#64 On the Inside

May 12, 2016

For years, Paul Modrowski has been writing a blog from inside a maximum security prison. Only thing is, he was arrested when he was 18 and has never seen the internet. Sruthi Pinnamaneni reaches out to him with one small question that alters the course of her next year.

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Show transcript

PJ VOGT: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m PJ Vogt.

ALEX GOLDMAN: And I’m Alex Goldman.

SRUTHI PINNAMANENI: Hey, guys.

PJ and ALEX: Sruthi Pinnamaneni.

SRUTHI: I too am here, with a story. I. . .

PJ: You have been working on a story for I think my whole life.

SRUTHI: That’s definitely what it feels like. It started off really small. It was last February. I’d been looking. . .I’d been trying to contact somebody in prison–this was for another story–and I just happened to stumble upon this thing that altered the course of my whole next year. It’s a blog by this guy named Paul Modrowski. He’s in a maximum security prison. He has a life sentence and for years he’s been keeping this blog.

PJ: Where’s the prison?

SRUTHI: The prison’s called Stateville. It’s in illinois.

PJ: What did he do?

SP: So Paul, he was linked to a murder that happened back in 1992. And on his blog, Paul says he had nothing to do with it. But it’s actually not at all the focus of the blog, which is why I found it so interesting, like. . .you know what. Let me show you the blog.

PJ: Yeah.

SRUTHI: Okay. It looks very unpolished. Right?

PJ: It’s on Blogspot, which is, like, and it looks like a Blogspot blog. Like, this was made using a template

SRUTHI: Right and each one of these posts is, like, super long. This guy. . .

PJ: Oh, my God.

SRUTHI: . . .likes to write.

SRUTHI: Yeah that’s just one post. And, here’s the whole table of contents. It’s like: “Ebola,” “The NFL Under Siege,” “The Fireworks Show,” “Simple Pleasantries,” “Malaysia Flight 17”. . .

PJ: He’s a blogger!

SRUTHI: “Potatoes and Paranoia,” “Cassette Tapes.” Yeah, his range is, is pretty astonishing.

ALEX: OK, so how does a person in maximum security prison write a blog? I mean I don’t. . .they don’t have internet, do they?

SRUTHI: No. The, the prison that Paul is in doesn’t allow any of its inmates to access to the internet. So, no email, no Facebook, nothing. So that’s actually the first thing that interested me about Paul, the fact that he was able to make this blog from a place where he couldn’t see, or use the internet. And so it turns out that he uses this arcane piece of technology called: his mother

KALILA HOLT: Hi Linda!

LINDA MODROWSKI: Come on in.

KALILA: Thank you.

LINDA: Can I get you something, coffee something?

SRUTHI: This is Paul’s mom, Linda Modrowski. I sent producer Kalila Holt to meet her in her home in the Chicago suburbs.

LINDA: It’s the only light bulb I got here.

KALILA: Uh huh.

LINDA: Okay.

KALILA: Is this lava lamp Paul’s lavalamp?

LINDA: Yeah.

SRUTHI: Linda is a 67-year-old retired accountant. And she lives in this stately white brick house with her husband. Kalila said it was just filled with Paul.

LINDA: You know Paul’s underwear and stuff are still here. I bought him some new things thinkin’ he’d be comin’ home for sure.

KALILA: Are these all his books?

LINDA: Yup.

KALILA: I like that it’s like a book about Hitler and then Danielle Steele book.

LINDA: Yeah.

KALILA: Like diverse range.

LINDA: Right, right. . .

SRUTHI: Paul was arrested right after he turned 18. That was 23 years ago. So, Linda took Kalila to this old PC that she has in her office.

LINDA: I’m a internet addict.

KALILA: Yeah, what do you like to do on the internet?

LINDA: Oh, I don’t want to call it gambling–I’m real into the stock market. So I’m watching the stock exchange constantly. Oh my God. I invested in this one. And it’s going down and, you know, it’s addictive.

SRUTHI: And it’s right here, at this computer, this old PC, where Paul’s entire blog has been published.

LINDA: Minimize.

SRUTHI: Here’s the way it works. Paul handwrites every single post. He does it very carefully without any mistakes. Once he’s done, he will mail the post to his mother and she types it out word for word. And she gives it all this care and attention because she’s just so proud of her son’s writing.

LINDA: It amazes me how smart he is. You know, it’s so well-written. This: “A Dead Man’s Boots.”

SRUTHI: Paul wrote this right after he turned 40.

LINDA: “Since 18 I’ve languished in the maximum security prisons of Illinois. During this time, all my dreams, hopes, and aspirations have faded away. Everything in fact I once valued is gone. Regularly I try to recall the past when my life had meaning. But those memories are blotted out by stark reality. There is no light at the end of this tunnel, only a growing black void. I never wanted to see the day my body and mind succumbed to old age.” Heh. 40. “And yet now I have gone the distance with nothing gained but misery, hatred, and immense sorrow.”

KALIA: It is good writing.

LINDA: Yeah.

KALILA: Yeah, it’s impressive.

LINDA: It’s so from the heart. He’s not a, a fake. He tells it like it is.

SRUTHI: So the reason that I got so into Paul’s blog is not Paul’s writing about getting old. The reason I got so into it is because it’s just filled with all this wonder and precise observation. For example the fan story. That’s a post about Paul Modrowski vs a small plastic handheld fan. One of the blades of the fan breaks and in order to fix the crack, Paul needs something like super glue or tape, neither of which you can have in prison.

ALEX: Right.

SRUTHI: And so the way he fixed was he takes the wires from inside the fan. He shorts them. He like puts them together to create little sparks.

PJ: Yeah.

SRUTHI: He takes a Q-tip. Puts vaseline on it. Gets the sparks on the Q-tip to make a little flame.

PJ: Uh huh.

SRUTHI: And then he takes a plastic spoon. Melts the plastic onto the broken part of the fan.

PJ: Uh huh.

SRUTHI: And fixes it.

PJ: So it’s like. . .

ALEX: Oh my God, that’s like incredibly resourceful.

SRUTHI: Yeah. And at the end of this whole ordeal. You know, he spent half of the day doing this. And then he writes:

“The blade did not look pretty. But if it worked, this is all that matters. The blade stayed together until I put the fan on high speed. It then broke.  Violently. I surveyed the damage. I could not melt it back together again. Mission Impossible #1 ends as a failure. However, I learned of a man whose fan died, and I convinced him to give me one of his blades.”

And so like I find myself talking to myself this way sometimes.

PJ: Really?

SRUTHI: Like I’ll be doing something in the kitchen and I’ll be like, “I take a blade out and I sharpen it.”

PJ: Really?

SRUTHI: And then I put it against the onion skin. You know? Yeah, really. Because i find it,I don’t know. There’s something about it. It’s, like, there was a lot of emotion there but that it was being kind of being strapped in by these words. And so I spent the next week devouring this entire blog, like, hundreds of entries, and just when I’d finished all of them, I see this new entry pop on the blog. It’s called “My Final Post.”

After six years of writing the blog consistently Paul says he’s done with it. There will be no more posts. Of course, I called his mother, Linda, and she was very upset. She just couldn’t understand it.

I wanted to talk to him. I signed up for the prison telephone system. I wrote Paul a letter saying, “Hey, I’m a reporter. I’d like to talk to you about this blog.”

And then I waited. And I waited.

And then,  a couple months later, this was July of last year.

VOICE: Hello this is a pre-paid collect call from. . .

Paul Modrowski: Paul Modrowski.

VOICE: . . . an inmate at Stateville Correctional Center. This call is subject to recording and monitoring. To accept charges, press 1.

SRUTHI: Hello?

PAUL: Yes.

SRUTHI: Hi, Paul, can you hear me OK?

PAUL: I can hear you fine.

SRUTHI: Okay, I’m gonna do a thing that we always do when we start recording just to check the quality of your line. Can you tell me what you had for breakfast today?

PAUL: I don’t remember. I think it was puffed rice cereal. Bread.

SRUTHI: Is. . .

PAUL: I added some peanut butter.

SRUTHI: Some peanut butter?

PAUL: Yeah, maybe throw a sausage on there. Or maybe a soy patty.

SRUTHI: Sounds like a balanced breakfast.

PAUL: What’s that?

SRUTHI: I said, sounds like a balanced breakfast-ish.

PAUL: Not very tasty.

SRUTHI: So we talked for 30 minutes and it stayed exactly that awkward the entire time. My guess is that it’s for this reason: as Linda explained to me, Paul is autistic. He was diagnosed as a child. And he doesn’t actually talk about it a lot on the blog, He mentions it in posts here or there. I didn’t know that much about autism, but at that moment, like, during that phone call, I thought, “Oh, maybe that’s why we’re having trouble. . . or I’m having trouble really engaging him.”

PJ: Right, because like, he, like in person, or not in person, over the phone he might have a harder time communicating than like on a page.

SRUTHI: Yeah exactly. He’s in prison where it’s super loud, and he told me that noise really bothers him. And, also, like he doesn’t know who the hell I am, like, who are you? What is a podcast?

So anyway we wrapped up the call. And then a week later, Friday morning, 11AM, he calls me back.

SRUTHI: Hey Paul?

PAUL: Yes.

SRUTHI: How are you today?

PAUL: You don’t wanna assa me that, ask me that.

SRUTHI: Bad day?

PAUL: Every day, every day in prison is horrible.

SRUTHI: This time the conversation goes much better. He’s still a little stiff, but we’re having a back and forth. We talked about his daily routines, and I ask, of course, why he shut down the blog. It turns out that Paul and his mother have been in this long simmering argument, which just boiled over.

So, just to refresh your memory on how this whole blog worked. Linda was supposed to transcribe the posts that he wrote out. She was supposed to transcribe it exactly, type it into the computer. And then what she’d do once she hit publish, she’d print out the post and send it back to Paul so that he could see what the thing looked like on the internet.

ALEX: Right.

SRUTHI: The problem was when Paul got this print out, he’d noticed all these subtle changes. Like, this thing he’d written. That was gone. Or this other thing. It was softened. He’d been edited.

So, what he did was, he would take this printout, mark it all up. . .

PAUL: I’d make changes or alterations and then I would make angry remarks about how she took out this or she did this and that.

And he would mail it back to his mother. And, and this took me a while to understand, but there were times when his mother just flat out refused. She’d say, “No, I’m not going to change it. And there’s nothing you can do about it.”

ALEX: So, she was, she was putting stuff up in his name that actually wasn’t things he said? Like, how, how deeply was she changing them?

SRUTHI: There were some things that were just spelling corrections, grammar corrections, and then there were bigger things.

PAUL: She refuses to put on the blog that I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in God. I’ve never believed in God since I’ve been 13. She seems to think that other people will think I’m an evil person because I’m an atheist. No, I believe that I have more values than those hypocrites that believe in God.

LINDA: I refuse to say he’s an atheist. I can’t believe it. I won’t believe it. I won’t have it and I am not gonna publish it for the world to see. You know I should show you the picture of him at his first public communion. Walkin’ down the aisle in church. Okay. Every Friday after school we had Bible study. Every Friday. Paul knows his Bible backwards and forwards. He’s. . . .he, he was just such a good kid. No, I’m not telling the world my son thinks he’s an atheist. It’s a knife in my heart.

PAUL: I’m in this cage pretty much 24/7 and I do everything these guards tell me and I’m. . . I have very little ability to express myself or be who I want to be.

SRUTHI: And, Paul says that the one thing he had in this world was his blog, and now he feels like even that isn’t his anymore.

ALEX: I gotta say, I don’t blame him for being upset about this. I mean, he’s in jail for the rest of his life. The only means of expression he has to the outside world is this blog, just this blog. And his mom is making what seem like totally arbitrary changes to it.

PJ: Well, they’re not arbitrary.

SRUTHI: They’re not arbitrary. She’s. . in her mind she’ protecting her son.

PJ: Yeah, like, a lot. . . I know people who could use someone not letting them post things on the internet.

ALEX: I don’t know who you could possibly be talking about.

PJ: But it would also be frustrating. Like, if I had to send everything I wanted to write online to my mom first.

SRUTHI: Yeah, exactly, and on top of that imagine if you could never leave this tiny studio that we’re sitting in right now.

PJ: Right, it’s like your, your editor actually feels like another warden in some ways.

SRUTHI: Yeah. So Paul was understandably very frustrated at these fights with his mom. They just kept escalating over mail, on their telephone calls, when she would visit. And it got to the point where he said, “You know what? You think this is your blog? It is not and I’m just going to stop writing it. And you know what? I want you to take this blog off the internet.” Like, delete it.

And his mother, she said, “No. It’s a work of art. I won’t do it.”

PJ: Is it like, the fact that they’re fighting over is it a contained fight or is it like they can’t have conversations because they just argue about the blog?

SRUTHI: So, Paul actually says that this, this whole thing, it kind of wrecked the relationship with his mother. He couldn’t talk to her, didn’t want to see her..

And, when he and I finished talking about this whole fight, we kept talking, because, there was something about Paul. . .he was just different than the person I’d imagined from reading the blog. And he was also different than my assumptions about a person who’s serving a life sentence.

So I thought, you know, I’m going to keep talking to Paul. . .

VOICE: Hello, this is a prepaid collect call from, “Paul. . .”

SRUTHI: This is going to be a really interesting story about a man with a really interesting prison blog. . .

SRUTHI to PAUL: Hello. . .

PAUL: Yes.

SRUTHI to PAUL: Hey. . .

SRUTHI:  That was my plan. It seemed easy, straightforward. I had no idea.

 

BREAK

 

ALEX: Welcome back to the show. Before the break, Sruthi and Paul Modrowski, a prisoner in Stateville Correctional Center, in Illinois, started talking on the phone every week.

SRUTHI: So every Friday, 11 a.m. He would call me. I would go run to the studio, hook my cellphone into the, the, the computer. Paul would be sitting in his cell. He cellmate just a couple feet away. And he’d be using a telephone handset that the guard had brought him into his cell. Paul would first wipe it off with a disinfectant and then we would talk for an hour. And we would talk about a whole bunch of things.

PAUL: I used to read a lot of philosophy. One of my favorite writers is Friedrich Nietzsche.

SRUTHI: Uh huh. I heard of him.

We would talk about his favorite subject which is politics.

PAUL: Donald Trump. He comes off as a very strong person. He comes off as a dominating person.

SRUTHI: Yeah.

PAUL: Some people call him a bully. But I want a bully to represent the interests of the United States abroad.

These conversations about Trump would generally turn into Paul talking about race, about immigrants, about how they’re destroying the country, which was a little awkward for me.

SRUTHI: I, I’m not a white person as you probably figured out from my name. So, I’m an immigrant. . .

PM: You’re not white? I thought you were Caucasian. No, I know you’re from south India. There’s a big difference, though, between the immigrants that are pouring over the border and certain people such as yourself that have skills. As Donald Trump would say, “They’re not sending their best to America.”

SRUTHI: If I disagreed with him, I’d push back, and he started making a lot of assumptions about me.

PAUL: You like Bernie Sanders. Admit to it. You’re a socialist.

SRUTHI: I’m not a socialist. But I, I don’t vote. I’m not an American citizen.

PAUL: You vote in India? Did you vote for, did you vote for the, the socialist party there?

SRUTHI: No.

PAUL: Have you ever voted in India?

SRUTHI: I left India when I was 16. I’ve never voted.

PAUL: What a crime.

SRUTHI: We’d have these, you know, kind of. . .he was funny, he was funny. You know, this bone dry way, of speaking. I couldn’t help but, but laugh sometimes. So, this goes on through August.

PAUL: I had one little bird that used to come to my cell. He would sit right on a beam on my bunk. And he would chirp at me and wake me up.

SRUTHI: And then September.

PAUL: I was a Schwarzenegger fan when I was a kid. Especially when that movie Conan the Barbarian came out. I was. . .

SRUTHI: Paul had been sending me letters every week sometimes two or three letters every week, these handwritten, you know, long pieces of writing which were very detailed. Kinda like his blog posts. Stories about his life before prison, when he was a teenager.

SRUTHI to PAUL: Hey so I got your letter and I like how you put a smiley face in there

PAUL: Yes. I never use them. But I did it so that you’d know that I was being joking or facetious. Was it funny?

SRUTHI: I, I laughed, but mostly because you used a smiley face and I thought that was funny that you did. Cause you’re not, you’re not exactly a smiley face kind of person.

PAUL: No.

SRUTHI: No.

PAUL: I have more of a flat humor.

SRUTHI: Over the course of these conversations, I noticed this big contradiction in Paul. He’ll say anything racist or offensive that comes to his mind. Anything he wants. But at the same time, he’s so concerned about how he comes off to other people.

PAUL: Do I come across as having autism?

SP: I thought that when we first started talking you did have a way of speaking that was really um like monotone but it’s really changed over the months. Like I feel like now when we talk you’re, you sound 100% like anyone else.

PAUL: Yeah I noticed that I come across as very stoic, indifferent, and cold to strangers.

It takes me a while to understand a person. To, to connect with them and then I’m more expressive in that way. But to, to people or strangers I probably do come off as very cold and aloof.

SRUTHI: Mmmhhmm. . .

PAUL: I know, I know that happened during my trial. My jury, they believed that I was so cold and indifferent and I didn’t care about this person. And, and then the state’s attorney, when he. . .in closing arguments he went on and on about, “Look at his demeanor. Look how he doesn’t show any emotion. He’s, he’s. . .look into his eyes. He’s soulless.”

SRUTHI: Paul claims to be innocent. And this was the crazy thing for me to realize about Paul:

that he thinks that the only reason he’s in prison is because he holds his face a certain way or expresses his emotions differently.  

PJ: So how much did you guys talk about his case?

SRUTHI: It would actually come up a lot and Paul would get so angry. It’s almost like he would short circuit. And me, you know, I’m not a crime reporter. This is a show about the internet. But, at some point i realized everything with Paul just comes back to his case. It’s all he cares about, especially now that he doesn’t have a blog.

And so, last fall, I started to really look into Paul’s case. And it turns out that it’s wrapped up one of the biggest cases in Illinois history. It’s notorious. It’s also really complicated. Every time I thought i understood it, the whole thing would change Rubik’s cube-like into a different thing.

And it started off when Paul was a senior in high school with this thing called the Brown’s Chicken Massacre.

ANCHOR 1: In the north Chicago suburb of Palatine, police are still searching for clues in this weekend’s bizarre mass murder.

REPORTER: A door to the restaurant was open

ANCHOR 2: The victims were mostly high school students who worked there at night.

SRUTHI: Somebody went into a fried chicken restaurant, shot the seven people who worked there, and put their bodies in a freezer.

No clues. All the blood in the restaurant had been meticulously mopped up. And nobody had any idea why somebody would do this

PETER JENNINGS: The overwhelming emotion in Palestine is still fear, because the killer, or killers, have not been caught.

ALEX: I remember this. I was very young, but I mean lived not far from Chicago so it was almost local news, you know. And we would get a lot of Chicago stations so I remember it being on the

news all the time.

PJ: And they put, they put the bodies of the people they killed in the freezer at the restaurant?

SRUTHI: Mmmmhhhmm. . .

ALEX: Yes.

SRUTHI: Mmmhhhmm. . .

PJ: So, okay. . . .

SRUTHI: Yeah.

PJ: So this happened.

SRUTHI: So it’s all over the news all the time. They’re trying to catch the guy who did this. They have no idea. No leads. They look. . .they don’t even have a weapon. Shortly after the Palatine Massacre police find, really close by, in the woods, another body. This time, with the head and arms cut off,

PJ: Hmmm. . .

SRUTHI: Because these horrible crimes happened just within weeks of each other, so close together, people are convinced that whoever is behind this body, whoever killed this person, must be linked to the person who shot up the Palatine Chicken Restaurant.

PJ: It sounds so much like Fargo. Like the movie and the TV show.

SRUTHI: Mmmmhhhmm. . .

PJ: Where it’s just like this small midwestern town and then horrible stuff starts happening and it feels it’s being like visited by evil.

SRUTHI: Yeah. So, they, they the town actually ended up bringing in the FBI. So there’s this special unit in the FBI that deals with serial killers. It’s, it’s the one, it’s the same task force you see in Silence of the Lambs. So they’re brought in to help police find the people who did this.

Months go by. Finally, the investigators get a lead which takes them right to Paul’s door.

But that’s a story … for next week.

ALEX: Sruthi Pinnamaneni is a producer for our show. Next week, “On the Inside, Part 2.” The bizarre case of Paul Modrowski.

Reply All is PJ Vogt and me, Alex Goldman. The show’s produced by Tim Howard, Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin, and our brand new producer, Chloe Prasinos. Chloe, welcome to the show. Sorry that we work so much. We’re edited by Peter Clowney. Production assistance from Mervyn Degaños. Our show was mixed by Rick Kwan.

Matt Lieber is the salsa dancer emoji. Special thanks this week to Sue Basco and Kalila Holt.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder and our ad music is by Build Buildings.

On Saturday, May 21st, in New York City, I will be doing a live conversation with comedian Paul Scheer, who you might know from the How Did This Get Made podcast and The League and a million other amazing things. It’s part of New York Magazine’s Vulture Fest and you can get tickets by going to our website, or just by googling “Vulture Fest Reply All.” You should come. It’ll be a lot of fun.

Thank you for listening. We’ll see you next week.

 

 

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