Prison Stories

Feb 6, 2012 - by J. J. Maloney

Feb. 6, 2012

Missouri State Penitentiary

Missouri State Penitentiary

J. J. Maloney, the founder of Crime Magazine, spent 13 years in prison for a murder he committed during an armed robbery when he was 19 years old. Paroled in 1972, he went to work for The Kansas City Star as a book reviewer and became a full-time reporter the next year. The following stories are based on his prison years at “The Walls” in Jefferson City, Missouri.  Mr. Maloney died in 1999 at age 59.

by J.J. Maloney

I. A Natural Poet

He had a dog-eared sheaf of papers clutched in his hand. "You're a poet, aren't you?" he asked.

I nodded yes, but felt immediately paranoid because he made it sound like more of an accusation than a question. He was a reddish-haired kid with a puffy face and thick eyeglasses that made his eyes look watery. Between his two front teeth there was a sizeable gap.

He was a poet. He'd brought this sheaf of offerings as proof. I listened, politely, but with a lack of enthusiasm. Every prison has a hundred would-be poets.

He was different in that he had a sheaf of poems, which indicated some industriousness.  He rattled off the names of several small poetry magazines that had published his work.

I reluctantly agreed to take his work to my cell and read it and critique it. People who write are generally more interested in confirmation than criticism.

That evening, though, when I'd finished everything I considered important, I dragged the poems out and read them.  They were good – very good. They bordered on professionalism. So I read them again, and they were as good as they'd been the first time.

I sat there and stared out the bars for a while, thinking of this awkward-looking kid with the puffy face who also happened to be a good poet – a promising poet, since he was only 19 years old.

When he came back to the library the next day, I told him, "Your work is very good. Perhaps better than mine. And a lot better than mine was when I was your age."

He squirmed like a puppy. He blushed a gorgeous red and his watery eyes seemed ready to overflow. We talked for a while. He was, he said, a natural poet. The only poet he'd ever read was Robert Bly. He'd never heard of Snodgrass, Eberhart, Ransom, Pound, Eliot, Williams, Tate, Dickey, Lowell. He was not even familiar with Frost or Sandburg.

I found that depressing. I thought of the countless hours I'd spent reading other poets, reading about poetry; the hundreds and hundreds of pages of work I'd written and destroyed because it was shit.

The next several weeks I spent a lot of time digging out books for the kid to read, so that he could at least discuss poetry. I soon learned he had many tentacles – -every time I looked up from my work he would be at the counter beckoning for me. Every night I carried a fresh batch of his poems under my arm. The next day when I came to work, he'd be waiting.

Then one day just after the kid walked out of the library, Tony walked up and asked, "What have you got going with so-and-so?"

To which I could only lift my eyebrow, since his question was open to too many connotations, implications and whatnots. I kept my eyebrow arched and waited.

"He's pussy, you know," Tony said, leaning forward conspiratorially. I waited for more. (Tony was pussy himself, so I knew he wasn't expecting to shock me with this revelation.) He pointed at the four-page poem my young friend had left with me. "That one of his poems?" he asked.

I nodded.

"The kid's a plagiarist."

I stood there with a stupid smile on my face, my eyebrow still arched.

"The kid's a plagiarist," Tony repeated with a hint of malice.

I asked for confirmation. Tony returned with three other cons who worked in the same office with the kid, and they confirmed what Tony said. They'd all caught the kid copying poems from magazines and signing his name to them. The next day Tony brought me the magazines in question, and sure enough, I found every one of the kid's poems in these magazines. In some cases he had chopped up half a dozen poems and put them together to make a long poem.

I felt a curious mixture of letdown and relief. A relief not to be so badly outdone by a 19-year-old kid who didn’t bother to study poetry; a letdown to have wasted so much time critiquing plagiarized work. The real letdown was to realize that I'd been so easily had.

But there was a problem.  R.P. Dickey, editor of The Poetry Bag in Columbia, Missouri, had received some of the kid's poetry and was touting him to highly respected poets around the country as a poet of great promise.  I’d corresponded with Dickey, and he was generous toward prison poets.

It had only been a few years since a prison poet had sent some plagiarized poetry to The Atlantic Monthly, which had been printed before the plagiarism was discovered.  The poetry editor of The Atlantic had reportedly said he would never again accept poetry from a convict.

The kid had also talked about sending some of his poetry to Thorpe Menn at The Kansas City Star.

I explained to him in detail that I would break every bone in his body if he ever sent plagiarized work to Thorpe Menn.

He’d already sent some to Dickey, so that was a different problem; I needed to alert Dickey, without saying anything in a letter that would get the kid in trouble with the prison authorities.

So I wrote to Dickey, suggesting he take a hard look at the kid’s poetry before publishing it.  Dickey blew up when he got the letter, and wrote me a steaming reply to the effect I was jealous of the kid, and that I would never reach the poetic heights the kid had already reached at the age of 19.

So I told the kid to send Dickey a letter telling him the truth of what he’d done.  Apparently the kid did, because Dickey later wrote to me, although the warmth I’d felt in his earlier letters was lacking.

I tried to ignore the kid, but he kept coming back, apologizing; it seemed important to him that I like him. So I began spending a little time with him each day. Now and then he would bring me poems, saying, "I've quit that other stuff. I really did write these." Every now and then I would catch him in a new plagiarism, he would squirm and give me a dying-deer look, and I would drop the subject and wish to hell they would parole him.

1992 –The red-haired kid eventually became one of the better known prison poets in the United States.  He died in prison.  He was involved in starting at least one writer’s program in prison, so his life did achieve some meaning.  Whether or not he eventually wrote his own poetry, I have no way of knowing. 

 

II. Jaybird

 

Part One

Jaybird had spent more continuous years in prison than any other man in Missouri – 35 years.

He was 19 years old when he received a life sentence for killing a St. Louis policeman. He'd been a tough con; he tried to escape several times, and spent years in solitary confinement, including old I-hall, where they strung you up by the thumbs.

By then, he was just an old man with varicose veins, a balding head, a bulbous belly that looked a bit obscene, and he was crazy.

He wanted me to help him get out of prison. We stood there in utter seriousness, me not telling him that I had little hope to offer, since I had no way of knowing what emotional brink he was teetering on.

So I drew up a motion to vacate his sentence – a pretty good motion considering what little information was available. I couldn't rely on what he told me, but had to rely, instead, on photocopies of newspaper accounts from 1935.

After killing the policeman in St. Louis, Jaybird was fleeing across Missouri when a Missouri Highway Patrolman spotted him.  In the ensuing shootout, Jaybird was shot through the lung with a high-powered rifle.  At a local hospital, while he was awaiting surgery, and after he’d been given morphine, he told the chief of police of St. Louis City that he’d confess to killing the policeman if they’d let him see his girlfriend.  That request was granted in a hurry.

They let Jaybird see his girlfriend, and he confessed to killing the policeman.

The motion I drafted challenged the confession because he was under the influence of narcotics when he gave it.  In addition, he would be having a hearing in front of the same judge that had sentenced him to prison 33 years earlier.

It’s hard to overturn a conviction for killing a policeman.  But I sensed this judge would remember the 19-year-old boy he’d sent to prison, and would surely feel some compassion at the sight of this balding, pot-bellied, elderly convict.

They called him back to St. Louis for a hearing, but he panicked when he got there and called the whole thing off.

"I don't know," he said grinning sheepishly, the day he returned from the hearing. "My dad's 87, my brother's dead, and my mom's damn near dead. I didn't want to drag them all the way to St. Louis for nothing."

Then he licked his fingers and held them up to see which way the wind was blowing.

A few days later Jaybird received a letter from that elderly judge:  The judge had appointed an attorney to represent Jaybird in perpetuity, in case Jaybird should ever change his mind and decide to continue with the hearing.

Jaybird never did.

 

Part Two

When I first got here they had the long metal tables you see in the old prison movies. Then they put in four-man tables, and every day Jaybird ate with me – much to the relief of other convicts, since Jaybird ate with his fingers and missed his mouth a lot.

I know men who knew him when. Jaybird had been a hell of a man once – which is more than I can say for most of the men around me.

Sometimes he'd give me a look that bordered on cunning, a smile that showed a glimmer of tobacco-stained teeth.

He looked around at the younger cons, then back at me.

"They think I'm crazy, don't they?"

I shrugged. "Who gives a fuck what they think."

He grinned maniacally. "I am, you know."

Then he looked around the room – slow, deliberate. For an instant I caught a glimpse of what he must have been like before his mind betrayed him.

He chuckled softly and shoveled food into his mouth.

Crazy or not, he always kept his word and he never ran out when the going got tough.

He was of the "old school," which meant he had principles. The last time he'd been in solitary, after trying to escape, old W.P. Steinhauser, deputy warden, told Jaybird he'd let him out of solitary if he gave his word he wouldn't try to escape again. Jaybird gave his word, Steinhauser let him out, and 20 years later Jaybird was still keeping his word.

 

Part Three

Sometimes late at night, when the cellblock was silent, you could hear Jaybird crying out in his sleep, "I love you Martha, I love you!"

I never asked him about it because it was none of my business, but I think I know who Martha is.

I can only imagine what it's like to go 35 years without a woman – without love. I'd only been there 10.

After you've been in prison a year you think you know everything about it. When you've been there two years, you realize how little you'd known the year before.

You don't begin to understand prison until you've been there about five years. By then you can read people.

When you've been there 10 years you begin to understand what's going on around you. You not only know what's happening, but why it's happening, and this is when rehabilitation occurs. You not only know what's happening around you, but inside yourself. You not only understand why things happen around you, but why you do certain things.

At some point, however, and it varies from person to person, you begin to regress. People who had known him when he was younger told me that Jaybird had had a good intelligence. He was the best handicapper in the prison (a handicapper figures the odds on sports events). Jaybird had been respected by everyone, including the people who ran the prison.

Then he went crazy and got on a round-robin he would never get off of. He'd go crazy, they'd send him to Fulton for treatment, and Fulton would send him back in remission. The parole board would schedule him tentatively for parole, waiting to see if the cure were permanent. Then the prison environment, which had driven him crazy to begin with, would drive him crazy again, and he'd go back to Fulton; the parole board would drop him from consideration because he was crazy, and the whole thing would repeat itself.

It is 1989. I recently asked Donald Wyrick, former warden of the prison, if Jaybird were still there, and he said yes. There is no place to send Jaybird, he said, because he's unable to care for himself. Jaybird is now 73 years old; he has served 54 continuous years in prison.

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