The Barrett Brown Review of Arts and Letters and Prison

A Visit to the Sweat Lodge

Photo: Nikki Loehr

BACK IN THE GO-GO DAYS of 2011 I got into some sort of post-modern running conflict with a certain declining superpower that shall remain nameless, and shortly afterwards found myself in jail awaiting trial on 17 federal criminal counts carrying a combined maximum sentence of 105 years in prison. Luckily I got off with just 63 months, which here in the Republic of Crazyland is actually not too bad of an outcome.

The surreal details of the case itself may be found in any number of mainstream and not-so-mainstream news articles, from which you will learn that I was the official spokesman for Anonymous, or perhaps the unofficial spokesman for Anonymous, or maybe simply the self-proclaimed spokesman for Anonymous, or alternatively the guy who denied being the spokesman for Anonymous over and over again, sometimes on national television to no apparent effect. You’ll also find that I was either a conventional journalist, an unconventional journalist, a satirist who despised all journalists, an activist, a whistleblower, a nihilistic and self-absorbed cyberpunk adventurer out to make a name for himself, or “an underground commander in a new kind of war,” as NBC’s Brian Williams put it, no doubt exaggerating.

According to the few FBI files that the bureau has thus far made public, I’m a militant anarchist revolutionary who once teamed up with Anonymous in an attempt to “overthrow the U.S. government,” and on another, presumably separate occasion, I plotted unspecified “attacks” on the government of Bahrain, which, if true, would really seem to be between me and the king of Bahrain, would it not? There’s also a book out there that claims I’m from Houston, whereas in fact I spit on Houston. As to the truth on these and other matters, I’m going to play coy for now, as whatever else I may be, I’m definitely something of a coquette. All you really need to know for the purposes of this column is that I’m some sort of eccentric writer who lives in a prison, and I may or may not have it out for the king of Bahrain.

Over the last couple of years of incarceration, I’ve had ever so many exciting adventures, some of which I’ve detailed in the prior incarnation of this column, “The Barrett Brown Review of Arts and Letters and Jail.” I’ve watched two inmates get into a blood-spattered fight over the right to sell homemade pies from a particular table. I have participated in an unauthorized demonstration against an abusive guard and been thrown into the hole as a suspected instigator. I’ve shouted out comical revolutionary slogans while my Muslim cellmate flooded our tiny punishment cell in order to get back at the officers who’d taken his Ramadan meal during a search. I’ve found myself with nothing better to read than an autobiography by Wendy’s Old-Fashioned Hamburgers founder Dave Thomas, and read it, and found it wanting.

I’ve stalked a fellow inmate who talks nonsense to himself all day due to having never come down after a PCP trip, suspecting that he might say something really weird that I could compare and contrast with the strange William Blake poems I’d been reading and thought this might be a funny idea for an article, and I was right, so do not ask me to apologize for this, for I shall not. I’ve been extracted from my cell by a dozen guards and shipped to another jail 30 miles away after the administration decided I was too much trouble. I’ve spent one whole year receiving sandwiches for dinner each night, but the joke’s on them because I love sandwiches.

I’ve read through an entire 16th-century volume on alchemy out of pure spite. I’ve added the word “Story” to the end of every instance of prison graffiti reading “West Side” that I’ve come across thus far. I’ve conceived the idea of writing a sequel to the Ramayana but abandoned the project after determining that the world is not prepared for such a thing. I’ve been subjected to a gag order at the request of the prosecution on the grounds that the latest Guardian article I’d written from jail had been “critical of the government.” I’ve learned all sorts of neat convict tricks like making dice out of toilet paper, popping locks on old cell doors, and appreciating mediocre rap. I’ve managed to refrain from getting any ironic prison tattoos and feel about 65 percent certain that I’ll be able to hold out for the two years left in my sentence. And I’ve read Robert Caro’s four-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson over the course of a month, in the process becoming something of a minor god, beyond good and evil, unfazed by man’s wickedness.

After being sentenced last January I released a statement reading:

“Good News! — The U.S. government decided today that because I did such a good job investigating the cyber-industrial complex, they’re now going to send me to investigate the prison-industrial complex. For the next 35 months, I’ll be provided with free food, clothes, and housing as I seek to expose wrongdoing by Bureau of Prisons officials and staff and otherwise report on news and culture in the world’s greatest prison system. I want to thank the Department of Justice for having put so much time and energy into advocating on my behalf; rather than holding a grudge against me for the two years of work I put into in bringing attention to a DOJ-linked campaign to harass and discredit journalists like Glenn Greenwald, the agency instead labored tirelessly to ensure that I received this very prestigious assignment. Wish me luck!”

In fact I had no intention of doing anything of the kind; it was merely the same manner of idle bluster that I’ve been putting out to the press for years now because I’m a braggart. Actually I was hoping to just sort of relax and maybe catch up on my plotting. But a month later, when I arrived at the Fort Worth Correctional Institution to serve the remainder of my sentence, the place turned out to be an unspoiled journalistic paradise of poorly concealed government corruption and ham-fisted cover-ups. Even so, I was still reluctant to grab at even this low-hanging fruit. I’d spent the 18 months prior to my arrest overseeing a crowd-sourced investigation into that aforementioned “cyber-industrial complex,” a subject which, although important, I also happen to find personally distasteful; the research end involved going through tens of thousands of emails stolen by Anonymous from the toy-fascist government desk-spies and jumped-up quasi-literate corporate technicians to whom the American “citizenry” have accidentally granted jus primae noctis over several Constitutional amendments. I hate all this computer shit and was actually a little relieved when the FBI finally took me down, thereby sparing me from the obligation to read another million words of e-Morlock jibber-jabber about Romas/COIN and Odyssey and persona management and whatever else the public is just going to end up ignoring until it’s too late anyway.

So I was disinclined to sully the rest of my incarceration vacation by having to memorize a book of Bureau of Prisons policies and court rulings on due process rights for inmates to see which ones are being routinely violated by the prison administration, and then run around secretly interviewing inmates and getting copies of receipts and making Freedom of Information requests and all that. After all, there already exists here a clandestine network of inmates who do all of this and more, and who routinely make significant discoveries ranging from procedural violations to outright criminal conduct by staff and administrators — and, naturally, all of these documented revelations are generally ignored by the incompetent regional reporters to whom the inmates occasionally send such materials. As I happen to know some of the 3 or 4 percent of U.S. journalists and editors who are capable of doing their jobs, I figured I’d just hook one of them up with the prisoner in question, hope that some instance of wrongdoing gets exposed in print, take more than my share of the credit, put out a victory statement reading, “No one imprisons Barrett Brown and gets away with it! Mwah ha ha!!” or something to that effect, and then spend the rest of my sentence doing whatever it is that I do for recreation.

In late March I put my awesome plan in motion, using the inmate email system to follow up with a journalist I’d provided with contact info for one of the inmate researchers and reiterating that the fellow had documented evidence of corruption within the Bureau of Prisons. Then, an hour later, my email was cut off. After a couple of days of inquiry I was pulled aside by the resident head of security, a D.C. liaison by the name of Terrance Moore, who told me he’d been the one to cut off my email access, as I’d been “using it for the wrong thing,” which he clarified to mean talking to the press. When I sought to challenge this plainly illegal move by turning in the BP-9 form to begin the Administrative Remedy process that inmates are required to exhaust before suing the federal official who’s violated their right to due process under what’s known as a Bivens claim, the prison’s Administrative Remedy coordinator simply failed to log it into the system for over a month, finally doing so only after the matter had been brought to the attention of the press; finally on June 4 he deigned to register receipt of the BP-9, thereby belatedly starting the clock on the 20 days the prison is allotted in which to address one’s grievance — and then he failed to respond even by that illicitly extended deadline.

I’ve since learned that this sort of thing is common here, and that in fact I was lucky to get my grievance officially acknowledged as received at all; I’ve seen copies of forms that have yet to be logged five months after being turned in to the unit staff. That would be problematic enough anywhere, as it constitutes denial of access to the courts. But it’s especially despicable at an institution like this, which includes a medical unit for inmates who require ongoing treatment — because to the extent that they don’t actually receive that treatment, the only recourse is to pursue the Remedy process so that their complaints won’t simply be tossed out of court on the grounds that they’ve “failed to exhaust” that process before going to the judge. I’ve included copies of the relevant documents in prior columns and will continue to provide updates as I take my case to the regional office, the national office, and finally to the courts, as of course it will be interesting to see whether or not the BOP takes due process seriously or, barring that, is at least willing to buy me off with a carton of Marlboros.

In the meantime, I continue to have neat adventures. Last month one of the American Indian inmates invited me to attend their weekly sweat lodge ceremony, which is held in a fenced-off area that each federal prison is required to provide for ritual use by the Natives. The next morning I showed up at the appointed time and, having determined that it wasn’t an ambush, I began helping the 20 or so resident Indians break up tree branches for fire kindling, something I did very much with the air of a five-year-old who believes himself to be “helping Daddy.” Next we built a large bonfire (I assisted by staying out the way and being good) by which to heat up several dozen large rocks that would be used for “the sweat.” The fire-making process was expedited by strategically placed crumpled-up sheets of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, which I gather is not a strictly traditional aspect of most shamanistic ceremonies. As if to acknowledge this, one of the Indians declared, “The one good thing the white man ever did was invent paper.” Naturally all eyes were on me, and I knew that this might be my only chance to win them over. “We didn’t invent it,” I blurted out. “We just stole it from the Chinese.” This produced appreciative chuckles all around. “I got a laugh out of the Indians!” I thought exultantly, my triumph so complete that I was unbothered by the fact that what I’d said wasn’t really true.

By and by we crawled into the lodge, a wood-and-canvas structure with a dirt floor, in the middle of which had been dug a pit to hold the heated rocks that would be providing the extraordinary heat we would need to sweat out our sins. The flap was then closed from the outside, leaving us in perfect darkness, and thereafter began the first of the 15-minute “rounds” of the sweat ceremony, which consisted of all manner of tribal songs, entreaties to the spirits, and sometimes just discussions and announcements. At one point my sponsor, a Lakota, declared that although superficially white, I might nonetheless have an “Indian spirit.” It was one of the nicest things anyone had ever said about me, this polite supposition that I might not really be descended from the fair-skinned race of marauding, treaty-breaking slavers whose Novus Ordo Seclorum had been built on a foundation of genocide. But insomuch as I’d spent the bulk of the ceremony not in prayer, but rather in a state of neurotic concern over whether or not my self-deprecating comment from an hour earlier about whites stealing paper could have perhaps been a bit more crisply phrased, I’m afraid my spirit would seem to be Anglo-Saxon after all.

Although undeniably majestic, the ceremony was also something of a disappointment. I had gone into the thing hoping that I might mysteriously know exactly what to do — how to pass the peace pipe and all that — and maybe even start singing old Cherokee songs that the eldest of those present would barely recall having heard from their own grandfathers. Stunned, the Indians would collectively intone, “He shall know your ways as if born to them,” this being the ancient prophecy I had thereby fulfilled, and then I would unite the tribes under my banner and lead the foremost of their warriors on a jihad against our shared enemies, as Paul Muad’Dib did. Instead, the Indians had to remind me several times not to just stand up and start walking around during the ceremony.

I’m currently in the midst of another adventure, having been placed back in the hole two weeks ago after a suspicious incident in which staff singled me out for a search of my locker and found a cup of homemade alcohol, or “hooch.” Next time, then, we’ll take a look at life here in the Special Housing Unit, or SHU, as the hole is more formally known, and where I expect to spend some 45 days. And when I get back, there better not be any more Republican presidential primary contenders. You don’t need three dozen slightly different variations on right-Hegelian nationalist populism from which to choose. That’s just excessive.

Disparaging Comment of the Day about General Douglas MacArthur:

“He’d like to occupy a throne room surrounded by experts in flattery; while in a dungeon beneath, unknown to the world, would be a bunch of able slaves doing his work and producing the things that, to the public, would represent the brilliant accomplishment of his mind. He’s a fool, but worse, he is a puking baby.”

         — Dwight Eisenhower

              (Quoted by Jean Edward Smith, Eisenhower in War and Peace)


Join The Conversation