The Barrett Brown Review of Arts and Letters and Jail: His Real Crime Was Getting That Tattoo

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Although I noted last time that I’d been released from the faux-oppressive confines of the hole/SHU and moved into the jail unit, I have one more story from segregation that I’d like to get off my chest. Speak, O Muse!

A few days after the flooding incident described in the previous column, my radical jihadist redneck gangsta cellmate, D, finally “made chain,” which is to say that he was put on the weekly Bureau of Prisons bus to the central processing center in Oklahoma from which each inmate is then re-shipped to whatever prison has been chosen for him (a maximum security prison, in D’s case). Although I was sorry to see him go, or at least pretended to be, I was also excited about the prospect of being alone for days or perhaps even weeks for the first time in 23 months of being locked up in various overcrowded, Late Empire federal detention facilities. Naturally I got a new cellmate 10 minutes after D’s departure, and the two of us went through the standard inmate-inmate introductions; he was a Hispanic from San Antonio who had already been sentenced to 15 years for drug distribution and conspiracy to commit murder, but was now facing additional charges in another district and would only be here for a week or so while awaiting transfer to yet another prison compound for court proceedings.

Normally this fellow would be kept in our compound’s jail unit with all the other well-behaved gangland murderers, rather than in the SHU with notorious rabble-rousers like me, but he happens to be registered within the prison system as a member of a gang known as the Texas Syndicate. This isn’t a big deal in and of itself, as most everyone in the federal system either comes in pre-affiliated to a gang or joins one of the resident race-based gangs upon incarceration or, in my case, starts a series of one-man gangs just to use up all the hilarious gang names that occur to him throughout the day, like The Aryan Book Club or the Straight White Male Liberation Front. (I’ve also been trying to get the three Vietnamese guys to call themselves something cool like The Knights of the Tet Offensive or The Red Terror, but they keep refusing to do so, which is why I’m no longer talking to the three Vietnamese guys. And after having proposed at the last two meetings of the whites-only Woods prison gang that they change their name to the Committee of Concerned White People, only to be turned down both times, I’ve just stopped attending meetings altogether.)

The problem for my new cellmate was that this particular facility is dominated by two Hispanic prison gangs. One of them, Tango Blast, is composed mainly of drug dealers from Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. The Paisas, on the other hand, are largely drawn from regular work-a-day illegal immigrants who would not usually be involved with any sort of gang. As best as I can reconstruct, the Paisas came into existence as the system’s relatively mild-mannered Mexican inmates banded together to protect themselves from gangs of U.S. Hispanics, who had a tendency to prey on them. Nor does this seem to be any sort of self-justifying origins myth of the sort one finds in old American history textbooks or Hillary Clinton autobiographies; two gang members I spoke to about this freely admit that their own comrades used to regularly extort the Mexicans before the Paisas came into being. Now, a member of those ill-behaved gangs who finds himself locked up in a jail unit with a significant Paisa presence will immediately be informed by a Mexican that he has to “check in” — that is, to ask a guard to take him to the SHU. The gang member promptly does so, as the alternative would be to face the wrath of several dozen Mexicans who are no longer so mild-mannered as they once were. Thus it was that, during my stay in the hole, there were three members of the Texas-based Mexican Mafia within shouting distance of my cell; all three of them had checked in.

This is not to say that anyone within the federal system is going to spend the entirety of a five- or 10-year sentence in the hole just for being in the wrong gang. The Paisa situation is merely an extreme example of gang-gang incompatibility that the bureau deals with by placing opposing gangs in different prisons. Of those three Mexican Mafia chaps, for instance, one was awaiting shipment to another, more Mexican Mafia-friendly compound, and the other two were probation violators who were scheduled to serve just a few months and so weren’t considered worth shipping off anywhere.

But my new cellmate, whom I’ll call Wittgenstein, didn’t have a problem with the Paisas, but rather with members of Tango Blast, who in their early years were subject to a surprisingly formal regimen of extortion by his Texas Syndicate buddies — and who, like the Paisas, now take perpetual revenge on those of their former oppressors who happen to fall into their clutches. In his case, though, he wasn’t told to check in by the Tangos, but instead was simply placed in the SHU upon arrival by the prison security folks, who sometimes take a proactive stance in these matters while not doing so in other, seemingly identical circumstances, all in accordance with some sort of federal anti-logic that no doubt defies civilian analysis. Wittgenstein was irked by this. He wouldn’t have had any trouble with the Tangos in the jail unit, he explained, because he didn’t bear any tattoos signifying him as a member of the Texas Syndicate for the very good reason that he was not actually a member of the Texas Syndicate, but rather an “associate.” What this means is that a bunch of his friends growing up became Texas Syndicate members, he hung around with lots of Texas Syndicate members, and he tended to do business with Texas Syndicate members, but never joined up himself. Naturally this hadn’t prevented the prosecution in his case from maintaining that he was not only a member, but even a formal leader of a group with which he actually had an entirely ambiguous relationship. So the two of us had something in common.

At some point, Wittgenstein told me that he was planning to get some tattoos done on his torso, which unlike his limbs was entirely bare of ink; he’d been saving his chest for a very special four-piece tattoo medley that he’d thought up a while back. This was to consist of (1) a sort of anthropomorphic heart with eyes and arms and legs, “like the M&Ms in the commercials,” placed over where his real heart was, which he took to be somewhere on the right side of his chest; (2) a scene depicting the cartoon character Peter Griffin behind bars; (3) Jesus holding the devil in a headlock; and (4) the words “Hard Times” necklaced around his upper chest in Gothic script. Also, either Peter Griffin or the M&M-inspired heart would be crying, but I don’t remember which one. I suppose it was Peter Griffin, since he would be sad about being in prison, whereas the M&M-inspired heart would presumably just be sitting there being tacky and ill-conceived.

Frankly, I was shocked. I’d assumed that two years of incarceration had deadened my own, non-M&M-inspired heart to the often mind-boggling cultural practices of some of my fellow inmates in general and their choice of tattoo imagery in particular, whether these be the improbable sex scenes and sappy family portraits beloved among the Hispanics, the crudely-rendered dragons and garish swastikas favored by the whites, or whatever it is that the blacks have on their arms that I can’t quite make out because jailhouse tattoo ink doesn’t show up too well on their skin. And I don’t mean to pick on the Hispanic gang members — some of my very best friends at the moment are Hispanic gang members, unfortunately — but the time I saw somebody with a huge tattoo depicting two topless women making out while holding smoking, jewel-encrusted handguns, I was not terribly surprised to note that it was a Hispanic gang member who had chosen to have such a scene commemorated across his back.

Anyway, this fucking conceptual nightmare of a tattoo idea that Wittgenstein had come up with got me thinking. What he really had in mind, it seemed, were four very disparate design elements with no real unifying factor other than that it was all clearly the product of a mind ravaged by the very worst excesses of modern American culture. I wondered if I myself could somehow exhibit the same degree of tackiness, unsound theology, Gothic script, and copyright infringement, but all within the space of a single, situationally coherent tattoo. After a few quick sketches and a whole lot of soul-searching, I decided it could be done. It would have to entail an image of Tweety Bird nailed to the cross, a crown of thorns resting upon his bulbous and effeminate brow, his eyes turned skyward in sorrow, and a little word balloon coming out of his mouth that would read, “Why hath thou forthaken me?” Underneath, in Gothic script, would be the caption “Hard Timeth.”

Immediately I was haunted by the idea of actually going and getting this tattoo, the going and getting of tattoos being something that I normally wouldn’t consider, but in this case I was once again at risk of being seduced by the sheer greatness of my own ideas. And it would cost literally $4 worth of commissary items to get it done in the jail unit. My chief concern would be getting this elaborately ironic tattoo but then suddenly deciding some years hence that I’m tired of being an insufferable hipster douchebag. On the other hand, I gather from these Ray Kurzweil books I’ve been reading that we’ll have instantaneous nanobot-driven tattoo removal by 2007, which according to my calculations was some number of years ago, so I guess there’s no risk. On the third hand (I’m deformed), I’m still reluctant to get it done as I want to keep my torso clear of ink in case I ever do actually end up joining the Aryan Brotherhood, because if so I’ll obviously want to get a huge tattoo on my chest depicting a topless Hitler and Goebbels making out while holding smoking, jewel-encrusted handguns.

Meanwhile, I was just as haunted by the idea of Jesus putting people in headlocks. The only way to clear my mind’s palette was to get out my trusty Bible and do a little rewriting:

“Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle him in his talk. And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians saying, ‘Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. Tell us therefore, what thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?’ But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and put one of their number in a headlock. And Jesus said unto him, ‘Fucking narc.’ ”

Which reminds me that Thomas Jefferson once rewrote the entire New Testament in order to remove all the miracles. This is one of those irritating, intellectually fastidious things that Enlightenment nuts like Jefferson were always doing back in the 18th century, and of which I’ve never really approved. If anything, the New Testament could really use a few more miracles.

Wittgenstein was shipped off a few days after arrival only to be immediately replaced by a 19-year-old black kid from South Dallas who had gotten into a fight in the other jail unit, and whose name was Darius (there’s another black kid in my jail unit named Cyrus, though I’ve yet to meet a Xerxes). He had just plead guilty to “brandishing a firearm” or some such thing and was facing a minimum of seven years, having already been a felon at the time.

The story of his latest criminal escapade is well worth retelling. He and his friend had met some seemingly hot-looking chick on Facebook and accepted an invitation to come visit her and her cousin at their home in North Dallas, so they hopped on a bus and went. His friend had brought along a backpack containing, among other things, a handgun and a couple of vials of crack (clearly he had no idea how to go about packing for a day trip to North Dallas). Upon arrival, he asserted that the girl looked nothing like her attractive Facebook photo. In fact he claimed she “was actually pretty fat”; Darius would also have me believe that the cousin was kind of a bitch, which is certainly possible, although before rendering judgment I would want to get the girl’s side of the story regarding an incident in which the boys inexplicably show up to a luncheon with crack vials and firearms. At any rate, there was some sort of exchange of insults, and the guys ended up back out on the street on a cold evening with no more buses scheduled.

So they started walking around aimlessly until they came upon a Mexican who was in his driveway loading up his car with boxes of fruit, and naturally they stuck a gun in his face and stole his vehicle. But when they turned off onto a major street, they found that a cop car was behind them. The friend who was driving was so nervous and spent so much time looking at the cop in his rearview mirror that he accidentally ran a red light and was promptly pulled over — right around the time that a carjacking was being reported over the police band. Later in court it was reported that the Mexican had been so freaked out by the carjacking and all that it implied about Dallas that he moved to Florida. That this guy decided he would be safer in Florida is my favorite part of the story. At least in Dallas one is subject mainly to comprehensible crimes with readily understandable motives, whereas the odds are about even that this poor Mexican had barely made it off the plane in Orlando before he was accosted by a naked redneck, wielding a snake and demanding batteries.

Anyway, I advised this young street tough to be careful about meeting people on the internet, where the malformed routinely disguise their all-American obesity via creative photography in order that they might better prey on the attractive, a phenomenon popularly known as “internet disease.” I also told him to stop carjacking people. Then I made a mental note to add “Mentored at-risk youth” to my résumé if I ever get around to updating my résumé.


Bible Verse of the Day: Genesis 6:5

“The Nephilim appeared on earth in those days, as well as later, after the sons of God had intercourse with the daughters of human beings, who bore them sons. They were the heroes of old, the men of renown.”


[Editor’s note: Barrett Brown has been incarcerated since September 2012. He is being held in a federal detention facility in Seagoville, Texas. This is the 13th installment of The Barrett Brown Review of Arts and Letters and Jail. Go here to read earlier installments. Go here if you’d like to send him a book or put some money in his commissary account. He is inmate 45047-177. Go here to contribute to his legal defense fund and learn more about the charges against him.]


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  • Jack Jett

    I really enjoy these bits. I have always wanted a prison pen pal but I think this is safer and less likely to fall in love. It does boggle my mind why you are having to spend so much time incarcerated.

  • A reader

    Tango Blast? I thought that was a citrus-flavored energy drink.


    • A reader

      P.S. So excellent, this piece.

  • another reader

    I stumbled upon these columns randomly but I am now prepared to attest that they are FUCKING HILARIOUS. About time for a departure from old school prison writing, Letters from A Birmingham Jail and Solzhenitsyn and all that, and just admit that the moral depravity of our authorities is so taken granted that we should at least get a good laugh out of it.

  • T_S_

    “I wondered if I myself could somehow exhibit the same degree of tackiness, unsound theology, Gothic script, and copyright infringement, but all within the space of a single, situationally coherent tattoo.” Well played BB, well played.

  • John Penley

    Having done some time myself,for protesting nuclear weapons plant pollution, I am constantly amazed at Barrett Brown’s sense of humor and his ability to write these hilarious accounts from behind the bars. Thanks BB hope you are FREE soon.

  • DallasMom

    I am going to laugh for days about that Tweety Bird tattoo. This was brilliant. Thank you.

  • AnonymouSweet