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<nettime> Intercept > Barrett Brown Review of Arts and Letters and Prison > The Rule of Law Enforcement

< https://theintercept.com/2016/02/02/barrett-brown-the-rule-of-law-enforcement/ >

The Barrett Brown Review of Arts and Letters and Prison

The Rule of Law Enforcement

   Barrett Brown

   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

   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 set 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

   To his credit, Raab did manage to refrain from rendering this last bit
   as "ordinary-businessman," which is just extraordinary, 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 that 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

   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

     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

   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
   Silvergate 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

   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

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