The Barrett Brown Review of Arts and Letters and Prison

The Government Explains Why It Took My Email

Drawing by Paul Davis

NOT LONG AGO I WAS LYING IN MY BUNK in the hole, just minding my own business as always and thinking about some of the video games I have known and loved over the years, when suddenly one of the guards shouted through the door grill that his fascist Bureau of Prisons overlords had just decreed that my custody level had been raised and that I was thus to be transferred to a medium security prison two days hence, all to the greater glory of the American Pig Empire, though I’m paraphrasing a little.

The transfer itself wasn’t terribly surprising, as the prison administration had good reason to want me gone. And the increase in my custody level is actually warranted, at least on paper. Federal prisons are divided into minimum, low, medium, and maximum security facilities, among which inmates are perpetually reshuffled as they either stay out of trouble, in which case their custody level is eventually reduced and they get to go somewhere less dangerous — or, like me, they get caught with hooch, go to the hole for two months, get out, fail a drug test a week later when it comes up positive for opiates, and go back to the hole, in which case one’s security designation is increased and he’s sent somewhere more dangerous, in this case on the grounds that the fact that I like to snort morphine and write epic poetry about Tamerlane makes me some kind of security risk, rather than simply an Orientalist.

(I don’t mean to be flippant about my on-again, off-again opiate problem, which has been chronicled in assorted magazine profiles and government documents with varying degrees of accuracy, and for which I’m slated to receive treatment upon release; meanwhile, I’m also working hard, one day at a time, to accept that the Middle East has a right to be understood on its own terms, and not simply as a convenient “Other” upon which to overlay Western sociological and aesthetic thought-products.)

What was really striking about all this was that I was to be transferred in a mere two days, whereas it usually takes inmates around three months to be shipped; two of my colleagues back there in the hole had been waiting for the better part of a year. The odds are that they wanted me out quickly because I’d just recently begun a promising new round of “Administrative Remedy” complaints over several suspicious incidents, including one in which a guard stopped me outside the law library and confiscated a notebook containing interviews I’d conducted on staff misconduct, deeming it “contraband”; they also may have hoped to complicate my ongoing complaint process with regard to the email access they took from me after I’d contacted a journalist about other misconduct, of which more later. But I like to think that the warden is simply a big Jonathan Franzen fan who’d become enraged over my recent review of Purity, which, come to think of it, really was a bit more mean-spirited than was probably necessary.

THAT FRIDAY I “MADE CHAIN,” as being handcuffed and shackled and put on a prison bus is colorfully termed, and was driven to the federal inmate transfer center in Oklahoma along with 30 other convicts, most of whom had just been sentenced. Upon arrival we were divided up and placed in the facility’s dozen or so 100-man detainment units, more or less at random, the exception being members of several Hispanic gangs, including Tango Blast and Texas Syndicate, who have to be kept apart from several other Hispanic gangs due to a certain diplomatic impasse, which I’ve reported on in previous columns.

Inmates generally spend two weeks in Oklahoma before being shipped to their designated prisons, whiling away the hours playing chess and spades. Spades appears to be something of a made-up-on-the-fly game like Calvinball, and my New Year’s resolution was to play less chess, a pastime that seems to bring out the worst in me, so instead I hit the jailhouse book cart, from which I was lucky enough to extract a copy of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. I’d read The Hobbit as a kid and had thereafter tried on two separate occasions to get into The Fellowship of the Ring, but each time I found that I was already too emotionally invested in the Dune universe and the Star Wars universe, to say nothing of the Marvel universe, to commit myself to yet another universe, much less one concocted by — let’s be frank — a mere Englishman.

Later I happened to learn that Tolkien was not only a sentimental Luddite, which is a typical enough English vice, but also a sort of Ultramontanist reactionary, which is not. It also turns out that he once got all upset with his theological protégé C.S. Lewis for joining the Church of England rather than his own precious, precious Catholic Church. Later Lewis married a divorcée and Tolkien stopped talking to the poor fellow altogether. Nonetheless, I did find the Two Towers very charming, and probably would have enjoyed it even more had I not been so distracted by having to keep an eye out for pro-Franco subtexts.

All in all, the transfer facility was surprisingly well run. My only objection concerns the engraved signs on the staircase that read, “(No sitting on stairs.)” There’s no need for parentheses on this sign.

EVENTUALLY I WAS PLACED on another bus for an 11-hour jaunt to the medium security Federal Correctional Institution at Three Rivers in South Texas. I’d heard quite a bit about Three Rivers from my colleagues at Fort Worth; the BOP, it seems, has been trying to increase the prison’s proportion of white inmates, which is something like 15 percent, so as to provide for some degree of racial balance. Of the 18 inmates on the bus, though, there was only one other white guy, but then he had a swastika tattoo on the back of his head, so he may have counted as two or three white guys for accounting purposes.

Despite being shackled and handcuffed, we inmates rather enjoyed our road trip. I was designated the resident expert on Texas, a role I took very seriously, pointing out to everyone which highways we passed were named for which unprosecuted war criminals. I also explained how we helped steal the 1960 election for Kennedy before killing him and replacing him with a common hoodlum. Occasionally the bus would make a stop in some strip mall parking lot and the inmates would amuse themselves by pointing out female shoppers as they came out of the stores and declaring them to be sexually adventurous, often on dubious evidence. “You know they freaks cause they drink Natural Light,” said one misguided drug dealer, referring to two pallid Caucasian women who had just emptied a case of beer into a foam cooler before driving off in a minivan, obeying the speed limit.

I’ll get around to describing life in a gang-dominated medium security federal prison by and by, but right now it’s time for another update on this exciting game I’ve been playing with the BOP whereby I try to get them to restore the public email access they took from me back in March while they try to come up with some plausible explanation for this that doesn’t entail admitting that prison employees committed a crime in doing so. I’m afraid we’re both losing.

Shortly before my last visit to the hole, the warden’s executive assistant Jerry McKinney finally brought me this response to the complaint I’d filed months ago (and which, though allegedly from the warden, was actually composed by his official designee McKinney, as is common practice). It’s a splendid example of BOP style, in which the only portions that are free from grammatical errors are those that have been lifted from bureau policy manuals. Altogether it constitutes its own world, one that challenges our basic assumptions at every turn. A memorandum from 2010 “provide supplemental guidance,” while the Trust/Fund Deposit Form Manual “state” certain things; it is as if one’s soul is being addressed after death by the Ascended Masters, for whom time and plurality have no meaning. The Ascended Masters also seem to have trouble with semicolons.

Speaking of timelessness, here we have the Platonic ideal of the federal functionary sentence, with its inappropriate commas and astonishing misuse of common terms like “on behalf”: “Specifically, you state you were denied messaging access without explanation by staff, for contacting a journalist about wrongdoing on the behalf of Bureau of Prisons staff.” But this will forever be my favorite federal moronism: “This policy also states Pending Investigation or Disciplinary Actions for TRULINCS Abuse or Misuse.” What he means is that there exists a section of the relevant policy statement with that title. That is what he means by that.

After a few more feints in the direction of coherent exposition, this horrible creature finally presents the explanation that seems to have taken the administration four months to think up. The reader will agree that it was worth the wait:

The section titled History of Illegal Activities Using Computers states, as with computer knowledge and skills, a TRULINCS messaging restriction based on this threat should be very rare, and only when the illegal activity involved use of e-mail as stated in your March 31, 2015, e-mail addressed to Anna Smith subject ‘Re: Anonymous vs ISIS’ in which you stated “You cannot prevent us.”

And thus it was that all of Noam Chomsky’s voluminous arguments to the effect that humans are born with an innate grasp of syntax were overturned with a mere two dozen words from Jerry McKinney, Executive Assistant to the Warden, Fort Worth Federal Correctional Institution.

But you’re probably wondering what’s going on here and what ISIS has to do with it.

By way of explanation, I refer the reader to my BP-10, as it’s called, which I sent to the Office of the Regional Director in mid-October as per the convoluted protocol put forth years ago by the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which an inmate must exhaust before the civil rights violations to which he is perpetually subject can be brought to the attention of a court. In addition to the mysterious ISIS connection, the administration also claims that the suspiciously timed email restriction was also due to the BOP’s sudden realization that I was convicted of crimes involving computers well over a year ago, an assertion that fails for several reasons that I detail here in addition to the more obvious one. Finally, they claim that there exists an internal memo that backs up their absurd position. But, alas, the responsibilities of power are such that it must for now remain internal: “Due to safety concerns and other legitimate security interest, you will not be provided a copy of this notice.” And who are we to argue with legitimate security interest? Also note the tremendous restraint and maturity I show by not just filling my appeal with cuss words and old Symbionese Liberation Army slogans, as is actually warranted by the situation:

Perhaps being aware that the “charges” claim fails on its face, the administration has now produced a second, more bizarre claim that is even flimsier than the first: that on March 31, I used the messaging system to engage in “illegal activity” when, having received an email from my friend Anna Smith that included an account of a reported protest campaign by participants of the hacktivist movement Anonymous against websites operated by the Islamic State, I replied with the message, “You cannot prevent us.” The warden refrains from explaining how I managed to commit a crime with a four-word reply to a friend about a news story she’d just brought to my attention, and does not even deign to note which law it was that I broke; the only explanation that I can come up with is that, after four months of obfuscation, they now hope to portray the message as some sort of threat to Anna Smith. Here follows a selection of reasons why this is insane: (a) Even a brief review of my past messaging with Smith would reveal that “you cannot prevent us” is a gag phrase that she herself alerted me to after it appeared in a statement by a group of alleged North Korean hackers that was being discussed in the media at the time. (b) Even being unaware of that, no honest observer could seriously conclude that I was proclaiming to an Austin-based documentary filmmaker that she is unable to prevent someone’s protest campaign against the online infrastructure of a Middle Eastern terrorist syndicate. (c) Even if we assume that Smith is in fact a member of ISIS, as would seem to be a prerequisite for making sense of the institution’s implied position to the effect that my alleged anti-ISIS rhetoric is most reasonably interpreted as an illegal threat to her, it remains unclear how my supposedly serious contention that she is not in a position to stop an online attack on her apparent Sunni exclusionist paymasters would constitute any sort of threat, rather than simply a clear-eyed assessment of Ms. Smith’s total inability to deploy any effective cyberwarfare countermeasures in defense of her messiah, the 12th or “Hidden” Imam. (d) Despite pretending to believe that I threatened her, the institution has not restricted my ability to communicate with Smith, and prison records will of course show that I’ve had a number of phone conversations and exchanges of letters with her since the day of this fabricated criminal incident. One might expect the prison to have stricken her from my contact list had they actually believed their own cover story about simply wanting to protect the ISIS-loving public from my unhinged anti-terrorist rhetoric. (e) I have not been charged with any crime or infraction whatsoever, whereas neither the BOP nor the FBI have been shy about charging me with all sorts of pretend offenses whenever they have seen any way of making them stick; in this case, the prison may have actually come up with something so absurd that even the Feds won’t touch it. (f) The administration refuses to provide me with the required written notice of cause that I’ve been requesting since April, a refusal they justify on the pretext of unspecified “safety concerns,” no doubt involving Boko Haram.

Yesterday, staff handed me a notice from a certain Mr. Boddy, Acting Administrative Remedy Coordinator for the South Central Regional Office, explaining that my appeal has been rejected because it takes up two continuation pages rather than one, and because it is late, which it is not, as I’ve already explained in detail, which is part of the reason I needed two continuation pages. We’ll analyze this in a bit more depth next time, but for now, note that Boddy informs me, as he is required to do, that I may “resubmit [my] appeal in proper form within 15 days of the date of this rejection notice.”

Now note that the date of this rejection notice is October 27 and that I received it on November 11. Perhaps Citizen Boddy really does have a point about my failure to follow procedure; just a few hours after receiving the latest forms, I’d already missed the deadline.

Quotation of the Day:

“This policy also states Pending Investigation or Disciplinary Action for TRULINCS Abuse or Misuse.”

— Jerry McKinney
Executive Assistant to the Warden
Federal Correction Institution Fort Worth

Join The Conversation