22 February, 2024

A New Hope

A motion to undo my wrongful conviction was filed in the Missouri Court of Appeals in December. Katie Moore, the reporter for The Kansas City Star who interviewed me for her article about the filing, wanted to know how it felt to have my case back in court for the first time in thirteen years. Was I hopeful, she wanted to know.

I'd begun the interview feeling prepared to answer any question she asked about my case. That question, though, caught me by surprise. Was I hopeful?

For a stretch of recent history, having hope has been considered a blessing. Philosophers and theologians in our modern age tend to believe that hope is a great virtue. But older cultures had a different view. The ancient Greeks, for instance, considered hope an especially nasty flavor of self-deception, a corrupting evil. That age-old story about Pandora opening the box containing all the world's woes? (It was actually a jar, not a box, but whatever.) Hope was in there, unloosed upon the earth thanks to Pandora's curiosity, to humanity's great torment. An Italian proverb holds that a person who "lives by hope will die by despair." Referencing this, Addison wrote, "If we hope for what we are not likely to possess, we act and think in vain, and make life a greater dream and shadow than it really is." Although a young Nietzsche wasn't too keen on hope, either, he did come around in his later years. By the end of his essay on the ultimate futility of life, The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus accepted hope, but only begrudgingly. The biblical proverb about hope deferred could provide the basis to an argument against hope. A comparable notion can be found in Buddhist teachings, which hold that wishing circumstances be otherwise ignores reality, the opposite of an enlightened mindset. Although there's been a general shift toward the line that hope is a good thing, it's not without detractors. There's always a cynic somewhere. I know because I used to be one. "Byron the Black-Hearted, Dark Cliffs upon Which the Waves of Hope Break," one clever friend dubbed me. I'll just say, you don't get that kind of moniker bestowed on you for being fun at parties. If that was then, what am I now? I want out of prison, of course, but I no longer feel desperate for that outcome. It's been so long since I had a fighting chance at freedom. Since my lawyers' filed our motion to the court, a chance has presented itself. I feel like a dog with a grape in its mouth
Is it food or is it a toy? and I don't really know what to do. The poet Marianne Moore wrote, "Hope isn't hope until all grounds to hope have vanished." (I've probably quoted that line on this blog before; what can I say except I like it that much?) I don't know what Moore intended by it, exactly, but her line nevertheless makes sense to me. You can't truly know hope until you've stared into the abyss which, as Nietzsche famously wrote, stares also back into you then continued moving forward anyway.
Right now, I'm just moving.

16 February, 2024

Open Door Policy

Twenty-five years ago, whenever I ventured out of my house in suburban Kansas, there was a good chance that I left the door unlocked. This wasn't forgetfulness; this was me deliberately skipping what I considered an unnecessary activity. 

Yes, I'd been burglarized before. Twice. When I was twelve, someone broke into that same house and stole several household electronic items — a stereo receiver, two TVs, and some other stuff I don't remember anymore. Four or five years before that, someone burgled the family vehicle at the height of New Orleans' Mardi Gras festivities, while we were in Louisiana on a road trip.

Thus I was not unaware of the potential for theft, but those losses both took place in spite of locked doors. If a deadbolt or a car door latch didn't guarantee that my belongings stayed mine, then there didn't seem to be the same level of urgency to lock up tight before leaving it unattended.

Less logically, though, I just didn't feel unsafe. At no point in my life have I actively worried about the security of my home. That continues today, in what you might think is the least likely of places.

In this level-five prison populated by people who've robbed and stolen, abused and even murdered, I leave my cell door unsecured far more often than I lock it.

I currently live in the cell at the farthermost end of my wing, past where the guards stationed in the control center usually look. It's a prime location for an illicit entry, if anyone felt so inclined. In the past two and a half years, however, I've gone out for hours-long recreation periods, for meals, and for work — all without locking my cell door — and I've never had a problem.

For all the talk you hear about the cutthroat nature of prison, it's not all dog-eat-dog. Pockets of genuine care and trust can be found. To the extent that I'm known by my fellow prisoners, I'm generally well regarded and respected. I'm greeted with smiles and waves around the institution, and even get an occasional hug at work. This is not what one expects in maximum security, and I can't say whether my reputation has much to do with the security of my unlocked cell. All I know is that I don't worry about some scoundrel coming in to steal my radio, filch some coffee, or pilfer through my cellmate's prodigious supply of canteen food.

Contrary to catastrophists' claims that the world today is more dangerous and iniquitous than ever, I believe the evidence that we (at least in the United States and most Western countries) are actually safer now than anyone in recorded history.

Think about it. You can travel to a nearby city without highwaymen trying to kill you for your clothes. You can walk into a bar relatively unconcerned about bandits or pickpockets. And you can walk the streets at night with a confidence born of having a portable communication and tracking device — your smartphone — in your grasp, at the ready, in the event that anything iffy transpires.

I basically live with seventy-one casual acquaintances and strangers, each with a documented history of criminal behavior, yet even when I'm gone my door is more often open than not. Am I crazy?

02 February, 2024


The view out my cell window isn't very good, but I don't especially mind. There are good views and there are bad ones, and for as many terrible ones as I've had, the decent ones outnumber them. It's surprising how much variety exists in views from the thirty or so cells I've occupied over these twenty-two years. The cell I sleep in now has nowhere near the worst.

The window faces mostly westward. It consists of two panes, side by side, each of which is four inches wide and about four feet high. Some kind of oily-looking residue on the outside blurs the view. Because three autumns' worth of rains have been unable to clear it, I assume it'll be stuck there forever.

As for what's immediately outside, another housing unit sits fifty feet away, on the other side of a little quadrangle of grass. Birds congregate in the greenery and on the roof of the other house. Sometimes, if I'm very, very fortunate, one of them — usually a starling, either the most curious or the vainest of the local avian species — will land on the ledge and admire itself awhile before flying away.

There's not much, other than the birds, to appreciate about this perspective. The roof of the neighboring house is too high and wide to see a horizon at sunset — or at any other time. Regardless, several high, blinding lights that stand on the yard outshine any stars that I suspect still fleck the night sky. One cellmate called these lights "UFOs" for the way they shine in your face while you're trying to watch TV or sleep. I just switched the end of the bunk on which I lay my head. Problem solved! Looking to the left out the window, I can see a twenty-foot-wide stretch of the prison yard, including part of the pavilion that used to shelter weight equipment (before that was removed for safety concerns). Any part of the yard that might be useful to see — to gather situational intel, such as whether or not mealtimes have started, or if the yard is closed — is concealed by another wing of my housing unit. The purpose of windows here is to allow in some natural light, and nothing more, so I'm grateful for what I have. Federal laws dictate how much daylight prisoners must have access to. There's probably some statute, somewhere on the books, that gives the minimum required dimensions for prison cell windows. I guarantee that no such rule for scenery exists. I'm lucky to feel no particular yen for pretty views. Before prison, I had a couple of apartments with windows that faced red brick walls and parking lots. It wasn't a big deal, even back then. Is something the matter with me, that I'm not desperate for novelty? On the wall of my cell hangs a small framed photo of a Buddhist monk. At this point, the guy's been sitting in meditation by that lake for years. At work, I haven't changed my computer wallpaper since 2021. Longfellow wrote, "In character, in manner, in style, in all things the supreme excellence is simplicity."
Asked what color I'd paint my cell if given the option, I say bone white.