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Pen Pals

RIP Bert Burykill, Longtime VICE Prison Correspondent

A look back at his life and work.

Bert Burykill as a kid

Last week, the man VICE readers knew as Bert Burykill, the pseudonymous author of the Pen Pals column, died from injuries sustained in a car accident. He was 33.

Bert’s death was a freak accident, a tragic and sudden end to a life that, for the past decade, had been spent either in parole or behind bars. It was only a couple months ago that he became “free of the government’s fucking shackles,” as he put it in his final column, and he was finally getting his life back on track: He had gotten engaged to his girlfriend and planned to use his newfound freedom to travel outside the country for the first time since his initial arrest.


In a long magazine story on his life behind bars, Bert wrote about his fairly normal middle-class upbringing – he played hockey, attended prep schools and went to Skidmore College, where, as many kids do, he dealt drugs as a side job. His life changed in 2004, when he was arrested and, thanks to the harsh Rockefeller Drug Laws (which have since been repealed), faced a potential 12 to 25 years in prison; he wound up pleading out to a reduced sentence of three to nine years. Thanks to the hyper-vigilant criminal justice system and his own occasional missteps, Bert spent more than a quarter of his life under some kind of government supervision, even though he never committed a violent crime.

For the past few years, I’ve had the pleasure of being Bert’s editor. I met him first through the letters he sent me from prison and then in person when he finally got out. Whatever stereotypes you have about someone who had been in prison for drug dealing, Bert fell into none of them. I found him to be disarmingly goofy, soft-spoken and earnest – a grown-up slacker with a heart of gold who was trying to figure out how to navigate his post-prison life.

He had one big thing going for him: He was hilarious. The voice he wrote in was a profane stream-of-consciousness mashup of invented slang, musical references, sexual daydreams, brutally honest self-reflection and rage at the system he found himself stuck in. It was often very funny, sometimes incomprehensible, and occasionally hit on emotional truth.


A documentary about Bert's life VICE made in 2013

In the past several years, there’s been an explosion of writing about the prison-industrial complex. Countless academics, activists and journalists have documented the inhumane conditions inmates live under, the racist policies that fill incarceration facilities with poor black and brown men, and the urgent need for massive structural reform. Bert’s writing occasionally touched on topics also covered by the anti-prison discourse, but he was really separate from all that. His best pieces were intensely personal accounts of his time in jails and medium-security prisons, stories that could be funny or tragic or cruel but were rarely political – they were frequently about not the overarching architecture of the system but about his own feelings, which could swing from hope to confidence to self-pity to rage to regret in the span of a few sentences. The prison-industrial complex he inhabited was a brutal, bad place, but it was also funny and boring and absurd.

I think that if he had one day managed to sit down and wrangle the pages and pages he had written in prison into some kind of order, he could have one day produced a humane, hilarious novel, something along the lines of A Fan’s Notes but written about and inside prison. I’m sad that he’s gone; I’m sorry we’ll never get to read that book.

“I feel like a moron 'cause I didn’t get more accomplished,” he once wrote of his time in prison. “I penned dozens of songs and wrote enough to fill up a couple books, but in the outside world I’ve failed to translate what I created in there into something worthy.”


I know he didn’t get as much accomplished as he would have were he given more time, but he left a lot behind, and much of it was, as he’d say, pretty damn bonerable. A sampling of it is below. RIP buddy, you will be missed.

On doing time in the (now-defunct) Shock boot camp program:
“I remember largely being concerned with the sad fact that my girlfriend, too ashamed to give me a proper dismissal, stopped visiting and writing me after only three or four months. Later, I received a letter from a friend describing how he walked in on her slutting it up with a dude I thought was a lowlife who probably had a case of explosive herpes. It doesn’t seem as devastating today, but for three or four months I spent at least ten hours a day in a fury over this broad. I couldn’t get it out of my head. All my plans down the drain – a for-the-most-part-excellent two-year romance, my first true love, was now unravelling while I was powerless in prison. Shock ruined a lot of relationships. We were only allowed ten minutes of phone time twice a month, whereas in a normal jail you can pretty much talk whenever the phones are free. All I had was a pen and paper. The three or four letters a week my baby got from me definitely would’ve made her cry – but I still don’t know whether she ever bothered to read them.”
-From “Don't Get Caught”

One of Bert's prison ID cards

On what his problem is:
“I’ve always suffered from an unfortunate condition that my father used to call ‘the Superman Bulletproof’ problem, meaning I never think I’ll get caught. I reckon he might have suffered from something similar once upon a time but snapped out of it and grew up, while I languish. I think part of the reason my father has always loved me unconditionally through my dozens of MEGAHUGE fuckups is that he kinda liked having a tough kid with an ‘I don’t give a fuck’ attitude, but hot damn have the positive parts of that attribute been obliterated by the overwhelming pain it has caused.”
-From “Pissin’ Out the Pain”


On making himself pretty:
“In prison, my face is very important. It must look very mean and hard, but also surprisingly intelligent. Therefore, I tweeze my whole face, but also use a mayonnaise mask bedazzled with a ketchup splash. The egg whites in mayo activate positive proteins to make me look fierce while ketchup secretes sugars that extract poisons, which culminates in the look of a sweet and weathered young gentile who’s ready to murder whoever for a single rollie.”
-From “Jailhouse Grooming”

On gambling:
“I saw my buddy Gary the Retard get busted and do three months in the box for simply running a friendly poker game. He had poker chips and a master sheet with how much money everyone owed, which meant he got time for orchestrating a gambling ring or some dumb shit. COs gamble right in front of us all day and night too, so lots of them let us do our thing, but certain COs solely exist to fuck with an inmate’s already shitty day. I always had to keep everything stashed someplace safe out of my cube just in case a dickhead CO decided to do a random search. It makes me puke to remember the look in some of these hypocritical fucker’s eyes when they find some ‘contraband.’”
-From “Getting $$ in the Clink Clink”

On Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York:

-From “Prisons I’ve Known and Yelped”

On his diet:
“Eventually, it got to the point that canned salmon almost made me puke, but that was after ingesting maybe 80 to 100 cans of the funk. The wild Alaskan was really the healthiest thing I could find at the commissary. Canned octopus just tastes good and only costs 80 cents for a can. The jail’s brand was from Morocco, so I was feelin’ it like feelin’ tits. Occasionally I foxed with tuna, mackerel, clams, oysters, sardines, or whatever other canned shit appeared before me, but my go-to grubs for almost two years were salmon and octopus. I don’t want to eat those at all now, unless it’s some super mega-bone grilled octopus from a fancy-pants Mediterranean restaurant.”
-From “Cooking in the Cooler”


On the job he once had burying inmates who had died in prison:
“The coffins were shoddily made pine boxes with broomstick pieces that served as handles. We carried them out of the shack and placed them next to their holes, then, with two men on each side, lifted them into their graves. I wish I could say we were cracking jokes and taking it lightly, but really the funny thing was that the only person who showed up to perform the last rites for the dead (a Muslim, a Jew, and two Christians) was an imam. One alpha-dog inmate thought it necessary to chime in with his inane two cents and said, basically, ‘Bless these men in the next life,’ like that really meant anything.”
-From “Burying the Dead and Unloved”

On the military:
“While me and some of my boys walked circles around the yard, we used to romanticize the days when criminals got arrested and were offered the chance to serve in the military rather than go to jail. I would have joined the military in a heartbeat if I were allowed to. I truly don’t understand why that option isn’t available for nonviolent offenders. All I ever did was fuck with drugs, so let me join the military and drug test me so you know I’m clean, and then I’ll be a normal soldier. I’ve had dreams about this before, and I’m quite sure I woulda been one monster asset to our first-world security. My name would be MadDog Burykill and I would eviscerate the bad guys with unadulterated rage. VIOLENCE! VIOLENCE! VIOLENCE! It’s what criminals do best, right?”
-From “Uncle Jamm Wants Yous!”


A drawing of Bert in prison

On Christmas:
“There are a bunch of inmates who love to celebrate Xmas faux-lavishly and embrace their fellow convicts with brotherly love to the max. They use the holiday as an excuse to have fun, basically, and I reckon that's OK, it just makes me miss the outside more. They try to make a fancy Xmas dinner in the microwave at 4 AM so they don't have to fight for the microwave during the day. Maybe they'll take drugs, or drink a specially prepared batch of holiday hooch, whereas I just think about getting free.”
-From “Christmas in the Can”

On the guys who act insane in prison:
“I empathize deeply with guys I meet in the system who have nothing, and it’s not hard to understand why they behave like lunatics who are ready to die with absolutely nothing to lose. What’s more difficult to comprehend is why someone like me, who has everything to gain and so much to lose, would ever play with his freedom. That’s why a lot of heads would observe me from afar assuming I suffer from some severe debilitating mental illness, and be like, ‘Get that boy some Ritalin, Prozac, Lithium, Trazodone, Levitra Cocktail Sauce, STAT!’ But I’m too crazy to even know if I’m crazy.”
-From “Prison Makes You Crazy”

On crackheads, a.k.a. “thirstbuckets”:
“I think lots of people who don’t have much in the real world try to hold on to everything they can when they get locked up. Sometimes I’ll give a thirstbucket some cornbread off my food tray and then he’ll turn around and sell it or trade it. They call this a hustle. Or they’ll sit by the garbage collecting everyone’s leftovers and then try to cook later by combining resources with someone with real food. That’s just the way some people survive. Even if it’s cheap, petty, greedy, and pathetic it’s an accepted way of life in the stinkin’ clink-clink.”
-From “Thirstbuckets”


A portrait of Bert taken while he was in prison

On going to rehab:
“When I got into the 12-step program, there were a lot of things that bugged me. The religious aspect rubbed me the wrong way, and the group’s doctrine goes back to 1939, which made it seem seriously dated. Basically, you’re supposed to relinquish your will and give yourself fully to Him. I can’t tell you how many meetings were completely hijacked by some chick who was pissed off about being sober and sat in the circle for an hour yelling about how it’s sexist that she had to succumb to Him. ‘Who says God is a man? You misogynist-spoke-in-the-wheel-of-patriarchy motherfucker!’ Then some smarmy douche-lick (me, for instance) would say, ‘Hold up. How do we even know there’s a God, and why would He care if we’re doing drugs or not?’ Then the counselor would say, ‘Fine, fine. Things have changed. It doesn’t actually have to be the Christian God. It can be anything. You just need to give yourself over to something that you think is greater than yourself. You are not God. Your higher power can be that chair over there if you want.’ Great. So lots of us ran with that one. Eventually, I settled on Johnny Law as my higher power, which was hard to argue with. No doubt the police and the prisons were more in control of my life than I was.”
-From “Drug Court Addiction 12-Step Blues”

On how most people end up in prison:
“I know that most people don’t want to think about who’s in jail, let alone the effects that mass incarceration has on its victims, but just go there for a minute… Imagine your dad was locked up for most of your life. You’d grow up poor, probably full of anger, likely in a louse-filled neighborhood with unseemly influences, and you’d have a great chance of becoming a whore or a thief or a drug dealer and following dear old Dad into jail.”
-From “Prisons Punish Families Too”


On what inmates do for entertainment:
“Our new thing right now is exploiting ignorant white guys by making them do Jackass-type shit for peanuts. This old drug addict named Jim-Bob from Peekskill (who has a tattoo of a naked broad getting a big dick up in her on his forearm) has been eating water bugs from the dirty bathroom, sniffin’ Ramen noodle seasoning packets, and boofing Atomic Fireballs then doing jumping jacks. He gets some soup or Honeybuns for his troubles and now we have some new white kid in here doing the same stuff. It’s sad because they have no dough and they just want some friends so they’ll do whatever to entertain us. It went to a new level last night when one of these honkys put Magic Shave on his eyebrows for ten Honeybuns. He’s an ugly kid anyway—he looks like a meth addict and weighs about 120 pounds. Without the eyebrows, even the COs are making fun of him, to the point where he basically hides under the covers all day. Kinda sad.”
-From “Lockup Crackup”

Another photo of Bert as a kid

On how it feels to be free:
“It’s difficult to compare getting released from prison to anything. The first time I got out was only a day after I was locked up. I remember smoking a cigarette and drinking a margarita, thinking profoundly about how blessed I was to be free. The second time I got out was after eight months inside. I was floating on air. My dick was singing, and the outside smelled like a good lovemaking suckfest. The third time I got out wasn’t so sweet. I was on work release and had to go back into jail a few hours later, but I think my scrotum still tingled slightly.”
-From “Sweet Release”

On interviewing for a job as a janitor:
“As we got my hours straight and agreed that I would be paid $8.25 an hour for the first few weeks, while it was established that I could properly mop a floor and dispose of gym members’ discarded sperm socks, the manager received an email from HR—the background check came back, and I was not fit to be a lowly fuckin’ janitor, thanks to the time I got caught with an amount of cocaine that was above the arbitrary cutoff that makes me a felon for life. The manager told me he was sorry, but absolutely nothing could be done. I was not janitor material.”
-From “The Trials of Job”

On what happened when he was out of prison and his coworkers found out he had done time:
“I kinda wish I had just told everyone at work about my past right off the bat, but some of them would’ve been freaked out so I figured it was best to keep it on the diggy-lo. In any case, they started cutting my shifts and I overheard some rude comments that made it clear they were talking shit about me behind my back. I think they assumed that since I was a convicted criminal that I was untrustworthy, because everyone except me had keys to the place.”
-From “My Search Engine Results Are Wrecking My Life”

On finally getting off parole:
“No more waiting rooms, obscenely early visits from the Man, pissing in cups, and, most importantly, I can breathe again. I’m still extremely stressed out, but at least I’m just a normal guy without a bullseye on my back. Or at least not a huge one—I’ve just got a little red flag hanging off my arm that they really have to try hard to grab. I’m not a criminal owned by the state of New York anymore.”
-From “Off Parole and Free at Last”

One of the many ways he signed his name in his letters from prison