Literacy helps pass the time in prison
from the Autumn 2008 issue

Prison, it may surprise you to know, is no haven for the intelligentsia. When I was first cast so unceremoniously into a maximum-security institution (the tale behind which being a long, altogether unpleasant one, totally unfit for a cheerful publication like this one), the culture shock was severe. I was a thin twenty-two-year-old, hardly a paragon of masculinity. Some would say I was an effete lad. It’s certainly true I was far more at home with the pseudo-intellectual discussions at my local coffeehole than with the unchecked barbarism of the inner-city streets.

My first cellmate, “Roach”, was from the country. Way in the country. He was also a lifetime underachiever, and prison for him was a second home. Surprisingly, he was sympathetic to my fish-out-of-water plight and readily offered his questionable advice on numerous aspects of my assimilation. Unless I bulked up quickly, he cautioned, it was inevitable some “booty bandit” would swoop down and make me his “boy” (the modern, politically correct variant of “bitch”). Bald-headed and built like a plow horse, he invited me to join him and his Aryan buddies lifting weights. Being no fan of unconsensual butt sex, I needed very little persuading.

There is safety in numbers, but that didn’t make hanging out with Roach and his crowd any easier. Since I lack not only the Midwesterner’s trademark twang but also the ability to use prison slang without sounding like a complete outsider, our vast gulf of differences expanded every time I spoke. (I still refuse to employ the verb “holler” in place of a more respectable analog, like “talk.”) They got plenty of hearty guffaws out of my unfamiliarity with that country-boy staple, the “coon prick toothpick,” and made no secret they begrudged my preference for reading quietly on my bunk over loitering with them for hours on the yard.

The fact was, they made me uncomfortable. I’d been raised by hippies in a happily non-sadist, non-racist, non-violent, granola home; I had no clue how to relate to Roach’s pals, with their relentless bigotry and horseplay. I was a lost cause, and it didn’t take long for them to dismiss me as too “book smart” for my own good. Abandoned in a threatening new environment, I won’t say I wasn’t terrfied, but then Mom always had said being different wouldn’t be easy.

Somehow I managed to avoid becoming anyone’s sex slave. After a couple of uncertain years, I even established myself something like a social network amid the 1500-man population. It took no weightlifting, though I’ll confess to cultivating facial hair as a kind of camouflage from lurking butt pirates.

The few guys with whom I’m friendly these days are mostly “old heads”—respected older inmates who have been incarcerated for long stretches of time. They have a general desire to steer clear of the drama and danger so often brought about by younger prisoners. We sometimes meet in the library, where we talk politics or discuss a book one of us has just finished. It’s a comfort that there are others here who cringe at the countless daily examples of ignorance and outright idiocy.

Language and the written word are the air I breathe. Most of my time is spent in my cell, writing letters, essays, and stories while hunched over the typewriter. I’m sure I drive my cellmate out of his mind with this incessant clack-clack-clacking, even though he’s yet to complain. As attuned as I am to matters of spelling, grammar, and usage, therefore, parsing the vernacular and noting the malaprops has come naturally. Now if only it did me some good.

All over the institution are these hand-written signs—hastily scrawled notes on 8½”x11” copier paper, bearing news that the gym is closed for the afternoon, or that a particular program has been cancelled. They’re often rife with unintended humor. In the visiting room, for example, inmates can have their photos taken with visitors, and these pictures are then printed on the spot with an inkjet printer. The printer has been on the fritz for the last couple of months, however, and photos haven’t been turning out well. To curb complaints, some anonymous staff member posted a sign:


Then there’s this prominent notice, posted in the barber shop amid all the cutesy, quasi-inspirational photocopies (surely you know the kind: the frog in the crane’s beak, clutching its predator by the throat, with the caption “Never give up!” or the saccharine tow-headed boy who proclaims he’s special because “God don’t make no junk!”):


I couldn’t say whether it’s a warning to would-be self-stylists or an admonition against barbers touching anything but the tools of their trade.

Predictably, the inmates fare no better. Not only did I once hear a guy boast that he “didn’t just fall off the tulip truck” (and thank goodness for that, as few things are worse than an injured Dutchman), a recently overheard conversation outside my door included an accusation that someone was “an obituary liar.” One can only imagine what that’s about.

A schizophrenic cellmate I once had (another story unto itself) loved doing the USA Today crossword puzzle. Then again, perhaps “doing” is something of an exaggeration. He enjoyed filling them in. After spending a few minutes exhausting the limits of his abilities on ten or fifteen clues, he would turn to me for help. Whether I had my nose in a book or was watching television was immaterial; if there were blank squares on his grid, my assistance was crucial.

He’d read off clues, one by one, giving me whatever letters he already had, and, #2 pencil poised eagerly over the page, would wait for my reply. It didn’t help matters that many of the answers he’d get on his own were wrong. Just the other day, I saw him cutting hair in the barber shop (that someone entrusts him to “use only equipment,” which included scissors, lends a little excitement to the otherwise ho-hum experience of getting a trim) and he lamented to me that his current cellmate is no help at all when it comes to puzzle-solving. I didn’t have the heart to suggest he try asking for assistance when the guy’s favorite television show wasn’t on.

That kind of selfish solicitation of my brain happens all the time, though it’s not always so intrusive. Sometimes it’s actually enjoyable. For aspiring romantics I’m sometimes called upon to play Cyrano, helping them find that just-right way of proclaiming their limitless adoration to the girl they love, “without sounding, you know, all gay and shit.” For the jailhouse attorneys I am often a proofreader of briefs. For a writer friend out there in the free world, who sends me rough manuscripts every so often, I am a copy editor. These are efforts I don’t mind so much. At least they help me stay occupied as I await good news from the courts. And that’s priceless.

Byron Case is currently incarcerated in Missouri. To learn more, visit

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