With the exception of the month and a half I spent in the hole over the summer, my cellmate for most of the last six months has been a white-haired old man with the regal looks and bearing of an Antonine emperor and the grizzled guile and criminal outlook of a Lyndon Johnson crony. Billy Bob Aurelius, as I’ll call him, is a Vietnam combat veteran, a private commercial pilot, and former salesman for International Harvester, among other things. Before arriving at our jail unit here in Seagoville, he’d spent 18 months in a Mexico City lock-up after police found a pistol during a search of his jet. Horrified, I asked him what those urban Mexican jails were really like.
“They’re great if you have money,” he said. “I had money.” Apparently he was given a nice private cell from which he could order out for groceries and brandy and marijuana and prostitutes. He even had a woman who came and cooked and cleaned for him, which is to say that he had a maid.
It’s hard to match that level of luxury in a U.S. lock-up, but Billy Bob Aurelius and I lived pretty large nonetheless. We occupied one of the unit’s four extra-large cells, which are much sought after and which can only be obtained through influence and status and that sort of thing. I happen to be a high-status inmate myself, surprisingly enough, but only due to the fact that I was facing a century worth of mostly trumped-up charges, the fact that I’d managed to embarrass the Department of Justice in the course of my work on the outside, and the widespread recognition that these two facts are clearly connected. But I’d been too heavily occupied with my various arcane studies to really familiarize myself with the practical aspects of life behind bars. Thus it was Aurelius, not I, who got us this grand cell, which I’m still proud to call home. Aside from being larger than the others, it even sports a real porcelain sink with handles that you turn to get water, rather than one of those stainless-steel standalones with the metal button you’ve got to keep pressed in with your thumb. I can wash both of my hands at the same time.
As time went on and Aurelius developed his covert network of swaps, scams, bribes, pull, promises, wire-pulling, and horse-trading, my standard of living increased dramatically. We began to accumulate items we weren’t supposed to have, which is easy enough in any jail or prison; more impressively, we soon had stuff that most other inmates could only dream of: rubber bands, paperclips, highlighters, real ballpoint pens, scotch tape. We even had a few luxuries that are entirely unheard of, and in fact I’m still at a loss as to how some of them made it into the jail unit: digital stop watches, staplers, a ruler, scissors, book lights, an alarm clock. We were living better than the orderlies, those ubiquitous noblemen of the American jailhouse who take on the sacred duty of cleaning the day room in return for their ancient and jealously protected privileges, like access to extra commissary items and getting to stay out of their cells past 8:45 p.m. Aurelius even had some of the orderlies working for him, like those post-Renaissance title-bearers who suddenly found themselves in thrall to the rising financier class; they’d show up at our door bearing plastic bags of grapefruit and extra servings of fried fish. Soon, I could practically trace the invisible tentacles that extended throughout our jail unit, reaching, grasping, prodding, even poking when necessary, but always seeking, seeking out those precious stores of grapefruit and paperclips that await those with the sheer force of will to seize them — and each of these tireless tentacles lead back to our room, where my silver-headed cellmate held court from his plastic chair in the corner, reading books on Michael Milken and cackling over the corruption of this, the world that man has made.
Such a high level of civilization as we had now attained is possible only to the extent that there exists a strong economy to serve as its foundation. Here, and throughout the state and federal systems, that economy is fueled by postage stamps, which replaced cigarettes as hard currency when prison smoking bans began to take effect some years ago. And to get their hands on that currency, jail inmates will clean your cell, repair your broken radio, prepare your legal filings, sell you their chicken lunch, and steal your Ramen noodle packets. But that’s just the beginning. There is an entire industry built around the conception, design, and application of tattoos, as well as the building, maintenance, and hiding of tattoo guns, which may be powered either by the use of clever battery packs or by running a wire into a cell’s overhead light fixture. You can get your state-issued orange pants tailored to fit or have someone wash your clothes by hand, thereby allowing you to avoid dealing with the laundry orderlies. Since well over 70 percent of laundry orderlies are fascist scum who cannot rightfully be regarded as human beings, this is a very convenient service. Extra pillows, sheets, blankets, and hand towels may also be had — for a price.
Music aficionados can buy custom speakers made of empty plastic salsa bottles taped together and fitted for headphones.
Art lovers can buy pencil drawings of nubile women for their cells, of cartoon characters for their kids, or of Jesus for anyone. My first cellmate here, an enterprising Mexican national, cut up old sheets to make heart-shaped doilies on which he drew the perpetually naked yet presumably asexual teenagers from the comic strip Love Is, while another Mexican creates very colorful pairs of ersatz baby shoes out of God knows what. These things make popular gifts for jailed immigrants to mail to loved ones who may be having trouble dealing with the fact that the father of their struggling, young family will be locked up for several years despite having hurt no one.
For the well-heeled hungry, extra food from the kitchen is always available, as is crumbly cheese made by microwaving milk and oil for an hour and then letting it sit, as well as homemade cakes baked from a batter of crushed-up cookies. And then there are the pies.
In a previous column, I tried to provide a sense of the blood-stained and atavistic politics surrounding the making and selling of pies in this jail unit, and since then I’ve received inquiring letters from readers and even a demand from my editor that I explain how it is that these pies are made. The answer is that I don’t know, and I don’t want to know. The technique is secret, performed behind closed doors, and may even be unique to our unit; it seems to be passed down via something akin to the medieval guild system, whereby the prospective journeyman is accepted by a master craftsman, whom he vows to provide with respect and stamps in exchange for his training. All that I can relate about the process itself with any certainty is those aspects that are visible to we, the profane: that it involves large amounts of ice and non-dairy powdered creamer, and that one step entails the melting of Jolly Ranchers in the microwave. Throughout my life, I have tread among the shadows in search of forbidden knowledge, from the black propaganda “persona management” armies of Ntrepid and CENTCOM to the state-sanctioned net-weaponry of Endgame Systems and its NSA backers to Romas/COIN itself. And I’ve willingly paid the price for my curiosity. But if anyone thinks I’m going to mess with these crazy fucking pie people, they can think again. Having said all that, the pies are very good.
There is gambling, of course, most notably the poker games held each evening by the Tango Blast prison gang, which takes 10 percent off the top — and which provides players with flavored drinks and hard-shell chicken tacos, these being made at a nearby table by a couple of gang members judged to be experts at microwave cookery. There is every manner of sports betting involving complex paper “boards” that I don’t understand any more than I do economics or even personal finance. There are endless raffles, with drawings conducted in loud prison Spanish each evening with the aid of prescription bottles filled with numbered bits of paper; rather than drawing a single number and declaring it the winner, they draw each other number and declare them losers until at last a winner is revealed, like the glorious statue that awaits its release from each and every block of marble. Very occasionally, a couple of youngsters will play craps. Dice are not forbidden here, and are even provided in a couple of the board games we have lying around; at the Fort Worth jail unit where I spent two months in 2012, dice are confiscated on sight — and so everyone there plays craps with homemade dice made by people like me (and during my stint in the hole, I made paper chess sets that I exchanged for bags of coffee; goods were sent back and forth between cells by methods that I’ll describe at another time).
In any jail unit of a hundred or so people, one or two inmates will run a “store,” stockpiling some of the items we’re able to order from commissary once a week and selling them at a markup throughout each day. This practice is a natural outgrowth of the bizarre buying limits by which we are unable to purchase, for instance, more than one bag of coffee or more than two pencils; these barriers are gotten around via a complex system of trades, with stores simplifying matters further. A successful store owner will make $100 a week and may even rent locker space from other inmates in which to store surplus inventory. An unsuccessful one will be robbed.
The little bottles of cologne available from the commissary merit special examination. The cologne is highly prized by those with female visitors, but it can also be cut with water and placed in nasal spray bottles to produce a handy room freshener. In the wake of stiff competition between rival cell-cleaning crews a few months back, customers at our unit have come to expect that a three-stamp cell cleaning will conclude with a couple of pumps from a cologne-based scent bottle. That particular price war, while not approaching pie cartel levels of outright violence, did entail a very telling bid for economic protectionism. At a meeting of the whites-only Woods gang, a former meth dealer whose room-cleaning business had been undercut by his Mexican competitors, appealed to racial solidarity and the fear of falling wages across the board in an attempt to convince other whites to employ his services. Two weeks later, he had the same Mexicans working for him, cleaning the rooms he’d signed up at the very same low wages. This is my second favorite protectionist anecdote from jail, the first being the time when a fellow who’s notorious for his heavily armed robberies of armored cars denounced Mexican immigrants for “hurting the economy.”
Aurelius, for his own part, has a long history of mysterious business dealings with his Hispanic counterparts. Soon after we moved into our deluxe suite, he took on as a partner Benito, an elderly Mexican who shared his talents for crooked dealings and who, aside from his work washing and stealing clothes, had a retired female cop on the outside who put money on his books sometimes (which reminds me of another popular occupation among inmates: sweet-talking women). Aurelius and Benito spent at least half an hour each day scheming, usually to obscure ends. The only straightforward operation I witnessed was the one in which they both came into the cell, closed the door behind them, and immediately started pushing each other out of the way as they both tried to look through the door’s little vertical window at the same time. Then Benito said, “Now!” and they both went back out. They returned 20 seconds later with a large plastic tub they’d stolen from the laundry room, and which Aurelius kept under the bed, never using it for anything at all, ever. His hero, he told me once, was the Bhagwan.
Aurelius was a fraudster in the real world as well, having pled guilty to defrauding the post office. He would show up at a branch location and buy tens of thousands of dollars worth of stamps, ostensibly for his small business, with a hot check under a fake name. First, he’d put Liquid Band-Aid on his fingertips, thereby keeping off the prints. He was caught, he believes, because he didn’t cover one or two fingertips all the way, and because his prints were already on file with the FBI. At any rate, he said, before he defrauded the government by stealing stamps and reselling them to others, they defrauded him by lying about the Gulf of Tonkin incident and sending him to fight in Vietnam. He doesn’t note this as any sort of justification — like a minor deity, he is beyond good and evil — but merely as a sort of lesson.
I asked him for permission to write about his very genial brand of petty corruption, which he granted me on the condition that I wait until after his sentencing, which went down a month ago. He got a little less than four years, which was considered high; in a more typical fraud case, another guy who was here not long ago got about that much time for stealing half a million dollars from his insurance company. (I’m always interested in how much prison time is handed out to practitioners of unambiguous large-scale fraud, since not long ago the prosecutor in my own case was trying to hit me with a mandatory minimum sentence of 22 years just for copying and pasting an already-public link to a downloadable zip file that turned out to include credit card numbers — despite the fact that it’s perfectly clear from the chat logs that I was seeking emails for research purposes and didn’t know about the credit card numbers until after I had pasted the link, despite the fact that I’ve never expressed any interest in using anyone’s credit card numbers in the more than two years for which the FBI has logs of my online activity, despite the fact that other journalists linked to the exact same file, and despite the fact that I never even opened the file as shown by the government’s own forensics department. Incredibly enough, this is not even the most dishonest trick that the government has pulled in the course of its efforts to get me out of their hair for a couple of decades.)
Much of my time with Aurelius and Benito was rather pleasant. On one typical day, the three of us relaxed in our super-cell, Benito washing socks in our badass sink while Aurelius leafed through my prized possession — Numenera, the ultra-futuristic pen-and-paper role-playing game book one of my friends had sent to me awhile back. He stopped at an impressive half-page illustration of a Dread Destroyer, which is a giant, vaguely insectoid killing machine built by a long-dead civilization, presumably for use in some unimaginably awesome conflict.
“Man, that right there, that would kick your ass, Benito,” said Aurelius.
Benito turned away from his socks to examine the picture.
“I don’t worry nothing. I put the voodoo curse on it.”
“You can’t use voodoo on it,” yelled Aurelius, enraged at the idea of Benito escaping his hypothetical and well-deserved death at the hands of the Dread Destroyer, which, after all, has endless missiles and can repair damage to itself at a rate of 5 hit points per turn. “It’s a robot!”
“Actually,” I interrupted, because I can be very pedantic when it comes to the subject of my entirely imaginary meta-toys, “it’s biomechanical. I mean, mostly machine, but with biological components. It’s got an organic brain, for instance.”
“See?” said Benito. “I put the voodoo curse on it. Is no problem.”
One day Aurelius looked up from his book and spoke to me, a defeated look in his eyes.
“You know, Barrett, I joke around a lot, but really I’m just tired of all this. I’m an old man now, and I don’t want to spend the time I’ve got left sitting around in prison. When I get out, I’m going straight.”
I was actually touched. “Well, I’m glad to hear that you –”
“Straight to the post office!”
Then he burst out laughing and went back to his book, which was a biography of Charles Keating.
Frankly, I’m sick of going through the Bible, looking for amusing verses with which to end this column. So starting now, I’m replacing the Bible Verse of the Day feature with the Nixon Tape Transcript Excerpt of the Day feature. These will be taken from my copy of The Nixon Tapes, edited and annotated by Douglas Brinkley and some guy who’s not Douglas Brinkley, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, copyright 2014. Enjoy!
Nixon Tape Transcript of the Day: April 28, 1971, 9:28 am
Richard Nixon, Bob Haldeman, and Henry Kissinger
EXECUTIVE OFFICE BUILDING
NIXON: This is what it really comes down to. The point is, now, Henry, drinking at 18. Because, well, 75 percent of the kids might drink at 18, most kids, 25 percent that drink at 18 would probably go off the rockers. It’s not a good idea. I mean, you’ve got to stop at a certain point. Why is it that the girls don’t swear? Because a man, when he swears, people can’t tolerate a girl who is a —
HALDEMAN: Girls do swear.
HALDEMAN: They do now.
NIXON: Oh, they do now? But, nevertheless, it removes something from them.
[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 14th 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.]