VANGUARD INCARCERATED PRESS: Why I Craved Crosswords in Prison

Photo by Ross Sneddon on Unsplash

by Keri Blakinger

In prison, getting the crossword was my favorite morning battle. Every day, the county lockup where I did time in upstate New York had three newspapers delivered, paid for by excess funds from the absurdly overpriced commissary. Those papers—all copies of the local paper, back when it still carried The New York Times crossword—were the things that sustained me.

But with eight cell blocks and four dorms to share the papers, there was no telling when my morning salvation would arrive. Sometimes, a pristine copy would plop onto the table next to breakfast. Sometimes, a dog-eared mess with missing sections would show up at 3 p.m.

It all depended on the goodwill of whatever guard was working and on the willingness of other blocks to relinquish their copies.

For the most part, papers passed from inmate to inmate with no more than a cursory glance. Most people don’t really want to read the news in jail. We didn’t need the crime blotter; if someone got arrested, we’d already be sharing a cold steel cell by the time the news rolled off the press.

And if it wasn’t the blotter, we had even less use for it. News of the outside world is just a reminder that there is an outside world, a place where everyone else is moving on and leaving you behind.

But crosswords don’t leave you behind. An “oe” is still a whirlwind in the Faroe Islands, whether or not you’re locked up. An “oie” is still the right three-letter word for a French goose. And a fancy marble is always a “taw.”

Some things in life are certain.

Even before prison, I had a long and rich history of crosswording. In ninth or tenth grade, my figure skating coach actually staged an intervention—I was coming to the rink sleep-deprived due to too much late-night crosswording. But I didn’t stop.

I have bonded with friends and best friends over 21 across. I once fell in love over 9 down, though eventually that ended in a seven-letter word for Splitsville.

After moving to Houston, I started doing crosswords cross-country by text with a friend in Ithaca, New York. They were the spot of certainty after a 1,400-mile move. A world of numbers and letters that always, in the end, fit together perfectly.

But in jail, they were more than that. They were the one thing I could get right when, clearly, I’d massively screwed up everything else. I wasn’t sure how to handle life without heroin, but I knew how to figure out the long answer on a Wednesday or catch the trick on a Thursday puzzle.

And that was a start. A place where I could begin doing things right again.

And so, every morning, I would sit down in my orange jumpsuit and pull out my pen. I would pester the guards. I would lay out my dictionary. I would make my awful powdered instant coffee and run a few laps around the cellblock. And then I would sit down. And I would wait. For the one time of the day when I had all the answers.

Republished from “Perspectives from the Cell Block: An Anthology of Prisoner Writings” – edited by Joan Parkin in collaboration with incarcerated people from Mule Creek State Prison.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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