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Life Inside

The Surprisingly Nomadic Lives of Prisoners

“We live like hermit crabs, schlepping our stuff here and there, taking up a new shell for a while then moving on.”

I've been living in cells of one kind or another since 2001. I was 22 when authorities threw me into the county jail to await trial for first-degree murder. A mattress on the day room floor, with zero space for peace or privacy, was initially my space. To write, I had to balance notepads on my lap. To sleep, when frayed nerves allowed it, I had to plug my ears with moistened toilet paper wads. To answer nature's call, I had to use one of two exposed toilets mounted so closely together that someone on the other one could've held my hand.

Anxiety and confusion about my circumstances were bad enough, but the unfiltered clamor and bustle of 20-some other detainees brought me to the edge of a breakdown. Then someone left and a guard told me to take the vacant one-man cell. That grimy cinder-block space, scarcely wide enough to spread out my arms in any given direction, felt like a refuge.

There was a bed with a crinkly tarp mattress. A deep metal wall shelf served as a desk. A little round seat was bolted to the floor. Calcium streaked the stainless-steel toilet. There was filth everywhere. The always-on overhead light was dimmed by toilet paper someone had papier-mâchéd over it. Food, plus who knows what else, had dripped down the walls and dried. Even so, after sweeping it out with the palms of my hands (and thoroughly washing them afterward), I welcomed the cell's relative quiet and solitude.

Eventually, a jury sentenced me to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole—and my first cellmate. The cells at Crossroads Correctional Center were larger than expected, with bunk beds and porcelain commodes and sinks, but sharing a few dozen square feet of space with another human, even under the best of circumstances, can be trying.

The first few cellmates in the long string I've had were confusing, threatening, obnoxious and disgusting, respectively. "Roach" greeted me with a joke about my size. “Thin as a coon-prick toothpick" was a backwoods euphemism I had to ask be explained. I also didn't care for his sloppiness, scattering cigarette ashes wherever they fell, or that he rarely showered, even after an afternoon at the weight pile, sweating like a plow horse in July. By the time he got around to preaching the Aryan Brotherhood stuff, I was ready for one of us to go.

Later on, whenever I was fortunate enough to be locked in with an acceptably clean, considerate cellmate, he or I would soon be moved out against our wishes, almost always unexpectedly. I've been fortunate to find and keep a good cellmate through six months and two cell moves. Hopper and I have nothing at all in common, but he bathes and keeps his space tidy. Moreover, he considers the effects of his actions on others, a trait that's exceedingly rare in the me-before-you environment of prison. What we lack in common ground is pretty much irrelevant; we keep day-to-day routines that dovetail well with one another—so what if he likes to make inappropriate gay jokes a little too often?

The nomadic aspect of prison life isn't generally seen on TV dramas or movies about "the big house." Most people, when they think about it at all, assume that cellmates are often stuck together for decades, in a pact of camaraderie born of shared circumstances. On the contrary, even the best buddies don't usually stay together for long. We live like hermit crabs, schlepping our stuff here and there, taking up a new shell for a while, when we're told to, then moving on. In nearly two decades down, I've only been able to keep two cellmates for more than a few months. Most of these moves happened because of how prison administrators perceive their facility's population. To them, we're not people trying to live with and around each other, we're items in a warehouse, moved according to spatial and categorical requirements. As a result, anyone's subject to be moved anywhere, at any time.

Days after a major riot broke out at Crossroads last year, even though the 70-something perpetrators were immediately captured and dealt with, more than 100 others were awakened at 4:30 a.m. and told to pack our property for transfer. Where to? That wasn't for us to know until we got there. I wound up on the opposite side of Missouri, 300 miles from my hometown, my mother and the friends who visited me so often. Some of us who were transferred that morning ended up in facilities even farther from loved ones. None of us had done anything wrong. Many of us had been residents of Crossroads' honor dorm, without any conduct violations in years. It didn't matter.

I've already had five different cell assignments since my transfer to Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center nine months ago. The latest move took place 20 days after the previous one. A guy just can't get settled.

It was my naive early belief that the courts would see the truth and quickly overturn my wrongful conviction. To let myself get comfortable would've felt like acceptance of fate's cruel hand, so I avoided buying the few luxury items the prison allowed, such as boomboxes, crockpots and mail ordered clothing. Even food from the canteen was a privilege I wouldn't often let myself indulge in. My mother, my friends—their money paid for my meager creature comforts, and I hated spending it.

Over the next decade and a half, I softened somewhat. I've learned that the secret to coping with close cohabitation rests in maintaining a balance between coziness and minimalism, in arranging and appointing my tiny space comfortably, without letting myself get weighed down with stuff. A couple of pictures on the wall and a tidily made bed are my idea of a good cell. I keep personal photos in my album, for privacy reasons, and artwork or scenic photography on my walls. My books, CDs, paperwork, drawing supplies and unopened hygiene items stay stowed in my footlocker until I'm ready to use them. Clutter is anathema. An organized space makes for an organized mind.

The hoarders who amass collections of rubber bands, baggies, cardboard, wires and the like have a rougher go of prison. I guess they're trying to shore themselves up against any contingency. In reality they've just attached themselves to "nuisance contraband" that any guard could confiscate in a random search. I prefer traveling light, with most of my stuff kept already stowed, because you never know when a perfectly agreeable cell assignment will end.

Byron Case, 40, is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for first-degree murder at Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Missouri. His trial has been the subject of multiple investigations. He frequently publishes short stories and poems in literary journals, anthologies, and on his blog

The Missouri Department of Corrections did not respond to a request for comment on prisoner relocations following riots and other incidents.