A week before Christmas, a half-dozen guards at the Seagoville Federal Detention Center pulled me from my cell, handcuffed me, and took me to the hole, where I was processed and put in another cell, before being ushered out and placed in the prison’s receiving/departures section to await transport to a different jail, all for reasons that the administration did not quite manage to articulate. The act of suddenly transferring inconvenient inmates is referred to as “diesel therapy.” I noted a few months back that CIA torture-leaker John Kiriakou, who’s also been putting out a column from behind bars, reported being threatened with identical treatment after writing about prison administration misconduct. I, on the other hand, have been the very picture of discretion; it’s not as if I had publicly revealed, for instance, that Thompson, the pudgy white officer at Seagoville known for yelling incoherent threats at black inmates during evening prisoner count, and sometimes even locking them in the showers, is openly affiliated with a Fort Worth gang. So, frankly, I am a little hurt.
Anyhoo, I was shipped down the road to the Kaufman County Law Enforcement Center, one of the many smaller, rural lockups around the country that have been enlisted to house the perpetual overflow of federal jail inmates for periods of up to a couple of years in facilities that were never meant to hold anyone for any length of time whatsoever. During processing, I was provided the traditional free phone call (no small prize, as 20-minute calls here run about $10, as opposed to the couple of dollars or so at more humanely operated facilities). So I rang up my mom, explained that I had managed to get kicked out of a jail this time, and asked her to have added to my Amazon wish list (graciously supplied by generous supporters) the four-volume biography of former president Lyndon B. Johnson by Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Caro. My mom long ago lost the capacity for astonishment at my increasingly bizarre and perilous circumstances and would not be especially fazed were I to call with the news that I had been shot into space, captured by the Swiss Guard, or declared myself Emperor of the Seagulls. Likewise, she had been kind enough to handle my research and book requests with dispatch, and without asking nosy questions about why it is that I need so many alchemical texts or Wikipedia printouts on the Symbionese Liberation Army, Jack Parsons, and MKUltra. And, really, it’s nobody’s business.
What I am willing to explain is why I wanted the Lyndon B. Johnson volumes. I have long prided myself on knowing absolutely nothing about the oft-vilified Texan, and would flaunt my ignorance of this terrible monster as a sign of my innocence and purity, very much in the manner of a well-bred Victorian girl who suddenly breaks into a parlor conversation on economics to make clear that she has no idea what a handjob is and certainly wouldn’t know how to go about giving two of them at the same time. Actually, I was more like the guy who doesn’t watch TV and makes sure everyone knows it, expressing loud mystification at passing references to sitcom stars with whom he is actually entirely familiar.
Elderly Fellow Texan: “Boy, that LBJ was a crooked sonofabitch. Did you ever hear how Bell Helicopter got him that –”
Me: “NO, NO, I WOULDN’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT THOSE SORTS OF MATTERS.”
Elderly Fellow Texan: “Well, okay, but of course you know how we got into Vietnam –”
Me: “I’VE NEVER HEARD OF HER AND I WON’T HAVE YOU BESMIRCHING HER HONOR LIKE THAT. I’M GOING TO HAVE TO ASK YOU TO LEAVE.”
Elderly Fellow Texan: “But … but this is my house.”
I actually did know a few things about Johnson, as you can’t spend the bulk of your life being obsessed with Richard Nixon, as I have, without picking up a few Johnson tidbits here and there. I knew the basics: the stolen elections, his Austin radio station used for laundering favors, Lady Bird’s unseemly bloodlust, the time he picked up that dog by the ears without wearing dog gloves. Just the outlines of a crude, ruthless man who possessed a preternatural understanding of what power really is and how it can be used to obtain more power. I, too, wanted to understand these things. Plus, having turned 33 this year, I felt I was finally old enough to learn the whole truth about LBJ.
As it would be a few days before the Johnson volumes arrived, I’d have to amuse myself in the meantime by finding fault with my new environment. This was distressingly easy. The food is insufficient, forcing inmates to rely on extra commissary snacks purchased themselves at 400-percent markups. Detainees live together in overcrowded single cells with no day room. There is no law library, and restrictions on incoming mail approach gulag levels of absurdity; one is not permitted to receive photos, say, of one’s family, or anything “computer-generated” which, I was amazed to learn, includes any and all typed letters or documents. It’s a regimen that ensures federal defendants are largely incapable of participating in their own defense or even managing their own lives. To be fair, though, when you consider how much the feds pay these facilities for each of us versus what is actually spent on our upkeep, it’s clear that at least three or four people are making a great deal of money off of all this, so it’s not like the misery is going to waste.
The staff is nice enough, with the usual handful of exceptions. But I’m not convinced that this particular jail is quite ready for prime time. No one received mail for nearly a week at Christmas, because one of the officers took the only mailbox key home with him over his vacation. A couple of my fellow inmates asked after the nail clippers, only to be told that “we had a pair, but it broke.” After two weeks of further inquiries, we were finally able to find someone willing to admit that there existed another pair of nail clippers that we might aspire to use at some future date. Feeling under the weather one morning, I asked a nurse for some ibuprofen. “We never give out ibuprofen for pain,” she explained, and then gave me ibuprofen for my pain. The next day I asked a different nurse, who did a somewhat more competent job of refusing me, and then yet another nurse, who advised me to submit a medical form, which I did that evening. The next day, I received a typewritten response to the effect that my request for ibuprofen had been denied, and then, an hour later, some more ibuprofen tablets. Thereafter followed two days in which I received ibuprofen from two different nurses without asking for it, which was really nice, except it kind of bummed me out, as I had been planning to amuse myself by turning in grievance forms in which I would make a series of increasingly inappropriate and abstract complaints. (“I don’t feel as if I possess any real influence over the music industry”; “There are too many Slavs in the world these days.”) But the good-heartedness of the nurses just spoiled some of my fun for now.
So I decided to watch television. I mean, really watch it, take it all in. (Actually, I had little choice insomuch as I live in a single room in which the TV is never out of earshot.) My seven drug-dealer cellmates were big on the Discovery Channel, National Geographic, and the History Channel, although none of these networks were quite as I had remembered them, and about half of the programs now seem to involve Alaska, which I find ominous. As most of us speak Spanish to some degree, we also watch a lot of Telemundo, which shows some good films. The Selena movie came on the other day.
“Who was it that killed Selena, again?” I asked the Hispanic drug dealer next to me.
“Right, right. And why did her manager kill her?”
“Her manager was a lesbian.”
I nodded. Typical lesbian assassination.
I am too emotionally fragile to absorb much 21st-century television — I hide under my blanket when they put CNN on, for instance — so I spent most of my time sitting on the floor on the other end of the cell with my notepad and pen, writing little scenarios in which I have to break bad news to various founding fathers. To wit:
Benjamin Franklin: “It was among my fondest dreams that my beloved Philadelphia would someday grow into one of the world’s great centers of high culture, and become a by-word for the gentlemanly arts. Tell me, has this come to pass?”
Me: “Uh …”
Finally I started receiving some mail, including shipments of my book requests, starting with the second volume of Caro’s LBJ series, Means of Ascent, which centers on the stolen 1948 senatorial election. I figured I was a hard fellow to shock by this point, but fuck me dry if this isn’t the most fascinating goddamned book I have ever read in my entire life. (Also, I can’t seem to stop cursing now. President Johnson really can be a bad influence on one.)
I was so astounded that I made a $10 call to my dad, questioning him about all of this wacky Texas political activity in the 20th century. His uncle, I recalled, had worked for Johnson in some capacity, back in the day. As soon as I started asking about that and some other nefarious accusations made against the former president, my dad began to sound nervous, as if this were not the sort of thing to be discussed on an open telephone line. All he would say was, “You don’t cross Lyndon Johnson.” He actually spoke in the present tense. That Johnson died 40 years ago does not seem to have lessened anyone’s fear of him. Maybe this isn’t altogether unreasonable. Johnson is the sort of guy who, right before dying, would direct his cronies to establish some sort of shadowy, well-funded syndicate by which to intimidate and discredit anyone who dares to threaten his legacy. And, come to think of it, doesn’t that sound a lot like the LBJ Presidential Library?
Still, my own fear goes well beyond such conventional academic thuggery, extending into the outright supernatural. For instance, there was the incident just last summer, when I was being held in the hole at Seagoville. I was minding my own business one afternoon, lying back on my bunk, and thinking about how much I hate Charles Krauthammer, when there suddenly appeared on the other side of the cell door window grill, a wide pale face — the face of Lyndon Johnson. He looked right into my eyes, broke out into a great, big frightening grin, and then disappeared. Thirty seconds later, after my heart had resumed beating and I had regained control of my legs and bowels, I leaped onto the floor — catlike, every muscle taut — and crept silently to the door before slowly raising myself up enough so that I could look through the grill. There he was, just down the hall, grinning into someone else’s cell window. Then he left, no doubt to return to his stasis chamber at the corporate headquarters of Kellogg, Brown & Root.
A few days later, I learned that the fellow wasn’t actually Lyndon Johnson at all, but was in fact the prison’s finance manager, or something like that, and was just helping out in the hole that day. Now, that’s all well and good, but it would have been courteous of the administrators to put up some sort of warning sign about this, like: “Attention Inmates: Be advised that we employ a man who strongly resembles Lyndon Johnson. Note that he is not actually Lyndon Johnson but, we repeat, merely happens to look like him. Rest assured that he cannot actually get into your cell and kill you, as the doors are made from reinforced steel and we do not provide him with access to the keys, lest he actually turn out to be Lyndon Johnson, but we do this simply out of an abundance of caution.”
Is it so much to ask that Seagoville Federal Correctional Institution should cater to my various surreal neuroses, even the one that I’m probably just making up for comic effect? Alternatively, they could, say, stop putting people in the hole on phony escape accessory charges because they made a jump rope, or perhaps fire some of the more specifically racist and gang-affiliated guards, such as that Thompson chap, or perhaps refrain from putting Jewish inmates into isolation cells with Aryan Brotherhood members, who promptly beat them up, as happened there a few years back, resulting in a lawsuit. I mean, I feel like I’ve thrown out several really promising ideas here.
Bible Verse of the Day:
Job 26:14 (As I do not currently have a copy of the Bible, I will be replacing this verse with lyrics from a George Thorogood song.)
So I go down the streets
Down to my good friend’s house
I said, “Look man, I’m outdoors you know
Can I stay with you maybe a couple of days?”
He said, “Let me go and ask my wife”
He come out of the house
I could see it in his face
I know that was no
He said, “I don’t know man, ah she kinda funny, you know”
I said, “I know, everybody funny, now you funny too.”
Editor’s note: Barrett Brown has been incarcerated since September 2012. A hearing to determine his sentence began December 16. Here’s what happened. He should learn his fate when the hearing continues on January 22. Go here to read earlier installments of The Barrett Brown Review of Arts and Letters and Jail. Go here to contribute to his legal defense fund and learn more about the charges against him. If you’d like to send him something:
Barrett Brown, No. 45047-177
Kaufman Law Enforcement Center
P.O. Box 849
Kaufman, TX 75142