29 December, 2023


At Crossroads, the prison in Cameron, Missouri, where I spent almost seventeen years, the residents made a kind of hooting woop-woop sound to alert people in the wing when a guard or caseworker was doing a security walkthrough. The prisoners in question might as well have been telling everyone, "Hide your tattoo gear! Fan away that smoke! Pretend you weren't just masturbating!"

The staff hated it. Not that they rely on secrecy or stealth to carry out their daily duties, but those siren-esque noises kept guards from making busts. The way the staff viewed it, warning wing residents that the cops were on the move made you an accomplice to their wrongdoing. Thus why the head of the last Crossroads housing unit I lived in threatened a conduct violation to anyone who issued a "wing alert." This was nearly impossible to enforce and stopped absolutely no one from whoop-whooping.

I've been at ERDCC since the 2018 Crossroads riot, and while many things are very different here in Bonne Terre, wing alerts are still a staple of daily life. No one makes siren noises, though. Here they shout, "Twelve!" In the years before I came through this facility's gates, the preferred alert, at least in the honor dorm, was to yell, "Microwave!" The ruse, of course, lay in the plausibility of someone having forgotten a cup or bowl they'd been warming up. Therefore, the implicit hope was that the guard doing a walkthrough wouldn't be tipped off to the malfeasance that was possibly afoot in the wing. Pretty slick. But at some point, the cops caught on — big surprise — and a new wing alert had to be invented. How they settled on "twelve," I'd love to know. No one seems able to tell me definitively. My cellmate, Bob, suggests that it may have arisen from the old TV series Adam 12. When he was living in a different housing unit, the standard call was "microwave." By the time he moved to this house, a couple of years later, "twelve" was already in effect. It confused him then, and its origins continue to elude. Stranger still, the institution staff are well aware of what it means and why residents shout it when a guard comes through, yet they seem not only unconcerned about it but to actively encourage its use. Some take it upon themselves to announce their own entry. Others make it a joke, treating it like call and response, signifying that they're not coming in to cause a stir: "Twelve!" "Eleven! I'm just collecting a paycheck, guys." Still other guards, those with an elevated level of self-importance, add rather than subtract, a math game to signify that they aren't messing around: "Twelve!" "Twelve, nothin'! I'm thirteen, assholes!" I don't know quite which of these approaches I like less. It's hard to appreciate someone who's puffed up with a frankly exaggerated sense of their own authority, but it can also be tricky to respect someone who doesn't take their work seriously. In twenty-two years of being locked up, I've never jumped the chow line for a second helping of food, never gotten a tattoo, never had a sexual encounter with another person, and never issued a wing alert. Not that I actively oppose wing alerts, I just consider them part of prison life, which I'm mindful about not getting too involved with. If I'm being honest, though, I do think they've recently got a little out of hand. As though it wasn't enough for them to shout "Twelve!" every time a guard opens the wing door, a couple of overeager watchdogs have taken it upon themselves to add a kind of early-warning system to their wing alert practice. Now they even sound an alert when they see a guard head into the wing adjacent to ours. "Twelve going into A-Wing!" is a call I hear way more often than I'd prefer. A lot of the time, A-Wing visits are exactly that: visits to A-Wing, starting and ending over there. In certain settings, these A-Wing alerts in B-Wing would be consiered false alarms, something that, if repeatedly committed, would be reprimanded or even punished.
I like to think that I wouldn't mind so much if I knew what "twelve" meant, but I'm pretty sure that's bullshit I tell myself because I want permission to complain about the unnecessary noise.

21 December, 2023

Two Books I Read This Fall

Hit with a full load of responsibility in September, when I was unexpectedly appointed team leader at my job, I really didn't expect to have enough energy for much leisure reading this season. Too often I come in from work, make a large cup of coffee, and open a book, only for my eyelids to start dropping after a few pages. Where did I find a special reserve of oomph to concentrate on two decent-sized works of fiction? Sometimes I amaze myself.

In September I started the fantastical, darkly inclined fiction of China Miéville. I've read several of his novels before this. They all feature something gruesome, at least one grim aspect that forces readers to take stock and, as though standing at the mouth of a poorly lit alley, to ask themselves, "Is this really where I want to go?" With Miéville, one proceeds at one's own risk.

There are alleys aplenty in Looking for Jake, Miéville's story collection from 2003. We find literal dark alleys in "Reports of Certain Events Around London," his captivating story in which a narrator named China Miéville learns of a secret society devoted to finding and studying feral streets, which move from place to place, roaming wild and free in the world. It's a mind-bending notion that I think only Miéville could've dreamed up. Here, too, are stories about temporal rifts, punitive surgery, the ugly lives of witches' familiars, and children's ball pits that just happen to be haunted. How could I not love this stuff? Unfortunately, I found The Buried Giant: A Novel, by Nobel Prize- and Booker Award-winning Kazuo Ishiguro, less lovable. I didn't think I had any preconceived ideas when I picked it up, but apparently Ishiguro's previous success with breathtaking books like The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go subconsciously set me up for something greater. This is always a danger when reading the work of a writer you believe can do no wrong.
Arthurian legend meets contemporary ambiguity in this one, set a few short years after a war between the Britons and the Saxons. An aging couple leave home to reunite with their estranged adult son in a faraway village. The whole land seems afflicted by a kind of amnesia — a fog, they call it — rumored to be caused by an old she-dragon. The doting couple don't even clearly remember their own years together, but as their journey unfolds, memories threaten to surface and expose transgressions from their past. Along the way are ogres, hellhounds, dragons, and a creaky Knight of the Round Table, but the story wears its elements of high fantasy lightly. So much here seems just out of reach. The Buried Giant is a good book by a great writer — the one black mark against it.

15 December, 2023

Prison Pizza Party

We had been saddled with a tedious task of some enormity. When I say "we" I mean my tirelessly toiling compatriots at XSTREAM, and when I say "enormity" I'm talking about capturing more than half a million freeze-frame images from movies and TV series in our extensive library of media. Nobody wanted to do this now. Some questioned the necessity of doing it at all. Group morale made a small splashing sound as it landed in the toilet.

The images in question are used by our in-house TV channels, which my coworkers and I maintain for the prison. How the channels work is, one block of programming a movie, say, or up to three hours of a specific series plays on repeat for twenty-four hours before changing to something else. Everything we show starts on the hour. During dead time between showings, the channel displays a description of the next scheduled media, along with previews (if we have them) and snapshots that give viewers some idea of what they're about to see. It was those snapshots that needed to be taken. We had them already, mind you. Unfortunately, for reasons unknowable, the man who built most of our database wasn't aesthetically inclined. He made some ugly stuff. Rather than find a solution to a confounding display issue he was having, he designed our system to only accept images with a weird aspect ratio, all squished and funky-looking. Snapshots were taken at that weirdly crushed size for years. In the interest of improving the system, our resident code guru proposed that we correct that ugliness. Although I objected stridently and with much profanity, the idea was deemed actionable. Even for us ten diligent people, taking over 500,000 was going to take a while. The task was slow going. When we lost two men to unrelated and somewhat complex circumstances, it got even more daunting. Eight of us remained. Morale flagged even more. Something had to be done. After crunching some numbers to determine a feasible outcome, I proposed food. "I'm imposing a target date," I told the team in an impromptu meeting. "If everyone finishes their snaps list before close-of-business that day, I'll treat you all to a pizza party." It was a goal that'd require speed and dedication, but based on average per-movie completion times, it was doable. "What if only I finish my snaps?" asked Kenny, ever ready with a quip. "Will you throw me a pizza party?" "No deal. It's all or nothing. Now get to snappin'." And snap they did. Aaron finished his list first, then Rodney, then Diego. As the days dwindled and the target date drew nearer, the three of them saw the other guys struggling to meet their daily goals and stepped in to accept some of the burden. They did this (as far as I could tell) without complaint or expectation of being paid back, but just because it's what teammates do. They took snaps all the way until the evening of the target date, but they made the goal. Making pizza for ten prisoners five of them serious pepperoni fans, two of them Muslim is trickier than it ought to be. I like to make my crust by adding a small amount of water to heavily seasoned breadcrumbs, but the canteen only sells one loaf of bread per person, per week. Thus, I had to wheel and deal. A neighbor bought me a loaf in exchange for a box of snack crackers. Someone else in my wing gave me a loaf and a package of pepperoni for a pouch of shredded beef that I had on hand. My cellmate supplied me with summer sausage and olives, both of which were sold out in the canteen last week. On the day of the party, I prepped for three hours at my desk, shredding two and a half pounds of mozzarella and three loaves of wheat bread while watching The Mandolorian Season Three. After kneading sufficient water into the breadcrumbs, I tore two small trash bags along their seams and smashed dough into a pair of flat rectangles on them. I squirted pizza sauce from bottles and spread it thick. Then came the toppings: copious amounts of cheese on both, pepperoni and olives on one, ground beef and summer sausage on the other. "Damn, Byron," said Twon, taking in the sight of my five square feet of food. "You're putting in work!" I waved it away. "It's just my way of thanking you all for yours."
Josh brought sodas. We dug in. It wasn't much, but in the days since eating that pizza together, everybody has seemed more cheerful at work. Not having an insane schedule of repetitious on-the-job nonsense to deal with probably helps, too.

05 December, 2023

Back in Court, Back in the News

Before yesterday, the last media interview I did was with a podcaster, ten years ago, on the subject of my then-newly published book, The Pariah's Syntax (from which this blog takes its name). Then Monday rolled around, and I gave another.

Kansas City Star journalist Katie Moore got me on the phone to talk about the filing of a long-awaited motion by my lawyers, who've been working on the details of this 130-something-page document for months. In the motion they lay out evidence of the fraud that the Jackson County Prosecutors Office committed in order convict me of a murder that probably never happened, the 1997 death of my friend Anastasia WitbolsFeugen. We show how the state withheld evidence, conspired to falsify documents, suborned perjury, and more all to close a case that authorities felt had remained open for too long.
Ms. Moore had questions to ask about the facts of the case, of course. It might sound weird, but these feel secondary to the reality of my imprisonment. The narrative of my case has been related again and again, in story after story, and seems at this point to have lost a lot of its former import. 22 October, 1997, exists in a past that's now over half of my lifetime away, so forgive me for feeling somewhat detached from it. Nevertheless, I trudged though yet another recitation of the facts. Where things got tough was in talking about my friends Anastasia and Justin, both of whom I lost in such a sudden, ugly way. My voice broke unexpectedly as I remembered them. My throat tightened. It's been so long, yet I still consider the months that I squandered in the company of those two kids as being among the happiest of my otherwise difficult teenage years. "Are you okay, Byron?" one of my lawyers asked. I wasn't sure then; I'm not sure now.
Ms. Moore's story was published today. More importantly, my lawyers also filed their motion. At the time of this writing, I haven't read either one. I can't fathom the most likely outcome of either, but you can find the former online at kcstar.com.