergeant leads me through the TCU, past doors with inkjet-printed signs warning, DO NOT GIVE HOT COFFEE TO OFFENDERS ON SUICIDE WATCH. No nurses or guards here make eye contact as we pass on another. When we come to the opposite side of the building, Sarge unlocks the unmarked black door to what looks like a utility closet. I spot a few cardboard boxes bearing paper labels of prisoners' names and DOC ID numbers.

"Hang out here a second, Case. I gotta find your stuff," he says before disappearing. I stand beside the damp laundry cart, debating what to do with my hands. I hear intermittent thumping from the little room, as if the sergeant's hurling boxes around just a little too zealously.

It occurs to me: this is an aspect of the legal system that no one sees, the underbelly of justice. The documents that could be key to determining my fate – whether I'll ever again eat at a restaurant, sleep in a real bed, travel, make love, fix a flat tire, peruse a wine list, fall asleep on a couch, surf the Web – these documents are kept here, in some damp spare room between a padded cell and a cart with someone's half-eaten soft taco laying on it.

The sergeant slides a navy blue Rubbermaid tote out the door. A square of paper stuck on the front bears my name. I open the container to count the folders. They've multiplied over the years. There are seven now. Each court filing I make, each Sunshine Law or Freedom of Information Act request I submit, each letter I get from a nonprofit or legal professional – they're all here, indexed and chronologically organized as best as my circumstances allow.

One of the folders has warped. I pull it out. A trail of confetti follows, a tiny ticker-tape parade in celebration of my return to legal practice. No, some pages have just been rodent-eaten. A small yellow piss stain mars the letterhead of a prominent Kansas City attorney I had to fire, whose letter expresses indignance at being let go. Obviously, the mouse sided with me in that matter.

The vaunted halls of justice are made of marble, but this humble mess is the reality. This is how people who've been wronged by the system get out of prison: we rifle though old paper and mouse piss, and we review the facts over and over and over again.

When I get back to the cell with my files, I pour the accumulated rainwater out of the lid and start to dig. Out of a folder labeled Legal Correspondence I pull a stack of letters from places with names like the Midwest Innocence Project, the Center on Wrongful Convictions, and Spence, Moriarty & Shockey. The first of these is dated November of 2002. It's hard to believe I've been chasing justice for that long, and longer.

It'll be longer yet before I'm done, but I'm nowhere near giving up. My fingertips are dry from shuffling paper. My back aches from digging through this tote. I feel closer to freedom now than I did yesterday, and that's no small thing.


  1. Glad they FINALLY stopped playing around

  2. The word "freedom" becomes larger, more in focus each day. I Love that!

  3. I really hope you get to do all the things mentioned here and more really soon.


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.