Barrett Brown Describes Life In Jail
Photo by Nikki Loehr.
Barrett Brown is Bored Out of His Mind in Jail
Barrett Brown’s legal counsel sent this letter to VICE on behalf of their imprisoned client. They’ve been told to expect more writing from Barrett Brown in the near future. Some of the links at the end of this article go into detail about Brown’s case. Brown should not even be facing charges, and certainly not the rest of his life in jail. He was merely reporting on the StratFor leaks of Jeremy Hammond. But, in this way off the track country, that has Brown wasting time in jail. As you can see from his writing, he could be doing a lot more useful things with his talents.
Like a lot of pompous, insufferable people, I didn’t watch television when I was previously “out in the world,” as my fellow inmates say. And if I were being held in a regular federal facility like a normal detainee, I wouldn’t be exposed to it while incarcerated if I preferred to avoid it. This is because federal prisons (along with holding facilities where inmates await trial) are relatively humane affairs equipped with separate areas for various activities—for instance, sleeping and watching television are done in distinctly different rooms. The problem is that all the federal facilities here in the Northern District of Texas were filled up with inmates awaiting trial or sentencing when I became incarcerated. This isn’t simply because Texans are an inherently criminal bunch—although of course they are—but rather because, in addition to prosecuting actual crimes against property and persons, the federal government is also in a great big contest with the Chinese to see who can imprison the most people for bullshit non-crimes like selling drugs.
At the same time, Congress has decided that the best way of dealing with illegal immigrants from Mexico who threaten to increase our GDP is to imprison them at great expense to the public. There are other factors at play here, all of which point to the ongoing degeneracy of the American people. Suffice to say, because of Texas’ booming incarceration industry, I was not one of those lucky-ducky federal inmates who got to kick back in a real live federal facility—because these babies are filled to the brim. Rather, I’m “housed,” as they call it, in a privately-run city facility used for government overflow. And this place is filled up, too. Nor was it built to house people for more than a few days or perhaps weeks; until a couple of years ago, it functioned as a lock-up for area arrestees while they awaited transit elsewhere. As such, my fellow inmates and I spend our time in cramped eight-man cells opening on to a day room the size of the cheapest Manhattan apartment that’s shared by 24 men. A few times a week we get to go outside onto a caged concrete strip and walk back and forth for an hour. This comprises our world, and is where I’ve spent most of the past year.
In such a confined environment, a single television mounted to the wall is immeasurably pervasive, its influence inescapable. There are few places in our little enclave from which it can’t be seen, and none from where it can’t be heard. It is the moon; we are the tides. Of course, it is also a resource to be fought over. And lest repeated disputes turn our cozy unit into some kind of perpetual dystopian race-war zone, we have a schedule by which power is shared between the two ethno-linguistic blocs—the Union of Mexicans and Assorted Spanish Speakers on one hand, and the Black and White Imperial Combine on the other. (I like to give things dramatic, futuristic names.)
Now, in a real prison compound, politics would be carried out completely under the auspices of race, with blacks, whites, and Hispanics serving as the units of conflict and compromise; for instance, I spent two months of my past year’s confinement at the actual federal jail unit in nearby Fort Worth, where there were two TVs for the whites, two for the blacks, and two for the Hispanics. Here, though, at my small-town temporary overflow facility, I am one of just two white prisoners—a number that is helpful only in rounding out a coalition, like the Green Party in a parliamentary legislature. Sharing a common language, we blacks and whites likewise share a cell and a stake in the television, which must thus be tuned to English-language stations for about half of the day. The remainder is given over to the several Spanish channels that are widely available in this region of Texas.
Spanish television programming, to this gringo’s view, is a vaguely nightmarish mixture of low-concept variety shows, Mexican films from the 80s, and Spanish-language news segments. Several offerings of varying formats are hosted by clowns, only a couple of which are geared towards children. Such use is made of midgets as would have been considered a bit tasteless in the courts of many medieval dukes. One popular telenovela (the ubiquitous Spanish soap opera) actually centers on a whole family of mariachis; all such dramatic episodes feature scenes in which something threatening or revelatory is uttered, after which follows five-second shots of the respective faces of each of up to a dozen characters who may be present, with each actor looking either surprised, defiant, or exultant—which is to say that periods of 30 to 60 seconds will go by in which we stare at a room full of people simply staring at each other. Mexican movies of the day are mostly about drug cartel activity and tend to end in unconvincing gun battles. News programs are all hosted by impossibly beautiful women with exquisite breasts, and a suspiciously high portion of the news itself concerns other impossibly beautiful women with exquisite breasts. In a complex world, it appears perhaps that Latinos find solace in the ancient mysteries of fertility.
There is little to be said about what the English-speaking inmates watch, with one exception. One particular program is viewed religiously not only in our 24-man tank, but also in the two others into which I can peer through windows connecting us across a hall. This particular show appears, oddly enough, on the Oxygen channel, which I seem to recall being Oprah Winfrey’s network for women. (And let me simply note here how disorienting it is to be cut off from the internet and thus unable to verify any such fact as this. It’s like living back in the mid-90s when the internet was still useless, those being the final years of mankind’s two-million-year-long Age of Uncertainty during which it was impossible to figure anything out. I still remember back in high school when Marilyn Manson appeared on the scene and some kid would tell you that the singer was actually Paul from The Wonder Years. And there was absolutely no way to determine the truth of this either way, so you would just go ahead and believe it, or at least I did. What was the alternative? How would one go about finding out what Paul-from-the- Wonder-Years’ real name was, much less Marilyn Manson’s, without Google and Wikipedia? It would have been impossible.)
This program on the Oxygen network, though, being of the reality show genre, is called The Bad Girls Club. A flock of tacky twenty-something women are thrown together in a big fancy house in some American city where tacky twenty-something women can easily be assembled, like Miami or Atlanta. Episodes proceed more or less as follows: All of the women venture out together to a prominent local nightclub in a limo. The ride is punctuated by cheers to the effect that they are The Bad Girls. They get to the club, where they quite naturally sit in the VIP section and order bottle service. There follows a jump-cut montage of the girls drinking, dancing, and half-jokingly humping each other. Then a dispute invariably arises out of nothing. For this dispute to be resolved, there must first be performed a sort of ritualized catharsis. First, the woman who wrongly considers herself to be the offended party must address the other women as “y’all fake-ass bitches” on the limo ride home. Upon arrival, at least one or two women must flee crying into the house. Others must huddle together by the pool, smoking and airing their imaginary grievances. One will go back inside to get some more wine coolers and as she walks down the hall: BAM, SOME OTHER CHICK RUNS UP AND JUST FUCKING CLOCKS HER IN THE FACE AND THEN THEY GO DOWN SLAPPING THE SHIT OUT OF EACH OTHER! Until the security guards who are on hand for the purpose pull them apart. Thus the conflict is resolved. I’ve decided not to draw any wider conclusions from this.
Anyway, that’s what jail is like.
More on Barrett Brown: