At the end of February, I arrived at the Fort Worth Federal Correctional Institution, where I’ll be serving the remainder of my five-year sentence, unless something unforeseen happens, like, say, the American people overthrow the federal government, release me from my cell, and declare me Dictator For Life of the Amalgamated Union of North American States. I’m not saying they should do that, mind you. It’s not for me to tell the American people what to do.
In some ways, this place promises to be far more exciting than the various jail units I’ve been calling home for the last couple of years. For instance, I’d been here a little over a month before certain elements within the prison administration began explicitly violating their own stated policies as well as U.S. law in an effort to disrupt my attempts to bring to public attention other instances of wrongdoing within the Bureau of Prisons in an incident that’s already made headlines and which now appears likely to end up in the courts later this year. So, that’s certainly exciting.
Before going into all that, I should probably explain something about the BOP as a whole. It is more likely than not that, in the history of mankind, there has never been an organization other than the Bureau of Prisons in which the high and noble ideals of technocratic reformers who decide on policy from afar are so often trampled underfoot by the low and beastly foot soldiers who are actually charged with carrying out these policies, with the obvious exception of the Democratic Party. This is not to say that the guards and mid-level administrators are all fascists or anything like that; I would put the figure at around 30 percent, which is not too far off from that of the adult population of the United States as a whole. But, as with the Republican Party, it is the fascists that so often end up setting the pace. (And on an unrelated subject, I can’t express how distressed I am, as a newly convicted felon, to have lost my right to vote.)
The above is an over-simplification, but, in my benevolence, I shall clarify a bit, as the nature of the BOP is such that it defies easy evaluation. One does not simply describe it all in one go; rather, one must circle around it a bit, taking little snapshots here and there until one can present it in all of its splendid angles. She is a coquette, but of no easy virtue. Contrary to what I put forth just a paragraph ago, for instance, it is often the bright-eyed policy wonks themselves who turn out to be misguided and overbearing, and the guards who serve as our protectors, shielding us from many of the burdensome and unnecessary little rules that officially govern our lives. In a typical BOP jail unit, each cell is afflicted with a vent that shoots out a never-ending stream of frigid air, thereby forcing inmates even in places like Texas to don heavy jackets in the middle of summer, at great cost to the taxpayer. Jail inmates are officially forbidden from covering up those vents, but if you ever happen to take a stroll through a jail unit, you’ll find every single vent is, in fact, blocked with some sort of makeshift cover. You won’t see this if you’re a prison administrator of the sort that makes monthly inspections of jail units, though, because just as prisoners conduct a collective and perpetual conspiracy by which to hide certain matters from the average guard, there are always a handful of matters that prisoners and guards conspire together to hide from the average administrator. And so in the hour before a scheduled inspection, the vent coverings come down, the fruit and milk that are not supposed to be in the cells are removed from the 90 percent of cells in which illicit fruit and unauthorized milk are kept, and the Potemkin jail unit is otherwise made ready for the useless and naïve administrators, who are quite correctly held in great contempt by inmates and officers alike.
Still, it is the sporadic and ever-shifting enforcement of petty regulations by the guards themselves that is most extraordinary. Back in the Seagoville Federal Detention Center, some officers had us return to our cells for 10 minutes after meals while the orderlies cleaned the floor around the tables; others merely relegated us to the top floor for the duration, while still others let us hang out wherever we liked during cleanup since we are sentient creatures who are plainly capable of keeping out of the way while someone sweeps the fucking floor.
There was similar diversity in schools of thought as to how long we should be confined to our cells before meals, and in what manner and grouping we should be let out to get our trays and eat. Some guards firmly believed that it was necessary for all 100 inmates to return to their cells, and for the guard to then lock each individual cell door behind us and then, five minutes later, to start unlocking those same doors one by one. (At this point there is additional variation, as some guards expect you to go eat as soon as your door is unlocked, while others expect you to remain confined in your now-unlocked cell until they call, “Chow!”) Likewise, some unlock only the bottom-floor cells and allow the inhabitants to eat while their top-floor counterparts remain confined, after which those who have eaten return to their cells to be locked back in before the top-tier cells are unlocked, and then, hey, why not have them return to their cells and lock them back in for another 20 or 30 minutes for good measure? One especially heroic specimen of an officer would let us out by the half-floor, thereby managing to double the time spent on all this. And then there was another fellow who didn’t have us go back to our cells before meals at all, but instead just yelled, “Chow!” and left us alone to eat like a reasonable human being. As such, the process of feeding inmates and cleaning up afterwards could take anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours, with there being a clear correlation between the duration and the extent to which the guard on duty was a toy fascist douchebag.
Indeed, a given federal detention facility is less a function of some universal array of procedures thought up by philosopher-bureaucrats in D.C. and more a sort of time-share fiefdom ruled over in turn by a succession of guards with a wide-ranging array of temperaments and psychological issues, which helps to keep things interesting. Again, using the Seagoville jail unit as an example, one officer forbade us from wearing our wool caps indoors, playing poker, or keeping items on our windowsills, regulations which were ignored by every other guard. Another wouldn’t let us stop and chat on the second-floor walkway. Still another forbade us to touch the second-floor handrail; yet another disallowed us from walking on the top floor for recreational purposes during such time as outside recreation was in effect, for reasons that I can only assume to be metaphysical in nature. Another guy rarely enforced any rules at all but would angrily tear down the strings we were in the habit of tying to the light switches outside our cell doors so as to be able to pull on the other end from inside our cells and thereby turn off our lights after being locked in for the night. A couple of others forbade us from removing our shirts on the rec yard. Some didn’t let us take leftover food back to our cells. One actually had us line up and give her our names and registration numbers so that she could check each of us off a list before allowing us to eat. Another forbade us to trot up and down the stairs for exercise; another didn’t allow us to do chin-ups on an exposed water pipe; one didn’t allow me to walk around the rec yard barefoot and evidently lacked the good breeding to at least make a show of pretending to believe my confused and half-mumbled explanation that I was only doing so for religious reasons; and another required us to walk clockwise to the stairway when he let us out for meals. As may be seen, we were not so much oppressed as harassed. And at any rate, many of these are indeed actual regulations that the guards are technically duty-bound to enforce rather than simply visible manifestations of their various emotional disorders (with the exception of the string-hating guard, whom I suspect to have been molested as a child by some unsavory heir to one of the nation’s twine fortunes).
But some of these are clearly not rules at all. What’s most striking is the selective enforcement by which the rules effectively change twice a day as the shifts change and in which the only element that remains consistent is that most rules are ignored altogether by staff and inmates alike; clearly there is an implicit agreement among these otherwise antagonistic groups that much of what the administrators come up with is unnecessary to the running of a safe and orderly prison. It also makes for a handy lesson as to how the rule of law upon which rests the lawful authority of state institutions is actually a fiction even aside from being counterproductive — as if any more such lessons were needed in a republic wherein the citizenry has gradually made criminals of about a quarter of its own adult population via drug, prostitution, and gambling statutes, and in which our continued survival above the level of a continent-wide gulag is thus entirely dependent on the state’s inability to enforce its own laws. But then, it’s certainly not my intention to criticize the noble American people, who will find themselves well-rewarded should they indeed decide to overthrow the current regime and make me their humble Dictator For Life. Not that I am putting myself forward as a candidate at this time. I just want the American people to be aware of their options. The office seeks the man.
And what of these administrators themselves? As with the guards and other government employees the world over, many are largely decent people trying to draw forth positive outcomes from what they recognize to be a deeply flawed system, whereas some are fools and others are knaves, and of course these three categories are not without some overlap. The mindset of the typical BOP administrator may perhaps be best illustrated by a review of the signs that befoul our prison walls. This is just as well; like the 17th-century Japanese nobleman who was delighted to find a broken leaf hanging at such an angle as to evoke some exquisite reflection, I am never really happy unless I am mulling over the sort of demented and quasi-literate nonsense that the typical 21st-century mid-level state functionary puts out when called upon to try to write something, which is why I was so thrilled by the NSA document leaks. Here at FCI Fort Worth, I have got my work cut out for me. Some examples follow. I’ll provide commentary where appropriate, but keep your eye out for such characteristic features as unwarranted belligerence, vague thrusts in the direction of accepted English grammar, and the use of overly formal terminology in the midst of sentences that are themselves broken beyond reasonable hope of repair.
“Beds are to be made military style, blankets tight on top with a 6” collar. A photo of a properly made bed is posted on the bulletin board. Classes will be given by the unit counselor on an as-needed basis one pillow per bed.”
Even setting aside the idea, so inherently totalitarian as to actually be kind of charming, that anyone ought to be required to fold one’s bed sheets within an inch-based margin of error, as if one were building the Ark of the Covenant and not simply arranging linen, and that this rule is so utterly necessary that a course of instruction should actually be made available to ensure compliance, and also setting aside the question of where the prison keeps the cryogenically frozen Nazi storm trooper who is presumably thawed out now and again to help the unit counselor teach such a class, I really like how the author of this deranged micro-treatise believes that, if a somewhat related sentence fragment happens to pop into his fevered little head, such as something to do with federal pillow quotas, it would be entirely appropriate to just throw it in at the end of whatever sentence he happens to be writing at the moment.
Here’s another one that begins reasonably enough by noting that one may check out clothing irons and related accessories by exchanging one’s ID card for them at an officer’s station, and then promptly descends into poorly phrased madness:
“Any of the above-noted items that are found in possession of an inmate without an ID card checked out, will be confiscated and subject to disciplinary procedures.”
As an actual American citizen who has spent a total of two months in the hole, I’d hate to see how the BOP goes about punishing a mere iron. Note also the flailing attempt to express the really very simple concept of “items that have not been properly checked out with one’s ID card.”
“Prior to releasing, turn your chair into staff.”
Well, I’m not much of a craftsman, but I’ll give it a go.
“There are no unauthorized hooks behind the door or on the walls and they must be removed immediately.”
The English language provides for countless ways by which one might properly convey the intended idea here, yet this sub-human somehow manages to choose one that fails on its own terms.
“ONE FAN, ONE PICTURE, AND ONE BOOK MAY BE PLACED ON YOUR TABLE, ALL OTHER ITEMS NEED TO BE PLACED IN YOUR LOCKER.”
This is actually relatively cogent, aside from the inevitable deployment of a comma where we might have prayed in vain for a period or a semicolon, and is only included here due to the amusingly unfortunate superficial resemblance of the initial clause to the old National Socialist tag “EIN REICH, EIN VOLK, EIN FUHRER!” At any rate, I’m not one of those lucky-ducky inmates who has their own “table,” by which this “person” seems to have been trying to convey “desk,” since that’s what some of us actually have, so I’m not confronted each day with the quandary regarding which picture to place on my desk for authorized picture-viewing sessions during federally sanctioned picture-viewing time or whatever the fuck was going through this war criminal’s diseased mind when he typed out this terrible nonsense.
“Two sets of clothes ironed and ONE coat is permitted to be neatly hung on hangers on your locker only.”
Four words into his latest masterwork, this guy apparently decides that English is, in fact, a romance language in which adjectives follow their subjects but at least refrains from taking this to its logical conclusion in ascribing gender to inanimate objects as in: “Zee coat, she must be well-pressed or you go to zee hole, yes?” Which I find kind of disappointing for some reason.
“Rooms will be of white paint only; no limes or other schematics. No arranging the rooms, all room must be uniformed.”
I stop by and read this sign at least five or six times a day, and it always make me smile. It’s not quite as good as the one about how we must remove the hooks from the walls that aren’t on the walls, but it has a certain subtlety all its own.
Anyway, that’s the mid-level BOP administrators for you. As for the upper-level honchos such as the wardens and D.C. appointees, we’ll have a chance to learn how they operate soon enough; on March 31, right after I used the inmate email system to get a journalist in touch with another prisoner who has information about BOP wrongdoing, my email access was taken away for a year without the written explanation that we’re supposed to receive in such an event. An internal security official who I asked about this claimed that I “wasn’t supposed to have it in the first place” and that a review of my recent messages showed that, by using it to talk to the press, I’d been “using it for the wrong thing.” A few days later, the prisoner I’d mentioned in the email had the typewriter he’d been permitted to keep in his cell taken away. As there are a half-dozen ways in which all of this violates both the BOP’s own policy and federal law, I have begun what’s known as the Administrative Remedy process, each documented step of which I will publish, along with the responses I receive as each step takes me up the chain of command to D.C. Naturally, I will provide additional commentary on their responses as needed, sort of like I’ve done with these signs.
Song Lyric of the Day:
“Her name is Aphrodite
And she rides a crimson shell!”
—Cream, “Tales of Brave Ulysses”
Editor’s note: Barrett Brown has been incarcerated since September 2012. Go here to read earlier installments of “The Barrett Brown Review of Arts and Letters and Jail.” If you’d like to send him a book, here’s his Amazon wish list.
Barrett Brown #45047-177
FCI Fort Worth
P.O. Box 15330
Fort Worth, TX 76119