LAST TIME I MENTIONED that I’d been thrown into the hole, otherwise known as the Special Housing Unit (SHU), after a “random” breathalyzer test that I passed was nonetheless followed by a “random” targeted search of my locker, not unlike the “random” drug test for which I just happened to be selected out of 350 inmates in my unit a few months back, shortly after filing a complaint against prison officials regarding — wait for it — retaliation. In fairness, they did find a cup of homemade alcohol in my locker this time, the clever rascals, but I was only going to use it to drink a toast to the Bureau of Prisons and wish the agency luck in defending itself against the various lawsuits that have been filed against it lately. Also I wanted to look cool in front of the bigger kids.
Getting put back in Disciplinary Segregation was actually in some ways fortuitous, as I’m now able to make a long-overdue inspection tour of this institution’s Special Housing Unit. (I’m very much the Eleanor Roosevelt of the federal prison system.) The timing is grand, too, as the nation’s tendency to keep prisoners in these sorts of 23-hour-a-day lockdown settings for no good reason has come under a rare spate of scrutiny in recent months. But going to the hole isn’t all champagne and roses. By policy, one doesn’t receive one’s property, including legal papers, until after two weeks of confinement. And by negligence, one is usually left without one’s prescribed medications for at least three or four days. Bizarrely enough, there was also a shortage of the little pencils we’re supposed to receive upon arrival, and so it took me a while to get one of my very own. And after over a month of confinement, despite countless requests to the ranking lieutenant, I’ve still yet to receive a high-end gaming laptop loaded with a Super Nintendo emulator, a complete set of Super Nintendo ROMs, and the latest stable release of Dwarf Fortress, although I guess I can see how this might be regarded as a not altogether reasonable demand.
But the most jarring aspect of going to the hole is always that period between arrival and the point at which one is able to get one’s hands on a worthwhile book. Some previous occupant had left a couple of paperbacks in my cell, one of which was an early ’90s thriller called The Mafia Candidate in which a major presidential contender turns out to be a tool of the mafia and not of Northrop Grumman or Booz Allen Hamilton or Lockheed Martin or Bell Helicopter or Kellogg Brown & Root, like the more respectable candidates. As the story begins, an undercover FBI agent joins some suspected drug runners on a Caribbean yacht cruise in order to gather evidence, rather than simply lying to a grand jury to obtain a warrant like a real FBI agent would do. Alas, the narc’s cover is blown and he’s held at gunpoint by the mob henchmen. “If this were an Indiana Jones movie, he might throw himself to the floor and roll under the table while all these guys with cannons blazed away at each other,” explains the author. “But this wasn’t the movies and things like that didn’t happen in real life. Or real death, either.”
PROUD THOUGH I WAS at having discovered the worst line ever written, I was now in full-on lit-crit final form blood frenzy battle mode, and so instead of resting on my snide and pompous laurels, I went ahead and picked up the other paperback. This was Holiday in Death by Nora Roberts, a contemptible writer who appears to have amassed an unwarranted fortune for herself and her foul publishers by catering to the gauche sexual fantasies of the American soccer mom, cursed among demographics. Having already written every possible combination of English words that can be jammed into a conventional 300-page romance novel and having thereby churned out some 900 trillion bestsellers, this arch-priestess of darkness next saw fit to concoct an entirely new genre, “futuristic romantic suspense,” of which this “Holiday” title is listed as being just one of two dozen in a series.
The setting: New York, 2043. The hero: a female cop who just happens to be married to THE RICHEST MAN IN THE WORLD WHO IS ALSO RUGGEDLY HANDSOME. As the story begins, our pig protagonist is feeling sad because THE RICHEST MAN IN THE WORLD WHO IS ALSO RUGGEDLY HANDSOME is on a business trip to space, presumably to attend the ribbon-cutting for the Palantir-Pentagon Joint Orbital Omniscience Satellite Array or something of that nature. But then he picks up the space phone and makes a space call to tell his jack-booted thugget that he’s coming home early because he just misses her so much. So he heads back to earth, perhaps catching a space ride on one of Elon Musk’s space yachts along with Palantir chief Peter Thiel and the biomechanical meta-clone of Admiral Poindexter that serves as Thiel’s handler. (I should probably explain that I spent a pleasant afternoon creating a dystopian geopolitical backstory for Roberts’ setting whereby the U.S. and its client states have fallen under the dual control of DARPA’s Office of Perpetual Data Supremacy and the Shadow Council of Misguided Tech Billionaires. I wish I could say that this took a great deal of imagination.) When he gets home he takes his little cop wife by the hand, and what do you suppose he tells her? He tells her this: “The wanting of you never stops.” Rather than do the only decent thing by shooting him in the back and casually tossing her taser next to the body in support of a falsified police report, this wanton cop-tart actually responds positively to her space husband’s deranged and over-written declaration of space lust. There follows what is likely intended to be a sex scene, though it’s all rather abstract so they might just be doing Tai Chi in a humid room.
Among the various tacked-on elements by which Roberts occasionally sees fit to remind us that this is the future, a list of the contents of someone’s apartment will usually include an “entertainment unit” or some such thing. Science fiction authors have been pulling this shit for literally 80 years now, sprinkling their projected futures with “comm units” and “food preparation units” and whatnot. It’s time to accept that no one is ever going to market their consumer appliance as any sort of “unit.” Things like that don’t happen in real life. OR REAL DEATH, EITHER.
ANYHOO, I SPENT MUCH of the first couple of days talking to my cellmate. (Note that a stint in the hole doesn’t necessarily entail solitary confinement, which is not always viable due to overcrowding.) As far as SHU cellmates go, it would be hard to top the one with whom I was initially placed last time I was thrown into the hole a year ago, after allegedly inciting a demonstration: a white, red-bearded Texas Muslim with the words “Death Rain Upon My Enemies” tattooed across his back in Arabic, and who, when asked by a staff officer if he had anything to say to the disciplinary committee in his own defense, quoted Saddam Hussein’s reply from his war crimes trial that he did not recognize the authority of their court, and who enjoyed not only gangsta rap and PCP but also the work of Phil Collins and, I swear to God, Oscar Wilde. I wrote two whole columns about this guy and was crestfallen when he was shipped off to the maximum security prison which he has no doubt since claimed as a province of Islamic State. Indeed, the truly heartbreaking thing about federal prison is the absence of video cameras by which to fully document the almost supernaturally bizarre array of people that the FBI has managed to bring together.
To give you a better sense of this, my new cellmate here in the SHU snuck over to Dallas from Mexico when he was 15, became the leader of a gang, did a year in state prison for shooting another drug dealer with a shotgun, sometimes consulted a local television psychic called Indio Apache for intel by which to better plot his criminal strategy, and worships Santa Muerte, the skeletal narco-deity beloved throughout the Mexican underworld. He has three kids, is currently serving a 15-year sentence for conspiring to distribute methamphetamines, is listed on his indictment as having seven different aliases, and is, he tells me, “almost 20 years old.” In the federal system, this qualifies him as a moderately interesting person. And, yes, here in Texas dealing meth is 15 times more serious than shooting someone with a shotgun.
Panchito Villa, as I’ll call him, is actually a very good cellmate. For one thing, he gives me the bread from our food trays, which is a big deal here in the SHU where one can’t get commissary, and particularly at this prison, where the rations have been inexplicably reduced over the last two years. Apparently his old boxing coach weaned him off bread products during training and the lesson stuck. Also he drew some very impressive decorations on our cell wall, including a life-size depiction of what would appear to be Princess Zelda wearing a handkerchief over her lower face gangster-style and sporting the tag “Vata Loca” tattooed above her eyes.
One morning, the two of us discussed the possibility that, this being Wednesday, which is hamburger day, our lunch might perhaps include potato wedges — a relatively beloved dish that the prison manages to provide once or twice a month — instead of the potato chips that it pawns off on us more often than not. Panchito knelt before the photograph of a robed skeleton that serves as a makeshift shrine to Santa Muerte and prayed to her on our behalf, asking that she intercede in this matter. An hour later, we received our hamburgers accompanied by potato wedges, and afterwards Panchito led me in a Spanish prayer of thanksgiving to our benefactress. The sad thing is that, given the alternative explanation is that the prison administration decided to feed us a sufficient lunch in accordance with the national standards, and given how rarely this actually ends up happening on any given day under the reign of our jerk-off warden, Rodney Chandler, and also taking into account what I’ve already documented in prior columns regarding this prison’s ongoing failure to meet a whole range of such standards on everything from hygiene to due process, there’s a better than even chance that it really was Santa Muerte who got us the fucking potato wedges.
On a day when we happened to receive cornbread with our dinner, Panchito handed it over to me as usual.
“Are you sure you don’t want this?” I asked. “I think cornbread isn’t as bad for you.”
“I don’t want to risk it,” replied the shotgun-wielding child soldier who makes pacts with demons for potato wedges.
SHORTLY AFTER ARRIVAL I received my incident report in which the “reporting officer” relates, with some apparent effort: “ON JUNE 17 2015 AT APPROXIMATE 8:35 PM DURING A RANDOM BREATHALYZER TEST I DECIDED TO SEARCH INMATES BROWN 45057-177 LOCKER AND FOUND A COFFEE MUG FULL OF PRISON MADE INTHOXICANT. OPERATION LT WAS INFORMED AND INMATE BROWN #45047-177 WAS ESCORTED BY THE COMPOUNP OFFICER TO THE SHU.” How it was that the benighted man-child should have been taken by a sudden fancy to search, er, “INMATES BROWN #45047-177 LOCKER” in the midst of a “RANDOM BREATHALYZER TEST” that I passed is left to the imagination. Luckily I received a gratuitous confirmation that this account was nonsense a few days later, when a Special Investigations Service officer by the name of McClinton came by the hole to give me yet another drug test and to brag about how they knew the hooch was in my locker due to the informants they have watching me. That just leaves the mystery of how the reporting officer managed to render “compound” as “compounp.” And if anyone out there is having trouble deciding on a name for their ska band, you could do worse than “PRISON MADE INTHOXICANT.”
There’ve also been some exciting new developments in my ongoing quest to get the BOP to explain why its D.C. liaison, Terrance Moore, switched off my ability to email the public an hour after I used it to contact a journalist about wrongdoing by bureau employees. Recall that the Administrative Remedy coordinator, a fellow named McKinney, fraudulently back-dated receipt of my original complaint about this to indicate that he received it on June 4, when in fact his office received it on April 30. Then, he failed to reply within the allotted 20 days of his make-believe date of receipt (and likewise missed his other self-declared deadline of June 29 for my second complaint regarding his failure to follow procedure on my first complaint, by golly!). According to the BOP’s own guidelines, I’m permitted to take this failure to respond as a refusal of my claim, thereby finally allowing me to file a BP-10 form, which goes to the regional office. But — hark! — on June 30, McKinney belatedly filed for extensions on the illicit deadlines that he’d already missed, giving himself 20 more days to respond to both complaints. And then he missed his fake deadlines, too.
Meanwhile, the prison has failed to inform me immediately and in writing of the various media interview requests I’ve been receiving, as policy requires it to; actor and documentary filmmaker Alex Winter has even sent his latest application via certified mail, to no effect. It also turns out that I’m on the BOP’s Central Inmate Monitoring system, billed in a BOP program statement as being used for prisoners who “present special needs for management,” which is one way of putting it. Naturally, they’ve failed to “ensure that the affected inmate is notified in writing as promptly as possible of the classification and the basis for it,” as is also required by policy. On a totally unrelated subject, I was sentenced recently to another 30 days in the hole beyond the month I’d already done, plus 90 days of phone, commissary, visiting and email restriction, which will certainly teach me to break BOP rules without first getting a job with the BOP.
Luckily I’ve gotten lots of nifty books in the mail from supporters, including The Muqaddimah, the 14th-century scholar Ibn Khaldun’s treatise on world history. Early on, Khaldun presents us with an example of an old story he deems unreliable: “Sea monsters prevented Alexander from building Alexandria. He took a wooden container in which a glass box was inserted, and dived in it to the bottom of the sea. Then he drew pictures of the devilish monsters he saw. He then had metal effigies of these animals made and set them opposite the place where building was going on. When the monsters came out and saw the effigies, they fled.” Ibn Killjoy goes out of his way to discredit this charming tale: “Now, rulers would not take such a risk. Any ruler who would attempt such a thing would work his own undoing and provoke the outbreak of revolt against himself, and be replaced by the people with someone else. … Furthermore, the jinn are not known to have specific forms and effigies. They are able to take on various forms.” Whatever, asshole.
[Goethe] had the sort of superstitious dread which is usually the inheritance of children with a poetic nature, and suffered greatly in childhood from fear. He was obliged by his father, who was a stern and somewhat opinionated old man, to sleep alone, as a means of overcoming this fear; and if he tried to steal from his own bed to that of his brothers, he was frightened back by his father, who watched for him and chased him in some fantastic disguise.
—Hattie Tyng Griswold, “Home Life of Great Authors”