The Barrett Brown Review of Arts and Letters and Prison

The Rule of Law Enforcement

Drawings by Paul Davis

AFTER HAVING SPENT the prior six months in a fruitless cycle of retaliation and counter-retaliation and counter-counter-retaliation with the administration of the Federal Correctional Institution at Fort Worth, where I managed to do about half of my time in the hole before finally getting kicked out altogether, I was delighted to arrive here at FCI Three Rivers, a medium security prison subject to occasional outbreaks of gang warfare that also happens to be quite a lot of fun. And though one’s first few days at a new prison are always given over largely to errands and social obligations, I did manage to get in some much-needed reading time when someone lent me a copy of Five Families, a history of the American mafia by the veteran New York Times crime reporter Selwyn Raab. I’ve never had much interest in organized crime of the non-governmental sort, but ever since 2009 when I read through the bulk of Thomas Friedman’s past columns in the course of researching a book on the subject of incompetence, I’ve been fascinated by the extent to which a fellow can be a bit of a dummy, with questionable writing abilities and a penchant for making demonstrably erroneous attacks on others, and still find regular employment with the nation’s most prestigious newspaper (though in fairness to the Times, they did eventually get rid of William Kristol).

I’m afraid I gave up on reading Five Families straight through after about the halfway mark, by which point it had become clear that Raab, contrary to all decency, was going to continue using the phrase “law-enforcement” thusly, with the unwarranted hyphen, something that would have been more tolerable did the term not necessarily appear every few pages due to the nature of the subject matter, often in the company of such other improprieties as “civil-rights,” “public-relations,” “stolen-car rings,” or “loan-shark,” and to such an extent that one could be forgiven for suspecting that Raab himself, for all his tough talk on crime, is in fact some sort of illicit hyphen smuggler.

Luckily, this is the sort of book from which one can extract the most telling instances of Gray Lady-caliber foolishness just by skimming around. At some point Raab seems to decide that the writers of The Sopranos must be punished for humanizing the mafia in the course of writing a drama about human beings who are in the mafia. And so, more in sadness than in anger, but more in confusion than either, he sets out to debunk the show’s fictional plotline by way of his own fictional journalistic expertise: “Genuine capos and wiseguys would never emulate Tony’s behavior. … No top-tier mobster would last long if he behaved like Tony Soprano, who defies basic Mafioso caution by exposing himself as a ripe target, to be easily mowed down by rivals. He drives without a bodyguard; sips espresso in daylight at a sidewalk café.” This comes just a few chapters after we’re told the following about a real-life top-tier mobster: “Shunning bodyguards and bullet-proof limousines, the sixty-six-year-old godfather met with his Mafia associates in restaurants and travelled about Manhattan in taxis like any ordinary businessman.”

To his credit, Raab did manage to refrain from rendering this last bit as “ordinary-businessman,” which is just fantastic, so we’ll give him another try: “Sex and psychiatry are prominent in The Sopranos’ story line. Confiding in a psychiatrist, however, would be a radioactive mistake for a boss or capo, who can never display symptoms of weakness or mental instability.” Naturally Raab has already forgotten having written the following about mafia boss Frank Costello: “Striving for inner peace while hovering between criminal affiliates and respected society, Costello tried psychoanalysis.”

Even had the author not been so sporting as to provide us with comically perfect counterexamples by which to disprove his various inane objections, one could have also pointed out that Tony Soprano’s decision to see a psychiatrist does in fact prove to be a “mistake” insomuch as it directly leads to a rupture in his organization culminating in a botched assassination attempt in the very first season, so this objection wouldn’t have made any sense even had it gotten past that crucial directly-contradicted-by-your-own-fucking-book hurdle that seems to be giving Raab so much trouble. Now take a moment to reflect on the fact that this is the guy the New York Times assigned to report on one of the nation’s most complex and insidious criminal conspiracies — this plodding hyphen addict who cannot seem to follow a television show or even his own manuscript. One supposes that there is some alternate universe in which this might be considered a problem and where Ross Douthat manages a furniture store and everyone knows his place.


BUT THERE’S MORE to prison life than just sitting around despising the New York Times. A week after arrival at Three Rivers, we new inmates were summoned to an “Admissions and Orientation” seminar in which the various department heads each speak for a few minutes about institutional policy. I’d attended one of these back at Fort Worth; usually the highlight is a short video clip of Bureau of Prisons Director Charles Samuels, who gives a little talk. No one knows what the talk is about, as whoever’s nephew was put in charge of producing the video has talked Samuels into pausing every couple of sentences to shift position and look into the other camera, just like the newscasters, something that the fellow can manage only with the most hilarious awkwardness, and so it proves impossible to follow what he’s actually saying — which is a shame, as it’s almost certainly something very non-formulaic and true.

Today, however, the chief attraction was to be our warden, Norbal Vazquez, a longtime BOP functionary from Puerto Rico who is proverbial for his deranged monologues as well as for being regarded with great contempt by staff and inmates alike. Here are some actual quotes from his exquisitely demented half-hour orientation talk, during which he waddled back and forth, wagging his finger in admonishment when appropriate and sometimes when not:

On his own qualifications for the job: “I am here because I earned it!”

On the assistant wardens upon whom lesser wardens depend: “I do not need them!”

On his inspiring biography: “I was a case manager before, and I was an OUTSTANDING one!” [wags finger]

On the status of we benighted inmates, sitting in darkness: “You are all my children!”

On who controls the prison: “Probably in some of your minds, is inmates! But you are wrong!”

On, er, violators: “I have no mercy for violators!”

On medical care: “You have a bullet in your leg and you want the bureau to heal you! Ha! Ha ha!”

On the insufficiency of our meals: “Don’t come complain to me about your meals. Because there are children with nothing!”

On gang warfare: “If you show force, I am going to show force!”

On homemade alcohol: “If you are drinking all that nasty thing, shame on you! When your liver fails, I don’t care!”

On inmates who are placed in the SHU and transferred to violent maximum security prisons because they’ve been caught with harmless contraband like synthetic marijuana: “They cry like babies! I have no mercy!”

The only disappointing thing about the presentation was that he didn’t end by exhibiting his medals and declaring himself President for Life; indeed, I almost cried when someone told me he was retiring a few weeks hence. And “all that nasty thing” is my new favorite hooch-related meme, edging out “PRISON MADE INTHOXICANT” from a few columns back.

All in all, it was an informative speech in spite of itself, even aside from the fellow’s suspicious insistence on his own competence and self-reliance and entirely meritocratic ascension to the top spot. There was quite a bit of talk, for instance, about how the gangs aren’t in control of the prison, something that obviously wouldn’t need so much triumphant emphasis were such a state of affairs not at least a possibility.


IN FACT, THE GANGS really don’t have control over the prison. But then neither does the administration, if by “control” we mean the ability to make uncontested decisions over what happens within a given space, in which case control is always a matter of degree. The federal and state governments of the United States, for instance, exercise some degree of overlapping control over their territory, but not to such an extent that the various law-enforcement agencies — er, law enforcement agencies — arrest any but a small minority of residents who violate the law. This is just as well, since the law requires that the tens of millions of Americans who use drugs or gamble or involve themselves in prostitution be imprisoned — and that’s not even counting federal law, which, as convincingly estimated by civil liberties attorney Harvey Silverglate in his book Three Felonies a Day, the average American unwittingly violates every day. And thus it is that the U.S. can continue to exist above the level of an unprecedented gulag state only to the extent that its laws are not actually enforced — an extraordinary and fundamental fact of American life that one might hope in vain to see rise to the level of an election issue, but which is at least worth keeping in mind when it comes to the debate over whether or not we should keep granting the state ever more powerful methods of surveillance until it becomes the All-Seeing God Against Whose Laws We All Have Sinned. (Personally I’d vote “no,” but then I’m a felon and can’t vote anyway.)

As is the case with the country at large, the rules within each federal prison are such that a large portion of everyday activity actually violates those rules — and in both cases, 99 percent of the violations go unpunished, while anyone who proves inconvenient to the powers that be can be singled out for retaliation. Technically it’s against the rules to give anything to another inmate, for instance, or to sell or trade or lend for that matter, but of course this is done all day without a second thought, often in plain view of the guards, not a single one of whom would consider objecting. There are other rules that are almost universally disregarded but can be invoked at whim; there is also a catch-all violation, “Anything Unauthorized,” on hand as a last resort. But rabble-rousers can usually be dispensed with via more specific regulations such as those barring the signing of petitions or holding of demonstrations. (I myself was thrown in the hole for months due to my supposed leadership role in one such demonstration against an abusive guard who’d just threatened an elderly man.)

Part of the justification behind those two regulations in particular is that there exists a means by which inmates can have their grievances addressed: the administrative remedy process. Naturally the BOP routinely conspires to prevent inmates from completing that process; the surreal lengths to which it’s gone to keep me from pursuing my own retaliation complaint, a process I’ve documented in this column over the course of the last nine months, are actually quite commonly deployed against inmates deemed to have a good chance of winning in court. Presumably this is why the Freedom of Information Act request that The Intercept filed with the BOP some months ago to obtain records of the administrative remedy process at FCI Fort Worth was denied with no explanation, even though the documents in question are specifically designated as being FOIA accessible. Any comprehensive examination of those records would reveal a systematic and highly effective effort by BOP officials to prevent inmates from bringing instances of major policy violations and even outright criminal activity by the bureau to the attention of the courts. The American people do not control their own prisons.

The reality is that control is shared by way of a sort of makeshift federalism that varies in particulars from prison to prison but in which real power is always divided among the various gangs, the staff, and local and regional administrators in an arrangement that’s best described as a cross between the old Swiss canton system and China during the Warring States period, which I’ll be the first to acknowledge is not especially helpful. Suffice to say that it will take me the remainder of my sentence to provide a real sense of this remarkable state-within-a-state and its inimitable politics — the politics of the literally disenfranchised, who live their lives in the very guts of government without being able to rely on its protections, and so are forced to provide their own. Really, it’s a state-within-a-state-within-a-state.

Complicating matters further is the great extent to which prisons can differ, with the most pronounced of these divisions being that between the state and federal systems. Broadly, we federals tend to look down upon our regional cousins as “not quite our sort, old boy,” although I’m probably the only one who puts it in exactly those terms. The state prisons tend to house the small-time dealers, whereas the feds are more often home to the guys who supplied them. The state is halfway filled with such actual criminals as thieves, rapists, and murderers, whereas the feds are made up largely of illegal immigrants and drug entrepreneurs — people who have neither hurt anyone nor deprived them of their property, but instead made the mistake of taking all of this “free market” talk seriously. The character of the federal prisons, then, will usually differ from those of the states. But then they’ll also differ among themselves, sometimes quite a bit, and not just along other readily obvious divisions such as those between minimum, low, medium, and maximum security designations, either. A few years ago the medium at Beaumont, Texas, to which I just narrowly avoided being sent myself, was considerably more violent than many of the maximums (also known as pens or, more technically, USPs). Back at the FCI Fort Worth, there was a marked degree of difference in how certain things were done even between the several 300-man units into which inmates were divided. And since the local administrators can disregard national policy more or less at will, as has been documented in this column repeatedly for two years, de facto policy will naturally vary from institution to institution as well. The result of all of this is that each prison is its own unique snowflake, fluttering about on gusts of cultural drift and BOP lawlessness.


THE VITAL STATISTICS of my stomping grounds here at Three Rivers, then, are as follows. The prison is home to a bit more than 1,000 inmates, of whom about 60 percent are Mexican nationals, another 20 percent are U.S. Hispanics, 10 percent are black, 5 percent are Latin American, and 5 percent are white (the ofay percentage of 15 percent I cited last time appears to have been out of date). About half of the Mexicans “run with” (institutional slang for “are affiliated with”) the Paisas, a relatively amorphous prison gang that draws its ranks almost exclusively from Mexican nationals; a smaller percentage of U.S. Hispanics run with Tango Blast, a more organized gang with a much cooler name; while blacks and whites for purposes of prison riots and dining arrangements both act mostly as race-based units.

As usual, there are all manner of qualifiers and exceptions plus a smattering of smaller groupings: The Muslims will usually constitute their own little umma, there are a couple of whites who run with Tango, and so on. The most amusing of these aberrations involved the fellow with whom I shared a cell before he transferred to a low a few weeks back. Aaron LeBaron was born into an ultra-fundamentalist Mormon cult led by his father, who had moved the wives and kids to Mexico after some members of his congregation started to question whether or not all of the voices he was hearing were actually from God. Aaron eventually inherited the family theocracy as well as the family hit list and the family international stolen car ring. In the end he was captured and sentenced to 45 years. Today Aaron is an agnostic and longtime Skeptic Magazine subscriber who was very excited to learn that I’d written for that magazine as well as for Skeptical Inquirer. (Come to think of it, he was the only person I’ve ever met who found either one the least bit impressive, and I’ve been working them into introductory conversations for years.) At any rate, having been raised in Mexico and speaking perfect Spanish, this gangly, bespectacled, white, Mormon-looking fellow had been accepted as one of the Paisas, with whom he sat every day to eat and watch television. Scientists cannot measure the extent to which I’m going to dominate every dinner party conversation for the rest of my life.

For a medium, Three Rivers isn’t particularly violent. The last major gang war, between the Tangos and the Paisas, was nearly a year ago; afterward the compound went on lockdown for about two weeks, itself a fairly typical gang intelligence investigation/cool-down period. In the three months since I’ve arrived, I’ve only had to “take a knee” once (inmates here are supposed to put at least one knee to the ground when officers run by screaming “Get the fuck down!” or some variation thereof as they proceed to the location of a conflict). And we’ve only been locked down in the aftermath of a fight on one occasion, for just a few hours.

This is just as well, as I’m thereby able to concentrate on the trickle of information coming in from the wicked world beyond the fence. Lately I’ve been getting garbled reports of hoverboards, as well as some sort of new fascist movement that could conceivably take control of the White House this year, though I find it difficult to believe that the boards actually float like the ones from the movie.

Meanwhile, I’m halfway through the newish first volume of Niall Ferguson’s biography of Henry Kissinger, which we shall examine in some detail next time. For now I will simply leave off with the following actual sentences from Ferguson’s introduction: “In this context, it is a strange irony of the Kissinger literature that so many of the critiques of Kissinger’s mode of operation have a subtle undertone of anti-Semitism. … This prompts the question: might the ferocity of the criticism that Kissinger has attracted perhaps have something to do with the fact that he, like the Rothschilds, is Jewish? This is not to imply that his critics are anti-Semites.” Well, the hyphens are all in their proper places, anyway.

Quote of the Day

“When the mob gains the day it ceases to be any longer the mob. It is then called the nation.”

— Napoleon

Read more by Barrett Brown, whose column received the 2016 National Magazine Award for Columns and Commentary:

The Government Explains Why It Took My Email

Stop Sending Me Jonathan Franzen Novels

Santa Muerte, Full of Grace

A Visit to the Sweat Lodge

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