The Barrett Brown Review of Arts and Letters and Prison

The Fact of Sisyphus

Drawing by Paul Davis

Partly as a consequence of my natural rambunctiousness, I’ve spent a total of five months over the past few years of incarceration being held in 23- to 24-hour-a-day Special Housing Unit confinement cells, collectively and informally known as “the hole,” at three different prisons and in stints ranging from six to 60 days; indeed, my first three Intercept columns were composed from the SHU over at Federal Correctional Institution Fort Worth. But as these were given over largely to rambling self-promotion and some rather intemperate attacks on several contemporary novelists, I’ve never gotten around to providing a real sense of what it’s actually like to live in one of these federal dungeons.

The chief thing to keep in mind is that dungeons vary. The most fundamental division lies between those in which inmates are kept singly in cells along a corridor set off from the rest of the prison and purposefully denied human contact to one extent or another, and those in which two prisoners are kept together in such cells, usually with a window or metalwork grill on the door through which inmates can communicate with others in their corridor via the age-old medium of shouting. The first — known as solitary confinement to everyone but prison officials, who’ve gradually replaced the term with an assortment of euphemisms — is often conflated in the public mind with the second, lesser-known setup, but at any rate the nature of one’s detention is such that human contact is either intentionally and elaborately absent or haphazardly and excruciatingly omnipresent.

Even within these two categories, one finds a great deal of variation from institution to institution, but day-to-day SHU life at FCI Fort Worth should make for a useful baseline. There, a weekday begins at 6 a.m. when the lights in one’s cell come on. A few minutes later the rectangular slot in one’s door is unlocked and a guard pushes in a plastic tray containing breakfast along with a couple of little plastic bags of milk. It’s rather dehumanizing, this matter of having to drink milk out of bags like a common Canadian, but getting breakfast in bed every day makes up for it. Fifteen minutes later the guard comes back and takes up the trays, and then one of his colleagues will walk down the hall jotting down the names of those who want to go outside for one’s permitted daily hour of weekday recreation. Having compiled the list, the guard goes back to his station and tries to arrange things such that incompatible inmates aren’t placed together in the same recreation cage. This sort of reminds me of the old riddle about the farmer who has a fox and a rooster and a bag of corn but can only take one at a time across the river in his boat and the fox will eat the rooster and the rooster will eat the corn if either pair is left together unattended (the solution, incidentally, is to shoot the fox, because it’s a fox).

If you are indeed going to rec that morning, the guard opens the hatch and you back up to it and put your hands through to be handcuffed, and then your cellmate does likewise regardless of whether or not he’s going out as well, as the door isn’t ever supposed to be opened until both occupants are cuffed. When the door does open, you walk out backward before being patted down and scanned with a hand-held metal detector, led out to the courtyard, placed in one of several large cages with your scientifically designated playmate, and then uncuffed through the slot in the gate. After an hour of kicking around a deflated basketball while yelling old Symbionese Liberation Army slogans at the other prisoners, you’re cuffed back up through the gate slot and returned to your cell. A bit later we get lunch, and then dinner a few hours afterward, followed by mail. Three days a week we’re cuffed up and taken to the other end of the hall for showers. On weekends we generally don’t leave our cells at all.

It’s a schedule that leaves prisoners with a great deal of free time, much of which tends to be spent in sleep or exercise. The chief workout routine in the SHU, as well as in jail units and other locales where even improvised equipment can be hard to drum up, is something called burpees, which entails an alternating series of push-ups, squats, and leg thrusts and which I refer to as Berbers because “burpees” is vulgar. Not that I do them anyway, or any other exercise, and I’ve never approved of excessive sleeping, either, for life is not meant to be spent in rest, but rather in conflict or preparation for future conflict.


There is one common SHU activity in which I do happily participate, though, simply because it’s something that can’t be done elsewhere and naturally I’m trying to experience all the touristy prison things before my release just in case I don’t come back for a while. The SHU is the only place of which I’m aware where it’s socially acceptable to yell random nonsense where other people can hear it. Now, much of the yelling that people do through gaps under the door or the crack between the door and its mounting or the metal grills that serve as windows in some units, as the case may be, is entirely purposeful communication consisting of gossip, plots, threats, lyrics, Symbionese Liberation Army slogans, vows, requests, and commercial offers, and this sort of thing will go on throughout the day, with peak times occurring after meals and other periods when everyone tends to be awake (as to how those commercial offers are accepted, there is a process known as “fishing” or “shooting the line” by which small items may be transferred among inmates, but a full column’s description will be required to do it justice; suffice it to say that string and persistence are involved).

But in addition to all of this more or less mundane intercourse, there’s also a wholly distinct and inimitable element of shouting-for-the-sake-of-shouting. Some of this takes the form of memes; at Seagoville Federal Detention Center, for instance, the guards once brought in a drunk off the compound who, after being placed in his cell, spent the next hour banging on the door and yelling out some sloshy, inconsequential narrative that he would punctuate every few sentences with the refrain, “They hear me but they don’t FEEL me, though!” Thereafter this phrase became a very popular meme that would be shouted out several times a day; it had been incorporated into the vibrant oral culture of our particular SHU corridor.

But SHU shouts can be, and often are, more or less apropos of nothing. I myself was fond of drinking six or seven lukewarm cups of the freeze-dried instant coffee we can buy from the weekly commissary cart, going up to the door grill, and calling out in a raspy, feminine voice, “My brother is coming … with MANY FREMEN WARRIORS” about 20 or 30 times in a row, often capped off with a triumphant, “Meet the Atreides Gom Jabbar, grandfather!” And it wouldn’t occur to anyone to inquire as to why I’d done this; people in the SHU wake up every morning with a sort of preternatural awareness that someone could start yelling out lines from David Lynch’s highly underrated 1984 film version of Dune at any moment and will either assume that the yeller needed to do this to feel self-actualized or, alternatively, that he’s one of the untold thousands of mentally ill prisoners whom U.S. prison authorities have allowed to languish in punishment cells for years on end (though in my case, people tended to recognize me by voice as the guy who was always kicking around the deflated basketball and calling for death to the fascist insect that preys on the life of the people).

Aside from sleeping, screaming, and exercising, there’s also reading. Federal SHUs generally have book carts that are rolled up the hallway once a week; inmates crouch next to their door slots to view the selections and point to what they want. Prison book carts are always exciting, tending to be largely composed of donations from ancient rural branch libraries that have just given up and closed down or whatever, such that one can always expect to find a stray gem or hilarious oddity. On one occasion I grabbed an award-winning 1962 volume on Jefferson by Dumas Malone in which the claim that the third president engaged in a sexual relationship with the slave Sally Hemings is dismissed as “wholly unwarranted.” But my best find to date remains the early ’80s sci-fi novel I came across a couple of years back in which the U.S. has fallen under a dystopian theocracy after having rather unwisely elected a Mormon president.

Fortunately, SHU inmates are allowed to receive books through the mail from commercial retailers just as we can in the prison itself, with the only difference being that we can’t get hardcover books lest we use them to make shanks. When the editors at The Intercept sent me a hardback copy of the new Jonathan Franzen tome Purity last year, I was only given it after a guard tore off the cover. This was a rather upsetting thing to have witnessed, though halfway through the narrative I was kind of wishing he’d finished the job.

I try to keep a copy of something by Hegel with me at all times as well, not so much with the intent of reading it straight through, but rather as a means by which to play a little game I’ve invented called Shut the Fuck Up, Hegel, You Fucking Fraud. What you do is, you flip to a random page in any volume of Hegel’s works and look for the inevitable instance of hyper-oracular nonsense, such as this line I just randomly came across from page 129 of Lectures on the Philosophy of History:

The spread of Indian culture is prehistorical, for history is limited to that which makes for an essential epoch in the development of spirit. On the whole, the diffusion of Indian culture is only a dumb, deedless expansion, that is, without a political act. The people of India have achieved no foreign conquests, but have been on every occasion vanquished themselves.

Then you write in the margin, “Shut the fuck up, Hegel, you fucking fraud.” And from page 51:

What spirit really strives for is the realization of its own concept; but in so doing it hides that goal from its own vision; it is proud and quite enjoys itself in this alienation from itself.

“Whatever, douche.”

Indeed, to live in the hole is to be thrust into a world in which everything must be repurposed and all possibilities pursued. One day I decided to compose a list of unnecessary people throughout history and had jotted down Ezra Pound, the Emperor Aurangzeb, Carlos Mencia, Charles IV, and Gary Bauer when it became clear that I’d cast my net too wide, at which point I abandoned the project. Instead I tried to decide which city I’d destroy if I had the chance, other than Houston. I eventually decided on Singapore, which I feel has been setting a bad example for the other cities.

SHU time is a time for remembrance. I thought of all the strange and interesting people I’d met throughout my incarceration, such as the fellow who would conclude all of his assertions with the phrase, “Even a small child knows that.” Among the things a small child knows, it seems, is that sentences handed down for conspiracy to distribute methamphetamines tend to be much harsher in Texas than in California and that a particular guard who works the morning shift is kind of a dick sometimes but not always. There was also the guy who feted me with coffee and candy bars during a weeklong transit stop at a local jail, at one point showing me the program from his father’s funeral a few years prior; the cover bore a photo of a man dressed all in yellow, right down to his cape and top hat, and who apparently went only by the name Yellow Shoes. As noted in the program text, Yellow Shoes was survived by well over 30 children. His father had been a famous East Dallas pimp, my friend explained, somewhat unnecessarily. Now he himself had been indicted as a drug dealer when in fact he was a pimp like his father before him, something he planned to explain to the judge at the first opportunity. Frankly, I’d say he had a strong case.

Finally, SHU inmates also spend some variable portion of each day reflecting on the astonishing degree of injustice they’ve had the chance to observe, as well as cultivating a healthy contempt for the system that perpetrates that injustice and the society that continues to permit it. Some months ago I asked The Intercept to file a Freedom of Information Act request with the Bureau of Prisons in pursuit of all records pertaining to yours truly in hopes of documenting further instances of government misconduct to add to my collection. Recently the BOP provided us with 175 pages, all of which we’ve posted online — including the fully one-third that the BOP has completely redacted. Tellingly, some clear and potentially criminal wrongdoing actually crops up even among those pages that the agency has not gone so far as to completely blank out, as we’ll see in a moment. First, let’s get the vital statistics from Ben Brieschke of the BOP’s notoriously shady South Central Regional Office, who prepared the cover letter:

After a careful review, we determined 89 pages are appropriate for release in full; 28 pages are appropriate for release in part; and, [sic] 58 pages must be withheld in their entirety.

Most of these redactions are being justified under two FOIA exemptions, one of which is intended for those files or portions thereof “which would disclose techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations or prosecutions,” with the other pertaining to those bits of information “which could reasonably be expected to endanger the life or personal safety of an individual.” This latter consideration certainly sounds serious, and one can get a sense of the peril to which BOP staff are forever subject by the fact that first names are blocked out with the “(b)(7)(F)” box throughout these documents, lest they be tracked down by violent ex-prisoners or what have you. One can likewise get a sense that even the BOP doesn’t buy its own bullshit in this regard by the fact that it has failed to block out the first name of a member of the BOP’s Special Investigative Services (SIS) security division, and in another document has left in the typed-out first, last, and middle names of some dozen other officers and staff, an act of negligence that — what was that phrase again? — “could reasonably be expected to endanger the life or personal safety” of the individuals it itself has just fully identified, if we take the BOP’s own word for it (though in my infinite benevolence, I’ve asked The Intercept to block out the names in question, for all men know of my great regard for the comfort and well-being of American law enforcement officials).

Of course, the reality is that despite these names having sat on the internet for weeks before I came across the regional office’s slip in my paper copies and had them redacted, no one has been endangered by the BOP’s incompetence here, as the (b)(7)(F) exemption is less a necessary security measure than it is a convenient smokescreen by which to cover up its own misconduct. And at many institutions, employees tend to be less wary of inmates than they are of the administration itself; when medical staff at several BOP prisons spoke to USA Today earlier this year about the bureau’s despicable tendency to regularly use them as prison guards rather than, say, having them work full-time providing the medical care that’s already in short supply, all of those coming forward chose to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.

Speaking of retaliation, have a look at this inmate progress report prepared by two Fort Worth staff at the end of August 2015 in which I am commended for my “good sanitation” and continued FRP payments (the monthly restitution I’ve been ordered to pay to my corporate “victims”). Elsewhere it’s noted that I’m “currently participating in the GED program” (until recently the BOP refused to acknowledge that, in addition to my good sanitation, I’m also a high school graduate; as a result I had to sign up for high school equivalency classes). And here are the signatures of the staff members in question, S. Vanderlinden and M. Gutierrez, along with my own, perhaps not terribly impressive signature. Now take a look at this other document composed 12 days later, after I’d been thrown in the hole again, and signed by the very same two staff members, which I was never supposed to see. Now it seems that I’ve shown “poor institutional adjustment,” “poor program participation,” and even “poor living skills” — true enough if we’re talking about signature design — and thus must be moved to a medium security prison immediately.

This would be my new favorite illustration of the casual criminality that has long marked the BOP’s operational culture had I not also acquired this other, even more extraordinary specimen — the latest response from the BOP regarding the Administrative Remedy complaint I filed over a year ago regarding the retaliatory seizure of my email access, the first of a string of bizarre incidents at Fort Worth that would culminate in the confiscation of my notebook outside the law library. As I’ve noted before, the Prison Litigation Reform Act of 1986 — passed during a period in which U.S. domestic policy was being determined largely on the basis of questionable anecdotes — requires that inmates who wish to sue the BOP and its employees first complete an arcane and multilayered regimen of paperwork to the satisfaction of the BOP and its employees. Inmates who find that the process itself is being violated by the BOP and its employees are free to file another complaint for review by the BOP and its employees. Astonishingly, this process is not always free from abuse by the BOP and its employees.

When we last checked in on my own complaint about my email access having been seized by BOP Washington liaison Terrance Moore an hour after I’d used it to alert a journalist to BOP misconduct, the regional office had rather despicably claimed that my appeal had been late, even though it clearly hadn’t, as the failure by the warden’s executive assistant Jerry McKinney to respond to my BP-9 form within 20 days of the day he logged it in, as well as his failure to request the 20-day extension to his own deadline until well after his first deadline had passed, as well as his failure to meet even that extended deadline, allowed me to consider this a rejection at the institutional level and freed me to proceed to the regional level, as is noted in the BOP’s own policy guidelines — except that I couldn’t, because, as I’ve also documented via forms signed and dated by McKinney himself, McKinney failed to return the original documents to me for another month despite messages I sent over the internal staff notification system requesting that he do so.

Finally he brought me back a triply late and thus invalid rejection — even handing it to me nine days after the date it was signed, as is again documented by his own dating and signature. The regional counsels know this fully well, and also know that just a few days later I was placed in the SHU and thereafter shipped to Oklahoma for processing and then to my current prison, where I filed my regional appeal as soon as I received the box containing my legal papers. They know this because, as I learned recently when I complained that the BOP was now apparently violating the law by holding some of my mail for nearly two weeks, I’m on some ultra-rare and secretive classification known as “Inmates of Greatest Concern,” which requires that everything I do be monitored and scrutinized for the benefit of some unspecified outside agency.

Nonetheless, the region rejected my appeal due to it being “untimely,” made an inappropriate request that I obtain “staff verification” that this wasn’t my fault from staff at a prison I am accusing of systematic retaliation and whom I have no means of contacting since I’m no longer housed there, and demanded that my appeal be reduced to a single typewritten page and resubmitted, all within 15 days of the date of this rejection, which just happened to be 15 days prior to my receipt of it. Thus I’d been given zero days to comply, including mail time.

I documented the entirety of this in a column months ago and wrote back to the region’s legal counsel, explaining in detail why his requests were impossible. Several weeks later I received another rejection notice in which the counsel ignores my explanations and maintains that I missed the deadline, although he himself seems confused as to when that deadline actually was since he lists it as having fallen on two different dates.

And just so I understand that the zero days thing wasn’t a mistake, the rejection notice is dated December 4 — and they’d delayed mailing it to me such that it didn’t even arrive at the warden’s office until December 29. This time, then, I’d been given negative 10 days to comply.

My email access was finally reinstated several months ago by the security staff at my current prison, who immediately determined that there was no legitimate reason why I shouldn’t have it; my continued pursuit of this process is intended to force an admission of wrongdoing from the BOP as well as to illustrate how it actually operates. This, after all, is the only procedure by which my 200,000 fellow federal inmates are able to protect the last human rights remaining to them, whether they’ve been subject to ongoing retaliation, or they’ve been kept in the hole for years on end contrary to law and all decency, or they’ve been beaten while in handcuffs, or they’ve been denied basic medical care — all issues that have been encountered by people I’ve known and interviewed over the past few years. Here’s a list of grievances logged in at Fort Worth in 2014 and 2015, which we’ve obtained via another FOIA request; keep in mind that for every complaint filed, there are dozens of incidents that go undocumented because veteran inmates are aware of the near impossibility of getting heard by the court under a system that can be violated without consequences.

Imagine spending a year in the hole due to a mistake, trying all the while to get a court to order your release, and getting back a demand that you include two extra copies of a document and that you do this six days ago. This sort of thing happens regularly, throughout the system, although the problem appears to be particularly systematic in this regional district.

The truly disturbing part is not that this happens in the first place, but rather that it will likely continue happening despite now having been fully documented. For it is not just the prisons that are broken, but the media as well.

To help illustrate the manner in which the press has become largely incapable of performing its necessary watchdog role even when large parts of its job are done for it, and how certain parties have managed to benefit from this state of affairs, next time we’ll discuss why it is that I happen to be in prison. We’ll also talk about a man named Peter Thiel. As it happens, these subjects are very much intertwined.

Quote of the Day:

“At the very outset we have the antithesis between the goal of the state as the abstract generality on the one hand, and the abstract person on the other; but when subsequently, in the course of history, personality gains the ascendant, its breakup into atoms can only be held together externally; then the subjective power of rule comes forward as if summoned to fulfill this task. For abstract legality is this; not to be concrete from within, not to have organization from within; and this, having come to power, has only an arbitrary power as contingent subjectivity as what moves it, as what rules it; and the individual seeks in the developed private law solace for his lost freedom. This the purely secular reconciliation of the antithesis.”

— Fucking Hegel

Drawing by Paul Davis. Fee donated to Barrett Brown’s legal defense fund.

Join The Conversation